Iowa's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Our Trophy Buck Areas

The buck of a lifetime is out there -- and here's your guide to finding it! (November 2008)

For the past decade, Iowa has been one of the top states in the nation for producing trophy whitetail bucks. Both the Boone and Crockett and Pope & Young record books are studded with entries from Iowa. Many hunters in Iowa, often with 130- to 150-class bucks already on their walls, now hunt selectively, searching only for monsters that would score in the 180- to 200-inch range.

But just because Iowa is consistently one of the nation's top five producers of trophy whitetail bucks doesn't mean that it's easy to tag one of those bruisers. In the most recent tally of bucks entered in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Trophy Buck Registry, 91 bucks killed by means of shotguns were entered during 2007. The total deer harvest -- does, button bucks and antlered bucks -- during the same shotgun hunting seasons was 91,174 deer. That means less than a tenth of a percent of the deer taken during those shotgun seasons -- or roughly one in 1,000 -- qualified and were entered in the Trophy Deer Registry.

It should be noted that the IDNR's Trophy Deer Registry is a voluntary registry and not an absolute listing of all trophy whitetails taken in Iowa. However, the registry's entries have paralleled for more than 50 years the actual county-by-county and annual statewide deer harvests and provide an informed view of the location and quantity of trophy bucks killed here.

In order for a buck to qualify for the Iowa Trophy Deer Registry, it must score at least 150 typical points or 170 non-typical points if killed by shotgun or muzzleloader, and at least 135 typical points or 155 non-typical points if taken by a bow.

A look at the top trophy-producing counties in the IDNR's Trophy Deer Registry during the 2006-07 Iowa deer hunting seasons -- the most recent complete tally of entries -- shows that Allamakee County in far northeast Iowa is still our champion trophy producer. Hunters have registered 436 bucks from the rugged hills of Allamakee County since the registry was created in 1954.

Second place in the registry went to Marion County in south-central Iowa, with 310 entries since 1954. Clayton County, again in far northeast Iowa, claimed third place with 297 trophy entries, while Warren County in south-central Iowa took fourth place with 286 entries.

The rest of the top 25 trophy-producing counties are scattered across the eastern and southern thirds of Iowa, with a smattering of counties from west-central and far western Iowa that hint of the trophy-potential of those regions. Every county in Iowa has produced whitetail bucks eligible for entry in the trophy registry, though some have managed only single-digit entries. Last place in the registry goes to flat, heavily farmed Pocahontas County in northwest Iowa, where hunters have registered only two trophy bucks since 1954.

It's no surprise that heavily farmed regions of the state have registered few trophy bucks. Habitat is the key to Iowa deer. For many years, trophy production closely paralleled overall harvest because more deer meant more bucks, and more bucks meant more potential for trophy racks.

That more-deer-means-more-bucks correlation held until around 2000. In the '90s, Clayton and Allamakee counties, in far northeast Iowa, Jackson County, in far east-central, and Van Buren County, in the far southeast, produced not only the most deer but also the most trophies. Since 2000, several counties in south-central Iowa have muscled their way into the top five counties of the registry, even though they're only in the top 10 counties for total harvest. Marion, Monroe and Warren counties now have firm holds on three of the top six slots in the registry.

"I don't really have an explanation why those counties are producing so many big bucks," said Ken Kakac, IDNR's district wildlife management biologist for that region. "I don't think there are necessarily more trophy-caliber bucks in the area. But we do have tremendous hunting pressure from the Des Moines area, and a lot of those hunters are very good hunters who are very selective about the deer they take."

One possible cause for the upswing in trophy numbers from south-central Iowa may be the increased urbanization of that area. Acreages and small housing developments now speckle the wooded valleys. "It's tougher for shotgun hunters to get permission to do their drives," observed Kakac, "and more bucks are living long enough to develop bigger racks. The bowhunters who get permission to hunt around those acreages and developments have chances at some really nice bucks."

Kakac's comment about the age of trophy bucks underscores remarks by Tom Litchfield, IDNR deer management biologist. "Age is the deciding factor when it comes to trophy bucks in Iowa," he said. "Nutrition isn't a problem, because of all our fertile soils and all the corn and soybeans and hayfields. Genetically, our deer have the potential to produce impressive racks -- if they live long enough.

Litchfield noted that wherever in Iowa terrain and habitat allow bucks to elude hunters for four or five years, bucks generally develop impressive racks. Even so, few bucks in Iowa live long enough to fully express their trophy potential. Many hunters in Iowa have adopted a policy of shooting does for meat while passing up small bucks, killing only those that are properly mature, but in Litchfield's view, a lot of those hunters may well misunderstand how old a "mature" buck actually is.

"I talked to a lot of hunters last fall, and there is a misconception that bucks start to go downhill after they're five or six years old," he said. "Five and a half years old is actually when bucks in Iowa really start to show their true potential. A buck's best antler-producing years are from the time they're 6 1/2 through 8 1/2 years old. Up until they're 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 years old, they're still growing and putting a lot of energy into body mass. They'll have good racks at those ages, but once they get past 6 1/2, their bodies are mature, and they can put more energy into antler production. You'll see longer tines and more mass on antlers from bucks that are past the 6-year mark.

"I'd never discourage anybody from taking a nice 4- or 5-year-old buck, because they generally make nice trophies -- but the idea that you need to kill bucks once they reach 5 1/2 years old because they're going to go downhill after that is inaccurate. If you really want to see what a buck can do, let him get to be 7 or 8 years old."

As mentioned earlier, it was for many years safe to say that areas in Iowa containing more deer also harbored more trophy-class bucks. As the IDNR managed hunting seasons and regulations to increase deer populations, it worked out that the counties producing the m

ost deer during shotgun hunting seasons also tallied the most trophy bucks.

But in recent years, the Hawkeye State's mushrooming deer population led to significant changes in seasons and regulations. Some of those changes have encouraged heavy harvests of does, in an effort to reduce the reproductive potential of deer in specific counties. Those changes in hunting regulations may have distorted the relationship between deer populations and trophy potential.

"There's a flaw in the strategy that more deer automatically means more trophy bucks," said Greg Harris, the IDNR deer depredation biologist who deals with complaints of deer damage to crops. "The sex ratio (of deer harvested) may be skewed in some areas because harvest regulations have emphasized harvest of does."

In areas that emphasize doe harvest -- southern Iowa, for example -- regulations encourage killing extra does, resulting in higher total deer harvest but merely average buck kills. In areas where our deer herd may be slightly overhunted -- northwest Iowa in particular -- deer managers may configure regulations to reduce the number of does killed so the herd can recover, and release fewer antlerless tags. In those areas, the total harvest may be reduced, but the percentage of bucks taken actually increases.

Far northeast Iowa is an area in which deer numbers and trophy potential still seem to coincide. Allamakee and Clayton counties top not only our total-deer-harvested categories, but also are at the head of the class for number of trophies entered in the Trophy Deer Registry.

Van Buren county and several counties in southeast Iowa also regularly sit near the top of the total harvest chart but, in reality, may not support the number of trophies implied by those total harvest statistics.

"I can't say that the high deer population down here reflects a high population of trophy deer," said Chuck Steffen, wildlife management biologist in southeast Iowa. "I tell trophy hunters who call me to look at the number of antlerless licenses in Van Buren County, not just the total harvest. The goal down here is to reduce the deer herd, so the harvest is skewed toward does."

Another issue that affects trophy potential in Van Buren and other counties is the rapid increase in purchase and leasing of land for hunting rights. According to Steffen, a high percentage of land in Van Buren and neighboring counties is now leased or owned for hunting rights.

"I can't recommend that anybody travel here just to hunt for trophies," he said. "Between traditional hunting groups that have hunting privileges locked up and all the land that's been leased or bought for hunting rights, hunting access is getting tough."

Public hunting areas are an option, but Iowa's public hunting lands are few and far between. Jeff Telleen, wildlife management biologist in south-central Iowa, remarked that the key to trophy hunting on public lands is to hunt early and often.

"There are good bucks every year on public lands, but you've got to hunt those public areas intelligently," he said. "During bow seasons, the deer are either relatively unbothered and still following their late-summer feeding and bedding patterns, or they're in the rut and things are crazy for deer. The one time that trophy hunting in public areas might be tough is during the shotgun seasons, because any public area that's easily hunted is going to get hit hard by groups of shotgunners."

Public areas large enough or rugged enough to make them difficult for groups of shotgun hunters to hunt effectively are prime locations for trophy hunts throughout deer hunting seasons in Iowa. Yellow River State Forest in Allamakee County combines the high deer populations of that county with some of the most challenging terrain in the state to allow bucks to escape hunters and live long enough to develop massive racks. In southern Iowa, the Sedan Bottoms and various tracts of Stephens State Forest offer thousands of acres for hunters willing to make an effort to find bucks hiding far from civilization.

Public hunting opportunities in western Iowa have increased dramatically in the past decades as the Pioneer State Forest has slowly expanded in the Loess Hills. From Sioux City down through southwest Iowa, "The Hills" provide trophy bucks the isolation and privacy they need to develop their maximum potential.

Mike Laughlin of Shenandoah has hunted deer in southwest Iowa for more than 20 years. The walls of his home boast a variety of trophy deer mounts that range in class from the 150s to the 160s. He's drawn his bow on bucks that would have scored -- well, he refuses to guess what the bucks would have measured.

"No use guessing how big they were, but they were way bigger than anything I've ever killed," he noted with a laugh. "One was a huge non-typical that I simply shot too high and put the arrow over his back. There was another huge buck that my son and I named 'Fred.' We were muzzleloading the first time we saw him, lying in a field-terrace glassing for some other bucks I'd seen, and just after sunset this monster came out and started feeding. He was one of the biggest bucks I've ever seen. It was too dark to shoot, so all we could do is look. We hunted Fred all the rest of that season, but never got within gun range."

Laughlin noted that seeing a monster such as Fred in a farm field didn't surprise him. While he regularly sees wallworthy bucks on land he hunts in the Loess Hills, he thinks that equally estimable bucks roam the "flatlands" east of the Hills.

"There are isolated timbers and woodlots in the farm country that have some nice bucks," he said. "Little out-of-the-way timbers that are too awkward for the shotgun guys to run a drive through. Or maybe the landowner doesn't allow hunting. You have to adapt your hunting strategies to hunt those areas. You may have to set up in a fencerow or field terrace, but there are definitely nice bucks -- if you can find where they live."

Laughlin suggested that hunters used to hunting timber in the rest of Iowa might have to adapt their strategies to be effective in the Loess Hills.

"First: Get maps, or hunt with somebody who knows their way around," he said. "The Hills don't lay like the rest of Iowa. One time we took along two guys who had never hunted in the Hills, and they got totally, completely lost in a 100-acre piece of timber.

"Second: If you're bowhunting, ignore all the deer sign you see down in the valleys of the Hills. The trails and tracks and rubs and scrapes are really tempting, but I've found out the hard way that the wind does strange things down in those valleys. Thermals go up and down the ravines, and the wind off the ridges swirls when it gets into the valleys. I've been busted every time I tried to hunt from a stand down in a valley.

"Plus," he added with a chuckle, "the sides of the draws are so steep and the ridges are so tall that, on a couple occasions when I was in a tree stand down in a valley, I had deer bust me because they were standing on top of a ridge or on the side of a ridge and looking straight a

cross at me eye to eye. So I set up my stands on the ridges, pay close attention to controlling my scent and get my fair share of shots at nice bucks."

* * *

Ultimately, trophy-caliber bucks haunt every county in Iowa. Some counties, like Allamakee County, have lots of deer, lots of bucks and challenging hunting conditions that allow a fair number of those bucks to achieve trophy caliber; others, such as Pocahontas County, have few deer and therefore few bucks, and even fewer trophy-caliber bucks.

But that doesn't mean that a 150-class-plus buck isn't living right now in an overlooked, out-of-the-way timber somewhere in Pocahontas County. When it comes to trophy deer in Iowa, every county has Boone and Crockett or Pope & Young potential. Some just have more potential than others.

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