December 12, 2023
Obviously on a mission, the mid-130s-class buck marched through several openings across the creek from me. Moments after he disappeared, an epic buck fight commenced. Based on the racket I was hearing, his assailant had to be huge.
The commotion subsided, and I soon caught glimpses of that same buck retreating with a bloody face. I scanned back in the direction of the fight and caught more movement in my bino. The second buck, posturing and walking toward the retreating buck, was world-class.
While I didn’t get to put an arrow through that legend, he reminded me why the demand to hunt southern Iowa is so high, and why it often takes years to draw a tag. Giants roam these hills and valleys thanks to strong genetics, booming nutrition, incredible habitat and limited non-resident tags.
GETTING THE TAG
If you want to hunt in southern Iowa, here's the skinny on applying for and eventually drawing a tag. First, there are four possible zones out-of-staters can hunt in this sector of the state: 3, 4, 5 and 6. Zones 4 and 5 are the two largest—and probably most desirable—in southern Iowa. We’ll focus on those two, as both have public-land hunting opportunities and big-buck potential.
However, the best starting point for a non-resident isn't to choose a zone, but to simply apply for a preference point (you don't have to specify a zone or weapon/season when applying for a preference point). The application period opens early in May and closes in early June. Preference points cost $60.50 plus application fees. If you apply for a tag and don't draw, you'll only be charged for the preference point. While accumulating points, I suggest making a scouting trip to one or more zones and learning the ground.
When you apply for and successfully draw a tag, you'll be charged $644 (plus application fees), which includes your non-resident hunting license, habitat fee and either-sex/antlerless combination tag. Of course, you must specify a weapon and season when applying for the tag.
Demand is greatest for archery tags since archery season coincides with all stages of the rut. Zones 4 and 5 require a minimum of four preference points before you even stand a chance of drawing.
Conversely, gun hunters can draw with as little as one preference point. Iowa runs two different gun seasons well after the rut, the first occurring early in December and the second occurring toward mid-December. Expect immense hunting pressure. A separate late-muzzleloader tag becomes valid later in December and runs more than a week into January. It's easy to draw, and hunting pressure is typically light.
I've hunted southern Iowa on both archery and muzzleloader tags, and neither are slam-dunk hunts on public land. During my bow hunt, I killed a nice buck on the ground from 15 yards with my wife beside me 10 days into my hunt. It was a challenging hunt, and there were usually a couple of vehicles in the public-land areas' parking lots. I did see the world-class buck mentioned earlier on that hunt, though, and I talked with other hunters who killed tremendous public-land bucks that season.
My muzzleloader hunt had other challenges. Hunting pressure was nonexistent, but I could tell gun hunters had used the public lands heavily in the weeks prior. On top of that, the weather was unseasonably warm and the moon was full, which made for a slow, difficult hunt. Deer on public lands were extremely nocturnal. Had the weather been consistently below freezing, I believe I would've seen many more bucks.
PRODUCING ON PUBLIC
I don't consider Iowa to be rich in the public-land department, but the limited tags regulate pressure to give everyone room. Both of my southern Iowa hunts were in Zone 4, and I spent a great deal of time on the DeKalb WMA southwest of Osceola. DeKalb is around 2,200 acres and includes a mix of timbered ridges, creek bottoms and agriculture—I've observed clover, soybeans and corn on the WMA. Several outdoor TV personalities have ground in the vicinity; many hunters know that and come here as a result. Despite the pressure, it produces some beautiful bucks.
DeKalb's ideal mix of topography creates lots of nice funnels and pinch points; you can hunt between bedding areas and food sources during the rut to get a bow shot at cruising bucks. In early October, before hunting pressure increases, focus on a water source in dry conditions or a food source (think oak ridges) during a cold front; hunt over scrapes near a bedding area. In November, find two or three stand locations for different winds and hunt them from dark to dark.
West of the DeKalb WMA and also in Zone 4, the Sand Creek WMA covers around 3,600 acres of pristine deer habitat. The area's southern half is heavily timbered with lots of topography. The western portion shares similar features, with occasional openings and fields. The northern and northeastern portions are far more open and richer in agriculture. I hunted it during muzzleloader season and observed harvested corn and soybeans.
The terrain and habitat on Sand Creek WMA resemble that of DeKalb, so hunting tactics during archery season are mostly interchangeable. Of course, Sand Creek has more acreage, so use your boots and dig in deep. In the more topographically diverse portions of the WMAs, hunt ridges or the spines leading down from these ridges where winds will be most consistent. Expect swirling, unpredictable winds down in the bottoms.
During the firearms season, anticipate heavy pressure and lots of shooting activity on both WMAs. Both locals and nonresidents may be conducting drives and pushes. Generally, pressure is somewhat lower during the middle of the week but still above moderate. Try to identify places where deer will likely exit the WMAs while fleeing to adjacent private lands and sit all day. A map-based hunting app is invaluable for mapping out these locations.
If hunting the muzzleloader season, pray for brutally cold temps and deep snow. This will congregate deer near agriculture, both on the WMAs and adjacent private lands. When the weather forces deer to eat to survive, even mature bucks are liable to enter food sources such as corn or bean fields in the daylight.
If you pull a Zone 5 tag, you'll want to check out the Rathbun Wildlife Area, which is more diverse than Dekalb and Sand Creek and covers more than 15,000 acres. Regardless of weapon/season, I suggest trying a few different strategies here. Whether you like hunting from treestands or popping in and out of spots, you can access secluded parts of Rathbun far from parking areas via Rathbun Lake (assuming you have access to a boat).
Since the WMA is heavily timbered, tons of deer bed on it and then feed on acorns on the way to agriculture on adjacent private lands. Rather than hunt the deepest reaches of timber, consider hunting the fringes. Finding and hunting actively used trails heading from public to private ground is key. Rubs and scrapes will confirm that bucks are actively using the route. As with the boat strategy, hunting the fringes reduces your impact and helps you escape most of the hunting pressure.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
- Tips on lodging, dining and gear for a southern Iowa adventure.
Zones 4 and 5 have abundant lodging options. Research primitive and modern camping possibilities and make reservations on the Iowa DNR website. For local motel accommodations, choose a small town within your hunting zone, but make reservations in advance. Most small towns have a decent restaurant or two.
Don’t do a DIY Iowa hunt without a mapping app (my personal choice is HuntStand Pro Whitetail). Always respect property lines so you don’t trigger an unwanted confrontation ending in trespassing charges. Also, use your app to get a better sense of terrain features and agriculture before the hunt.
Whether you’re hunting during October or January, bring your entire camo wardrobe. Temps fell to 8 degrees below zero during my early-November bow hunt, while the mercury dipped below freezing just once during my January muzzleloader hunt. Bring strap-on tree sticks and bow holders, as screw-in treestand equipment is prohibited on public lands. Sawing limbs and cutting shooting lanes is also illegal.
Pro tip: If you tag out early, head to Missouri and get an OTC deer tag.
Southern Iowa holds some huge bucks, but hunting them on public land can be challenging. Have realistic expectations, try hard to outwork and outsmart other hunters, and maybe you'll find a world-class buck at the end of a blood trail. I know of few places in the Midwest with better odds for such an outcome.