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.”
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.