Extended deer seasons and new firearms opportunities give Iowa hunters more reasons to stay in the woods. (December 2005)
Britlyn Sieck of Fayette met with some serious success last season, killing two outstanding bucks. The 14-year-old -- who hunts with her parents and siblings, and her Uncle Ed -- will take a shot only at does or wall-worthy bucks.
Photo courtesy of Ed Traeger
"Late-season" deer hunting has in recent years taken on a whole new meaning for Iowans.
Older hunters remember when hunting the late season meant spending time in the woods during the second of Iowa's two December shotgun seasons. But today, the late season not only encompasses that traditional second shotgun season but also includes several special hunts in January, among which is offered an opportunity to use high-caliber rifles to hunt deer in Iowa's southern two tiers of counties.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING
Iowa's bounty of late-season deer hunting opportunities is the result of too much of a good thing: Iowa's deer herd having grown to the point where it must be trimmed. In some parts of the state where habitat is most favorable, high deer populations have led to widespread complaints of crop damage and excessive insurance claims for car-deer collisions. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has been under increasing pressure from agricultural groups and insurance companies who lobby the Iowa Legislature with demands that the IDNR drastically reduce our deer herd.
The challenge for the IDNR has been to develop useful deer hunting regulations that simultaneously work for the deer-deprived agricultural regions of northern and northwestern Iowa as well as the deer-rich habitats of northeast and southern Iowa. An adjustable county-by-county antlerless quota, expanded numbers of antlerless tags statewide and a variety of expanded hunting seasons in areas of the state with too many deer have slowly brought the Iowa deer herd closer to desired levels.
"My hopes are -- if we can kill an additional 5,000 to 10,000 deer in the new early November season, and another 5,000 in the late January season, we'll turn the corner and be where we need to be with the deer herd in Iowa," said Willie Suchy, IDNR deer management biologist.
The new early antlerless deer hunting season may have passed by the time you read this. The season was scheduled for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday following Thanksgiving (Nov. 25-27). Licenses were not to be available for the special season until Nov. 12, the object being to allow the IDNR to identify counties that hadn't met antlerless quotas and would therefore be eligible to participate in the special early antlerless hunt.
"I'm guessing that all the counties in the southern two tiers of counties and a couple counties in far northeast Iowa will be eligible for the Thanksgiving antlerless hunt," said Suchy in an interview last summer. "Those are the counties with high deer populations, and they didn't sell out their quotas last year. But there could be counties in other parts of the state eligible for the Thanksgiving weekend hunt. It all depends on how license sales have gone."
Hunters who participate in the new early antlerless hunt can use any weapon legal during traditional Iowa deer hunting seasons: shotgun, muzzleloader, handgun, or bow.
Iowa's traditional deer gun seasons, the first and second shotgun seasons, are Dec. 3-7 and Dec. 10-18 this year. They represent the first chance for shotgun hunters to tag an Iowa trophy buck -- and there are plenty of potential trophies around the state.
Fourteen-year-old Britlyn Sieck of Fayette downed not one but two of Iowa's wall-worthy bucks during the 2004 shotgun seasons. Britlyn has hunted deer with her extended family since she was 10 and already has two does and now those two bucks to her credit. Her dedication and disciplined approach to hunting have a lot to do with her success.
"Britlyn is dead serious about her deer hunting," said Fayette's Ed Traeger, the teen deerslayer's uncle. "I was teasing her about how lucky she was to get just one big buck, let alone two. She kind of gave me a funny look and said, 'Luck €¦ and it doesn't hurt that I shoot my gun at targets in the morning before I go to school to make sure I'll hit where I aim.'
"How many kids get up before school to practice with their shotguns?" he added, laughing with pride. "How many adults are that dedicated?"
Britlyn hunts with her parents and siblings, as well as with Uncle Ed, who finds his niece's calm approach to hunting both amusing and admirable.
"She was hunting over the hill from her dad when she shot one of the big bucks," Traeger recalled, "a really nice one. She made sure it was dead, and had heard her dad shoot two or three times, so she walked over the hill to where he was cleaning a nice buck that he'd shot.
"They joked around, and laughed about him firing two warning shots before he actually shot his deer. Then she pitched in and helped him finish with his deer. She never even mentioned that she had an even bigger buck lying over the hill -- until he finally got around to asking if she'd seen any deer."
"I wanted him to have, like, his moment of glory -- before I told him mine was way bigger than his," remarked Britlyn.
Britlyn's big bucks were no accident. The young huntress passed up a number of smaller bucks before she opted to try bagging a 9-pointer. She then borrowed a tag from a family member to claim a 14-pointer the next day.
"I almost passed up the 14-pointer," she said. "It didn't have the spread of the 9-pointer, and I wasn't sure about the body size. I really don't want to shoot small bucks, because that stops them from getting bigger. I really look at their body size and antlers and stuff, and if I'm not sure it's a good one, or if I can't get a good look at it, I won't shoot."
Much planning goes into the Sieck family's deer hunts. Britlyn's dad, Don, and her Uncle Ed do most of the pre-season scouting and some early-season bowhunting, but it's a family affair once shotgun seasons open.
"We all sit around a table and talk about where we're going to hunt, and how we're going to hunt," said Britlyn. "I think I'm learning about deer and am pretty good at knowing where they'll be. But they probably put me in the right spots last year, when I got the big bucks. We pay a lot of attention to wind direction when we're setting up drives so we don't spook the deer. "
The Sieck family has hunting privileges to a farm near the Vo
lga River Recreation Area, and takes seriously the need to "manage" the deer herd in their area.
"We try to do all the right stuff -- shoot more does, pass up small bucks," said Traeger. "It seems to be making a real difference in the quality of bucks we're seeing. I've been hunting deer up here since the early 1970s, and not only are there more deer in total, the quality of the bucks has really improved."
IDNR's Suchy contends that if more hunters adopt the Sieck family's attitude about deer hunting, Hawkeye deer enthusiasts may be able to have their cake and eat it, too. "If the trend among Iowa hunters continues," he suggested, "where they kill does to fill their tags and take only the biggest bucks, we could reduce out total deer population by 25 percent and still have better-quality bucks than when we had too many deer three or four years ago.
"There are always going to be some casual hunters who have the attitude that any buck is better than a doe. But hunters like the ones who read Iowa Game & Fish are serious about their hunting, and understand what we're trying to do. Killing lots of does and taking only the largest bucks is the key to keeping and maybe even improving the great deer hunting that we have in Iowa."
One of the steps on the road to fewer, but better deer in Iowa is the IDNR's new temporary regulation that will allow the use of high-caliber rifles in our southern two tiers of counties during an extended antlerless-only season this coming January.
Complete regulations are available on the IDNR's Web site at
www.iowadnr.com, or in information booklets at hunting license vendors, but these are the general outlines: The new rifle season in southern Iowa is an extension of the statewide special late antlerless season that will run from Jan. 11-22. During the late antlerless season, hunters may use shotguns, muzzleloaders, bows and handguns to take antlerless deer in counties whose antlerless quotas have not been filled.
Licenses for the statewide late antlerless season are also good for an extension of that season that will allow the use of high-powered centerfire rifles as well as traditional weapons in the southern two tiers of counties from Jan. 23-29. Regulations restrict centerfires used during the special season to .24 caliber and larger.
"Some states regulate rifles by foot-pounds of energy, but we decided to go with caliber," said Suchy. "There was some discussion about whether or not a .243 had the power to put down a big whitetail buck, but the consensus was that a .243 was more than adequate to put down a whitetail doe, which is what we're targeting during this season.
Suchy noted that common sense will play a role in cartridge selection. "We're assuming our hunters will know that they can't use a varmint load in their rifle to shoot deer," he said. "Varmint loads are designed to fragment on penetration, but on deer you want the bullet to have the power and weight to penetrate deeper before it finally fragments."
Suchy said that where and how hunters will hunt during the final season of the year should color their choice of weapon. "If you're going to be hunting with a group, doing a drive, or in heavy timber where you won't be taking shots of more than 100 yards, I'd recommend you stick with a shotgun," he said. "But if you're going to be hunting alone, maybe sitting in a stand overlooking a field or pasture where the shots will be 200 to 300 yards, then a rifle might be a good, safe choice.
"There are certainly safety concerns about allowing the use of high-powered rifles. But we're confident our hunters are conscientious and will take advantage of this new deer hunting opportunity in a safe manner."
Safety wasn't the only factor taken into consideration when the IDNR greenlighted the use of rifles, especially in late January. Many bucks in Iowa may have shed their antlers by then, and there was concern that "shed bucks" would be accidentally killed during the antlerless season.
"Our bucks start shedding their antlers in mid-December, and the peak is in early February," noted Suchy. "There is an increased risk of accidentally killing bucks by scheduling the season in late January. But in most cases, if a hunter uses binoculars or his scope to look a deer over before he shoots, he should be able to tell the difference between a shed buck and a doe.
"Bucks will be bigger-bodied, with noticeably deeper chests, and the tops of their heads look different. The top of a doe's head is more rounded between the ears. A buck's head looks 'squarish' between the ears, and if you look at them from the right angles, there are flat spots -- the 'pedicels' -- where the antlers were attached."
Iowa's statewide and regional deer hunting seasons aren't the only opportunities for hunters to add venison to their freezers. A number of special hunts are scheduled for county parks, state parks, city parks and other areas normally off limits to hunters.
"Special hunts are a way to allow hunters access to deer in urban and other areas where we have too many deer and no way to reduce their numbers through normal hunting seasons," Suchy said. "The special hunts are generally antlerless-only, bow-only and tightly controlled, but there may be a few hunts available to shotgun hunters, and sometimes the bow-only hunts have opportunities for hunters to take bucks."
For complete information about the location, time, and regulations related to special hunts, visit the IDNR Web site, or pick up information booklets at hunting license vendors.
Unfortunately, the best trophy hunting during Iowa's deer seasons won't be in public areas. "The nature of shotgun hunting in Iowa means that the public areas get swept pretty good," said Suchy. "Bowhunters and muzzleloaders can do really good in the public areas before and after shotgun seasons, because those public areas have some of our best habitat. The deer are there before the pressure of shotgun season moves them out, and they return as soon as they pressure lets up.
"But for the gun seasons, your best bet is private property. It can be tough to get on private land if you're after a trophy buck. Networking is the best way to get permission. if you've got a friend who has an uncle who has land with good deer habitat, or some other connection, that's the best way to get on private land.
"If you're working the antlerless seasons, you can usually get permission to hunt if you tell guys that you're only after does, especially during the January seasons in areas where deer populations are high and guys want them shot down."
According to Suchy, the IDNR is experimenting with programs to connect landowners plagued with too many deer with hunters willing to kill only does. The IDNR Web site has links on its hunting pages that can unite frustrated landowners with eager hunters.
"Other than that, talk to the local game warden or wildl
ife biologist," Suchy suggested. "They know which landowners are complaining about deer damage, and they can help put you in touch with them."
A final tip/hint/suggestion for Iowa's deer hunters is to take advantage of the IDNR's Help Us Stop Hunger program. Under the provisions that set up HUSH, a $1 increase in deer hunting license fees is used to pay local food lockers to process venison for distribution to needy families and institutions around Iowa.
Hunters can donate fresh, field-dressed, legally-tagged carcasses to participating lockers to be processed for free and later distributed. A complete list of more than 100 Iowa food processing lockers participating in HUSH is available on the IDNR Web site.