Iowa's big game takes center stage this weekend, with the opening of Iowa's two shotgun deer seasons. About 70,000 hunters are expected over the five day (December 4-8) first season. Another 50,000 should be pursuing whitetails in the nine day (December 11-19) second season.
December weather always factors into hunter participation and deer harvest. For this weekend's opener, it looks like hunters will avoid ice, heavy snow or bitter subzero temperatures; important as wildlife officials work to balance the state's deer herd.
"Our shotgun seasons are the most popular in the state. The majority of our harvest comes from the shotgun seasons," notes Tom Litchfield, DNR deer biologist. "In the overall scheme, shotgun seasons are very important in managing the deer herd in Iowa."
About 28,000 holders of landowner/tenant shotgun tags may hunt either or both seasons, so long as their tag is unfilled.
Even with a favorable weather forecast, hunters will probably take fewer deer. Through all seasons, which end January 31, Litchfield expects the deer harvest to be down four to five percent from last year's 136,504 total. That is due to populations in most counties coming into line with targeted goals.
County-specific antlerless deer tags have been utilized over the last decade to reduce doe numbers. Early this week, those tags were still plentiful across Iowa's southern two tiers of counties and the four northeastern counties; where deer numbers are generally higher and hunter pressure is lower. More than 20 other counties with lower quotas had sold out. In 27 northwest and north central counties, no county-wide antlerless tags were available this year. Hunters may still purchase a statewide 'any deer' tag for one of the gun seasons, whether they obtain antlerless tags or not.
Hunters will head into the shotgun season with virtually all crops harvested; a marked change from last year. "Without (standing) corn especially, deer have to disperse to remaining cover; a forested area, brushy cover...even CRP grasses and marshes. It does concentrate deer more," says Litchfield. On the other hand, he notes that many river bottoms flooded again this summer. That alters winter food sources and cover.
Iowa's shotgun seasons provide for party hunting. Any hunter in a party can tag a deer shot by another member, as long as it is within 15 minutes or before it is moved, whichever comes first. Traditional drives can be quite effective, as deer are pushed toward posted 'blockers.'
Still, Litchfield reminds hunters to consider the wind. Iowa deer have a keen sense of smell and prefer to travel into or across the wind, to detect danger when pushed by drivers. That would suggest sometimes running a traditional drive 'backwards,' to move more deer past blockers.