Photo by Rick White.
Excitement grew as Dave Novak and I drove south through December’s inky predawn darkness.
We’d spent pleasant fall days scouting out promising places for ambushing a large
Iowa buck. After checking many public areas, we settled on a brushy patch of Shimek State Forest near Keosauqua that featured a blend of mature oaks, pine groves and thorny thickets surrounded by cornfields. The area contained classic deer habitat. Sign abounded, and we’d spotted impressive bucks during earlier squirrel hunting and scouting outings.
As the car approached this perfect spot on opening day, we discovered that the small Iowa Department of Natural Resources parking lot was crammed; a line of vehicles was parked along the road, within them sitting groups of coffee-drinking hunters who were waiting for legal hunting hours. Soon we watched them file into “our” perfect spot.
We weren’t interested in competing with crowds. Across the road was a vast grassy area with patches of multiflora rose and clumps of box elders. It had recently been bought by the IDNR to construct Lake Sugema. Although open to public hunting, it looked like awful deer habitat. But we could either fight crowds in the woods, go somewhere else to fight other crowds, or work the poor looking grassland. We chose the grass.
In those days before rifled shotgun barrels, both Dave and I carried smoothbore shotguns with a 40- or 50-yard maximum range — fine for the woods, but limiting when hunting in the open.
We walked through the grass about 100 yards apart, occasionally hearing shots from the woods. As I glanced over toward Dave, a slight movement in the grass in front of him caught my eye, and I was astonished to see, first, a massive pair of antlers and, then, the enormous buck wearing them — crawling away from Dave. I could only watch: He was close to the deer, but couldn’t see it; I could see it clearly, but was too far away for a shot. Unable to attract Dave’s attention without spooking the animal, I looked helplessly on as it melted for good into the grass.
We didn’t fill our tags that day — but we did become better deer hunters, having learned things that have helped us bag deer on subsequent public-land hunts. The big buck taught us the most important lesson: Pressured deer, especially wise bucks, move from classic habitat to areas that most hunters avoid.
Iowa grows the nation’s biggest bucks, because our state boasts a mix of abundant, nutritious food, excellent deer genes, and gifted herd management by the IDNR. In an effort to trim the herd, the state has essentially created a statewide quality deer management zone.
Our hunting seasons favor trophy bucks. Wisconsin, like many states, sets its firearms season to coincide with the rut, when bucks are most vulnerable. Iowa’s shotgun season comes after the rut. Post-rut bucks are secretive and wary; many survive hunting seasons to grow bigger antlers the next year. Hunting big post-rut bucks is challenging — but more of them are out there in Iowa than in other states.
And that’s only part of the good news. Although we lack the vast national forests and other public hunting areas of Western and Lake states, smaller public areas are scattered all over Iowa. A hunter lacking access to private land can find a trophy on public land.
The man who knows where the deer are, and where high-quality public land hunting will be this year, is IDNR deer biologist Willie Suchy, who’s responsible for developing and implementing the state deer management plan, and is the architect of our outstanding hunting. When asked where best public hunting grounds will be for shotgun hunters this fall, he quickly responded with his favorite places.
Suchy first addressed the larger Iowa public areas — places in which a hunter can stretch his legs. “In northeast Iowa I’d head for Yellow River Forest or Sny Magill Wildlife Management Area,” he said. “The forest has about 8,500 acres of hilly woodland, and Sny Magill is about 1,800 acres. An even bigger public area with lots of deer is Shimek State Forest down in southeast Iowa. In southwest Iowa, I’d hunt Sand Creek Wildlife Area. Its 3,547 acres straddles the Ringgold/Decatur county line.
“In the far west and northwest I’d work 1,600-acre Elk Grove Wildlife Area and the Loess Hills State Forest — there’s over 5,000 acres of public hunting land in the forest. Finally, in central Iowa, the land around Rathbun Reservoir and the Iowa River corridor is very productive.”
Although not on Suchy’s primary list, Iowa’s fourth state forest, Stephens, offers plenty of public hunting at several large units in Lucas and Monroe counties.
These areas are well known to hunters, so expect crowds. Wise public-land hunters use a few tricks to find solitude, and to maximize the odds of bagging a buck. Suchy offers hunters a tip that was researched by Gary Alt, one of the nation’s best-known deer biologists.
A few years ago Alt put GPS units on hunters at a large public area in Pennsylvania. He mapped where they went and was astounded at the result. Many hunters never walk more than 300 yards from their vehicle! Older hunters tended to walk farther than young ones, but virtually no one hunted more than two miles from the road. Under pressure, many large bucks moved to core areas away from the road, where few hunters challenged them. The same tendency is evident in Iowa, especially at large public areas.
“Bucks move to areas with low pressure,” remarked Suchy. “These are either a long walk in or places that seem to have poor habitat. In our bigger public areas, like Yellow River and Shimek forests, few people hunt the far corners of the property. They should, because deer are there — and hunters aren’t.”
Suchy also recommends that hunters who want to avoid public-land crowds choose the second shotgun season. “About 60-65 percent of shotgun hunters choose the first season,” he noted, “so only about one-third of the year’s hunters are afield during the second season, which is also longer. Few public areas are crowded during second season weekdays. Deer have been pressured and hunting success tends to be better when there’s snow on the ground.”
Experienced deer hunter and Hunter’s Specialties pro staffer Rick White has a further tip for hunters working crowded public areas. “Safety is especially important in crowded areas,
” he said. “I go to the parking lot before hunting hours start. This gives me a chance to talk with hunters I don’t know. I learn where they will be, and head for the places they don’t tend to work. Sometimes these hunters organize drives, and they often push deer to remote areas where I’ll be hunting.”
Tom Neal is an IDNR wildlife biologist stationed at Ruthven in northwest Iowa. His district probably contains the smallest amount of woodlands in Iowa, but its many marshes and grasslands more than make up for that deficiency.
“I’ve noticed that big bucks quickly learn that shotgun season is on,” he observed. “They leave the woods and move into marshes and tall grass, and stay there until the season is over. Hunting in dense stands of cattails or prairie grass can be very productive, but only a few hunters work these areas.”
One of the big marshes in Neal’s territory that harbors bucks during shotgun season is 1,389-acre Barringer Slough in Clay County. The biologist also recommends Little Sioux and Hawk Valley wildlife areas.
Outstanding deer hunting isn’t always in rural areas. The Mines of Spain, just outside of Dubuque, is a large wooded public area with plenty of deer. The Hawkeye Wildlife Area, sited in the urbanizing area between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, gets heavy pheasant hunting pressure, but come deer season, this vast area around Coralville Reservoir offers good deer hunting.
In recent years the state has opened a number of state and county parks to deer hunting. Specific areas change annually, so hunters looking for late-season public land deer hunting should study the regulations booklet to locate “special hunts.” Often only antlerless deer are legal during these hunts but some allow limited buck hunting. “Many of the biggest bucks are in or near cities and parks,” said Rick White.
Biologist Rick Trine is based in central Iowa. His district is better known for pheasants than for deer, but it includes several large public hunting areas.
“The Iowa River Corridor gets a fair amount of pressure on opening weekend of both shotgun seasons,” he remarked, “but hunter density is low on weekdays. Most hunters don’t go way back to the more remote areas. Otter Creek Marsh also offers great deer hunting, but it’s hard to hunt unless it is frozen over.”
Trine has observed a trend that’s common throughout Iowa: Small areas feel little pressure. In his district is East Salt Creek Wildlife Area, a 114-acre densely timbered area near Vining. “It gets very little pressure,” he said.
Suchy agrees with Trine’s observations. “Iowa deer hunters tend to avoid small public areas and favor big state forests and timbered wildlife areas,” he stated. “If a public hunting area is smaller than 100 acres, hardly any firearm hunters use it. Archers hunt the smaller areas, but not usually if they’re under 50 acres.”
That’s too bad — at least for the deer hunters who shun these petite tracts. Most of Iowa public areas are small, and are usually managed by county conservation boards. And most offer excellent deer hunting. Typically, these are scraps of woodland surrounded by crops that often afford the only good escape and resting cover within hundreds of acres, and so serve as deer magnets.
HS pro staffer Rick White cites South Cedar near Cedar Rapids as a hot prospect. “It hugs the river and occasionally floods,” he said, “but it offers outstanding deer hunting very close to Iowa’s second-largest city. Because it’s small it’s only lightly hunted.”
One of my favorite small public spots is Selma WA, in Van Buren County. It has 134 acres of mixed prairie, big oaks, and plenty of deer. Probably because of its small size and proximity to larger public areas, it doesn’t feel much pressure.
Lightly hunted public areas far too numerous to list in this article lie within an easy drive of every Iowan. These parcels can be challenging to find, but a call to the local county conservation board will yield hunt the necessary information. Conservation board staff members can offer excellent information about the whereabouts of public areas, the hunting quality at each site, and a general sense of the level of pressure. Another outstanding resource is the Iowa Sportsman’s Atlas, which contains maps and descriptions of all public hunting areas in the entire state.
Far too few Iowa hunters use one of the best sources of hunting information: the IDNR conservation officer in the county they intend to hunt. Officers’ names and phone numbers are printed in the hunting and fishing regulation booklets issued free by the IDNR wherever licenses are sold. Conservation officers enthusiastically help hunters find places to hunt, and in many cases will suggest one of the small places scattered across the state.
Linn County conservation officer Aric Sloterdyk gave me outstanding advice a few years ago when I asked him to suggest some good deer hunting locations near Cedar Rapids. “I don’t understand it, but some public areas get hammered while others are almost empty,” he told me. “For example, the land surrounding Pleasant Creek Lake is heavily hunted for pheasants but not deer, and there are plenty of bucks on the land.” And it did indeed prove a productive place for pleasant deer hunting that fall.
Hunting small areas requires special tactics. Generally they’re not big enough for effective drives; they’re usually more profitably hunted from a stand. “Deer trails converge in these smaller areas, and stand-hunting is very effective,” offered White.
Shots are usually short, and hunters should be especially safety-conscious. Cattle frequently graze just beyond the woods, and some smaller areas are near suburban subdivisions.
Iowa deer hunting has changed greatly in recent years, and mostly for the better. About 10 times more deer are harvested now than were downed just 25 years ago — it’s the Golden Age of Hawkeye State deer hunting! Rising deer numbers have caused the animals to move into grassier, more-open areas, giving hunters opportunities to use newly developed technologies.
“Shotgun slugs have made tremendous technological advances that correspond with rising deer numbers,” said Matt Schrantz, owner of Cedar Rapids’ GOT Outdoors store. “Years ago, we just had Foster slugs, with their modest accuracy and short range. Now a wide variety of saboted slugs are on the market. Some even have a traditional rifle or pistol bullet held by a sabot and loaded in a shotgun shell. They are expensive, but compared the total cost of a hunt are a bargain. A modern rifle-barreled shotgun with good sights or a scope is effective well beyond 100 yards.” Several years ago the state legalized handguns during some deer seasons — so shotgun season’s no longer limited only to shotguns! And in 2005 the state legalized high-powered rifles for the January season in the two southern tiers of counties.
“We did this to lure hunters to areas where the deer density is too high. It also gives hunters a chance to use a different tool to take deer,” explained Suchy.
Had I been holding a rifled shotgun loaded with modern saboted slugs, a rifle, or one of the new handguns, I would have been able to drop the big buck that sneaked away from Dave Novak years ago! I’ve long since stopped using the old bird gun for deer, and now favor a superaccurate rifle-barreled shotgun equipped with outstanding sights.
Several years ago the IDNR set a goal of slightly reducing Iowa’s overall deer population. They increased the number of antlerless tags, and in 2005 hunters had the most successful season in the state’s history, during which about 210,000 deer were bagged. Does made up 56 percent of the harvest. The population has crested, and is likely a little smaller going into the 2006 hunting season. Thousands of mature bucks survived the season and are even bigger this fall. Our state is at the top of the Boone and Crocket’s list of trophy whitetails, and no doubt more Iowa names will be added to that list this fall.
Some of those big bucks will come from Iowa’s public hunting areas. Our state’s hunters will enjoy what is arguably the best deer hunting ever available anywhere this fall. Don’t miss it.