Iowa's deer herd, second to none in the nation, gives Hawkeye archers access to an enviable selection of bucks. Hunters skilled with stick and string should experience the bounty themselves this month.
Photo by Scott Steindorf
When you bowhunt for whitetail deer in Iowa, what's your goal? A world-class trophy buck? Iowa's one of the top five states in recent Pope & Young submissions. Tender, grain-fed venison? The Iowa Department of Natural Resources will again increase the number of antlerless tags this season, making it even easier to bring home a fat, juicy doe.
Looking for solitude while you sit in your tree stand? Hang the stand more than a mile from a road in any of our state forests and you won't see another hunter all day. Or maybe you want convenient hunting close to home. Then sign up for one of the dozens of special hunts that allow bowhunters to hunt in urban areas or public parks that are often sited only minutes from where they live.
Whether you're looking for a trophy, foraging for venison, seeking solitude, or needing convenience, bowhunting in Iowa is the way to find what you seek. With these objectives in mind, here's an overview of what Iowa's bowhunters can expect this fall.
"There is no question that Iowa is now one of the top two or three whitetail (deer) destinations in the nation," said Randy Taylor, president of the Iowa Bowhunters Association. "When you combine our population of trophy-caliber animals with our regulations, which allows only bowhunters to hunt during the rut, it makes bowhunting the obvious choice if you're after a serious trophy."
Willie Suchy, deer management biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said several factors have led to Iowa's reputation as one of the nation's top places to tag a trophy whitetail.
"The total deer herd is still increasing," said Suchy, "and when you have more deer, you have more bucks. And when you have more bucks, you have the chance for more of them to live long enough to produce a larger-than-average rack. We're also seeing a shift in hunter attitudes. Hunters are buying into our philosophy about harvesting does and passing on small bucks. If hunters kill does and leave small bucks, they simultaneously help us accomplish our management goals, and increase the chances of them getting a bigger buck down the road."
It only takes a few years and control of a relatively few acres for dedicated hunters to generate significant changes in local deer herds. Randy Scheel of Garrison and his bowhunting partners made an agreement five years ago to manage their traditional hunting area for trophies, and have already seen major changes.
"We hunt on 120 acres in south central Iowa, and have permission to hunt on an adjoining 300 acres," said Scheel. "It used to be that we felt lucky to see one 150-class buck a year. In the past couple years, we pretty much expect to see one or two deer like that every day."
The secret to the increased quality of deer in their hunting area? Strict rules that encourage members of the group to shoot only the biggest bucks. "If one of us kills a buck, he has to put him on the wall," said Scheel. If you don't have him mounted, you're done hunting with us. At first it was tough to pass on the 2- to 3-year old deer. After a while, though, you start to take pride in letting them grow.
"In the past three or four years we've seen a major increase in the quality of deer in our area, simply because we take does for meat, and kill trophies only when they're good enough to justify spending the money to have them mounted."
Trophy-caliber whitetails like those that Scheel and his friends are growing are found in varying concentrations all across Iowa. Every county has produced at least one buck that qualified for the IDNR's Trophy Buck Registry, a voluntary registry of racks meeting minimum standards. (The racks of bowkilled deer must score at least 135 points typical or 155 points non-typical.)
Habitat is the key. Pocahontas County, in heavily farmed north-central Iowa, has entered only one buck in the Trophy Registry since the IDNR began tallying trophies in 1954. Allamakee County, in far northeast Iowa, has produced 341 deer that qualified for the registry in the same time.
"Northeast Iowa is always going to be the best place to get a chance at a trophy buck, simply because they have the habitat to support a big deer herd up there," added Suchy. "It's a great place to bowhunt, because they have some of the state's largest public areas."
Yellow River State Forest offers more than 7,000 acres of prime whitetail habitat in various tracts in Allamakee County. The Lansing Public Area provides more than 1,000 acres of public hunting in the same county, as does the French Creek Area.
Northeast Iowa isn't the only region in which to tag a trophy buck. The world-record Lovstuen Buck was killed near Albia, in south central Iowa, and highlights the quality of deer in that region of the state. Marion County, just southeast of Des Moines, has entered 251 trophy deer in the IDNR trophy registry, and is second only to Allamakee County for total trophies registered.
According to Suchy, south-central Iowa has produced some really nice bucks in the past five years. That good hunting is expanding north toward Des Moines because of urban sprawl. Acreages and housing developments sprouting up around Des Moines in northern Warren, eastern Madison and eastern Dallas counties prevent shotgun hunters from successfully staging traditional drive-hunts.
"We're hearing more and more complaints from landowners and suburban gardeners in (central Iowa) about deer damage to crops and gardens," said Suchy. "When there are that many deer in an area protected from successful shotgun hunting, some of the bucks are going to get pretty big. Bowhunters who get permission to hunt around those acreages or in small tracts of remaining timber are going to have access to some really nice deer."
Southeast Iowa is another area offering bowhunters an above-average chance to arrow a big buck. Jackson County is tied for fifth in the IDNR Trophy Registry's all-time standings, with 226 entries. Far south-central Iowa also scores well in the registry, with Appanoose County vying for fifth spot, with 226 trophy-bucks.
Tens of thousands of acres of public hunting land lie in these prime southern Iowa deer hunting regions. Shimek State Forest, in far southeast Iowa, offers more than 5,000 acres of public hunting. In south-central Iowa, five tracts of the Stephens State Forest provide a total of more than 8,000 acres of prime whitetail habitat. Farther west, in Dec
atur County, the Dekalb Wildlife Management Area offers nearly 2,000 acres of timber, while the Sand Creek Area, near Grand River, has 3,400 acres of whitetail hunting opportunities.
Further west, the Loess Hills offer unique hunting opportunities for archers along our western border. The Hills have always been a challenge for gun hunters because of their drive-inhibiting bluffs, valleys and irregular ridges. "Bowhunting is probably the best way to get bucks in the Loess Hills," said Suchy.
And there are some nice ones out there. Fortunately, there are plenty of public hunting opportunities to help archers find those nice ones. The Pioneer State Forest and Loess Hills Wildlife Area are public areas in the Loess Hills that total more than 10,000 acres of rugged timberland between Council Bluffs and Sioux City.
Though north-central and northwest Iowa don't earn rave reviews from Suchy for their trophy potential, they should never be overlooked. "Deer will be where there is habitat, and if a buck in that area finds a brushy ravine or isolated patch of timber that gets overlooked by shotgun hunters, he could live long enough to develop an impressive rack," said Suchy. "There are trophy-quality deer in every one of our counties. Some counties just have more than others because they have more deer-friendly habitat."
PARADISE FOR MEAT HUNTERS
The furor in the Iowa Legislature last winter about whether or not Iowa's deer herd needs to be dramatically reduced highlights the importance of meat hunters to the IDNR's deer management plan. To put it bluntly, if Iowa's deer hunters don't kill more does for meat, auto insurance companies and farm organizations are going to lobby and force the state legislature to mandate a massive deer kill-off that will ultimately degrade deer hunting in Iowa.
To forestall legislative mandates, the IDNR plans to increase the quota of antlerless tags in almost every county this hunting season. The goal is to kill more does, moderate reproduction, and bring the deer herd down to levels that reduce auto insurance claims and complaints of extensive crop damage. In counties where the deer herd is strongest -- northeast, southeast, south central and southwest -- hunters should be able to get both antlerless and antlered tags for this season's hunts.
Tradition and male self-absorption may be the biggest hurdles to getting hunters to drop a doe. Fortunately, many bowhunters have progressed beyond the need to arrow only antlers, and many now actually target does.
"I'm in this for the joy of hunting, not for the ego of killing a big trophy," said Scheel. "I'm just as excited when I kill a nice doe as I am when I get a big buck."
He notes that an experience last fall encouraged his enthusiasm for tagging does. "I had antlerless and antlered tags, and a nice doe came by," he recalled. "In the past, I always hesitated about killing a doe early in the day, because I figured it would blow my chances of getting a buck. But I decided to take the doe, and dropped her. Not long after she went down, I saw four bucks following her trail. I sat tight, and watched those bucks go right up to the dead doe. They spent 30 minutes circling and messing around that doe. The biggest one kept chasing off the smaller ones.
"Eventually the smaller deer lost interest, and the biggest buck walked right under the stand. I dropped him, and it was one of my nicest bucks ever. From now on, I'm not going to be afraid that shooting does will decrease my chances of getting a buck."
Scheel is quick to point out that his family likes venison, and that any extra does he kills are processed and used as gifts to thank landowners. He pays to have one doe processed into sausage and venison sticks each year for distribution to neighbors and landowners who allow him to hunt on their property.
Scheel is fortunate to have friends and family who allow him to hunt on private property, but bowhunters without access to private land needn't envy him. While Iowa doesn't have a surplus of land open to public hunting, most of our public lands are in areas of the best deer habitat --northeast, southeast, southern and western Iowa.
Some Iowa hunters avoid those large public areas because they fear that the tracts are overhunted and won't provide a decent-quality hunt for those seeking trophy-caliber animals. But IBA president Randy Taylor says that it'll be you yourself who'll determine the quality of the hunt you have on public lands. A lot depends on how hard you are willing to work, he said. Make the effort to set up stands a mile from the nearest road, and often enough you won't cross paths with any other hunters. As for the caliber of trophies on public lands -- well, you might be surprised at the quality of the bucks hiding back in there.
Large public areas such as Yellow River, Shimek or Stephens state forests aren't the only possibilities for hunters in search of trophies. Smaller state and county parks are no-hunting refuges for deer that feed in surrounding farm fields. With permission from surrounding landowners, hunters can often target deer as they move between bedding areas in the protected public areas and feeding areas on private land.
Another option -- and some hunters in Johnson County will be upset at the disclosure of their secrets --is to use a boat to access public areas along the shore of reservoirs such as Coralville, Red Rock and Saylorville. Those flood-control reservoirs, especially their lower flood plains, harbor a lot of deer. Boats offer access to areas that would otherwise require significant walking.
Bowhunting is by nature more time-consuming than is gun hunting, especially for urbanites who choose to drive long distances to hunt in rural areas. Ironically, those urban hunters often drive past some of the best hunting in the state.
"If I was a bowhunter, I'd look real hard at the rural areas close to places like Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Waterloo, and make friends with people who have acreages in those areas," said the IDNR's Suchy. "There are lots of deer associated with urban areas."
An alternative for hunters in smaller communities is to hunt, when it's legal, within their city's limits. Some communities allow limited bowhunting in city parks or wooded areas within the city limits; check with local police departments for details. Don't miss the opportunity if your community allows it.
Another prospect for urban hunters: participation in special deer hunts offered by city, county and state agencies. Des Moines and other metropolitan areas have for several years held special archery-only hunts to reduce the number of deer in city parks and selected urban areas.
Participants in special hunts are usually required to attend at least one training session to familiarize themselves with rules specific to that hunt, and often must pass an archery proficiency test. Many hunts only offer antlerless tags, though some offer incentives for trophy hunters.
Sometimes they have a lottery for a few tags
to take an antlered deer, and sometimes they give out antlered tags after a guy has taken a specified number of does over the years, said the IBA's Taylor. It's worth the wait, because there are some big bucks hiding in parks and urban areas.
A complete list of special deer hunts for Iowa's 2005 hunting seasons and contact phone numbers for more information will be available at
www.iowadnr.com by mid-August. Click on the "Wildlife" page and look for prompts to take you to the page detailing "Special Hunts."
Hunters without Internet connections can call (515) 281-5918 for information, or wait until the 2005 edition of Deer Hunting Regulations becomes available later this fall.
Ultimately, Iowa offers hunting opportunities to satisfy every archer. Pope & Young-quality bucks lurk in nearly every county. Meat hunters can stock their freezers with venison courtesy of liberal antlerless quotas. Antisocial bowhunters can traipse to the far corners of public lands and have hundreds of acres and dozens of deer all to themselves. Urban hunters can sometimes literally walk to their hunting stand during special hunts and help control overpopulation by deer in our cities.
When it comes to bowhunting for whitetails, Iowa truly has it all!