Iowa's Bow Season Preview

2004 promises a great deer season to both archers and handgunners.

By Rich Patterson

We committee members, who had just heard Iowa Department of Natural Resources deer biologist Willie Suchy give a short natural history of urban deer, were restless - and we couldn't agree.

I had been appointed by the mayor to serve on Cedar Rapids' Deer Task Force committee. Ever-increasing numbers of deer inside the city limits were leading to multiple complaints from gardeners and motorists about deer damage to plants and vehicles, and we were charged with coming up with recommendations to the city council on how to deal with the problem.

The committee was supposedly balanced. A few members, like me, were hunters; others were thoughtful citizens who were neither hunters nor anti hunters, and a couple of our number were vocal animal rights activists.

Suchy presented the results of research he'd done on urban deer in Waterloo and Cedar Falls. The does, he reported, often never leave the city and keep producing fawns, swelling the population rapidly. Bowhunting, a quiet activity done with arrows with less range than a shotgun slug, seemed to be a sociopolitically acceptable way of either stabilizing the urban herd or slightly reducing it. Archery would work - at least in theory - in wooded patches inside city limits; neighbors would not be unnerved by shotgun blasts.

But the animal rights advocates would have no part of it; according to them, bowhunting is both cruel and unwarranted. The task force got nowhere, and hunting of all sorts remains illegal inside Cedar Rapids' city limits - and deer depredation proceeds unabated.

Fortunately, several other Iowa metro areas had better luck than Cedar Rapids' and were able to institute special hunts to trim in-city herds. In place for nearly a decade now, they've helped curb herd growth while providing recreation and meat to Iowa hunters. This fall, hundreds of deer hunters will enjoy bowhunting in special zones, collectively bringing home tons of venison as they achieve the primary object of harvesting these deer: the reduction of garden damage and deer-car collisions.

Photo by John R. Ford

Not all the special hunts are in urban areas. Some are in state and county parks that, formerly closed to hunting, are seeing damage done to the area's ecological balance by overabundant deer.

"When we first proposed bowhunting zones," said the IDNR's Suchy, "it was mostly to control herd growth. We didn't look at it as a recreational activity, but it has emerged as both a good quality hunt and a way to hold deer numbers in check."

This fall, Iowa archers will have a myriad of opportunities to arrow deer in metropolitan areas, state and county parks, and out in rural areas. Unlike seasons of years past, this one will enable individual hunters to harvest multiple deer legally, adding to the widely-held view that we're in a golden era of Iowa deer hunting. Last year, hunters killed a record 166,000 animals. This year looks as if it'll be just as rewarding - and now is a great time to prepare for fall hunts.


The 2004 Iowa deer and fall turkey hunting regulations booklet (which will be available this month wherever licenses are sold) offers the perfect starting point for hunters getting geared up for fall. Although not all the details had been settled at press time, Willie Suchy says that the 2004 season will mostly mirror last year's very successful regulations. "We'll be doing some fine-tuning, but basically there will be many opportunities for deer hunters," he noted.

Bowhunters have three types of hunting opportunities - two of which would only have been fantasies 20 years ago, before Iowa's deer herd swelled.

The one type of hunting that's not new is the statewide archery season. A statewide tag is good wherever hunting for either a buck or doe is legal. Relatively new are the special hunts in areas whose deer populations are too high, and the special bonus doe tags for all counties.

Special hunt regulations are somewhat complicated, and vary from place to place. The number of permits available per hunt ranges from just a few in the Smith Wildlife Area to 500 in the Linn County Zone. Most tags are for antlerless animals only, but a few hunts offer some buck tags. Hunters should carefully study the section on special deer hunts in the regulation booklet. The 2003 booklet listed 23 special hunts, seven of them for bowhunters only, seven for firearms only; the rest allow both guns and bows during appropriate seasons.

A significant advantage afforded by the special zones is the bonus of extra tags; a hunter can buy both a statewide tag and additional tags for the special zones. Tags are generally sold on a first-come, first-served basis, and in many zones hunters can purchase several tags. They sell out quickly, so it'd be a good idea to buy tags some weeks before the season starts.

With the exception of one small special hunt in western Iowa's Lake Manawa State Park - it offers only 35 tags - all the other archery hunts are in central or eastern Iowa. This part of the state has the largest municipalities within whose city limits is found habitat attractive deer. In recent years, these human population centers have seen their deer populations skyrocket.

Central and eastern Iowa archery-only hunts are planned for Black Hawk County, the city of Coralville, Des Moines and some suburbs, the city of Marion, Dubuque, and Squaw Creek Park near Cedar Rapids. "I've been especially pleased with the hunts in Black Hawk County and in the Des Moines area. They seem to have stabilized the population," said Suchy.

Because most of the special hunts are in or near urban areas, they give hunters a shot at tagging a deer close to their homes. "Years ago I used to plan a long weekend and hunt in Shimek State Forest," said seasoned deer hunter Dave Novak. "The Linn County special season lets me hunt for an hour or two before or after work and on weekends. I can now spend many more hours hunting than in the old days, and I usually bag two deer each year."

Two special zones lying quite close together are very different in function and thus illustrate the variety in the hunting available. Experienced archer Dave Heck hunts both zones. "I hunt the Squaw Creek and Linn County special zones and enjoy them both," he offered. "Although both are near my home, they have different regulations."


Archery is the only permitted method of take for the Squaw Creek Park hunt, which takes place on the square-mile park south of Marion and on a tract of adjoinin

g private land.

The Linn County Conservation Board manages the park. "We have the park and nearby private land divided into five zones," said Dennis Goemaat, the board's deputy director. "We split the Oct. 1-Jan. 10 state bow season into six separate Squaw Creek Park seasons. We allow four hunters at a time in four of our zones and a single hunter in the last one.

"All our hunters must pass an archery proficiency test and must hunt in a specific season and park zone. We also require that hunters keep their bows in a case while walking to or from the hunting zone. Essentially, they must hunt from a stand within their zone."

This will be the seventh year of the Squaw Creek Park hunt. Prior harvests have averaged about 40 deer per year - a notable success rate for archery hunting, and a tremendous kill for a relatively small area. "I believe bowhunters have stabilized the herd," observed Goemaat. "But they don't seem to be able to reduce deer numbers."

The park's restriction of hunter numbers and the zone system combine to guarantee that archers enjoy plenty of elbow room. Because firearms hunting is not allowed, bowhunting continues here during the statewide shotgun season, when archers elsewhere in the state are not permitted to hunt.

Animal rights activists predicted that bowhunting would be incompatible with other park uses, but that hasn't been the case at Squaw Creek. "During the hunt the park is open to picnicking, hiking, cross country skiing, and other recreation uses," said Goemaat. "There haven't been any conflicts or problems that we're aware of, and plenty of non-hunters use the park during the hunting season."

According to Dave Heck, the hunting here is of quite acceptable quality, and confers the additional advantage of taking place on public land. A bowhunter without access to private land can have a decent outing at Squaw Creek Park.

All archery hunters should practice until they can accurately place arrows in a deer's vitals. Requiring a proficiency test assures that only skilled archers will be allowed to loose a shaft in the county park, thus reducing the odds of a wounded deer escaping.


The nearby Linn County zone is a special hunt area very unlike Squaw creek. Essentially, the zone wraps around the city of Cedar Rapids just outside city limits, looking on the map like a huge doughnut. Its generally hilly, timbered terrain is filled with deer - and with a few small exceptions, that terrain is entirely in private hands. It's accordingly essential to acquire landowner permission for your activity. "I hunt on the property of a good friend," said Heck, "and have taken many deer there. I stay in close touch with the owner, and he always knows when I'm on his property and where I am hunting. The land is on my way home from work, and I can often hunt for a while after quitting time."

Unlike the Squaw Creek Park hunt, whose regulations prohibit all firearms, muzzleloaders, handguns, and shotguns are legal in the Linn County zone during appropriate seasons. Also, hunters can use their statewide tag in the zone.

"I buy several special season antlerless tags," Heck offered, "and also carry my statewide tag. Because the main purpose of this zone is to control deer numbers, I usually go for large does and use one of my antlerless tags when I bag one. If a big buck comes within range I can try for him and use my statewide tag."

Which is exactly what Rick White did. "I was bowhunting in the Linn County zone when a large buck came by," ace bowyer White recalled. "I put my statewide tag on him."


According to Heck, Novak, White and just about anybody else who's hunted the special zones for a while, the deer have changed over the years. "When the seasons first opened these deer weren't used to being hunted, and they were easy to bag," noted White. "They've gotten increasingly wary and act more like deer out in the county now. Does with fawns are especially wary. I always take care to contain my scent."

Although the special zones were created to reduce deer overpopulation by culling does, they've generated the collateral benefit of transforming the zones into what are essentially quality deer management areas. "The buck-doe ratio is definitely better than it used to be," said White, "and there are a lot of big bucks in and near Iowa cities and in these special zones." He's taken several massive bucks just a short distance outside Cedar Rapids' city limits.


A few years ago, the Iowa Legislature passed a bill that opened the door to an altogether different hunting experience: For the first time, handguns would be legal weaponry for deer hunting during many of the firearms seasons.

"It added a new dimension to deer hunting," said Matt Schrantz, manager of the Cedar Rapids Fin and Feather Store. "I was on stand during the firearms season, and a deer came very close to me. It was the first one I bagged one with a handgun."

The deer hunting regulations booklet lists legal handgun cartridges and the seasons during which handgun hunting is allowed. Only straight-walled, non-bottlenecked cartridges are currently legal, but more cartridges are added to the list each year.

"Handgun hunting is a lot like bowhunting," Schrantz observed, "because the effective range is limited. Many of the people who use handguns hunt from tree stands."

Wildlife biologist and veteran outdoorsman Larry Weishuhn has hunted all over the world with handguns. "If I never got to hunt with another long gun I'd be sad," he said, "but not as long as I'm allowed to hunt with a pistol. I've shot moose, caribou, elk, an Alaskan brown bear, black bear, pronghorn, mule deer and bunches of whitetails with a handgun. I love it."

There's a widespread belief among hunters that handguns are inaccurate and difficult to shoot. Some believe that they're simply incapable of learning how to use a handgun effectively. "I think many people can't accurately shoot a handgun because they believe they can't," Weishuhn said. "Many people are scared of handgun recoil, because they've been told to be afraid. I've started young people shooting .44 Magnums before someone told them to be afraid of them, and they loved it.

"If hunters practice with a quality handgun and shoot from a rest, they can generally shoot accurately out to at least 100 yards," he added. Weishuhn himself, who hunts with a Thompson-Center single shot, never pulls the trigger unless he has a solid rest.

Weishuhn agrees with Schrantz that if revolvers are used for handgun hunting, then it's a lot like bowhunting. Single-shot pistols are a different matter, however. "Single shots are more comfortable to shoot," he explained. "You don't have to worry about fire blowing out the chamber. They are more accurate than revolvers, especially at longer range. A good single-shot scoped handgun in the hands of a good shot will easily

take deer at ranges of the best shotguns or muzzleloaders."

Although 357 Magnum or .45 ACP cartridges are legal in Iowa, Weishuhn doesn't feel that they're suitable for deer hunting. "I think hunters should use nothing less than a .44 Magnum, a .480 Ruger or a .454 Casull," he said. "The .44 is good out to about 75 yards. The others are suitable for longer ranges."

According to Weishuhn, the key to optimizing your hunting with shotgun, rifle, muzzleloader or handgun lies in knowing your capabilities with the firearm and in always shooting from a solid rest. Knowing those capabilities comes with practice, and no hunter can practice too much.

Coe College biology professor Harlo Hadow served with me on Cedar Rapids' deer task force several years ago. Like me, he's a dedicated deer hunter. "I've had a .44 Magnum revolver for years but had never used it for deer hunting. I took it out last year on the last day of the muzzleloader season and dropped a nice doe at short range with the gun," he proudly said.

This fall's deer hunting is likely to be just as good as what was seen during last year's outstanding season, and opportunities abound for bow and handgun hunters in the state's special seasons. Regulations vary widely from zone to zone, but you can get detailed information on seasons and regulations in the Iowa Deer Hunting Regulations and License Instructions booklet, which is available this month wherever licenses are sold. This is the time to study the book, to plan fall hunts - and to get the bow or firearm out. Start practicing!

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