There are still good opportunities available for Iowa whitetails if you're trying to fill a tag.
New Year's Day, and I'm sitting on a 66-acre parcel of private property on the edge of Cedar Rapids.
Eight inches of new snow, maybe 10, blanket the ground, and I've been sitting at the base of the oak long enough to feel each and every degree below zero.
But the late afternoon sun, though not warm by any means, does add a touch of psychological warmth to my otherwise quite chilly situation.
Movement on the ridge to the west catches me watching a half dozen gray squirrels digging through the snow. Antlers, high and wide, silhouetted against the fading sun.
Slowly, methodically, the buck works his way downslope to the heavy trail in front of me and, as I watch, he turns due east toward my hide.
Quietly, I raise the Long Range Hunter to my shoulder, the forearm already nestled onto the shooting sticks between my knees.
At 60 yards, he stops. Stands. Surveys the white world around him. He's relaxed; I'm not, but I somehow manage to slow my heartbeat and ease my breathing as the crosshairs shake — settle — shake — and settle behind his shoulder. Ï…
There's a bit of smoke, but not so much I can't see the buck drop where he stands. Not a kick. Not a shudder.
I shuffle the 180 feet to where the buck lies. Steam rises from the red-tinged mar made by the passage of the .50 caliber slug. "Big Buck Down" is the note I send to my wife, Julia Carol. "On my way" is her three-word reply.
In Iowa, it's a scene repeated time and time again from the Mississippi west to the shores of the Mighty Missouri.
Sure, the Hawkeye State can be downright inhospitable in terms of weather once December rolls around, with snow, ice and temperatures comparable to those found on the surface of Neptune, or roughly -330 degrees Fahrenheit.
A slight exaggeration, but not far off. Still, and despite what the thermometer might read, there are plenty of whitetails roaming within the borders of the Hawkeye State, and among the estimated 400,000 animals may very well lurk the next Boone & Crockett or Pope & Young world record. For those willing to invest the time, endure the bitter cold, and make that one shot count, he's out there.
Truth be told, and from what we experienced in our 17 years as Iowa residents, it's difficult, if not impossible, to throw a dart at a map of the state and not hit a location with good to excellent whitetail potential, including opportunities on state-owned properties.
Is it as good as it was in 2,000? Numerically, no; however, biologists will tell you, as will almost 100 percent of the farmers polled, that in 2,000, Iowa had what would be considered technically an overabundance of whitetails. Or in layman's terms, too many deer.
"This (too many deer) is highly dependent upon whom you ask, which adds to the challenge of managing deer," said Tyler Harms of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Harms is the research biometrician for the wildlife bureau. He's primarily responsible for population modeling of deer and assists with population modeling of other game species, such as wild turkeys.
He provides technical guidance on research and survey design to wildlife biologists and assists with coordinating statewide harvest surveys.
But back to too many deer.
"We're managing the deer population for all Iowa citizens," Harms noted. "What was true 15 years ago was that we experienced a critical turning point in Iowa deer management with the formation of the Iowa Deer Study Advisory Group."
This group, the biologist explained, was a collaboration of various stakeholders including hunting and conservation groups, insurance companies, agricultural organizations and other special-interest collectives, which was then tasked with reviewing deer management decisions in the interest of all Iowans.
"Not only do we need to consider the desires of our stakeholders," said Harms, "but we need to respond to the population itself. At the end of the day, biologists need to respond to current conditions and interests, while ensuring those actions maintain a viable future for deer populations."
Iowa's whitetail situation, reported Harms, has changed since the formation of the advisory group and his aforementioned critical turning point.
"Since 2013," he said, "we've been maintaining Iowa's white-tailed deer population at an agreed upon level, not only among biologists but also among other stakeholders. This was a population goal established by the Iowa Deer Study Advisory Group. And our goal as professional biologists is to maintain a healthy deer population accepted by all citizens."
A wildlife professional's job is, however, challenging when it comes to the human balancing act he or she must maintain; that is, offsetting those who might not be pleased with a particular population status, in this case deer, with those who are satisfied.
That said, are Iowa hunters for the most part content with the state of the state's whitetail herd?
"Overall," said Harms, "hunters statewide are mostly pleased with the numbers. As expected, we do see local — e.g., county-level — population changes in response to disease and other factors that do raise concerns among hunters. We address these local population changes through antlerless quota changes or other management actions using the best information available."
Traditionally, southern Iowa has been the place to go in terms of numbers of deer.
During our tenure in the Hawkeye State, our annual trips to the Centerville area were consistently successful, not only in terms of encounters but in whitetails that made the transition from the field to our freezer.
In fact, some of the nicest bucks we tagged throughout the opening years of the 21st century came courtesy of Appanoose County.
But now, almost a decade later, does the same geographical numeric superiority hold true; that is, are the southernmost tiers of counties still the place to go if relocating venison to your ice chest is the goal?
"Southern Iowa is still the best area of the state for both numbers and quality of white-tailed deer," noted Harms, without hesitation. "Populations in southeast Iowa are recovering from a few years of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) outbreaks, but the numbers and quality of deer in southern Iowa are still high relative to other areas of the state."
If southern Iowa is the hotspot, are there areas that might be considered sleepers, or parts of the state that fly just a bit below the radar in terms of what they can provide the whitetail fanatic?
"Don't overlook northeast Iowa as an area of the state with a high population of white-tailed deer," said Harms. "And the Loess Hills along the western edge of the state can also provide the setting for a quality hunt."
Conversely, would the biologist describe any region of Iowa as being somewhat problematic as far as deer and deer hunting opportunities are concerned?
"We've seen steady decline in deer populations in northwest Iowa, likely due to a lack of suitable habitat," Harms stated. "Hunters will have to look a little harder for their deer in this part of the state, but there are still (animals) in areas with suitable habitat."
According to numbers posted in February by the IDNR, hunters reported harvesting 101,397 whitetails during the 2016-17 season, or approximately 3,000 fewer animals than were harvested the previous year.
Warm weather during the October early muzzleloader season, it's surmised, played a role in this falter in the harvest, as did the 400 fewer whitetails tagged by youth hunters during their late September/early October opportunity.
Where are many of these whitetails harvested? Here in condensed form are some of the state's best bets for those seeking a meeting with that buck of a lifetime.
Situated between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, the 13,000 acres of the Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area receive quite a bit of hunting pressure from the nearby metro areas; however, much of the area is almost impenetrable, being a mix of willows, reed canary grass, cattails and cockleburs. Perfect for seclusion-seeking whitetails, and likewise for stealthy late-season still hunters.
Shimek State Forest
This 9,000-acre block of state land lies in extreme southeastern Iowa along the Des Moines River. And while Shimek sees its share of pressure throughout the season, it's expansive enough to provide excellent potential from October until mid-January.
Southern Iowa's 16,000-acre Rathbun WMA encompasses portions of Appanoose, Lucas, Wayne, and Monroe counties, and provides fantastic deer, turkey and small game hunting. Boating into one of the many sheltered bays and disembarking to still-hunt is a popular method on Rathbun.
Yellow River State Forest
With headquarters in Harper's Ferry in northeast Iowa, the 8,500-acre Yellow River State Forest is one of the state's best bets in terms of providing a rendezvous with a trophy buck. However, the region's rugged terrain often makes for tough going. Add snow, and the Yellow River can be quite the workout.
MID AND SOUTH-CENTRAL
One of Iowa's largest WMAs, Red Rock's 31,000 acres cover four counties along the Des Moines River in the south-central portion of the state north of Knoxville. Pressure can be high, courtesy of the state capital; however, notable bucks are tagged each year during December's shotgun and late muzzleloader seasons.
Iowa River Corridor
A collection of holdings bordering the Iowa River, the 10,000-acre IRC near Chelsea is a mix of tall grass uplands, wild marsh, and heavy bottomland timber — the perfect environment for a wall-worthy whitetail.
Polk, Dallas, and Boone counties all include portions of the 26,000-acre Saylorville Complex, a wildlife-rich collection of creeks, ponds, grasslands and timber in various stages of development. Like Rathbun, Saylorville's reaches do lend themselves to the boat-based deer hunter.
Stephens State Forest
With more than 15,000 acres in seven separate units, the Stephens State Forest near Chariton is a popular, though fortunately expansive option for the late-season deer hunter. It's rugged terrain, and those unfamiliar with the property might benefit from having a GPS.
Loess Hills State Forest
Whitetails and Eastern gobblers both call western Iowa's Loess Hills home, and in excellent numbers. The four units of the state forest — Little Sioux, Preparation Canyon, Pisgah, and Mondamin — total almost 12,000 rough-and-tumble acres of timber, scrub and rock. There are deer, some big deer, but the Hills aren't for the timid nor physically unfit.
Missouri Valley WMAs
Bigger isn't always better when it comes to acreage and trophy whitetails. In fact, some of the best bucks harvested annually are taken on small, and thus oft-overlooked public parcels.
Many such diminutive blocks can be found along the Missouri River in far western Iowa, including IDNR-managed properties like the Brown's Lake WMA (1,100 acres), Snyder Bend (1,800), Tieville Bend (540), Blue Lake (1,200), and Deer Island (800).
We've taken a look at several of the top locations across the state likely to produce that big buck you've been searching for. Now it's time to hit one of these hotspots or another one near you and and make that bid for big-buck success.