Shotgun Deer Season Preview

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Hunting for a trophy buck, or just filling your freezer? You can do both this deer season, and still go back for more.

For years, many deer hunters have watched does and fawns trot by, waiting instead for a shot at a wall-hanger buck. In recent years, extra 'anterless' tags, seasons and bonus zones have helped boost the annual whitetail harvest. This year, an additional 30,000 antlerless tags are available. "Our surveys indicate populations are probably about 20 percent higher than we would like," notes Department of Natural Resources deer biologist Willy Suchy. "With the extra tags, a hunter can shoot a doe right off the bat and then hunt selectively for a buck. It gives hunters the chance to manage their harvest."

Hunters in Iowa's youth, disabled, bow and early muzzleloader deer seasons have been out already. However, deer hunting gets underway in a big way this Saturday. Close to 100,000 hunters will head to the woods in the first shotgun season (Dec. 6 to 10). Another 60,000 hunt the second season (Dec. 13 to 21). Wildlife officials feel that hunters may pass up a small buck, if they have already dropped a doe. They could then wait for that trophy rack, yet still have a deer to take home if they don't get it. "That allows younger bucks to grow and improves the quality of the herd, while controlling deer numbers," emphasizes Suchy. "With the abundant tags available, we should have a real good deer season. Shotgun season hunters should be looking at a record harvest."

Those 'county specific' antlerless tags are going fast. By Monday morning, quotas had been reached in 46 counties, with a dozen more nearly met. Other antlerless tags have been available this fall in 22 special zone hunts (primarily in state or county parks) and through farm unit depredation programs. Another incentive is the expansion of the late January (11 to 19) season from southern Iowa to the entire state.

Getting the tags is the easy part. From there, you have to be in the right place as wary whitetails react to the opening day invasion. "Deer are real adaptable," reminds Suchy. "Once they figure out what's going on; once they get through one or two drives, they'll find the overlooked places." He says those range from a weedy fencerow, to an out of the way ravine, to a CRP field, even a willow thicket below a pond. A year ago, our group pushed a wide, flat creek bed for the first time. Though it sat just a mile from the timber and limestone bluffs we regularly hunt, we had ignored it, and so did surrounding hunters. At least three does escaped out the side, during the drive. One buck did not; our only deer on opening day.

Another hunter miscue is to ignore a deer's primary defense...its nose. Any bow hunter has stories about deer walking in on them, only to hit an invisible 'wall' with a whiff of human scent. Shotgun hunters should remember that, too. "Deer want to head into the wind, when threatened. Take that wind direction into account when you set up a drive," urges Suchy. "Ideally, you want deer heading into a cross wind, so they will not (go straight at and) smell the standers."

Even if the wind is on your side, you still have to contend with those big, cupped ears. "Loud talking, car doors slamming, that sort of thing tips them off," emphasized Suchy, as we stood outside a week or so ago. "A pickup roaring through a field, where there hasn't been one all year; that's the sort of thing to avoid." As if on cue, he pointed behind me. I turned just in time to see a monster buck disappear down a slope. He had been bedded down 50 yards away, on a brushy fence line. He tolerated our intrusion for a couple minutes, but no more. His escape route? Even though an empty state park was to the east, he steered his 10-point rack west...straight into the wind.

When all the seasons close, though, more than 100,000 hunters will have had the skill-or the luck-to bring home a deer. The stories usually favor skill over luck. Still, luck is often described as taking advantage of the right situation. Either way works in an Iowa deer season.