Although a trophy whitetail can show up anywhere in Iowa, some areas outproduce the rest. Let's look at the regions and counties that provide the best opportunities to down one for the books.
As most trophy hunters know, big bucks are where you find them, and in a "hay stack" the size of Iowa, finding the needle can be a daunting task. However, statistics don't lie, and if the numbers are to be believed, the southeast and northeast regions of the state are where you want to begin your hunt in 2010.
How big do Iowa bucks get? Well, last year 400 bucks (2008-killed deer) were entered in the Iowa Deer Classic, which requires a minimum score of 135 typical and 155 non-typical in certain categories. Some 90 entrants measured 160 inches or more typical or 180 or more non-typical, which means that 25 percent of the bucks entered were above the Boone and Crockett minimum scores! One of those deer, a Jackson County non-typical, scored 275 and was the No. 3 buck taken in the U.S. that season!
Among 2009 bucks registered after the season ended, Travis Hamilton's Lucas County monster that scored 244 6/8 led the pack. It was followed by Ryan Hobart's 230 2/8 non-typical, which was taken in Madison County. Tom Demro's Butler County trophy, scoring 197 Boone and Crockett points, also made the list last season.
PRIVATE OR PUBLIC LANDS?
The DNR's Wildlife Bureau manages more than 356,000 acres that are open to hunting. The IDNR Web site offers a listing of these areas and updated regulations governing their use. Hunters who do not have access to private lands can look for good places to hunt in the state's most productive big buck counties and tailor their hunts to public land regulations.
Most hunters consider private lands to be the best places to find and hunt for trophy deer. Access to these lands varies according to the whims of landowners.
It's always best to seek permission to hunt well before the season opens, giving the landowner time to consider his options and perhaps find a way to include more hunters during convenient time periods. Be willing to hunt the off days, the middle of the week, areas where the landowner's friends or relatives don't hunt . . . Find a compromise that allows you to gain access without adding concerns or conflicts to the landowner's traditions or plans.
Don't expect to be allowed to hunt during peak periods (the rut, for example) on weekends or holidays. Be willing to hunt the early season or the late season, and let the landowner decide where he wants you to hunt. In most cases, based on your performance, the landowner will eventually allow you to hunt more often in the best places on his property. All this takes time and energy, of course, but it's part of the cost of taking a record-class Iowa buck.
NUMBERS OR TROPHIES?
Even though Iowa's state biologists continue to work to reduce the number of deer statewide, the number of trophy bucks available to hunters is not likely to be effected.
According to Tom Litchfield, an IDNR deer management specialist, reducing total deer numbers actually allows bucks to achieve maximum antler growth. Studies have shown that when deer numbers reach or exceed the habitat's carrying capacity, the number of trophy bucks in the same area is reduced. Stress, competition and other social and environmental factors will have an effect on trophy antler production, which explains why many states with high deer numbers often produce few trophy-class bucks.
What's probably helping Iowa produce more big bucks, however, is the recent trend toward trophy hunting, where sportsmen voluntarily refrain from shooting less mature bucks in hopes of tagging a high-end trophy-class animal. The odds for success are still relatively slim, but many hunters who do pass on immature bucks are often rewarded with the buck of a lifetime. Meat hunters, of course, are encouraged to shoot more does while letting the smaller bucks go and grow.
Recent studies have shown that the majority of Iowa's top bucks are taken in their fourth or fifth year. Our biggest bucks (scoring over 200 B&C points, non-typical) are often only 4 or 5 years old. Iowa biologists suggest that if hunters would let these monster bucks grow into their seventh or even eighth year, the North American record books would have to be rewritten!
According to biologist Litchfield, a buck's full potential in tine length, mass and spread are not reached until the animal is 6 to 8 years old. A hunter who kills a 5-year-old Iowa buck, thinking it is at its peak of development, is actually taking the animal two or three years too soon.
Of course, except for farmers, private landowners and others who have exclusive access to prime habitat and can afford to wait for a buck to reach its eighth year, the concept is probably out of reach. Once a buck reaches full maturity in an area where other hunters know about and focus on it, the odds of being the one to register that buck become minimal at best.
Still, the concept is simple enough: If you let a 2-year-old, branch-antlered buck walk away this season, odds are good that he will be an impressive 10-pointer next year. Let two, three or more seasons pass and you will have a buck that should rank high on the DNR's Iowa Trophy Deer List -- otherwise known as "The List."
Genetics, soil, food sources, herd health and of course the chance for bucks to grow for at least a few years are all important factors in the production of trophy whitetails. Photo by Steve Carpenteri.
Perhaps the must useful tool in the Iowa deer hunter's arsenal, "The List" is a 128-page continuing listing of Iowa's top bucks. Aside from the name and home town of the hunter, The List also includes the year the buck was taken, the county and its total score. Unfortunately, The List does not differentiate between typicals or non-typicals, which can cause some confusion three or four pages into the document when total scores drop into the 180s. Also, The List does not include the date of harvest, which could be another valuable piece of information for trophy hunters. It's likely that most of those big bucks were taken during late October to late November, which is when the rut tends to peak in Iowa. That is the time when bucks are most active and therefore become more vulnerable to hunters.
For the trophy hunter, the county where the deer was taken is important information regardless of the harvest date. Find a by-county trend and you've substantially narrowed your search for your 2010 trophy buck.
The List, which is available for viewing and downloading at www.iowadnr.gov/wildlife/files/files/iowatrophydeer.pdf, contains more than 5,000 entries and is updated annually, but it is not a complete list of Iowa's top bucks. Not all hunters want to or will list their trophies (a common dilemma in other trophy deer states as well). Many hunters don't realize how big their trophies are and don't even bother to have them scored. It's only when a knowledgeable sportsmen happens to see them (in a den, a bar or other gathering place) that they get scored and registered.
The element of secrecy aside, The List is a great starting point for hunters looking to take advantage of the odds. At the very least it can be a great help in selecting a county or region of the state to begin the search for a trophy deer.
OUR TOP BUCK COUNTIES
It's rare for any state's top-producing counties to falter from year to year, and this holds true for Iowa. According to the state's 2009 harvest results, Clayton County in northeast Iowa led the state with 1,984 antlered bucks taken. Allamakee County, also in the northeast region, came in second with 1,461 antlered bucks tagged. Following were Van Buren (1,152), Warren (1,135) Jackson (1,111), Madison (909), Winneshiek (882), Dubuque (861), Appanoose (855) and Johnson (801).
All of the top 10 buck-harvest counties are in the northeast or south-central parts of the state. Some 35 counties around the state produced 500 or more branch-antlered bucks last season, a good indication that trophy-class bucks likely exist almost statewide. Even in the lowest-ranked county (Grundy), some 52 branch-antlered bucks were taken. Given a healthy deer herd, prime habitat and time to grow, your 2010 trophy buck may well be found anywhere in Iowa.
Of course, narrowing the search is the challenge for hunters who have only a few weekends or vacation weeks to invest in their search for a record-book buck.
It's helpful to know that bowhunters typically lead the pack when it comes to tagging Iowa's top bucks. Not only do archers tend to be more selective (due in part to longer seasons and better hunting conditions overall), but they also have the advantage of being the only ones allowed to hunt during the rut. If you don't think that's a major factor, consider that Rhode Island leads the Northeast in the trophy buck listings in that region. Why? Because Ocean State muzzleloader hunters are the only gun hunters who are allowed to hunt during the peak of the rut in their state. Combine the high deer activity that takes place during the rut with an army of bowhunters afield, and it is easy to see why they lead the pack when it comes to tagging trophy bucks in Iowa.
Shotgun hunters have registered nearly identical numbers of trophy bucks in Iowa over the years, while muzzleloader hunters add about 10 percent of trophy bucks to the mix. Crossbow and handgun hunters produce their (comparatively small) share of big bucks as well. Obviously, it's not what you use to shoot your buck, it's where you are when you shoot him that matters most.
AND THE WINNER IS . . .
In the final analysis of Iowa trophy deer harvests and records, northeast Iowa is the place to be for odds-on trophy deer hunting, especially for shotgun hunters. The largest archery racks continue to come from the south-central counties. This has been the trend for several years and is likely to continue as long as habitat conditions remain static.
As always, hunters who do their homework, contact landowners early for permission to scout and hunt, and who exercise restraint when faced with bucks under age 4 should do well this season.
One fact of the trophy hunter's life: expect to do very little shooting in your quest for a monster Iowa buck. Hours turn to days, weeks and months, but sooner or later you will have your chance. Put in your time, be ready and know which buck you want to shoot. With luck, patience and perseverance you will eventually have your chance!
GET IN THE GAME
Hunters who successfully bag a deer with trophy-sized antlers in Iowa are encouraged to enter the rack in Iowa's big game registry. Award certificates will be issued by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to eligible entries that meet minimum standards.
In order to qualify for an award, the rack must be measured by an official measurer for the Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young Club or by a wildlife biologist, conservation officer or other individual certified by the DNR to measure for the Iowa program. There is no charge for measuring or submitting entries for the Iowa record book.
Because of shrinkage in varying degrees, the rack must be air dried for at least 60 days following the date of kill before it can be officially measured. There is no time limit concerning how long ago the deer was killed for measurement purposes or for entry into the Iowa records.
Deer hunters who want to have their trophy rack officially measured should call one of the official Iowa measurers to set up an appointment to have the rack measured.
A list of measurers is also available by writing the Iowa DNR, Attn: Deer Antler Measurement, Wallace State Office Building, Des Moines, IA, 50319-0034.
If the rack meets the minimum scores the measurement form should be sent to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, ATTN: Deer Records, Wallace State Office Building, Des Moines, IA 50319-0034.
Iowa's 2010 deer archery season continues through Dec. 4 and then again from Dec. 21 through Jan. 10. The muzzleloader season is from Dec. 21 through Jan. 10. The shotgun season runs in two splits from Dec. 5-9 and Dec. 12-20.
For more information, contact the Iowa Department of Natural Resources at www.iowadnr.gov.