Shotgun Deer Opener Follow-up

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With daylight fading, we could just make out a line of orange in the field ahead of us. Three hunters were carting back Sunday's last deer to the narrow road, on the west end of the Hawkeye Wildlife Area.

Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Shawn Meier stepped down from his truck and approached their partners, who had arrived ahead of them. Licenses and deer tags were checked and returned. Guns were unloaded and cased. The small doe was set into the bed of a pickup, atop the four others deer already there. This group was done for the weekend.

The 10 hunters had seen plenty of deer, besides the five in the truck. They would decide later whether to go out in the final couple days of Iowa's first shotgun season. As Meier and officer Erika Anderson patrolled Johnson and Cedar counties on Sunday, they heard and saw pretty much the same thing. "I talked with 42 hunters and saw 13 deer," recalls Meier. Most of the groups had already taken deer on Saturday, too. "Most intend to hunt bucks the first day, or over the weekend," offers Meier. "As a last resort, or when they hunt the last day or two, they'll take does. Some did say they'd take a doe rather than shooting at a small buck."

That's an encouraging sign. The DNR is asking hunters to increase their doe harvest to reduce deer numbers. As an incentive, 84,000 antlerless tags were allotted county-by-county for hunters in all seasons, in addition to regular any sex, statewide permits. The DNR expects hunters (through all seasons; youth, bow, muzzleloader, shotgun and special late) to eclipse last year's record harvest of nearly 186,000 whitetails.

Austin Allen of Cedar Rapids had one of the county tags, as he hunted with friends near West Branch. "We've seen plenty of does. A few nice bucks," noted Allen. Their group had taken a couple nice bucks by mid-afternoon Sunday. But that extra tag in his pocket came in handy. "We used my antlerless tag; wanted some extra meat. Also, we want to help manage the herd. We like to trophy hunt and we thought that might help out."

By taking a doe, Allen and tens of thousands of other hunters reduce the population not just by one, but by the fawn or fawns each would have borne this spring. And by passing on a small-antlered buck for that doe, the buck will have another year for his antlers to approach trophy size. "I'm surprised. A lot of the hunters say they're not seeing the does they saw in past years; that there were more bucks," offers Meier. "We might be making headway in getting deer numbers down."

For some reason, Sunday seemed pretty laid back, for Meier, anyway. "This is the first year I haven't had any verbal 'scuffles' with someone," he acknowledged. He wrote two tickets Saturday; none Sunday. "I didn't see any stress. Maybe it was the nice weather. Maybe it was because we didn't check anyone in the middle of a busy drive. Maybe everybody was getting a deer."

That's not to say everybody was toeing the line. Saturday, I rode with officers in Benton and Linn counties, where a few hunters kept them-and their ticket books-busy. Telltale two-way radio traffic led officers to one group, using it to track a wounded deer. One of them was also holding a landowner tag. It just wasn't on his property. He had company, too, in the next timber. Three of the four hunters checked by officers came away with fines to pay, including one with two landowner tags, sitting comfortably in a blind--but nowhere near his property.

"We saw hundreds of hunters on Sunday, though," reports officer Aric Sloterdyk, who was working the area with six other officers. "Lots of deer, too."

With a colder forecast in sight, Iowa's second round, the late shotgun season, kicks off this Saturday.