Iowa's Late Muzzleloader And Bow Hunts

An increasing number of Hawkeye hunters are braving the arctic cold and heading afield during our late, great muzzleloader and bow hunts for last-chance whitetails. (December 2009)

Iowa's late muzzleloader and archery seasons offer hunters a chance to target late-season whitetails without sharing the woods with shotgun drives.

Photo by BillKinney.com

The cloud of Pyrodex smoke blended with fog on a breezeless late December morning. As the mist dissipated, the deer appeared on the snow exactly where it had been standing when I squeezed the trigger.

But a surprise greeted me as I trotted over. The shot had been longer than I thought. My young doe turned out to be a muscular shed-antler buck. The unusual winter weather, combined with my decision to shoot quickly after spotting the deer, resulted in a freezer of tough venison instead of the tender doe steaks my wife desired.

Weeks of cold, snowy weather had suddenly changed as a creeping warm front enveloped Iowa. The 40-degree moist air created fog, and the vision from my stand was one of featureless white with wisps of ghostly mist. Judging distance was nearly impossible, and the buck was at least 20 yards farther away than I thought.

Iowa deer hunters often hunt with bows or muzzleloaders so they can enjoy the glorious October weather. Archers holding unfilled tags can then enjoy hunting the November rut without the competition of firearms hunters. Most then tuck their bows in closets to await next fall's season. That's changing, as increasing numbers of archers and muzzleloader hunters defy Arctic cold that normally covers Iowa in late December and January.

"Last year, about 33,000 hunters took advantage of the long late muzzleloader season. That's a little more than one sixth of the 180,000 Iowa deer hunters, and they filled 28 percent of their tags," said Tom Litchfield, deer biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. That compares with about 35 percent success during the October muzzleloader season.

According to Litchfield, it's harder to determine archery success because licenses are valid for a long season that runs from early October into January.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Despite the potential for subzero temperatures, there are good reasons to hunt late. For starters, visibility is better late in the year. Leaves are on the ground, weeds have frosted back, and deer are often contrasted against a snowy white background, making them much easier to spot than earlier. Also, snowy tracks help hunters locate deer herds that tend to concentrate come winter. Perhaps the greatest advantage of late hunting is its predictability. Winter deer focus on food. Find quality food near safety cover and you've found deer.

Late-season hunters enjoy little competition, at least on many public areas. The late muzzleloader season is about three weeks long, and its 33,000 hunters are spread over Iowa's 56,000 square miles. Many public-hunting areas crawling with hunters during shotgun season are nearly devoid of them toward New Years Day. That's the general rule but not the case everywhere.

Dennis Goemaat, deputy director of the Linn County Conservation Board, has seen a gradual increase in late-season hunting at Matsell Bridge Natural Area near Viola. "I think nearly as many people are out there during the late muzzleloading season as the shotgun seasons," he said. Despite Matsell's popularity, hunters will find most public areas uncrowded.

Litchfield is somewhat reluctant to name the best public areas because there are so many that are highly productive. "Public areas in central and west-central Iowa will be particularly good bets this year, as deer numbers are high there. As subdivisions have spread across parts of the state, they have created good deer habitat, and public hunting areas in Warren, Dallas and Polk counties will be especially productive. The southern tiers of counties are always good bets, especially toward the eastern part of the state," he said. Counties along the Mississippi River are always productive, especially in northeast and southeast Iowa.

Litchfield agrees with an observation of former deer biologist and current wildlife research head Willie Suchy. "Iowa is sprinkled with hundreds of small public hunting areas," Suchy said. "County conservation boards manage most, and firearms hunters generally avoid them. If a public area is under 100 acres, few firearms hunters will be there. Archers tend to hunt smaller tracts, but if the area is less than 50 acres, few bowhunters will visit. That's a shame, as these areas are often filled with deer."

OPPORTUNITIES ABOUND

There are far too many small public areas to list in this article, but they almost all offer good wooded cover surrounded by agricultural fields or increasingly suburban subdivisions. Odds are high that a lightly hunted, small public area will offer outstanding late-season deer hunting within a short drive of every Iowan's home.

According to Litchfield, the highest hunting pressure on public land is on the largest areas with good access. Matsell Bridge is only one of these popular areas. Others include lands surrounding Iowa's large flood control reservoirs, state forests and larger DNR hunting areas, but wise hunters can even find uncrowded late-season hunting on popular areas. Several years ago, then Pennsylvania deer biologist Gary Alt placed GPS units on hunters and plotted where they went. Young hunters rarely walked more than a few hundred yards from their vehicle. Older hunters went somewhat farther but still rarely penetrated large areas. So, the far corners of Iowa's large, heavily hunted areas often see few hunters and can be highly productive.

My example is wooded public land surrounding Coralville Reservoir in Johnson County. Most land near the upper end of the lake is open to public hunting. A few years ago, when squirrel hunting, I headed into the woods close to the public shooting range. A deep, steep-sided ravine soon confronted me. Crossing it was challenging, but as soon as I scrambled to the other side I started seeing plenty of squirrels -- and plenty of deer. I doubt that any deer hunters take the trouble to cross that ravine, giving anyone willing to scramble an opportunity for crowd-free hunting.

Hunters should keep accessibility in mind. On popular hunting areas, walking barriers discourage casual hunters and offer ambitious ones a chance for crowd-free hunting. Ravines, small streams, thick patches of thorny brush, steep hills and distance thin out hunting pressure. Deer are aware of this and retreat to safe havens beyond barriers.

Other public lands that offer outstanding late-season deer hunting are marshes and prairies. "Often hunters don't think of hunting deer in small patches of habitat in

places better known for duck or upland small-game hunting. Deer, especially large, wary bucks, often rest in tall grass and willow clumps," said Litchfield. An example is Otter Creek Marsh near Tama and the nearby Iowa River Corridor. Together these provide hundreds of acres of public hunting on the floodplain. A few years ago, I was pheasant hunting there a few days after Christmas. It had been subzero, allowing me to track pheasants in a few inches of snow over thick ice. As I approached a small island covered with scrubby willows, a massive buck stood and ambled off. The late deer season was open, but the only hunters were, like me, seeking pheasants. As I watched that buck leisurely walk off, I wished I were carrying a muzzleloader rather than a 20 gauge.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Researching public lands is relatively simple. The Iowa DNR makes available a list of the public hunting areas it manages, and the privately printed Iowa Sportsman's Guide is invaluable for locating public sites. Every Iowa county has a conservation board, and a phone call to any of them will yield information on hunting locations.

The computer and telephone have become the best friends of hunters. The IDNR Web site (www.iowadnr. com) helps hunters find public areas. Google Earth gives a bird's eye view of any public hunting area without leaving the house. Aerial photos on the computer screen can help hunters easily locate quality deer habitat quickly and easily.

So, how does a hunter find the best public spot for late-season muzzleloading or deer hunting? It's simple. Scan Web sites and directories for pubic areas in central, west-central Iowa, the southern two tiers of counties and along the Mississippi River. Then use Google Earth to view satellite photos of any of them that look interesting. The view from space will help a hunter locate a site, whether on a massive or tiny public area, that offers heavy cover near a food source. The phone and computer don't eliminate the value of on-site scouting, but they help determine which public areas are worth scouting in person.

"Successful hunters know that late-season deer hunting is all about food. The breeding season has passed, and deer are focused on building up their strength and bulk before the worst winter weather arrives," said Matt Schrantz of Lisbon.

Bowhunter Cole Herb, who has taken several massive bucks in his 18 years, agrees. "If you find deer food late in the year, you will find deer," he said. Litchfield and nearly all seasoned hunters agree.

ALONE AND AFIELD

One of the pleasures of hunting the late muzzleloader season is the near absence of deer drives. The DNR set this season years ago to give hunters an opportunity to have a different experience. Now that deer numbers have increased, many hunters see this as a way to extend recreation into winter. Drives are common during shotgun season, but the late muzzleloader season gives solitary firearms hunters time to enjoy being outdoors without them.

"Late-season hunts give the DNR an opportunity to lure hunters to areas where deer densities are too high," said Suchy. He's referring to special antlerless tags.

Many hunters have already tagged a buck and buy an antlerless-only tag for the late season. It's a great opportunity to fill the freezer with a tasty doe, but there's a problem. Bucks begin shedding antlers by mid-December. Generally, any buck in poor body condition is likely to shed early. Also, young bucks unable to mate usually shed early. By the late muzzleloader season, a fair number of bucks have shed. "Shed antlered bucks made up about 3.9 percent of the harvest in 2008 -- a little higher than usual," said Litchfield.

As a hunter and biologist, Litchfield is reluctant to see antlerless bucks in the harvest. "If I pass up shooting a shed buck in late December I might get a crack at him the following fall when he's sporting antlers. The Iowa DNR sets antlerless quotas to encourage the harvest of does, so as a biologist, I like to see those does end up in freezers," he said.

TAKE YOUR TIME

According to the biologist, a skilled hunter can determine whether a deer is a doe or shed-antlered buck before pulling the trigger or releasing the arrow. "I spend up to 15 minutes watching deer before I shoot," Litchfield said. "If a group of winter deer all look large, they are probably shed-antlered bucks. In late December, a group of does will have this year's fawns with them. By then, fawns are good size but still smaller than mature does. So, a group of mixed-sized deer will likely be does and fawns. Also, bucks walk more stiffly than does."

My mistake in shooting the large antlerless buck came from quickly assessing the situation to make sure the animal was antlerless and the shot safe. I didn't spend any time studying the animal, even though there was no need to hurry. The deer was unaware of my presence and probably would have remained in range for several minutes.

"Because deer are easy to see against the snow and are generally not pressured by other hunters, there usually isn't any need to shoot quickly," Litchfield said. "It's a good idea to hesitate, study the animals and pick the best deer for freezer meat. Also, one of the joys of deer hunting is simply observing animals, and late season is the best time to do this."

He said he urges hunters to carry a pair of binoculars.

The deer biologist's observation that deer numbers are high in the suburban areas around Des Moines, Indianola and a number of other Iowa cities gives late-season hunters another opportunity. Years ago, no one would have dreamed that hunting would be legal inside city limits or in state parks. Deer densities exploded in the 1990s, and both homeowners and ecologists expressed frustration over vegetation damage caused by hungry animals. Deer-car collisions also dramatically increased. In response, the IDNR legalized deer hunting in many state parks and cooperated with cities to allow hunting in town. Hunters were seen as a solution to skyrocketing deer numbers. The result was new hunting opportunities.

The Cedar Rapids metro hunt, for example, starts in mid-September, about two weeks before the general archery season, and it lasts about two weeks longer in January. It gives hunters nearly an additional month of deer hunting. Many state parks also offer late-season hunting. Urban and park hunts vary greatly, but information is printed in the hunting regulation booklet published by the IDNR.

Baptist pastor Cecil Ballard has hunted my back yard in suburban Cedar Rapids since bowhunting was legalized by the city council a few years ago. He shot seven does on my 1.5 acres last season and hunts from mid-September into January. "I really enjoy hunting, and when you can do it for an entire season, you have the opportunity to observe wildlife in different stages of their life," he said. "Hunting late season is challenging. The cold puts a hunter at a disadvantage, so you must learn to hunt smarter.

"In the late season, I particularly like hunting following a good snowfall, after the front moves through and the sun comes out. I also like to hunt in the evening."

Hunting January's

arctic cold presents extreme challenges for gear and hunters. "I dress in layers and make sure I keep my head and neck warm," Ballard said. "I also wear bigger and better insulated boots when it gets cold and use hot packs to keep warm."

Late-season muzzleloader hunters also confront gear issues. Hunting when it's 20 (degrees) below is entirely different than during balmy October afternoons. Fortunately, new in-line muzzleloaders are more reliable and easier to use than their primitive ancestors. "I believe more of our customers use muzzleloaders late in the season because they have confidence in the reliability of the firearm," said Craig Cushman, director of marketing at Thompson/Center Arms.

Iowa deer hunting doesn't end with the close of the shotgun seasons. Opportunities abound to take deer during the cold of the late muzzleloader and archery seasons.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.