Iowa's 2009 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks


Tremendous bucks -- and plenty of them -- are emerging from counties across the state. Will you have what it takes when opportunity knocks? (November 2009)


Rumors and opinions are flying among hunters about the prospects for bagging a trophy buck during this year's Iowa hunting seasons. Some say the potential to kill a trophy buck is better than ever in Iowa. Others say the glory days are fading and predict Iowa will add only a few scattered entries in state and national record books.

Andy Sheldon of Sidney is one of the optimists. He arrowed a non-typical buck in southwest Iowa last year that scored 217 7/8 and is confident better bucks still roam that area.

"Within four miles of where I killed my buck, a friend found sheds that would have scored 180, typical, on Boone and Crockett's scale," said Sheldon. "Just minutes before I killed my big buck, I had a 140-class buck walk under my stand that's going to be a real eye-popper this year. And the day after I killed my big buck, my dad got busted by a really nice buck.

"Dad's hunted deer for more than 30 years and isn't a great one to exaggerate," said Sheldon. "He told me, 'Andy, your buck is a good one, but that buck I saw would have pushed your buck pretty hard.' "

Southwest Iowa wasn't the only region in the state to produce record-book bucks last hunting season. Steve Finnegan, show manager for the Iowa Deer Classic held each March in Des Moines, noted that of the 400 racks from Iowa entered in the 2009 Deer Classic, 90 of them met Boone and Crockett record-book standards.

"That's almost 25 percent of all the entries we had," said Finnegan. "Our biggest buck last year was killed by Kyle Simmons in Jackson County in far east-central Iowa and scored 275. That rack now stands as the third biggest bow-killed buck nationally.

"Other states may have more deer, but sheer numbers don't guarantee quality," said Finnegan. "I looked at Pope and Young (record book for bow-killed deer), and Wisconsin and Illinois enter more numbers of deer than Iowa, but their deer tend to be more toward the minimum score necessary to qualify for the record book. The deer from Iowa tend to be more toward the upper end of the scale."

Fewer Deer, More Trophies?
As noted last month in Iowa Game & Fish magazine's annual deer hunting forecast, Iowa's deer population is declining. That's good, a result of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' carefully designed strategy of using regulations to manipulate hunting pressure and adjust local deer populations to match the carrying capacity of local habitat.

The knee-jerk reaction among deer hunters is that a smaller population of deer reduces the potential for trophy bucks. IDNR deer management biologist Tom Litchfield says the opposite may be true for Iowa. "Bringing deer numbers down from the highs we saw a few years ago actually enhances the possibility of more bucks reaching their full potential," he said. "Studies have shown that bucks don't express their maximum (antler) potential when local populations are high."

Chuck Steffen, wildlife management biologist in far southeast Iowa, agrees: "When we had a lot of exceptional trophy deer coming out of this area, it was back when the herd was still growing and we didn't have as many deer as we have now. There's a saturation point, where after you get too many deer in an area, there doesn't seem to be as many really huge bucks."

Steffen, Litchfield and other deer management experts emphasize that the progressive attitude of Iowa's deer hunters has played a significant role in developing Iowa's world-class population of trophy whitetail bucks. Iowa's hunters have bought into the philosophy of passing up small bucks, shooting does for venison and harvesting only older, mature bucks.

IDNR research management biologist Willie Suchy noted that passing up small bucks increases their trophy potential in two ways: "(Passing a small buck) allows a yearling or 2-year-old buck to survive their first couple hunting seasons," said Suchy. "That not only allows him to develop a larger rack, but it also makes him more cautious and spooky around hunters. A buck that has the ability to stay away from hunters improves his chances of living longer and developing an even larger rack."

Trophy Bucks By The Numbers
We noted earlier in this story Andy Sheldon's 217 7/8-inch buck killed in far southwest Iowa, and Kyle Simmon's 275-class buck from far eastern Iowa that topped the 2009 Iowa Deer Classic. That raises the question, Where in Iowa is the best place to tag a trophy whitetail buck?

Iowa Game & Fish magazine burrowed into the latest edition of the Iowa DNR's Trophy Deer Registry to find Iowa's top deer-producing counties. The registry (www.iowadnr. gov/wildlife/files/files/iowatrophydeer.pdf) is a 120-page voluntary compilation of trophy racks tagged in Iowa and, therefore, not an absolute listing of every big buck killed in Iowa. But it's a statewide, county-by-county listing of trophies that reflects trends in when, how and where big bucks were killed in Iowa.

More than 5,430 racks have qualified for the registry. Racks must be allowed to air-dry for six weeks before measurement by a certified scorer to qualify for the registry. Bow-killed and crossbow-killed racks must score at least 135 typical points or 155 points if non-typical. Shotgun and handgun-killed racks must score at least 150 for typicals or 170 for non-typicals.

With those parameters in mind, here's how various counties around the state rate for trophy production: Allamakee County in far northeast Iowa tops all of our 99 counties, with 211 trophies entered in the registry. Clayton County, directly south of Allamakee County, takes second position with 176 entries. Both counties are blessed with near-perfect deer habitat: wooded ridges broken by farm fields that provide food and shelter to support a strong local deer herd and challenging terrain that allows bucks to evade hunters long enough to develop trophy racks.

Third place in the registry went to Marion County, in south-central Iowa, with 175 trophy racks. Jackson County, along the Mississippi River in far east-central Iowa, produced 170 entries to earn fourth place. South-central and southeast Iowa dominated the rest of the top 10 entries in the registry, with Warren County posting 162 entries to claim fifth place, Monroe County (south-central) totaling 142 trophies to earn sixth position, and Appanoose County (on the Missouri border) adding 132 entries to garner seventh place.

Hunters in Van Buren County (far southeast Iowa) tallied 131 trophies to earn eighth position in the list of Iowa's all-time trophy producers, while Decatur County (on the Missouri border) claimed ninth place with 116 entries. Northeast Iowa reappears in the

registry's top 10 courtesy of Dubuque County, which placed 110 trophies in the registry.

Location is only part of the trophy deer story in Iowa. It's no surprise that bowhunters contributed the most entries; 494 non-typical and 2,383 typical racks submitted by bowhunters met registry standards. Not only are bowhunters by nature more selective, but also in Iowa they have the distinct advantage of being the only hunters allowed to hunt during the rut.

Shotgun hunters entered the second-most qualifying racks, with 519 non-typical and 1,677 typical racks. Muzzleloading hunters added 36 non-typical and 262 typical racks. Crossbow hunters tallied 10 non-typical and 35 typical racks. Handgun hunters added four non-typical and 14 typical trophies.

One thing that stood out among the various categories of racks entered in the Trophy Deer Registry was the timing and size of their entries, the method of harvest, and their location in the state. There was an obvious trend that Allamakee, Clayton and other top counties tallied lots of 150- to 170-class racks via shotgun kills during the late '90s and early 2000s. Warren, Marion and other south-central counties entered only an average number of shotgun-killed 150- to 170-class trophies in the registry during the '70s and '80s, but have come on strong with bow kills since 2000. Those most recent entries tended to be in the 170- and larger range. Analysis indicates a subtle trend in recent years for northeast Iowa's Allamakee and Clayton counties to add more trophies to the registry via shotgun hunting than other counties, but southern and western counties tend to add larger racks, thanks to bow­hunters.

While the numbers of trophies posted by far northeast and south-central counties are impressive, hunters who take time to study the registry will note that some of our most recent and largest racks have come from all across the state. In recent years, Jeff Parker shotgunned a 230 6/8-inch non-typical whitetail in Benton County in east-central Iowa. Phillip Kooima slugged a 227 6/8-inch trophy in Lyon County in the far northwest corner. Both of those counties are better known for agricultural production than for whitetail trophy production. The same applies to Troy Vandehoef's 220-class non-typical bow kill from Osceola County in flat, treeless northwest Iowa.

"Ironically, some of the better places to shoot 150-class or better bucks may be where nobody expects to find 150-class or better bucks," said Litchfield. He explained that in regions where people expect to see big bucks and aggressively hunt for trophies, the additional hunting pressure can crop off bucks before they achieve their full potential. "There may be a tendency for hunters to shoot a medium to nice buck (in those areas) because they know everybody else is after a rack, and they don't want to risk letting a decent buck pass, only to get shot by a guy over the next hill."

That thought crossed the mind of southwest Iowa's Andy Sheldon as he drew his bow on the 217-class buck he killed last fall. "He was only 4 1/2 years old," said Sheldon. "People hear that and go, 'Wow, how big would he have been this year?' Sure, that thought crossed my mind, but the chance to shoot a buck like that comes along so rarely that it was a very brief thought."

Litchfield tantalizes trophy hunters with research that indicates many Iowa bucks are killed long before they exhibit their full trophy potential. "Our bucks don't reach maturity until their fifth year," he said. "Nutrition in Iowa is so good that they may show their potential by their fourth or fifth year as far as number and shape of tines, but mass really starts to show up after their fifth year.

"I'm working on a project where I've obtained teeth from bucks around the state and sent them off for age-analysis. When we get all the data back, I expect that the really big deer, the ones with mass as well as tine length, are going to be a lot older than a lot of people think. If you want to see a buck's full potential in tine number, tine length and overall mass, let him get to be 6 to 8 years old. The guys who kill a buck because it's 4 or 5 years old and going to start to decline are passing judgment a couple years too early."

More Numbers To Ponder
If you break down our county-by-county entries in the trophy registry within their specific method-of-harvest categories, a few odd facts appear. The top three counties for shotgunned deer with typical racks were Allamakee (97 entries), Clayton (67) and Marion (64). But the top three counties for shotgunned non-typical racks were Monroe (26 entries), Allamakee (22) and Clayton (20).

That pattern of more non-typical racks from southern Iowa than northeast Iowa is more pronounced for bowhunters, though Warren County dominates both categories. The top three counties for bow-killed non-typical antlers are Warren (20 entries), Des Moines (18) and Dubuque (15). Warren County also tops the typical bow-killed statistics, providing 84 racks, while neighboring Marion County took second place with 78 typical racks. Jackson County in far eastern Iowa tallied 77 racks to claim third position, while Allamakee County claimed fourth slot with 76 typical racks.

Litchfield refused to say some sections of the state produce more non-typical racks than others, but he noted, "There is a genetic component to non-typical racks, as well as non-typical racks that are due to injuries during their formation."

Alternate modes of killing deer offer an interesting trophy deer hunting option in Iowa. The southern part of Iowa "swept" the top five muzzleloading positions. Appanoose and Monroe counties tied for first with 11 muzzleloader kills that qualified for the registry. Marion County added 11 entries. Taylor and Wayne counties tied for fourth position with nine trophy racks each. Traditional trophy-producing powerhouses Allamakee and Clayton counties appear in the bottom half of the muzzleloading category, posting two and seven racks, respectively.

Crossbow hunting in Iowa is limited to handicapped individuals and has therefore put few trophies in the registry, but it proves that trophy bucks lurk all across Iowa. Dubuque County added six crossbow trophies to the registry, Henry County totaled five, and single crossbow entries were scattered all across the state map, including in Hancock, Black Hawk, Wright, Crawford, Guthrie, Dallas, Iowa and other counties from northern and central Iowa.

Handgunners account for only 18 trophies in the Trophy Deer Registry. For unknown reasons, all the handgunned trophies came from eastern or southern counties, aside from one entry from Guthrie County in west-central Iowa. Des Moines County, in southeast Iowa, tallied two handgun trophies; all the other trophy handgun kills were the only ones in their county.

So, when all the columns are tallied and all the percentages are calculated, where in Iowa is the best place to tag a trophy whitetail? Going purely by numbers, northeast Iowa is the best place to shotgun a trophy-caliber rack, with our south-central counties close behind. There is a trend for larger racks to come from those south-central counties, especially for bowhunters. Far eastern (Jackson County) and far western counties (the Loess Hill region) have added eye-popping racks to the Trophy Deer Registry in recent

years. Every county except Dickinson County has entered a qualified trophy rack in the registry. But since the registry is voluntary, that doesn't mean there haven't been trophy deer killed in Dickinson County.

When asked what trophy deer hunters need to know in Iowa for this hunting season, deer management biologist Tom Litchfield paused for a moment, then offered the following comment -- and a tantalizing possibility:

"There isn't a Boone and Crockett buck behind every tree, but there are a high percentage of Boone and Crockett bucks out there, for the population of deer Iowa has," he said. "Could our buck potential improve? Probably. It's up to our hunters. Right now in Iowa, a 150-class buck is in the minority. But if all the bucks were allowed to live long enough to express their full potential, the average buck in Iowa might score 170."

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