Ground Zero: Iowa's Record Bucks

Ground Zero: Iowa's Record Bucks

Bank on Iowa’s southern tier of counties for your best shot at bringing home a trophy whitetail.

It’s no great secret that year in and year out, the state of Iowa produces some of the finest Boone and Crockett trophy whitetails entered into this club’s legendary book. And while it might seem, statistically, that a 160-inch-plus buck hides in every plum thicket and switch grass-lined swale between the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers — well, that’s not the case.

Truth be told, any of Iowa’s 99 counties holds the potential to produce another B&C deer. Still, there are regions of the Hawkeye State where the big buck spotlight shines brightest — take, for instance, the southern third. During the five years between the 2013-14 and 2017-18 deer seasons, this southern tier of roughly 30 counties accounted for 63 B&C bucks, or 55 percent of the total 115 entries into the B&C ledgers for that time period. To narrow it down even further, seven of those 30 counties — Madison, Warren, Marion, Clarke, Lucas, Decatur, and Wayne — posted an astonishing 27 B&C entries during that same 2013-18 time frame. These outstanding whitetails included the controversial Franz buck, aka Palmer (230 7/8 inches, non-typical in 2014 in Monroe County), and the “Baby 8 Buck” (215 3/8 inches, non-typical in 2013 in Decatur County) — just two examples of what the Hawkeye State is capable of producing.

Just seven counties. Seven B&C counties. But where do you strike in those seven counties? What are hunters’ options in terms of access? If there were such a beast, a guidebook to Iowa’s book bucks might look something like this.



Coal Camp Outfitters Lucas County

“All of Iowa has really good deer hunting,” says Paul Havick, who, along with his wife, Diane, owns and operates the Lucas County-based Coal Camp Outfitters whitetail hunting operation near Chariton. “But here in Zone 5 (south-central Iowa), the deer have more cover in the rolling hills and hardwoods and very ample food with the field crops in the good ground. We have really good genetics, and we have an environment that allows those genetics to develop. From the standpoint of overall consistency,” he suggests, “having the opportunity to take a 150-inch-plus buck, your odds are as good in Lucas County as they are in any county in the state.”

In operation for the past decade with Havick at the helm, Coal Camp manages roughly 3,000 contiguous acres as part of his outfitting business. Eighty of those acres, he says, are planted in food plots; some less than an acre in size, with others stretching across 4 or 5 acres. Some 50 treestand locations, along with another 20 fixed blinds, puts his clients up close and personal to some of the finest whitetails in the Midwest.

“We don’t hunt any more than four hunters each week,” Havick points out. “We start the last day or two of October for archery and the rut and hunt through Thanksgiving. Then we hunt four groups of gun hunters. One (four-person) group in shotgun season 1, another in shotgun 2 and two groups through the late muzzleloader season.”

Havick’s record, and no pun intended, of putting his clientele on outstanding Iowa bucks speaks for itself and lends testimony to the productivity of the region as a whole.

“Our bigger bucks every yearwill be in the 170- to 180-inch class,” he says. “Last year (2017), we took the biggest buck we’ve taken off our property. It was taken during bow season, and gross-scored 194 inches. And we’ll typically take several deer in the 150- to 160-inch class. We do encourage our hunters to take only mature bucks that are 4 1/2 years old or older.”

A cattleman, when he’s not guiding whitetail hunters, Havick maintains a successful cow-calf operation. But when hunters are on property, Havick offers his clients a full-service hunting experience during their time at Coal Camp. The tax-inclusive cost for a six-day bow or five-day gun (shotgun or muzzleloader) hunt is $4,260 and includes everything — lodging and meals, to-stand shuttle service, game recovery assistance, trail-camera image analysis, daily scouting reports and amenities.


Lake Rathbun Lucas/Wayne Counties

Given the fact that Iowa ranks 49th out of the 50 states in terms of the amount of public land available to hunters, the Lake Rathbun Wildlife Management Area stands out as a truly remarkable exception to this status. What’s more, the almost 16,000 acres that make up the WMA harbor a tremendous population of whitetails, as well as wild turkeys, grey and fox squirrels, bobwhite quail, and cottontails should one be so inclined in the days following the close of Iowa’s deer seasons.

Lake Rathbun WMA sprawls out over a four-county area, the westernmost pair being Lucas to the northwest and Wayne to the southwest. Rolling hills; rugged, timbered creek bottoms; upland fields; and thick, almost impenetrable lakeside marshes provide excellent late-season deer cover. Ample stands of oak hardwoods and adjoining agricultural fields supply everything deer need as far as calories are concerned. Hunters should be aware that a centrally-located portion of the WMA in Lucas County is refuge, thus off-limits. A similar refuge can be found in the Wayne County quadrant north and east of the village of Promise City. Private and public land intermingle around Rathbun, so knowledge of property lines is a must.

Rathbun is no secret, either among locals or out-of-towners, and while pressure isn’t what one might consider ridiculous, hunters are almost certain to run into company during both the first and second shotgun seasons and the late muzzleloader season immediately following. Hunters would do well to use this pressure to their advantage, focusing on tough-to-access sections of the area using old-school topographic maps or 21st-century technologies like GOOGLE Earth or the new onX mapping app, and then letting their fellow hunters work deer to them. Organized drives are a popular approach to deer hunting the land around Rathbun; however, solitary stand-based hunts near active foods sources — beans, corn stubble or oaks — is also an excellent way to put one in the books.

Check out this video to learn how to manage your small track of land to bag your trophy buck.


Iowa Habitat and Access Program South-Central Iowa

In 2011 the Iowa Department of Natural Resources began a pilot program known as IHAP, or the Iowa Habitat and Access Program. Like similar programs currently in place throughout much of the Midwest and elsewhere, IHAP uses a combination of hunter dollars via habitat stamps fees, along with federal farm bill monies (Voluntary Public Access – Habitat Incentive Program) to compensate, educate and provide hands-on land management assistance to private landowners. In return, landowners open their property, with restrictions and requirements, to the general hunting public. A win-win for all, most would agree.

Seven years in, the IHAP program remains in its infancy; however, participation by landowners, as well as use by the hunting public increases, albeit slightly, annually. As a condition for enrollment into the program, properties must be a minimum of 40 acres and “… have adequate or the potential for adequate wildlife habitat.” Once the land is enrolled in the program, a private land biologist reviews and evaluates the property and determines what improvements might be necessary. Typically, IHAP incentive payments received by the landowner from the IDNR are sufficient to cover the cost of any environmental improvements.

What’s this mean to deer hunters? It means additional opportunity in the form of private ground that doesn’t require the traditional hurdles and hoops in terms of access. Unfortunately, not all of Iowa’s 99 counties carry lands under agreement; however, south-central Iowa does have some 3,282 acres currently enrolled, including lands in Decatur (410 acres), Clarke (1,440), Wayne (890), and Lucas (542) counties. To the west, neighboring Union County supports an additional three tracts that total 513 acres, while to the south of Union and along the Missouri state line, Ringgold County offers up another five tracts enrolled, or 1,100 acres.

As one might suspect, the environmental makeup of the IHAP acreages vary, with many being a mix of hardwoods, reverting pasture, grasslands or set-aside/former CRP, and shallow wetland. Again, what’s this mean to deer hunters? Perfect habitat, with the potential for low or limited hunting pressure throughout the whole of the season. A complete list of current IHAP enrollments, including an interactive map of each property, can be found at

Good hunting!

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