May 02, 2016
If you somehow could "invent" the perfect place for bowhunting trophy whitetails, what might its key components be? You'd obviously start with great antler genetics. Then you'd add fertile habitat. Finally, you'd overlay it with hunting regulations that favor ample opportunity for archers to score.
And what you'd have would be a lot like Iowa.
Going back as far as 1961, when recurve shooter Lloyd Goad downed a 197 6/8-inch typical Pope & Young world record in Monroe County, the Hawkeye State has been a consistent producer of great deer in bow season. In fact, of the top 10 archery typicals of all time, two were shot in Iowa — and you can say the same on the non-typical side.
This incredible output of big deer is no accident. All of the ingredients have been there for many years, and they still are. "In addition to relatively mild winters, compared to the northern extent of whitetail range, Iowa has some of the best soil quality in North America," notes Andrew Norton, who heads up deer management for the DNR. "The combination of favorable climate and ideal soils provides nutrient-rich vegetation available to deer much of the year. And that allows for world-class trophy potential across the entire state.
"Annual and spatial variation in precipitation across the state will influence timing of available high quality vegetation, which can result in some local variation in antler growth," Andrew continues. "Ultimately, variability in the yield of trophy whitetails is primarily driven by the ability for bucks to reach prime age, which requires avoiding harvest for several years. Harvest vulnerability is influenced by adequate habitat, and hunter density and type."
Row Crops Contribute
Of course, in any farming mecca such as Iowa, the abundance of crops comes at the cost of cover. So not all areas of the state are equal for helping bucks hide long enough to get big.
"Intensively farmed, flat regions of Iowa spanning the northwest and north central regions generally provide little cover," Andrew points out. "As a result, bucks tend to be harvested at a younger age, before they can reach trophy status."
"Alternatively, across more rugged areas, where agriculture is less predominant in southern and northeastern Iowa, there will be a higher density of trophy bucks. Riparian habitat along major river corridors in Iowa, such as the Mississippi, Missouri, and Des Moines, provides ideally suited cover in addition to rugged terrain. That allows more bucks to reach their trophy potential," the biologist states.
Corn and soybeans are the most common crops in Iowa. And both contribute, in their own ways, to the state's renown as a trophy bowhunting destination.
"Increases in crop yields from modern farming practices have increased the carrying capacity of deer," Andrew points out. "Provided the deer population remains well below carrying capacity, there is relatively little food competition, which maximizes antler growth rates across Iowa. "However, land in agricultural production generally provides little to no habitat after the crop is harvested, which makes bucks more vulnerable to harvest," Andrew adds. "Large areas of quality habitat or tracts with limited to no buck harvest provide ideal hiding places that tend to produce older, larger bucks. In addition to the cover provided by riparian corridors, land enrolled in conservation programs or purchased primarily for recreational use provides additional suitable cover."
Not long after the October bow opener there's a short muzzleloader season (resident only), followed by more bowhunting clear into early December. Two short gun seasons (no centerfire rifles allowed) are held in December, following by a muzzleloader/bow season that runs into January. So bowhunters get the rut to themselves. That's one obvious reason this trophy-rich state is so highly regarded by residents and outsiders alike.
Iowa's herd is on the upswing again after spotty outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease in 2012 caused localized losses. In some areas, those losses were heavy. However, the number of P&Y deer at the 2016 Iowa Deer Classic last March suggests a resurgence of trophy numbers.
The only other known health threat in Iowa is chronic wasting disease, which is always fatal to infected deer. While the disease has been found in scattered parts of the state, it's difficult to know for sure what impact it could have on deer hunting opportunity in the future.
"As in many other regions, CWD is the primary disease concern in Iowa, because the long-term population impacts are unknown," Andrew explains. "We are intensively monitoring prevalence rates in areas where CWD has been detected, and we continue surveillance testing across the entire state.
"The DNR is actively working with local stakeholders and the public to mitigate impacts of the disease. Long-term potential for increasing prevalence rates that exceed 50 percent in adult bucks have been documented in core areas in Wyoming and Wisconsin, where localized population reduction is being realized."
A Reputation lives On
But for now, the Iowa herd seems to be in great shape. And with the state's reputation as a hotspot, it's no trouble finding takers for the 6,000 nonresident deer permits made available annually. The lottery drawing is held in June, and there always are far more applicants than permits. This is the case despite a price tag ranking among the world's highest: $426 for an either-sex permit. And that's not counting the required $112 hunting license or $13 habitat stamp.
Permits are allocated by zone and season type, with zones 3 (west), 4, 5, 6 (south) and 9 (northeast) historically ranking among the most popular. Perhaps surprisingly, in all zones it's harder to get drawn for bow season than for gun or muzzleloader season. In fact, Iowa limits each zone's archery permits to 35 percent of the total quota.
Do the math and you'll quickly see that, at least during bow season, there aren't likely to be many nonresidents in any given area at once. Nonresident landowners have no advantage in drawing tags, either. So once you draw your bow tag — which in some zones can take several years — you should be in for a quality bowhunt. Of course, what you tag is still up to you. Iowa bucks can get huge, but they aren't all that interested in a visit to the taxidermy shop.
For more information on bowhunting Iowa, visit: iowadnr.gov. Details on P&Y bucks from across North America are available at: pope-young.org.