Shotgunning For Hawkeye Bucks

Shotgunning For Hawkeye Bucks

Iowa deer hunters can take a lesson from these pros when it comes to refining shotgun strategies in order to bag more and bigger bucks. (December 2007)

The problem with shotgun hunting for deer in Iowa is that everybody's an expert. Some of our hunters have taken deer from the same timbers for more than 40 years and could put on a deer drive with their eyes closed. Those hunters know exactly where to put their blockers, exactly where to start their drives, exactly where the deer will move ahead of the drivers.

And that's exactly why big bucks in those timbers frequently elude them!

"When you put on a deer drive, does and young bucks will go where you want them to go," remarked Rodney Hughes, owner of Midwest USA Outfitters, a full-service hunting guide service based at Cantril, in southeast Iowa. "But a big, experienced buck will only go where he wants to go, even if you're pushing him with a drive. I'd go so far as to say you can't push a 4-year-old buck. He's going to lie down and let you walk past him, or sneak out the side of the line of drivers, or maybe be out of the timber and gone even before you get your line of drivers organized. In order to get the biggest bucks with a shotgun, you've got to do things different than other shotgun hunters."

Christian Karam of Fairfax, in northeast Iowa, is a multiseason deer hunter who uses skills and knowledge honed during the bowhunting season to shake up multiyear traditions when afield with family and friends during shotgun season.

"A lot of guys think they're doing a good job on their drives when they see a lot of does and young bucks coming out ahead of their drivers," he said. "They set their blockers to cover the routes where they know deer usually leave the timbers they hunt. The thing is, older bucks don't follow the same escape routes as the does and young bucks. The big bucks may start off moving with the other deer, but as soon as they feel significant pressure they start to do the things that have allowed them to survive more than one or two hunting seasons."

Both Hughes and Karam have spent a lot of time observing and developing an understanding of the movements of mature Iowa bucks during shotgun hunting seasons. Their thoughts on where and how to tag Iowa's biggest bucks with a shotgun aren't revolutionary; they're simply evolutionary adaptations of traditional shotgun tactics.

HERE TO SHOTGUN

Both Hughes and Karam avoid public hunting areas during Iowa's early and late shotgun hunting seasons. Intense hunting pressure and the safety risks that arise when multiple groups of hunters occupy a public area at the same time keep both hunters on private property during those seasons.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources acknowledge that drive hunts in public areas have risks. But they note that small public areas -- often county-managed areas of less than 80 acres -- can often be safely hunted simply because a group of hunters can literally surround and check the area before the hunt to ensure that no other hunters are present.

IDNR officials also encourage hunting public areas during midweek, or after the rush of opening day, noting that many public areas get "driven" first thing in the morning on opening day, causing others to avoid the area thereafter (because, they'll say, "It's already been hunted"). Arrange a drive in those areas late on opening day, however, and you may well be rewarded with deer that have moved back into the often-superior habitat provided by state- or county-managed wildlife areas.

That superior public-land habitat, along with intense hunting pressure on surrounding private property, often pushes deer back into the public sector. Several IDNR wildlife biologists report having seen impressive bucks slink back into public hunting areas late in the afternoon on opening day, their entry unnoticed by hunters who assumed that those public areas had been overhunted.

Hunting guide Hughes noted that he can use the activities of other hunting parties in his area to his clients' advantage. "All my clients hunt from stands, either tree stands or ground blinds," he said. "We used to do drive hunts, but it just works better for guided hunts, and gives my clients better-quality hunts, to set them up in stands or blinds.

"I do a lot of scouting, and have all the stands and blinds along travel and escape routes deer use. But I try to be aware of where local groups are hunting on private property around the timbers I have hunting rights to, and use those groups to drive deer to my clients."

Hughes noted that he knows of a group in one location that always spends first shotgun season in woods to the south of timber that he leases, and of another that traditionally hunts to the north of his lease on the next weekend, during the second shotgun season. "So what happens is that the guys to the south move deer past my clients during the early shotgun season, and then the guys to the north move them back south past my clients during the second season," he explained, chuckling. "There's so much hunting pressure in Iowa during the two shotgun seasons that a guy really doesn't have to put on a drive. You can pretty much set up in a stand and other people will do all the walking for you."

Karam's group of family and friends who traditionally hunt shotgun season together also acknowledge the influence of other groups of hunters. "We sort of plan our drives to keep the deer in areas we have permission to hunt," he said. "We'll run our drives so that it's easier for deer to move into the next timber we plan to hunt, rather than take off cross-country into a timber across the mile that we don't have permission to hunt."

TAKE A STAND ON SHOTGUN HUNTING

Shotgun hunting from either a stand or a blind gets a thumbs-up from both Karam and Hughes. According to the former, a few bowhunter's tricks can help shotgunners in stands to tag big bucks.

"You don't have to go overboard with scent control," he observed, "but you need to be aware of it. When you're putting on a drive and deer are moving fast to escape, they don't seem to have time to use their noses as much. But if you're in a stand trying to get deer that are sneaking away from other drives, or just trying to get a buck as he's moving between bedding and feeding areas, they're going to be really sensitive to scent."

Karam goes low-tech with his scent-control efforts, washing his regular hunting clothes in baking soda to neutralize human odors. Then, just before a hunt, he rubs his gear against grass and soil. "I try to make it so any odors in my clothing, on my boots, or on my hands are natural odors," he explained.

Whether he's hunting from a stand or positioning blockers ahead of a drive, Karam pays close attention to wind direction. "I want to have the wind in my face when I'm in the stand, or if I'm blocking for a drive," he said. "And I try to get into the stand, or move into the spot where I'm going to block, with the wind in my face, so that my scent won't blow into the timber and spook deer I want to hunt."

Most of Hughes' clients are bowhunters, but a few prefer to power their projectiles with gunpowder. His preference is for clients to use muzzleloaders rather than shotguns when hunting from his stands. "They tend to be more selective and careful with their shots when they only have the one shot from a muzzleloader, compared to three or four with a shotgun," he said.

But Hughes does have tips to aid in making stands and blinds more productive for shotgunners. "First: You have to plan on being in the stand or blind all day," he said. "It takes patience to get a good deer. A lot of shotgunners are used to hunting till noon and then quitting, because everybody gets tired from walking. But you're missing half a day of hunting if you climb out of your stand at noon.

"Second: Scent control is key -- and not just while you're in the stand. You've got to pay attention to the path you use to get to and from the stand, and be careful about grabbing tree branches or touching things that will leave a scent trail."

According to Hughes, blockers in deer drives should adhere to the same protocols observed by hunters using stands. They should control their scent as much as possible, and position themselves so that residual scents won't alert deer moving ahead of the drive.

"Another thing that I used to do with positioning blockers back when I did drives with my clients was to position them away from the timber that was being driven," said Hughes. "If we were driving a block of timber and there was an open area between that timber and the next timber, I'd put my blockers a short distance inside the treeline of the second timber. That's because I want the deer to have time to calm down and slow down a bit. They seem to calm down after they move across an open area, because they can look back and see that nobody is on their backtrail. Put your blockers just inside the treeline, out of view, and the deer will walk right in on them."

WALK, DON'T RUN

Walking deer are rare on a deer drive. Many hunting groups intentionally sweep through timbers at a brisk pace with the intent of moving deer past blockers before the deer have time to evaluate alternate escape routes. The result is a deer stampede that fails to outwit mature bucks.

"Does and young bucks will panic and run straight out of a timber ahead of a drive," said Karam. "I've noticed that mature bucks will stay with does and young bucks for a little bit, when they first notice the drivers moving through the woods, but it's not long before the big bucks go their own way."

Professional guide Hughes noted that mature bucks often defy logic, moving back toward the line of drivers or making an end run and escape to the side. "They don't consciously decide to outsmart us by going back toward the line," he said. "Big bucks are just working off instincts, reacting to their environment.

Today's shotgunners can choose from a myriad of rifled barrels and slug designs, and both scopes and open sights. Outfitter Rodney Hughes recommends opting for familiarity in preference to gadgetry.

"One thing about big bucks is that they don't like to go into the unknown. They know what's behind them, and are comfortable with sneaking through a line of drivers in order to get to someplace they know is safe rather than moving ahead of the line into an area where they haven't recently been."

Karam advised that hunters in a drive line should work as a team, but one whose members move more or less randomly. "You've got to all be on the same page and move through the woods uniformly for safety reasons," he said. "But they need to move at an uneven pace: sometimes fast for a few feet, then slowing and maybe stopping altogether for a few seconds.

"Don't walk straight ahead; sort of zig and zag left and right. If you all move through the timber at the same pace, keeping an even spacing, big bucks can pattern your movements and either lie down and let you walk past them, or find a wide spot in the line and sneak back through."

Because of the fondness of mature bucks for reversing directions and getting behind drivers, some shotgun hunters have two hunters "walk drag" a couple of hundred yards behind the main line. Those drivers, under strict orders not to fire toward the main line, don't get a lot of deer during a season -- but any deer they do tag will tend to be the big, sneaky bucks that would have escaped otherwise.

BE WEAPON-WISE

Technology has brought shotgun hunting for deer into the space age. Three decades back, shotgunners had merely standard slugs fired from unrifled barrels, and used little more than a bead front sight. Today's shotgunners can choose from a myriad of rifled barrels and slug designs, and both scopes and open sights. Hughes recommends opting for familiarity in preference to gadgetry.

"All the fancy scopes and rifled barrels are fine," he noted, "and can help. But I recommend my clients use whatever they are most comfortable with. If a guy is used to shooting and is accurate with an old smoothbore shotgun with nothing more than a bead sight, he'd be making a mistake if he showed up on opening day with a new gun with a rifled barrel and a scope. Technology doesn't help unless you're comfortable with it and can use it to put your slugs exactly where you aim."

Karam is one of the few shotgunners in his group who uses a scope. He feels that it's been instrumental in improving his kill ratio. "I admit, with open sights shooting at moving deer like we often do in a drive, there's a tendency to pull the trigger whenever anything brown gets close to the front sight," he said. "It's not easy to find a moving deer in thick timber when you're using a scope. But when you finally get on it, it's because you're actually on target and aiming, and not just waving the end of the gun in the general direction of the deer."

Karam acknowledges that his scope offers the potential for long-range accuracy, but opts to sight his gun to be dead-on at 50 yards. "That's the average shot we'll take in the timber, so there's no point in having it zeroed out to 100 yards," he said. "I practice ahead of the season and have a good idea of how high to hold if I'm shooting at more than 50 yards."

SECOND CHANCE FOR SHOTGUNNERS

The shotgun is the weapon of choice for many hunters because of the camaraderie associated with the traditional block-and-drive tactics employed during our two primary shotgun seasons. Groups of hunters who hate to give up that fellowship have a second chance to travel to southern and northeastern Iowa to use shotguns during our special January bonus season.

Iowa's special January bonus antlerless season runs thro

ugh the first part of January in several northeastern counties and most of the southern two tiers of counties. You can buy tags to hunt antlerless deer with shotguns, muzzleloaders and centerfire rifles.

"That late season is actually one of the good times to hunt in public areas down here," said IDNR wildlife biologist Chad Paup. "All the crops are out of the fields, it's colder, and deer move into those public areas because the public wildlife areas have better cold-weather habitat. There aren't as many guys hunting, too, so it's a good time to use a shotgun from a blind or stand and hunt solo.

"A lot of people get all excited about the chance to use centerfire rifles during that late season. But if the truth be known, a lot of guys come down and use their shotguns. It's tough to beat a shotgun for deer hunting in the sort of terrain that Iowa has."

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

To contact Rodney Hughes at Midwest USA Outfitters, call 1-888-530-8492, or go to the Web site www.midwestusaoutfitters.com.

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