Hawkeye hunters are smack dab in the middle of some of the nation's best whitetail deer hunting. Iowa big buck opportunities are no secret as many high-scoring deer get shot or arrowed in this Midwestern, predominately rural state.
With a lot of big deer and the attention that brings however, hunters have had to continually adapt. Big deer raise the bar. When big deer are on the landscape, hunters seem to get increasingly cunning not just to outwit the grey-muzzled, Roman-nosed buck, but also just to compete with other hunters.
When we look at what is a trophy whitetail, the method and story along with opportunities present always affect the score in this hunter's book. Some hunters have access to large, private tracts of primo land that can be managed specifically for harvesting a mature whitetail with stud genetics. Other hunters hunt on the fringe where huge racks are still possible but not as probable.
Regardless of where a hunter stands in regards to access and opportunity, farming practices often dictate the savvy deer hunter's strategy. Also, as farming practices, crop genetics and crop rotations have changed over the last twenty years, both deer and hunters have made adjustments out of necessity.
For many hunters, crops and agricultural practices dictate travel routes, bedding areas and, ultimately, stand placement — especially on tracts of land that do not have food plots.
FIELDS OF DREAMS
Corn is a commodity that has an incredible influence on both deer and deer hunters in the state of Iowa. Corn, or a lack thereof, drastically alters deer travel. On some ground, corn is rotated with crops like soybeans, for example, and as a result, hot funnels and travel routes can vary drastically from season to season by just the common variable of what adjacent crops are planted.
Iowa ranks number one in the nation in regards to corn bushels produced each season. In 2011, there were approximately 14.1 million acres planted into corn. An estimated 2.36 million bushels of corn were produced in Iowa during 2011. With CRP acres dwindling, the amount of corn produced has been increasing each year. This increase in corn, loss of CRP and, in some cases, late corn harvests are changing deer hunting strategy in Iowa.
"We used to have a lot more of CRP when commodity prices were lower," explains Iowa deer hunting fanatic Mark Sexton. The CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) was a farm program that idled tilled acres back to native grasslands and was good habitat for wildlife. "The CRP has switchgrass and other good cover and when we had the CRP, the deer had a tendency to spread out more than they are now, particularly during the early bow season. These tracts of CRP produced a lot of nice bucks. Without as much CRP and more and more CRP contracts expiring each season, what was once grass is once again planted to crops like corn."
According to Sexton, bedding areas get more defined and concentrated. Without the grass cover, the deer get concentrated moreso in fingers, draws and other cover with tangled brush and thick wood. With fewer deer after the hard winter of 2011 and more concentrated deer with less CRP on the landscape, there are fewer deer and many big buck opportunities are more concentrated in prime wood cover that might be more challenging to access.
With more corn and less cover, deer habits and movements have changed, which can create some challenges for hunters.
"When the corn is standing, deer often seem to move less as they have such an easy existence," explains Sexton. "We often see deer bedding right in the corn or moving less than a half-mile from where they are bedding. When deer aren't moving far on a travel route, it can become much easier to kick up deer trying to slide in or out of the stand location." Sexton also observes that deer often move less during the day and can be hard to pattern. "You definitely have to do your homework more as it is much harder to go out without any prior knowledge and try and get lucky — at least until the rut begins."
Many deer will indeed bed down in standing corn (especially if there are weeds and other cover in the field), which can offer deer more security. Sexton also focuses on thick draws or ridges that have good cover that somehow touches or intersects any standing corn. Sexton believes that big deer will often follow the cover a little more before the rut and late summer scouting is invaluable, particularly when the bucks are still in their small bachelor groups.
When deer are still in velvet, often before the season, one of Sextons favorite scouting strategies is to look for deer hitting soybean fields. Soybeans get harvested much sooner than corn and seem very palatable to deer late in the summer. Because deer are much more visible in soybean fields by late summer, hunters can assess the buck potential in an area. In many parts of Iowa, soybeans are often rotated with corn. While Sexton might not find solid patterns during the season where deer are hitting soybeans during daylight hours, particularly when there is abundant standing corn on the landscape, hunters can find deer that are using these crops during summer. This assessment of deer in the area where the hunter is scouting is invaluable.
STANDING CORN STRATEGY
Standing corn presents a unique situation because the corn is tall enough where deer cannot only feed but also travel undetected, particularly during daylight hours. There are also some situations where deer will bed down in the cover provided by standing corn. The sheer size of some cornfields almost present a deer refuge in that it might be difficult to find deer traveling out of the corn.
During seasons where a majority of corn does not get combined during the rifle season, success is affected dramatically. Hunters have a much more difficult time harvesting deer when there is a lot of standing corn around. According to Sexton, most years see anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of corn combined or chopped by the time the rut starts. On cattle operations, corn is likely to get chopped sooner, even with a higher moisture content. Farming operations that are combining corn generally have to wait longer, typically after a hard frost and then when the moisture gets low enough, as drying corn is very expensive and affects profitability.
A lot of standing corn might discourage hunters, but Sexton has learned to adapt and roll with what situations are present. Stalking bedding deer in standing corn is thrilling, explains Sexton. "You can sometimes sneak up within 10 yards of a huge buck and this is an exciting way to hunt.
"When I know that a good buck is bedding down in the corn and I just can't get a pattern where the buck will travel or expose itself, I have shot some good deer by stalking them in the corn. You have to be patient. You have to slowly work row by row, bending over and peering down the row until you locate the buck you want to harvest. When you find the deer you are looking for bedded down, you can often back off the deer a handful of rows and sneak up on the deer from the downwind side."
Stalking in corn has several advantages in that the rows can conceal your movements, but Sexton often waits until conditions are perfect. "I like to wait until there is a light wind of about 10 mph to mask noise and keep my scent away but too strong of winds just seem to keep the deer jumpy. What is also ideal is a drizzle of rain. Rain masks noise even more as the stalks and ground become much quieter. Soft rain and 10 mph wind is perfect for stalking bucks bedding down in standing corn."
While becoming rarer and rarer as efficient as farm operations have become, some cornfields can also have draws, ravines and low spots that might be home to weed patches and other cover. I have seen deer bedding in standing corn right in the middle of the rows on several occasions, but any kind of additional cover seems to focus bedding and travel routes.
When you have standing corn, you have to be a lot more strategic. Everything can become more difficult. Just sliding in and out of the stand can become harder. Finding deer moving during daylight hours can also be challenging. When the corn comes off, however, the playing field changes dramatically. Often, the corn harvest coincides with the rut.
These two factors working together account for some of Iowa's largest dead deer. When the corn does come down and the rut kicks into gear, Sexton points out the obvious: Find large concentrations of does and you will find interested bucks. Again, the forage provided by corn or cattle silage often focus deer travel and movements, but deer become so much more visible during this period. The key, according to hunters like Sexton, is to just make the time to be in the field during this time.
The rut can vary from year to year and hunters who can correlate their schedules to be in the woods at that time stand a much better chance at seeing big deer. Huge deer that were never seen before suddenly show up. Big deer that had never made mistakes or moved during the day are now standing out in the open during the middle of the day. Besides obvious rut activity moving deer, activity during the actual harvest can also move them. On the flip side, late seeding combined with wet or cool falls where corn does not get harvested before or during the rut can create frustrating hunting conditions. Luckily for Iowa deer hunters, late corn harvests are not the norm.
The winter of 2011 definitely knocked down deer numbers in the state of Iowa and across the upper Midwest as snow accumulations and a hard winter seemed to have increased winter mortality. The late-season hunters who target whitetails with both bow and muzzleloader often have to make adjustments as well, particularly if winter comes hard and early.
Feed lots for cattle and silage piles are a natural draw for deer when conditions get tough. Ironically, too much corn in the diet can actually cause a condition known as acute acidosis, which kills deer, and this condition is more common during brutal winters when much of the natural forage is lean and stressed deer have to make a sudden diet switch from mixed forage to straight corn. Also note that baiting for deer is illegal in Iowa.
There is no hiding the fact, however, that when conditions get tough, deer concentrate near viable food sources and good winter cover. The key to dialing in deer late in the season is accessing areas where deer are concentrated near ample amounts of food and good winter cover. This often occurs near cattle operations and the sheltered woodlots of farmsteads. Heavy snow, for example, will really funnel and dictate deer activity to a defined corridor and locations can be really predictable.
The key for being successful late in the season is just having the stamina to stay outside for long periods of time in frigid temperatures. One key to staying comfortable in the cold that is often overlooked besides dressing appropriately is bringing plenty of liquids to drink. When the days get short, big bucks have a tendency to move and show themselves moreso during the day. Besides the rut, don't overlook the late season as a prime opportunity to pattern a mature buck.
While deer numbers are below what hunters enjoyed just a few short years ago when multiple licenses were readily available, there are still awesome opportunities to harvest deer in Iowa, and understanding the role of agriculture is crucial for success. Savvy hunters like Mark Sexton study the details and some of these acute observations can make you a better hunter.