Contrary to common belief, there is no one spot in the Hawkeye State where trophy bucks roam unchallenged, and tagging a big rack is all in a day’s work. Just about anywhere in Iowa is big buck country. However, there are still those high-percentage spots where a hunter has a reasonable chance of bringing down a trophy and they’re well worth taking a look at.
Local conditions across the Hawkeye State change surprisingly little from year to year. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has studied harvest rates for big bucks and found that between the years 1953 and 1998, ten counties stood out as being top producers of trophy-class animals. Not much has changed over the last decade. It was found that shotgunners had the highest success rate, with blackpowder shooters next in line, followed by archers. Though hotspots for trophies exist, the IDNR found that nice bucks could be harvested by hunters anywhere in Iowa.
“There’s potential for big bucks on nearly all of our wildlife areas, especially the larger ones,” said Wildlife Management Biologist Carl Priebe.
Allamakee and Clayton counties stood out as premier areas for trophy-class hunting in northeastern Iowa during the 45-year span the records covered. Des Moines, Lee and Van Buren counties stepped up to the plate in the southeastern region and in south-central Iowa, Marion, Monroe and Warren counties provided their share of top hunts. Guthrie and Monona counties took the high ground in the western section of the state.
When you’re on the prowl for a big typical or non-typical animal, there are plenty of productive public areas in the Hawkeye State to choose from. Tip the odds in your favor and take a second look at these public hunting spots. You just might get that shot of a lifetime.
NORTH-CENTRAL IOWA’S MARSH AND GRASSLANDS
A lot of hunters from the northern region head south for the opener. A drive through the countryside doesn’t look promising and aspiring trophy hunters conclude that the grass is probably greener elsewhere.
But that might not be the case.
“The Clear Lake Unit counties are a little light on deer habitat and it drops off rapidly from east to west,” said Wildlife Biologist Greg Hanson. “The deer are vulnerable due to the openness of the landscape and finding a mature buck can be a challenge.”
Under these conditions, plan on concentrating your efforts on areas with timbered tracts near protected properties where hunting either isn’t allowed or the pressure is light. Public areas in the region worth checking are limited, according to Hanson, but there are a few. Most have some small timbered lots but consist primarily of marsh and upland habitat.
Trophies aren’t common in north-central Iowa due to the open country and low deer numbers but that just makes it more of a challenge for the serious hunter. Concentrate on opportunities next to closed areas such as parks, cities and tightly managed timber for the best mature-deer potential.
Good spots to try are 610-acre Gabrielson WMA in Hancock County and 216-acre Pilot Knob RA in Winnebago County. Both are excellent candidates because they border Pilot Knob State Park which acts as a refuge. Elk Creek WMA at 2,907 acres in Worth County and Rice Lake’s WMA 2,373 acres along the Worth/Winnebago line also concentrate bigger bucks.
Call the Clear Lake Unit at (641) 425-2814 for more information.
UPPER IOWA RIVER ACCESS
The public lands associated with the Upper Iowa River in the Winneshiek County area are often overlooked as home to some nice bucks, according to Wildlife Biologist Mike Griffin. Even late-season blackpowder shooters have a chance at a trophy buck or two.
“Winneshiek is another river county with excellent hunting opportunities and there’s usually licenses left over,” said Griffin.
The public acreage roughly follows the river and covers well over 4,000 acres of bottomland and forested tracts. Target the border areas with protected private land and crop fields. Northeastern Iowa favors the development of nice racks and this is one area you’ll want to try.
Several access points are available along A6W west of Decorah.
Even larger public tracts get busy at times, so it’s a good idea to have a back-up plan.
Other nearby public areas include the larger 1,165-acre Cardinal Marsh, 845-acre South Bear Complex and 571-acre Coon Creek wildlife areas as well as several smaller spots that include the 372-acre Canoe Creek, 232-acre Coldwater Creek and 170-acre Trout River state lands.
Contact the Mississippi River Management Unit at (563) 872-5700 for additional information.
IOWA RIVER CORRIDOR PROJECT
“Probably the best area I have is the Iowa River Corridor Project,” said Wildlife Biologist Rick Trine. “There’s over 12,000 acres here and because the area is large it provides some remote areas. This means access is limited unless you’re willing to walk a distance to find less hunting pressure and better opportunities. The drawback is that if you shoot a deer a long ways from your vehicle, it’s tough to get it out.”
The Iowa River Corridor Project covers nearly 20,000 acres in Benton, Iowa, Poweshiek, and Tama counties in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids areas. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers manages the public areas.
Flooding on the project is fairly common in the spring, a factor that contributes to the encroaching willows. Controlled burns clear some of the tangle but even the cleared areas quickly replenish with browse that supports good deer growth.
Some of the corridor’s public properties provide outstanding big-buck potential when hunting pressure is light. These properties are easy to overlook due to the open habitat but bucks can hide in areas where most hunters wouldn’t bother to look. Randolph WMA in Iowa County, the Otter Creek Marsh WMA in Tama County, Dudgeon Lake WMA in Benton County and the County Conservation Areas are all good bets.
Look for row crops and fields with thick cover adjacent to these public areas. They can harbor a lot of deer and provide good shooting, especially if you’ve gained permission to hunt the surrounding private properties as well.
Contact the Iowa River Unit for more information at (319) 330-7013.
PICTURED ROCKS/INDIAN BLUFFS WMAs
“Typically our bigger tracts of public land have more deer because parts of the areas may not be accessible to hunters not willing to work at it,” said Wildlife Biologist Curt Kemmerer. “Pictured Rocks and Indian Bluffs are spots where hunters can get a long ways off the road. As for the big buck spots, I’d look for areas where the hunting pressure is light and go from there. But I do believe that every public hunting area that I manage in the Maquoketa Wildlife Unit has excellent trophy potential.”
Kemmerer is convinced that the genetics and nutrition are available for trophy production nearly everywhere in the state, including in his management area.
“I know that’s a general statement, but it’s true,” said Kemmerer. “Even in the parts of the state that aren’t considered the big buck hotspots, there are some big deer running around.”
The Pictured Rocks and Indian Bluffs areas provide the needed ingredients for trophy-class whitetails, including the chance to live a long life and grow proportionately. Deer in the open country are easy to spot and groups of hunters easily put the pressure on due to the limited habitat. In the bluff country bucks grow old and wise without drawing attention to themselves in the rugged terrain and river corridors. Most shooters won’t venture very far into the thick stuff.
The Indian Bluffs WMA in Jones County covers 830 acres of top-notch forest and grassy habitat. Pictured Rocks WMA in the same county spreads over 677 acres of timbered riverbottom terrain. The nearby Muskrat Slough WMA covers 687 acres of marshy upland habitat that may provide an isolated big buck on occasion.
For more information, contact the Maquoketa WU at (563) 357-2035.
LAKE SUGEMA WMA
It’s no secret that southeastern Iowa is one of Iowa’s top trophy destinations. Several state and county lands provide great deer hunting and a shot at that elusive buck of a lifetime.
Lake Sugema is one spot to consider when deciding where to spend your time this year. The area covers 3,663 acres of lake, upland habitat and timber. This is trophy country. Trophy-class animals spend the majority of their time on adjoining private lands but do have a propensity to wander over onto the public property.
Jeff Glaw, the wildlife manager for the Sugema Unit, believes the trophy potential in his neck of the woods isn’t limited to Sugema WMA, but actually found throughout Davis, Jefferson, Wapello and Van Buren counties, the lower four counties of his unit.
“These counties probably offer the best potential for trophy-class deer,” said Glaw. “These counties have a lot of land purchased for recreational purposes. The WMAs and county conservation areas harbor wooded draws, brushy fencelines, creek and river corridors, forested acres interspersed with brush and idle fields. This is the mix trophy bucks are looking for.”
Other destinations in the region include the 330-acre DeVoss Foster, 745-acre Fox River and 438-acre WMAs in Van Buren County, 1,343-acre Fox Hills WMA in Wapello County and 1,290-acre Eldon WMA in Davis County.
For additional information, contact the Sugema WU at (641) 799-0793.
“All of our areas in the Rathbun Unit have good trophy potential,” said Jeffrey Telleen, wildlife manager for the area. “Large tracts of heavy cover like native grass or lake pool bottoms that grow up in weeds in a dry or normal year provide security for those bigger bucks.”
The Rathbun WMA needs little introduction. The vast acreage spreads across 15,822 acres of forest and upland habitat and is loaded with deer, mature bucks included.
Of special interest are upland timber areas like Tubaugh and Tyrone that used to be pasture lands but have grown up into cedars and hedge. Hunters need to be prepared to wade into the thick stuff in pursuit of dominant bucks that have chosen the most inhospitable territory in which to set up.
The genetics, food and habitat to produce some of Iowa’s biggest bucks are all available at Rathbun. The only other thing a buck needs to become a trophy is to live to be at least 3 1/2 years old. This is a spot where that happens.
For more information, contact the Rathbun Unit at (641) 414-1513.
LITTLE SIOUX AND NORTH RACOON RIVER CORRIDOR
“It isn’t any surprise to find most of the deer in the quality habitat,” advised Wildlife Biologist Pete Hildreth.
And according to Hildreth, quality isn’t necessarily synonymous with quantity.
“The quality habitat in my unit is along the Little Sioux River corridor in Buena Vista and Cherokee counties,” said Hildreth. “Deer prefer the habitat along river corridors and the opportunities for harvesting them in the open landscape are far and few between compared with the riverine areas. Trophy deer aren’t as numerous in my part of the state, but we do have trophies harvested every year.”
Hildreth points to both the Little Sioux and North Raccoon River corridors as being best-bet spots to try for a trophy. These areas allow bucks to reach maturity and ultimately their potential.
The IDNR manages the 37-acre Rainbow Bend WMA along the North Raccoon River. It’s little more than a timbered tract but is often passed over by hunters looking for more room to move around in. The Calhoun County Conservation Board manages the 47-acre tract known as the Raccoon River WA located next to Rainbow Bend, which presents another good option if there aren’t many hunters on the property. The 206-acre White Horse WMA borders the river in Sac County.
Hildreth suggests the large wetland/grassland complexes in Pocahontas and Sac counties as excellent back-up plans with big buck potential.
The Buena Vista and Cherokee County Conservation Boards manage several public hunting areas along the Little Sioux River corridor. The abundance of cover and tough-to-get-to sections are a prescription for trophy-class bucks.
Contact the Blackhawk Unit at (712) 661-9726 for additional information.
Southwestern Iowa’s Riverton WMA stands out as one of Wildlife Biologist Carle Priebe’s recommendations for hunters looking for a wall-hanger. The area north of 250th Street is on the old section of the area and the hot-spot. The flood plain area gets more than its fair share of hunting pressure compared to the upland habitat. Marshy areas offer a high level of protection for bucks and hunters are usually unwilling to go in after them. The wilder sections of the WMA are along the Nishnobot River. Riverton has classic trophy-class potential and is worth the effort it takes to hunt it effectively.
“Trophy hunters should look for the physical features on an area that make it difficult for hunters to conduct a block or drive hunt,” said Priebe. “The survival rate for bucks in these areas is high and there’s good trophy potential.”
If you’re looking for a true trophy in southwest Iowa, success means holding out for the big buck and not settling for a smaller one, said Priebe. A hunter may only see one or two really large bucks throughout the season and they are probably moving at night. That means being on site as soon as possible in the morning so that when the big one pokes his head out of the cover, you’re already there.
The secret for growing big deer here or anywhere in the Hawkeye State is convincing hunters to pass on younger bucks, said Priebe.
“Think about concentrating on experiencing a hunt with the potential of a trophy rather than needing to bag a trophy to enjoy the hunt,” recommends Priebe.
Riverton covers 2,721 acres just north of the town of Riverton in Fremont County. Additional opportunities are available in the southwestern corner of the state at Pottawattamie County’s 423-acre Wilson Island RA and Mills County’s 1,264 acre Nottleman Island RA.
Contact the Nishnabotna Wildlife Unit at (712) 374-3133 for more information.
IN THE CITY LIGHTS
Trophy hunting in Iowa’s more urban areas is a challenge but the stakes can be high.
“Some of the urbanized rural areas around subdivisions and other acreages in the metro areas have big-buck potential,” said Wildlife Biologist Ron Munkel. “These areas are essentially mini-refuges and the major issue is getting permission to gain access. Any of the public lands in the Red Rock Wildlife Unit also have the potential of harboring large-antlered deer. Focus on the smaller public areas with adjacent private land that is also good deer habitat, especially if there isn’t a lot of hunting activity.”
Most of the federal, state and county public areas near the state’s urban locales are open to hunting and have good populations of deer, but the pressure can be heavy. Trophy hunting in Iowa’s urban areas may be a challenge, but true trophies are found in places where hunters typically aren’t able to get at them.
Additional information on special and archery-only hunts is available from the Red Rock Wildlife Unit at (515) 238-6936 or the Cedar-Wapsi Unit at (319) 213-2815.