Raising the Bar for Iowa Deer Hunting

Our state's strong herd has lots of Hawkeye hunters looking for ways to make pursuing deer even more interesting and challenging. Here are just a few.

By Rich Patterson

When Cedar Rapids outdoorsman Dave Novak and I first gave it a try in the late 1970s, deer hunting was a challenge. Deer were scarce, and regulations confined hunters to relatively small zones and short seasons. We'd research public hunting areas to find islands of deer abundance and hunt there. Still, "abundance" was a relative term back then, and some days we'd hunt hard without even seeing a deer. In many years, neither of us tagged a buck. "Just getting a deer, any legal deer, was a big challenge," said Novak.

That's changed. Really changed. Now most hunters tag at least one deer each fall, and many legally take several animals. The phenomenal rise in deer numbers that started in the 1980s has given Iowa hunters the great luxury of having their cake and eating it, too. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources now sets hunting seasons and legal methods of hunting that were beyond our imaginations 25 years ago, giving hunters the chance to hunt more, use varied gear and expand their deer hunting knowledge and challenge.

With so many tags available, an Iowa hunter can go out with his buddies and take a deer with a shotgun on a traditional drive, and then spend winter days still-hunting with bow and arrow. He or she can use modern or traditional muzzleloaders and even handguns. Deer hunting today can be a challenge that provides education and satisfaction as well as fun and freezer meat.

With the challenge of merely harvesting a deer diminishing rapidly, hunters can add zip to their hunting experience by taking on the challenge of learning new hunting methods and using different types of firearms and bows. Just a few ways of expanding hunting experiences follow.


Back in the old days of tight regulation, a wise deer hunter quickly killed the first legal deer sighted. Hesitate and there might not be a second chance! Now hunters are likely to spot many legal deer during a typical weekend hunt, and there's no need to be as quick on the trigger. Being choosy can help the IDNR increase the quality of the state's deer herd and add challenge to a hunt. Essentially, a hunter today can reject shooting the first legal deer and wait for an opportunity to tag a specific animal Depending on the hunter, that might be a heavy antlered bragging buck or a young doe for outstanding table fare.

"For many years bowhunters have been passing up small bucks as they wait for a bigger one," said IDNR deer biologist Willie Suchy. "Shotgun hunters have been a lot quicker to harvest the first legal deer they see. I hope they follow the lead of bowhunters and pass up small bucks."

Suchy has developed a statewide management plan that includes slightly reducing the state deer herd while maintaining outstanding hunting and increasing the percentage of large bucks in the harvest. "Iowa already leads the nation in the number of Boone and Crockett bucks harvested, but if more shotgun hunters let small bucks pass by, the number of bigger animals will continue to increase. Hunting quality will get even better," he said.

Nothing will do more to improve your deer hunting skills and make the sport more challenging than targeting a specific animal, learning its habits and then harvesting it. Photo by P.J. Reilly

Now is a great time for hunters to help Suchy reach his management goal by setting minimum personal standards for the bucks they bring home. It takes discipline to let modest deer walk by, but sometimes a heavy-racked buck is following just a short way behind.

Deciding to take a big buck is a simple way for hunters to up the hunting challenge without altering their gear or hunting method. It works for drives, and for still- or stand-hunting. Many hunters simply won't shoot a buck smaller than their personal best, and that's a great way to help improve the long-term quality of Iowa's deer herd while enjoying the challenge of doing better.

Hunters mostly interested in good eating can also up their hunting challenge by taking the deer most likely to be tender and tasty. A number of years ago, I shot a rangy old buck during the late muzzleloader season. It had survived the rut and early hunting seasons and was lean and tough. After eating a couple of that deer's steaks, my wife said to me, "Rich, you can go hunting any time you want, but I'd really rather you bring back a young deer that's better eating." My wife was right, and hers was advice that I now follow: For the past several years I've targeted young does, which are far better eating. Further, it helps the IDNR keep deer numbers within reasonable bounds. The state wants hunters to buy and fill antlerless tags to help reach its management goals, and hunting tasty and tender does helps.

It's not always easy.

Two years ago I was sitting on a high knob overlooking an active deer trail. About a half-hour before sunset, an impressive but not massive buck stepped out of a clump of brush and stepped right in front of me within easy range. I had a general deer tag. Harvesting him would have been legal and easy, and it was tempting- but worse was yet to come. Three more bucks followed the leader, and one was a truly impressive animal. I followed him in my scope and had the safety off. But I heard my wife's voice in my mind just as I spotted movement beyond the buck. It was a medium-sized doe.

At the boom of the muzzleloader, bucks scattered in all directions as the doe fell in her tracks. That winter we enjoyed many delicious dinners, but I can still see that big buck in my mind. Although I could have shot a bragging-sized buck, it was satisfying letting him go and favoring a specific type deer that made sense for my family.


I moved to the Midwest from Idaho. All my early deer hunting had been with a highly accurate .30/06 rifle. When I learned that only shotguns and slugs were legal here, I took my bird-hunting pump out to the range and shot a couple of boxes of Foster slugs at a cardboard box. Just hitting the box was a struggle. Attaching sights to the pump helped some, but accuracy was still horrible.

A couple of decades ago, inaccurate slugs and shotguns were about all that was available for Iowa deer hunting, but technology has made quantum leaps forward in increasing shotgun accuracy. Special rifled barrels and sabot slugs still aren't quite as accurate as my rifle, and they don't have its long range, but they are far better than a bird gun with crude sights.

A good marksman using a rifled shotgun and a quality sabot slug can consistently hit small targets out to 100 yards. Some hunters can even stretch t

hat out another 25 yards or so.

Despite the revolution in slug-shooting technology, an amazing number of Iowa deer hunters still use their old bird gun stuffed with inexpensive slugs.

Switching to an accurate shotgun enhances the deer hunting experience by elevating it from a crude sport to a precise one. Today, an accurate hunter can surgically place a slug in a deer's vitals at impressive range. Developing the marksmanship skill to do this is an exciting challenge in itself. Hunters who have switched to precision shotguns and practice to hone their marksmanship take pride in only firing one round per deer killed.

A few years ago I retired my old pump gun from deer hunting and now only use it for pheasants. I bought an inexpensive single shot shotgun with a rifled barrel. It's light and handy, and puts the slug right where I aim. Buying a rifled barrel for shotguns that will take interchangeable barrels is a less expensive option for making the bird gun accurate, and even rifled choke tubes can greatly enhance accuracy. Mounting a scope on any shotgun will help most hunters increase their accuracy and pride in making one-shot kills.


Like many hunters seeking a new deer hunting challenge, I considered buying a muzzleloader and experiencing the hunting methods current 150 years and more ago. The more reading I did on blackpowder hunting, the more complicated it seemed, and I resisted making the change. By chance I met Tony Knight at a conference.

He had invented a particularly effective muzzleloader and had set up a factory in Centerville to make them. To this day, his is the only Iowa company making firearms. Tony invited me out to a rifle range to try shooting one of his guns. It proved to be simple to load and to clean, and its accuracy was amazing. I bought a Knight rifle and have been hunting with it for a decade.

Using a muzzleloader lets me hunt when few people are in the woods. Deer aren't spooked, and I've never felt handicapped by the single-shot nature of front-loading rifles. Embracing muzzleloading didn't mean I had to give up shotgun deer hunting. Thanks to expanded seasons, I was able to tag an October deer shot with a muzzleloader and a December doe killed with my shotgun during a special hunt.

There are now many modern in-line muzzleloaders on the market. New bullet designs are highly accurate, and lethal new powders are less corrosive and more effective than dirty old black powder. Muzzleloading has come into the modern age. Any hunter interested in making the switch from a modern shotgun to a frontloader can buy a rifle, bullets, and powder that are safe, accurate, and easy to learn to use.

There's even more of a test of skill awaiting those who arm themselves not with one of the modern refinements of the muzzleloader, but with a historical replica instead. Before smokeless powder and cartridge guns were invented, our forebears used cast-lead balls shot from relatively primitive blackpowder guns to kill millions of deer, elk, bison and other animals. They were effectively deadly then, and remain so today. Although most of today's muzzleloader hunters choose recently-developed in-line weapons, the caplock and flintlock remain as formidable as they were in their heyday. They offer the ultimate firearm hunting challenge.

Modern hunters wishing for a pleasant deer hunting experience can mentally shift time back and hunt the way our great-grandparents did. Cedar Rapids' Dave Smith regularly blocks off vacation time each fall and takes his caplock afield. "I built the rifle from a kit decades ago. I get close to the deer, and I've found a .50 caliber round ball so deadly effective that I've never been tempted to buy a modern in-line muzzleloader," he said.


One spring morning a few years ago, I was walking across a field near a small stream when a light triangular object resting on black topsoil caught my eye. It was a stone projectile point, still sharp after having lain on the ground for hundreds of years.

Native Americans used spears and arrows to kill game for thousands of years. You could say that bowhunting is the traditional way to hunt Iowa deer.

Bowhunting is a challenging way to match wits with deer. "The season is so long that it offers the opportunity to spend lots of time in the woods. It's my favorite way to hunt," said experienced archer Dave Heck. He's taken dozens of deer during bowhunting seasons over several decades and regularly hunts the new special seasons.

Bowhunting offers Iowans a huge advantage not shared by hunters in most other states. During the November rut, only bowhunting is legal in the Hawkeye State. Other states often time their firearms season for the rut, but Iowa archers enjoy this prime time without competition. This may be the main reason why bowhunters regularly take massive bucks.

Most bowhunters use modern bows made of space-age materials. These are comparatively easy to use and are deadly accurate and powerful. But bowhunting also lets Iowans duplicate the experience of the Native American hunter of prehistoric times. "I started bowhunting with traditional gear, because that was what was available. I later switched to a compound, but after several hunting seasons, I switched back to a longbow. I love it. It's more challenging. It makes me feel akin to Native Americans, or Robin Hood. Hunting with a longbow is more difficult than it is with a compound; further increasing the difficulty is the fact that I don't sit in a stand, but instead still-hunt. I just love the challenge," said longtime archer and bowhunter Dave Mason of Coggin.


A few years ago, the Iowa Legislature approved handguns as a legal deer-hunting firearm. They offer a new challenge.

"There aren't a real lot of people using handguns for deer hunting, but it offers an outstanding challenge. It's mostly a short-range firearm, and it takes skill to learn to accurately shoot a handgun and get within close range of a deer," said Matt Schrantz, manager of the Cedar Rapids Fin and Feather Store.

Dick Heft agrees. He is a retired FBI agent and skilled handgun marksman. "Most people have a hard time shooting a handgun accurately. It takes much practice to develop skill but that's part of the challenge and fun," he said.

Although many of the new legal handgun cartridges are effective out to 100 yards or more, few people have the skill to shoot accurately at that range. "Many of those powerful handguns are tough to shoot and are so big and heavy you just about need a wheelbarrow to lug them around," continued Heft. Some legal handgun cartridges are more comfortable to shoot but don't have he power to consistently drop deer beyond 50 yards. Learning the capability of the handgun and cartridge and practicing to develop skill are a big part of the deer hunting challenge.

Experienced handgun hunter Larry Weishuhn favors single-shot break-action pistols over revolvers. "Those types of guns are comfortable to shoot and

are very accurate. I always make sure I have a solid rest before I pull the trigger," he said.

Taking a deer with a handgun is a satisfying challenge. "I shot a doe with my .44 Magnum revolver on the last day of the 2003 season, and I'm proud of it," said Coe College professor Harlo Hadow.

There's one thing that handgun, bow, and muzzleloader hunters have in common with each other and with shotgun hunters. They all need to practice to develop their marksmanship skill.

With so many options available to Iowa deer hunters, this is a great year to increase the fun and challenge by trying new hunting methods and gear.

"I love the opportunities that increased deer numbers and new regulations have given me. It's made deer hunting more interesting and challenged me to learn more and try different techniques," said Schrantz.

More hunters should consider following his example.

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