Bagging Blackpowder Bucks

Bagging Blackpowder Bucks

It's not too late to score a monster Iowa buck -- smokepole-style! (January 2008).

Photo courtesy of Ted Peck.

Late-season hunting with black powder can be a challenge for a couple of reasons. The first is the need for an extra dose of good woodsmanship: Blackpowder equipment requires the stealth to get in close enough to make a shot -- and that first shot had better be a good one. The second reason is that white-tailed deer are leery at this point in the season, having been shot at, stalked and chased since the beginning of deer season, and have left their predictable patterns and feeding areas. Finding the bigger deer in areas that they normally don't frequent can be tricky.

Here are some of the Hawkeye State's most promising hunts this January. A little scouting is a good idea and an even better investment of time, but if you don't have that luxury, these spots can still produce first-quality deer.


Almost entirely free of the concentrated hunting pressure put on Iowa's smaller wildlife management areas, state forests can provide an excellent outlet for flintlock hunters. Mike Griffin, a wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, observed that both stand- and still-hunting present the best opportunities for bagging a buck during the closing days of deer season.

Hunters who like the unbroken tracts of hardwood forest should give northeast Iowa's Yellow River State Forest serious consideration. It lies in an area in which hunters can take advantage of unfilled licenses. Allamakee and Winneshiek counties usually have some antlerless licenses left that muzzleloading enthusiasts can put to good use. A blackpowder hunter can purchase an extra antlerless license and use it if the opportunity presents itself, and can hold on to the any-sex license for a buck later on.

Yellow River SF covers 8,503 acres in Allamakee County. Despite some tough topography scattered throughout the park, more than 25 miles of trails can be a big help. The trails vary from bare ground to rock with varying grades. Some of them are more difficult to negotiate than others, but they're all useful in helping hunters navigate the area.

For more information, phone the IDNR's Mississippi River Wildlife Management Unit, (563) 872-5700, or the SF's headquarters, (563) 586-2254.


Accessible by boat in the early muzzleloader season, the larger islands of the Mississippi River are a good bet for Iowa's blackpowder enthusiasts. "Some of these islands are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and sections are closed to hunting," said the IDNR's Griffin. "The islands on the Iowa side of the channel, from pools 16 through 18, are managed by the Iowa DNR and have no closed areas on them."

Many of the USFWS islands are open to hunting, but access is by boat only. The deer in these areas enjoy the relative obscurity of the islands and are shielded by and large by the difficulty that hunters encounter in accessing them. As a result, smokepolers willing to go to the trouble of infiltrating this area have a real opportunity to tag some of the area's bigger bucks.

The McGregor District includes pools 9, 10 and 11. The Savanna District includes pools 12, 13 and 14. Both of these sections provide excellent late-season opportunities.

For more information contact IDNR's Mississippi River unit at (563) 872-5700, the McGregor District at (563) 873-3423 or the Savanna District at (815) 273-2732.


Despite some development in the public area surrounding Saylorville Reservoir, approximately 11,000 acres of timber, upland habitat and open water provide ample room to house high-quality whitetails.

"It's not wilderness hunting around here, but the local whitetails have adapted well," said IDNR wildlife biologist Scott Peterson. The property is about half wooded, a quarter is field habitat and the rest is reservoir."

Hunting on the designated recreational areas and more developed sections is prohibited. A downloadable map of the areas open to public hunting can be found on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Web site at

Saylorville Reservoir covers more than 50 miles of the Des Moines River Valley north of Des Moines. From Interstate 35, drive north to state Route 141 in Polk County. For additional information, contact the IDNR Saylorville unit at (515) 432-2823.


Eastern Iowa's Wiese Slough WMA offers a window of opportunity for smokepole hunters that can remain open up to the closing days of blackpowder season.

"Almost all of our state wildlife areas provide excellent opportunities during the early muzzleloader season but the late muzzleloader season can be a bit tricky," said Bill Ohde, a wildlife biologist in IDNR's Odessa unit. "Areas get hunted hard during the shotgun season so it can be tough going for muzzleloaders."

Still, Ohde says deer will often move back into the area after a week or so, depending on the hunting pressure and the weather.

"The last week of the late muzzleloading season can be fantastic on public lands," said Ohde.

Stand-hunting next to fields and food plots during the last couple of hours of the day is the way to go. These spots are especially productive if the weather has been cold and the snow has been flying. Look for deer to gravitate towards the available food when conditions are severe and natural forage is limited.

Wiese Slough WMA's 1,707 acres of wetlands and timber lie two and a half miles east of Atalissa on U.S. Highway 6 in Muscatine County. For more information, contact IDNR's Odessa unit at (319) 523 8319.


Another good unit for muzzleloader enthusiasts. The hunting is good once any deer spooked by shotgunners start moving back into the area, and a woodsman with a muzzleloader has no reason to go home empty-handed.

The area covers 587 acres of habitat ranging from woodlands to wetlands. Don't overlook upland habitat that most hunters pass up. If there are several hunters on the property, look for deer where you least expect to find them.

Blackhawk Bottoms WMA is four miles south of Burlingt

on on U.S. Highway 61, three-quarters of a mile north on county Route X62 and then a quarter-mile southeast on Spring Lake Road. Sited in Des Moines County, it offers access to the Mississippi River. Contact the IDNR Odessa unit at (319) 523-8319 for more information.


In Southern Iowa's Sand Creek WMA, one bad shot from a muzzleloader -- even in late season -- is unlikely to ruin an entire hunt.

The deer population at Sand Creek is high enough that hunters can probably get multiple opportunities to take a deer, and it may be possible to get a second crack at the buck that slipped away the first time.

"Hunters on the Sand Creek WMA have the potential for shooting a nice buck and it's a great area to hunt does if you're interested in helping to reduce the deer population," said IDNR wildlife biologist Chad Paup.

A topographic map will show the area's natural funnels and pinch points. The habitat is thick enough for concealment and there's plenty of room for deer to move around and still be on public land.

Sand Creek covers 3,500 acres in Decatur and Ringgold counties and is one of the area's largest public hunting lands.

Covering a total of 3,547 acres, Sand Creek is three miles north of Grand River on county Route 15 and then a mile west on the gravel road. I. For more information contact the IDNR's Mt. Ayr unit at (641) 464-2220.


One of Paup's top picks, the Woodburn unit of Stephens State Forest covers about 2,000 acres of big buck-producing woodlands where blackpowder hunters can score a quality late-season whitetail. At the very least, there should be a shot or two at a smaller buck worth bragging about.

"All of our areas, including the Stephens SF, have the potential for nice bucks," said Paup.

The Whitebreast unit in the forest is another top spot for late-season deer with plenty of bucks and does available. Blackpowder hunters have the challenge of trying to put a pattern together in order to hunt effectively deer that have been harassed and pressured all season long.

It's not hard for whitetails to get off the beaten path here, and that's where muzzleloaders will have to look for them. Deep ravines, brush and thick tangles and brambles will harbor the majority of the deer -- and especially the big bucks. The interior can be reached on approximately 90 miles of recreational trails.

At 14,112 acres the largest of Iowa's state forests, Stephens SF encompasses parts of Appanoose, Clark, Davis, Jasper, Lucas and Monroe counties. Access is from U.S. highways 34 and 65. For more information, contact the IDNR's Mt. Ayr unit at (641) 464-2220 or the forest office at (641) 774-4559. Topographic maps are available at (319) 335-1575.


Muzzleloaders who set up in areas along the Missouri River such as Tyson Bend WMA stand a chance to ambush a top-notch buck emerging from the wash.

Ed Weiner, a wildlife biologist in the IDNR's Missouri River unit says Tyson Bend has gained popularity because of its size and because many hunters find the area relatively easy to hunt.

"Evidence shows that deer regularly cross the Missouri River channel," Weiner said. "So a well-planned and suitably timed hunt could result in intercepting that big, wily buck when he's on the move."

Cottonwoods, willows and other dense underbrush found at Tyson Bend provide excellent shelter and food sources for whitetails. Even late-season muzzleloaders can have a lot of trouble getting through the tangle and into the deer. Deer will often retreat into the marshy sections where most hunters aren't willing to go. The rest of the area is primarily timbered with bottomland woodlands.

Harassed deer will move into the thickest cover they can find, but unpressured deer in the remote sections will take the path of least resistance. Trails, open patches and old fields and flats all make for easier walking for both the deer and the hunters, and a well-picked spot between bedding and feeding areas can result in a clear shot in a relatively open area.

Tyson Bend, which covers 780 Harrison County acres, can be accessed a half-mile south of Interstate 29 on county Route K45; then, go four miles west on 270th Street. For more information, contact IDNR's Missouri River unit at (712) 423-2426.


"When you look at the historical record for trophy deer in Iowa, you'll find that Monona and Harrison counties have produced well," said Weiner. "They may not have produced the very largest bucks, but they're certainly producing respectable numbers and scores."

That means tracts like the Loess Hills WMA north of Turin, the Turin Preserve and the Loess Hills State Forest are prime blackpowder destinations.

The occasional big buck draws hunters looking for that muzzleloading trophy. The areas provides the opportunity due to the factors Weiner says go into producing trophy deer -- factors that include substantial acreage, interface with private lands and a lack of intersecting roads. Add a few fields of leased cropland and Loess Hills is a recipe for success.

The hunting can be superb if you target the out-of-the-way sections, but be ready for some rough and tumble foot travel. Shotgunners have hit the area hard, and the big bucks are well off the beaten path. The WMA's nearly 3,000 acres afford a lot of room to stretch out in. For more, call IDNR's Mt. Ayr unit at (641) 464-2220.


Muzzleloaders who follow the Cedar River north of Cedar Rapids will encounter several thousand acres in Linn County under both state and county ownership that are ripe for harvesting late season whitetail, according to IDNR wildlife biologist Tim Thompson. Those acres are collectively known as the Cedar River complex.

The area's varied and dense habitat structure provides opportunities for bucks to develop some nice-sized racks. Thompson says there's a decent population of whitetails here with wall-hanging potential.

"The public areas have some cropland but most of it is bottomland with willows, cottonwood and silver maples," said Thompson. "Some of the areas like the Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area do have walnut and oak trees."

Bottomland areas within the Cedar River complex that are worthy of attention include the Chain-O-Lakes WMA and the Wickiup Hill and Goose Pond natural areas.

Access is varied, and good topographic maps are worth packing in. Blackpowder enthusiasts might find another hunter or two on the area but generally will find that congestion isn't a problem.

Thompson has found that some good blackpowder hunting can be had on the surrounding private lands as well. With rural housing

on the rise in the county, some landowners are complaining about damage to the landscaping and refusing shotgunners permission to hunt. Thompson has convinced a lot of the private landowners that since blackpowder hunters only get one shot they're generally careful about making it a safe and accurate one. This has opened up new opportunities for hunters in the area, and those willing to knock on a few doors can target both the public and nearby private lands.

Certain sections are closed to hunting; watch for the signs. For additional information, contact the Coralville unit at (319) 354-8343.


The deer action is great at this 2,721-acre tract in Fremont County. Muzzleloaders here will find a solid population of bucks and a lot of antlerless deer.

"The old established portion of the area north of 250th Street will provide the best hunting opportunities," said IDNR wildlife biologist Carl Priebe. "The floodplain area receives more deer hunting pressure than the uplands, but deer are abundant throughout the area."

Aerial photos of the Riverton area are available in a box outside the headquarters office located in the northeastern section of the WMA. These maps will help in determining where the deer are likely to be in thick cover and the routes they may be using. About half the area consists of wetland habitat that provides good wintering cover to which hunters should give serious consideration. Upland fields and brush and timber round out the habitat options.

The interior section of Riverton is probably the best bet to hunt this time of the year. Deer will be somewhat scattered and spooked after the shotgun season, and finding patterns and trails will require some woodsmanship.

Riverton is near the center of Fremont County, two miles north of Riverton on county Route L68. Contact the Riverton unit at (712) 374-3133 for more information.

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