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.