Iowa has been known as a top big-buck producer for decades, but does its potential still live up to the legend?
On June 17, I received the e-mail that anyone who enters Iowa’s deer draw hopes to find in their inbox: My application had been successful for an either-sex, late-muzzleloader deer tag, which also includes a mandatory antlerless tag. My last Iowa deer tag was a 2019 archery tag, so I’m stoked about going back to try my hand at Iowa bucks this December and January.
Obviously, the Hawkeye State has long been known for world-class bucks. You need not be an expert to know that many outdoor TV crews live in or have moved there, since few places compare for consistently hunting huge bucks. But is Iowa still the big-buck promised land it was 10 years ago? 15? 20? Let’s dig into the nuts and bolts of the matter to answer that question.
Herd and Harvest
Harvest stats are somewhat indicative of hunting potential. Iowa’s total harvest in 2021 was more than 18,500 fewer deer than 10 years earlier in 2011. Tyler Harms, biometrician and deer program leader with the Iowa DNR, provided some translation of the numbers and what they mean.
“We harvested 121,407 deer in 2011 and 102,810 in 2021,” he said. “While that might seem like a striking decrease, it was by design. In 2007, the Iowa Legislature established the Deer Study Advisory Committee, which is a diverse stakeholder group that worked to establish a statewide population goal of harvesting 100,000 to 120,000 deer annually. From 2006-2013, we were aggressive with our management to reduce the population to the goal level the Committee established. We reached that level in 2013 and have been maintaining it since. We still use the above population goal today and seek input from the Deer Study Advisory Committee on our annual deer-management decisions.”
With all of the publicity Iowa has garnered for the last two decades, pressure and decreased buck age class are valid concerns hunters may have when throwing their name in the hat during the Iowa application period. But the state has some parameters in place to regulate this.
“It's no question that Iowa is a popular state for non-resident deer hunters,” Harms mentioned. “I can't say how much of that is influenced by publicity. However, we have long limited the number of either-sex licenses available for non-resident hunters to 6,000, as specified by Iowa Code. Therefore, non-resident hunting pressure has remained essentially the same for the past several years. The number of applications submitted for those 6,000 licenses has increased drastically over the past 10 years, however. In other words, the interest to hunt Iowa is increasing among non-residents.”
To summarize Harms’ input, non-resident hunting pressure doesn’t influx given the cap of tags. But it can take four or five years to draw an archery tag for Iowa’s most sought-after zones.
Of course, resident hunting pressure is a factor, too. “The number of licenses sold during the three seasons is really our only index of hunting pressure,” Harms detailed, “and the number of licenses sold has remained relatively unchanged in recent years. The number of deer licenses sold in Iowa across all seasons is on a slow, downward trend, and this is true of most hunting licenses in Iowa and elsewhere.”
Like any state, some areas of Iowa are less popular than others. Typically, most large and well-known public parcels are busier than obscure small parcels, especially during the rut. I saw that to be true when I hunted Iowa in 2019.
“Since resident either-sex licenses are valid statewide,” Harms said, “we really don’t know where hunters choose to hunt unless they harvest a deer (at which point we know the county of harvest). We see greater pressure in areas where deer densities are higher due to the amount of suitable habitat (e.g., south-central Iowa, northeast Iowa). Pressure tends to be a bit lower in northwest Iowa because it has less suitable habitat, and because populations are below goal.
“It’s challenging to pick any single area of Iowa or a particular WMA that has great potential with little pressure,” he continued. “I often recommend folks do some scouting and not overlook smaller WMAs or other public-accessible parcels with habitat diversity — food, forest, and grassland. Through surveys and research, we’ve identified that deer seek a diverse mix of habitat types.”
So, be on the lookout for small, obscure parcels that offer fundamental habitat features. You can obviously utilize a mapping app to virtually scout and find said parcels, but if you don’t have the app, the Iowa DNR has an alternative option.
“Hunters can utilize our online hunting atlas to locate and learn more about our WMAs and other public properties,” Harms suggested. “Also look for properties under private ownership that are open to public access through the Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP).”
Wildlife are subject to threats and challenges — some constant and some that come and go. Out west, wolves have at times taken their toll on deer and elk herds. Some states have experienced ongoing drought conditions detrimental to habitat. Harms said that diseases, in particular, are challenges to Iowa deer.
“Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is the biggest threat Iowa’s deer face,” he said. “This always-fatal disease is continuing to increase its geographic footprint in Iowa, in North America, and across the world. We conduct intensive surveillance in Iowa each year to monitor the spread of the disease, which includes testing ~5,000 harvested deer that hunters submit to us voluntarily.
“In 2022,” he added, “we detected the disease in two new counties — Fremont and Greene — which makes 12 counties in which the disease has been detected. The disease was first detected in Allamakee County, Iowa, in 2013. It continues to spread in northeast Iowa, now totaling six counties up there. All evidence suggests that this disease is here to stay, and we continue to think creatively and conduct research to learn the best way to effectively manage the disease and sustain a quality deer-hunting experience for hunters in Iowa.”
Today’s Trophy Potential
That brings us to the topic of Iowa’s trophy potential. How does it look today compared to the past? Harms shared some historical and current information to provide a base.
“We have no data to accurately inform on trophy potential beyond voluntarily reports to our trophy deer records each year,” Harms explained. “In 2007, there were 402, and the number reported in 2020 was 141. In both years, the average score of deer reported was ~160 inches. The number of trophy deer reported likely isn’t an accurate indication of the number of trophy deer produced each year. I say that because the rate at which hunters report has likely changed over the years.
“Further,” he continued, “we were harvesting 50% more deer in 2007 (~146,000) than we are today (102,810 during the 2021-2022 season). Folks might argue both ways on this point. Some believe the onset of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) in 2012 hit our bucks really hard. Others might say that we had too many deer in the mid-2000s, and that our herd’s quality is better now that the population has stabilized at goal level. Again, without data to directly inform us, it's tough to know for certain if our number of trophy bucks compares to 10 to 15 years ago. But I’d speculate that it’s similar.”
The National Deer Association (NDA) is a good resource for data. Its 2022 Deer Report tells that antlered buck harvest was up in 2020 at 49,662, where it was 44,093 in 2019. Unfortunately, the Deer Report has no breakdown of buck age class in the harvest, but its neighbor to the south, Missouri, which sells OTC deer tags, had a 3-year average between 2018-2020 of nearly 27 percent of bucks harvested being 3 1/2 years old or older. I’d surmise that Iowa’s numbers, if tracked, would be considerably better given the limited non-resident tags.
Regardless of data and opinions, Iowa is still Iowa. No, there aren’t 170-inchers lurking behind every tree. But, bucks in that class, and much larger, are annually harvested in Iowa. Take Zach Mixer’s 204 6/8-incher, Mike Reed’s back-to-back 170- and 184-inch bucks and Kyle Leonhard’s 191 2/8-incher, for examples.
And here’s why Iowa continues to produce such incredible bucks, year after year.
First, the state distributes a limited number of nonresident deer tags by draw, as we discussed earlier. Most units require two to five preference points in order to pull the archery tag. That greatly regulates pressure and harvest. If Iowa sold tags over the counter, everyone would swarm in and hunt. Pressure would be unimaginable, and it would be no different than Wisconsin, which led the pack in percentage of yearling bucks in the 2020 harvest, according to the NDA’s 2022 Deer Report. So, if it makes you mad that you can only hunt Iowa once every several years, remember that it is to ensure quality hunting.
Next, Iowa’s firearms seasons don’t coincide with the rut. This means that mature bucks are moving less during daylight while hunters are toting distance weapons. Obviously, that reduces buck harvest to a reasonable number, allowing bucks that survived archery season a chance to make it another year.
Third, Iowa has the groceries. It is known for its sea of cornfields. Iowa bucks grow large because they have great genetics, but also because food is everywhere. Regardless if winter is brutal, deer need not look far to find nutrition.
Having discussed the ins and outs of Iowa, if you drew a 2022 tag, you have reasons to be excited for your Hawkeye State hunt this fall. If you didn’t draw this year, you’d best keep putting in until you do. Why? Because Iowa is still the big-buck promised land.