Iowa's Shotgun Hotspots for Deer

No matter what part of the Hawkeye State you live in, there's great public-land shotgunning for whitetails close by. Trophy bucks, hefty does — all there for the taking.

By Dan Anderson

How good is deer hunting on Iowa's public hunting areas? Three anecdotes illustrate the potential of Iowa's public properties.

"One of the nicest bucks I've ever seen came out of the Hawkeye," said Brad Baker, game warden for Iowa and Johnson counties, in speaking of the Hawkeye Wildlife Area. "I was checking licenses last year, and one group of second season shotgun hunters had a buck that had an inside spread of 23 inches. It was so impressive that I measured it myself, just to see how big it actually was."

Remarking on Saylorville Reservoir, Scott Peterson, Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist for central Iowa, said, "There are plenty of does, and enough nice bucks to keep the guys on their toes."

"I don't think Iowa's hunters realize how relatively uncrowded our public hunting areas are," said Ed Weiner, IDNR wildlife biologist in far western Iowa. "I've talked to non-resident hunters from New York, California and a lot of other states who came to hunt deer in Iowa, and they're amazed at how uncrowded our public areas are. They love hunting our public areas because they see lots of deer, and relatively no hunters, compared to what they're used to in their home states."

There are more than 400 state-managed hunting areas in Iowa that provide more than 450,000 acres of public hunting. They range from 9-acre Burr Access in Clay County to nearly 10,000 acres in five units of Stephens State Forest in Lucas County. Here are a few of the better places to look for a deer this winter.

EASTERN IOWA

The Hawkeye WA, on the upper end of Coralville Reservoir between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, offers deer hunters more than 13,000 acres of flood plain and timbered uplands.

"The reason Hawkeye is so good for deer is because of the bottoms," said IDNR wildlife biologist Tim Thompson. "Coralville (Lake) floods the bottoms every few years, so it's an absolute jungle of willows, cockleburs and smartweeds. Not a lot of guys are willing to fight their way through that mess, but the deer love it. The biggest buck I ever saw come out of the Hawkeye came out of the bottoms They shot it so far down in the willows and weeds that it took the guys three and a half hours to drag it out to the road."

Thompson predicted that Hawkeye WA will again produce a bonus crop this year, despite heavy hunting pressure in 2003. "They hunted the heck out of the Hawkeye last year, but deer numbers were actually up in our winter surveys," said Thompson. "So there should be plenty of deer in there again this year."

Other public areas in eastern Iowa that recorded strong deer populations in recent IDNR surveys include 1,600-acre Dudgeon Lake Wildlife Management Area in Benton County and the nearby 200-acre Red Fox WMA.

"I rarely see hunters in Red Fox, and very few hunters in Dudgeon Lake," said Thompson. "The locals sweep through them during shotgun seasons, but very few hunters take time to really work them and dig out the big bucks that hide in there."

Thompson also recommends hunters investigate public areas along the Cedar River in Linn County. "People think they have to get away from the city to see deer, but there are several thousand acres of state-owned land along the Cedar River just north of Cedar Rapids," he said. "The county has another 1,500 acres along the river, too, in several chunks. There's a lot of good public deer hunting just outside the city limits."

Eastern Iowa hunters who prefer to travel for their deer can make the short trip to the Iowa River Corridor, a string of public hunting areas scattered along the Iowa River in Iowa County.

"The corridor is more than 10,000 acres of upland, grassy-type pheasant habitat with patches of timber and bottomland," said game warden Baker. "I've seen photos of some really nice bucks that guys have taken out of there. The best area for deer is probably the stretch between Belle Plaine and Marengo. You won't always get a 150-class buck out of the Corridor, but if you're looking to fill an antlerless tag, it's almost a sure thing if you make any effort at all."

Photo by R.E. Ilg

CENTRAL IOWA

Willie Suchy, the IDNR's deer management biologist, says that deer hunters in central Iowa should look to the west. "There's a strip of counties from Guthrie and Adair County down through the southwest corner of the state where we have too many deer and not enough hunters," he remarked. "If hunters from Des Moines are willing to travel an hour or so, they'll find lots of deer in west-central Iowa."

Elk Grove WMA, south of Coon Rapids, offers 1,600 acres of timber to deer and hunters. Woodlands associated with Bays Branch (southeast of Yale), Lakin Slough (east of Yale), Lennon Mills (southwest of Panora) and Springbrook State Park (west of Yale) are also brimming with deer.

IDNR regional wildlife biologist Ron Munkel said small public areas along the three forks of the Raccoon River are sometimes overlooked by hunters. "I see a lot of deer around the public river accesses along the 'Coon rivers when I'm inspecting those areas during the summer," said Munkel. "They may be only 10 or 15 acres apiece, and the local shotgunners sweep through them, but they go through so fast that I think they miss some nice deer. A single shotgun hunter or late-season muzzleloader who goes in and still hunts those areas, especially during midweek, might pick up a fat doe or a big buck that laid low when the drive-hunters roared through."

The upper end of Saylorville Reservoir, north of Des Moines, is another option for central Iowa hunters. Deer populations are high from the Highway 17 bridge near Madrid in Polk County all the way upstream to the Boone Forks WMA west of Stratford in Webster County.

"Hunters shouldn't have much trouble filling an antlerless tag from the upper end of Saylorville all the way to Boone Forks, if they're willing to do any work at all," said the IDNR's Scott Peterson. "Boone Forks is in several tracts, and some of them aren't as easily accessed as others. There's more potential for big bucks in those areas, because they don't get as much hunting pressure."

Peterson reports that the 6,000 acres of public land surrounding Brushy Creek Lake, in Webster County, also hold a strong population of deer. "Especially on the south side of the park," he said. "The south end has a lot of does and some really nice bucks, too."

WESTERN IOWA

Several non-resident professional hunting guides have leased hunting rights in the Loess Hills of western Iowa in recent years to take advantage of the strong population of deer that lurks in the rugged bluffs of that region. Some of the guides include portions of the Pioneer State Forest and Loess Hills WA in their hunts. Clients are sometimes disappointed to learn they're hunting on public land - but they shouldn't be: That public land contains some of the best deer habitat in Iowa.

"There are more than 20,000 acres in the state forest, and close to 3,000 acres in the Loess Hills area," said IDNR wildlife biologist Ed Weiner. "It's tough hunting, because there are so many blind valleys and steep bluffs. It's a good place for a single shotgun hunter to still hunt, or a couple of shotgun hunters to work a short drive in a small area."

Public areas in the Missouri River bottoms get worked hard by shotgun hunters pushing drives, but provide consistent hunting. Louisville Bend, Blackbird Bend and appropriately named Deer Bend WAs produce deer year in and year out.

"You probably won't get a trophy buck out of the riverbottom areas, because they're so easy to drive hunt that very few bucks live long enough to develop trophy racks," said Weiner. "But if you're looking for venison and want to fill an antlerless tag, they're great places to go."

While the IDNR's half-million acres of public hunting land represent a mere fraction of Iowa's total acreage, that public property encompasses some of the best deer habitat in the state. Hunters who avoid public areas because they believe that public areas are "overhunted" miss some of the state's best hunting opportunities.

"I check a lot of licenses on public areas, and it's surprising the number of antlerless deer, and the quality of antlered bucks, that hunters get off public land," said game warden Brad Baker. "Guys who don't have access to private land in Iowa shouldn't feel left out - there's some darned good deer hunting on public land."



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