Every deer hunting season, hunters from across the country come to Iowa with deer tags in hand that will give them a chance to harvest the buck of a lifetime. Some are local sportsmen who know the lay of the land like no one else; others are non-residents who face the highest odds for drawing a tag. And when the season is done, every year, the stories of trophy whitetail bucks emerge in the wings and records of the Iowa Deer Classic in Des Moines.
Even more trophy deer are recorded each year in the registry of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. And still more bucks may be registered in the gun-hunting record books of the Boone and Crockett Club, or, in the case of a trophy bow-kill, in the registry of the Pope & Young Club. In every case, these deer are what hunters’ dreams are made of and legends are created and admired. Most, if not all, of these trophy-book bucks are storied animals long before the hunter killed the animal. Iowa deer hunting is just that way.
From 1953 to 1998, Allamakee County has been the top spot for big deer, according to the trophy-deer registry of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. As recent as the 2017-18 season, it still retained the No. 1 spot for yielding most of the biggest deer killed by hunters in Iowa.
But it’s a Clay County buck that, for one Iowa deer hunter, opens the trophy-hunting season every year. Kirk Anderson recalls it well. The deer was killed in 1953 during shotgun season. It netted 171 1/8 typical points. It’s the largest buck on record for 1953 and was profiled in the November 2014 issue of Iowa Game & Fish magazine.
“I was reading your article — 2014 Deer Forecast — and, much to my surprise,” he says, “William Runkle was mentioned. ‘Bill’ Runkle was my grandfather, and the deer mount is hanging on my wall.” Anderson says he has held onto the mount and the original registry paperwork, which documented his granddad’s trophy from north-central Iowa and oftentimes leads him into great memories of the time he spent afield with him. “I’m very fortunate to have had a grandpa that taught me to appreciate the outdoors. I haven’t topped his trophy yet, but I’m still trying.”
Perhaps, he will this year … no matter where he hunts, because Iowa deer hunting is just that way. Last season, Clayton County locked up the second-best total of trophy deer registered with the IDNR, followed by Warren, Marion and Van Buren counties, respectfully, holding third, fourth and fifth place for trophy bucks on the record. And it was Winneshiek, Decatur, Marion, Henry and Adams counties where hunters recorded some of the season’s best bucks with the Boone and Crockett Club. You see? North, south, east or west, Iowa hunters hold some of the best chances in the country to bag a record-book.
RECORD-BOOK BUCKS OF 2017-18
One of the greatest benefits deer hunters in Iowa hold is the breadth of our hunting lands. We can travel in any direction across the state and land in some amazing hunting areas, all within a day’s drive or less from home. And when we’re lucky enough to take that trophy buck, it’s easy to share our story, when accomplished in fair chase, by registering the kill with several record-keeping organizations.
Elyssa Mills of Nichols - Muscatine County
Hunters often tell stories of their good fortune, finding themselves in the right place at the right time.
“We’d never seen this deer on our cameras before I was able to shoot it,” said Iowa bowhunter Elyssa Mills of Nichols. “We later found out that a neighboring outfitter had plenty of pictures of the deer.”
Killed in Muscatine County during the first bow season of 2017, the deer gross-scored 167 1/8 inches and netted 160 4/8 inches.
“It was a windy Thursday,” Mills reflected. “I wasn’t sure I was even going to go out that day, since the wind wasn’t right for the stand that I wanted to hunt from. I love the location of the stand, as it sits in a tree line between two corn fields with surrounding CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) grass.” But she did go, sitting in the stand quietly until about 6 p.m., when she hit the rattling antlers and uttered a soft sequence of grunt calls.
“I put my antlers away and scanned the grass for any movement. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement and noticed a deer trotting across the field,” Mills recalled. “He walked up to a grassy creek line, where I had used a drag-scent leading up to my stand. He walked right into my stand offering me a perfect 18-yard shot.” Following the shot, the deer walked about 70 yards from Mills’ stand and laid down, she says. “I immediately called my boyfriend and told him I shot a deer, but I had no idea how big he was!”
There’s no doubt this deer story will be a part of fireside chats for years to come. For Mills, this is only the second deer she’s ever killed — the first being a 130-inch typical buck. She’s doing something right!
Dennis Miller of Marion - Boone County
One of the greatest things about an outdoorsman or outdoorswoman is that we often get to share our experiences afield with our family. The deer hunt Dennis Miller of Marion enjoyed is no exception, and it’s one that will carry on throughout generations as the entire experience is shared again and again.
“First, shotgun season started on a Saturday, and I was out hunting with my two sons,” Miller began telling the story. “They were walking and driving deer, when I saw a huge buck standing on the ridge about a half-mile away.” The boys were walking a small gully in hopes of pushing out some deer, but neither one of them noticed the big buck run; they recalled only spotting a smaller buck and a couple does.
Snow fell overnight. The following morning, the trio hunted another spot where evergreen trees could make a good bedding area for deer. Without success, Miller and his sons chose to make a muddy ride under warming temperatures to where the big buck had been spotted the day before.
“I dropped off the boys at the end of the gravel road, where one was going to sit while the other walked through a small patch of timber,” Miller said. “I drove to the other side of the section and walked a fence line, where I found a downed tree.” Using the tree as cover, Miller used it as his perch, waiting for an opportunity to shoot a buck.
“I looked to the east and saw a buck coming down the fence line. It looked to be about an 8- or 10-point buck,” he said, “so, I decided I would take a shot if the opportunity came.” The buck walked along the fence. Miller said he never noticed the real size of the rack. “It’s probably a good thing, too. I watched him jump a small creek and then (it ran) up a small hill, jumping over the fence. He made a couple of bounds, and I took the shot.”
The buck dropped right where it was shot in Boone County on December 5. Miller recalled his son Clint saying, “Dad, this deer might score 200!” That prediction led to plenty of excitement in the Miller household as they field-dressed the deer and prepared it for transport.
“I shot it with an old Remington 870 Wingmaster 12-gauge,” Miller reported. “It was the first gun I’d ever bought,” and while that was an exciting fact, sharing the hunt with his sons was, without doubt, the highlight of the outing, Miller said.
As it turns out, a trail camera snapped pictures of the buck in 2015, but the Miller trio said the deer had not ever been sighted until the day it was shot. Miller’s buck gross-scored 201 6/8 inches, with a net score of 195 0/8inches non-typical.
Lyla Nennig of Osceola - Clarke County
Nicknames for deer always raise your eyebrows when you hear them, and you quickly realize, “This is going to be one of those stories.”
This definitely is a story from which legends are made. Lyla Nennig of Osceola killed this whitetail buck of a lifetime at the end of 2016 on her farm in Clarke County, but the huge deer wasn’t revealed to the public until it arrived in at the 2018 Iowa Deer Classic in Des Moines.
“We first captured images of this deer four years prior to its harvest, and we aptly named him “The Freak,” due to his freakish genetics,” Lyla explained. “This was one tough buck for which I’m grateful. He’d been wounded as a 4-year-old and as a 5-year-old during the bow season. My husband passed on him as a 4-year-old and had a couple encounters (with him) as a 5-year-old but couldn’t close the deal.”
While heading to his stand on Dec. 27, 2015, during the late bow season, Lyla’s husband, Dave, found the right-side shed of this amazing buck, basically ending his hunt before it began. The following February the shed was entered in the Iowa Deer Classic Monster Shed Contest, scoring 99 5/8 inches typical, breaking a 25-year Iowa record for whitetail right-side shed, while also ranking 8th in the world (at the time) for whitetail right-side shed.
After some early season hunting in Wisconsin, the couple returned to Iowa in anticipation of the season that lied ahead. On November 2, The Freak arrived on the farm, confirmed by photos taken with several trail cameras.
“We both knew that he’d have to make it through the balance of the bow season, as well as both gun seasons, before we could pursue him during late-muzzleloader season,” Lyla said. “He made it through, and the hunt was on!”
On day four of the late-muzzleloader season, the weather on the Nennig farm changed, and the green light was lit for an all-day hunt.
“Conditions were absolutely perfect for my favorite stand,” Lyla explained. “At about 8 a.m., deer started showing up and they were active throughout the morning until early afternoon.”
Checking in with her husband at about 3 p.m., Lyla says, she noticed deer raising their heads and cautiously leaving the area.
“My first thought was that a coyote was near, and my hunt might be over,” she said. “To my shock and surprise, off to my left stood The Freak along the edge of the timber and at about 50 yards!”
Pulling herself together and getting her muzzleloader in place and through an open window of the stand, Lyla recalled, 10 seconds passed while she was trying to find the buck in her scope before “I realized it had fogged up,” she explained. Clearing the fogged lenses of the scope, Lyla said, she turned her attention to the amazing deer standing in the field.
“I have him in my sights at 74 yards and, on cue, The Freak turns broadside,” she said. “I went through my routine in an attempt to calm myself, held on tight and pulled the trigger.” The deer lunged, Lyla said, and turned around taking four steps. Thinking her shot failed to hit its mark, Lyla watched The Freak suddenly bolt and drop 30 yards from where he was hit. Lyla said she made an excited phone call to her husband and announced The Freak was down! He was 6 1/2 years old, carrying 26 scoreable points and a 24-inch inside spread. The buck gross-scored an impressive 268 6/8 inches and netted 251 7/8 inches non-typical.
No doubt, Iowa harbors legendary whitetails that can, indeed, be found in any corner of the state. “Is this heaven?” asked an actor in the movie “Field of Dreams.” “No. It’s Iowa,” was the reply.
Iowa … where deer hunting dreams, at times, become reality!