Iowa Bowhunting: Best in the Nation?

Iowa Bowhunting: Best in the Nation?

All the components of great bowhunting for white-tailed deer converge right here in the Hawkeye State. Are you making the most of some great opportunities?

By Rich Patterson

"Bowhunting is therapy," said Lisbon archer Matt Schrantz. "Sitting quietly in the woods helps me wind down from my job, and it yields delicious meals for my family for the entire year."

Schrantz will have plenty of opportunity for therapy this season. He, and Iowa's thousands of bowhunters, will likely enjoy the best season ever. The state's rapidly expanding deer herd offers the nation's best odds for bagging a trophy buck. For hunters more interested in filling the freezer, special hunts offer the opportunity to bag as many deer as a family can eat.

Owing to a wide variety of fortunate coincidences, Iowa is probably the best of all the 50 states for bowhunters.

Rick White hunts deer and turkeys all over the country but reserves time to hunt the Linn County Special Deer Hunt only a mile from his home. He claims it offers quality hunting that is hard to match anywhere else.

"Iowa consistently has the largest bucks. Only Kansas and Illinois come close, and our state probably offers archers the very best opportunity to harvest a truly monstrous buck," he said.

Simply put, the genes of our deer favor large racks. Antlers are composed mostly of calcium, and Iowa's fertile soil was formed from calcium-laden limestone. That rich topsoil produces the nation's best yields of corn and soybeans - both topnotch deer foods. Great genes combined with plentiful nutritious foods and minerals nearly guarantee large healthy animals. A deer living in Wisconsin's north woods or Pennsylvania's massive forests doesn't stand much chance to ever get as large as an average Iowa buck!

Great genes among our deer, high-grade nutrition, a big herd and liberal hunting regulations: why Iowa's a great place to hunt. Photo by P.J. Reilly

But genes and nutrition are only part of the reason why hunting is so good in our state. The nature of our habitat plays a major role, too. Anyone who has hunted the vast forests of the Lake States, upper New England or out west realizes how difficult it can be to locate deer and strategically place a stand. The animals have thousands and thousands of continuous acres of unbroken habitat that's often so thick that lines of sight are limited to just a few yards. Although it holds plenty of deer, locating a big buck and getting within arrow range is a tremendous challenge. Iowa vegetation and terrain is much kinder to bowhunters.

Take a gander at an aerial photo or topographical map of most any part of our state and the eye quickly spots large areas of agricultural land. It looks white on maps, indicating a complete lack of tree cover, but, in most parts of the state, huge fields are dappled with wood lots, parks, creek bottoms and other green spots on the map that indicate brush and trees. If the map or photo includes an urban area or river bottom, there will be many more patches of woods.

Few Iowa forests cover more than a few hundred acres. Many are as small as an acre or two. Deer don't mind small wooded areas. They actually seem to prefer them. A few acres of dense cover give deer all the hiding and resting cover they need. Surrounding farmland produces a smorgasbord of nutritious food only a few steps away.

Since deer concentrate there, these small scattered wooded areas make hunting easier and more productive for archers. It's reasonably easy to find deer trails leading from cover to food. Strategic positioning of a stand is simple.

There are a couple of non-habitat factors that make Iowa a top location for bowhunters. One is relatively light hunting pressure. Compared to Pennsylvania or Michigan, where armies of hunters troop through the woods, Iowa forests seem nearly deserted during the season. Light pressure helps deer live longer lives than in many other states, and that translates into bigger animals.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources sets a long season that includes the November rut. Unlike nearly all other states, Iowa has no firearms seasons at rutting time. Bowhunters have the prime deer hunting weeks of the year all to themselves. It produces a high-quality, productive, and safe hunting experience.

Probably the final factor making the Hawkeye State the place to hunt deer is the status of our herd. It's bursting at the seams!

Modern legal deer hunting began here in 1954, and for the next 35 years, deer were relatively uncommon. Hunters were heavily restricted, and harvesting a deer was a notable achievement. But in the late 1980s, herds mushroomed. Population densities doubled and then doubled again. Farmers started complaining about crop damage. Deer didn't stay in the country. They moved right into state and county parks and suburban areas. Park managers and ecologists became alarmed when exploding deer numbers began devastating wildflowers, and urban homeowners found gardening increasingly frustrating as more and more deer munched on their sweet corn, green beans, and expensive shrubs.

For years the IDNR managed the herd conservatively. Buck-only seasons were the rule to allow the herd to grow. Farmers, suburban gardeners, and even the insurance industry pressured the IDNR to change course and trim herds. The safety concerns of motorists were hard to ignore. "Today, 12 percent of all Iowa car accidents involve deer; it's 30 percent in rural areas. There's been an appalling increase in the number of insurance claims," said Fred Haskins of the Iowa Insurance Institute. As complaints mounted, biologists rapidly liberalized hunting. Farmers, gardeners and even the insurance industry see hunters as the good guys and girls who help to reduce their problems and costs. In response to pressure, the IDNR created special area deer hunts to stabilize or reduce deer densities in specific places.

Never before has the general public seen the graphic need to use hunting to manage wildlife. Hunters today are helping increase the safety of motorists and the ecological health of forests. Scan today's deer hunting regulation booklet and a hunter quickly learns that dozens of new opportunities exist for taking multiple deer. Regulations are somewhat complicated and vary from special hunt area to special hunt area, because each is unique. One consistency is the requirement that most hunters harvest antlerless animals.

"I shoot five or six does with my archery gear every year, now. My family loves venison. It's the best of all worlds, since I can spend quite a bit of time hunting and he

lp out the food budget," said Schrantz.

Archer Tammy Vislisel agrees. "One of the things I like best about bow hunting is the very long season. Mosquitoes are buzzing around when it starts, and it feels like the North Pole near the season close. I love the variety of hunting under different seasonal conditions," she said. Only a few years ago bagging a deer meant the end of the hunting season. Extra tags available in special zones let hunters enjoy a long season.

IDNR wildlife biologist Willie Suchy expects this fall's bag limits and seasons to be similar to last year's, although they hadn't been approved when this article was written. Even more opportunities are possible in the future as the need to trim herds grows. Archers can either hunt the IDNR's general season or enjoy one of many special hunts - or do both. There is a dizzying array of opportunities.

Special hunts are relatively new and were set by the IDNR to control deer numbers in areas where hungry animals have caused property or ecological damage. "We view the special hunt in Squaw Creek Park as a control measure rather than recreation, but hunters see it as recreation," said Dennis Goemaat, deputy director of the Linn County Conservation Board. He administers the archery hunt in the large park near Cedar Rapids. It's one of the older of the special hunts, is restricted to bow hunting and is entirely on public land. "When we first planned the hunt we were concerned that hunting would disrupt hiking, picnicking, and other recreation. That hasn't happened. Hunting goes on simultaneously with other park uses, and we haven't had any problems," he said.

Last year 60 hunters took 44 deer from the 800-acre hunting zone, but according to Goemaat, one hunter took six deer. Only does are legal, however anyone taking a doe can enter a lottery for a buck tag. Four winners can buy a coveted any-deer tag. "We have some massive bucks, but so far no hunters have taken a really big one," said Goemaat.

Because the Squaw Creek Park hunt is on public land, it gives archers who have no access to private property a chance to hunt without competition from gun hunters. Similar archery hunts are held at Lake Darling State Park, Smith Wildlife Area, and Lake Manawa State Park. Several other parks are open for deer hunting but only firearms or firearms and archery are permitted.

When special hunts were first proposed, animal rights activists screamed that archery was ineffective in controlling deer herds. However, the IDNR has learned that they can effectively reduce deer damage.

Biologist Suchy has conducted extensive deer research in Black Hawk County, the site of an extensive special archery hunt. Up to 250 antlerless and 10 any-deer tags are sold for an area that includes both public and private land. "This is one of the oldest hunts and the best record of success. Archers have kept the population below our goal for the past several years. Waterworks Park in Polk County has also been very successful in reducing deer numbers with their archery hunt," said Suchy.

Linn County's Goemaat remarked that hunters haven't taken as many deer as he'd like, but added that he believes that hunting has stabilized the herd. "It has prevented a browse line from forming," he said.

A big advantage of special license hunting in large wooded parks is their extensive size. It feels much like hunting in a large state forest and is high quality. Hunters enjoy plenty of space and privacy.

In addition to special hunts in parks, the IDNR has created special hunts in urbanizing areas in Johnson, Dubuque, Black Hawk, Scott, Polk and Linn counties. Some are limited to bowhunting, while others are open to archery, muzzleloader and shotgun hunting. Hunters seeking venison in these suburbanized areas often hunt in small patches of woods or even in yards. People are all around, and it's an experience totally different from hunting out in the big woods. Safety is a major consideration, and many landowners are more comfortable with archers on their property than they are with firearm hunters.

Perhaps most typical of the special zones is in Linn County. The hunting area is a massive doughnut-shaped ring that circles Cedar Rapids. The hole of the doughnut is the urbanized area within the city limits and is closed to hunting, but the open area includes farms, orchards, suburban developments and large estates. It is almost all on private property, so hunters must have landowner permission to hunt. Individual hunters can buy as many tags as they'd like until 500 are sold. Not all tags were sold last year. It is essentially deer hunting without a bag limit, yet there still don't seem to be enough hunters to buy all the tags.

Cedar Rapids hunters Rick White and Dave Novak have extensively hunted the special zone. "It is a very high-quality hunt," said White, "even though the city is close. There are lots of deer, and over the years they've gotten more wary. You used to be able to just walk up on them. Not any more."

Novak likes the special area because it is close to his home and is loaded with deer. "I don't have to go out for a long day or weekend. I can hunt for just a half hour if that's all the time I have. I used to hunt Shimek State Forest, but I've had much more success right near the city," he said.

One problem facing archers in any of the special hunts held on private land is access, but even that problem is easing. Many landowners on the urban fringe never used to let hunters on their property, but as deer numbers and damage increased, their attitudes changed. Some now welcome courteous hunters. However, knocking on doors to seek permission during the season rarely gains access. Savvy hunters keep their ears to the ground all year seeking hunting locations. Anyone heard complaining of deer damage is a landowner who might grant hunting permission.

Most special seasons only allow the taking of antlerless animals, and landowners suffering deer damage usually want their hunters to take does. But special zone hunting has opened opportunities for trophy buck hunters, too. The Linn County zone is a good example.

"I buy a few antlerless tags and hunt on private land. The owner wants me to take does, but he's not opposed to me taking a buck. So if I bag a buck in the Linn County zone, I put my general season archery tag on it. It is valid statewide for either a buck or doe," said White.

The first year I hunted a special season, I bought two doe tags but no general tag. No sooner was I situated in my stand than a medium-sized 6-pointer walked by. A little while later an 8-pointer passed within easy range. Even more frustrating, a massive buck soon appeared and sauntered by. With only antlerless tags in my pocket, none were legal! Finally, three legal antlerless deer came within range, and I was able to bag one. Now I buy one or two antlerless tags and a general statewide license. If that giant buck comes by again, he's legal!

Although I've never taken a large buck in the special zone, Rick White and others have. Bucks near urban areas are either not hunted at all or lightly harvested. They live to a rip

e old age and sometimes sport monstrous racks. Unlike does, even lightly hunted large bucks are extremely wary and secretive. White uses camouflage and is especially careful to control his scent. "That may not be necessary to harvest a doe, but it helps increase buck hunting success," he said.

Now is the time to prepare for a special zone hunt this fall. Anyone interested in this hunting opportunity should pick up the Iowa IDNR's deer hunting regulation booklet and carefully read it. There's much variability from special hunt to special hunt. What's legal in one may not be in another. The booklet is available wherever licenses are sold and lists all hunting regulations and the special hunts that will be held this fall. Although most of them are toward the eastern part of the state, there are a few zones out near the Missouri River. In most cases, tags can only be purchased at one or two locations near the zone. Usually sporting goods stores can't sell the tags. Again, there's lots of legal variability from zone to zone.

Iowa's combination of excellent deer genes, outstanding nutrition, a big herd, and liberalized hunting regulations make this the golden age of Hawkeye State hunting. Special area deer hunts add hunting opportunities. It will be a great fall for deer hunting.

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