If you get a chance, hunt in Iowa at least once before you die.
Ready to concede another day, I paused to take one last look before packing up my gear and heading to the truck. I’d been watching deer feeding feverishly across an immense cut cornfield for the better part of two hours but hadn’t seen a buck large enough to quicken my pulse.
Suddenly, a new group of deer materialized out of a small patch of standing corn and moved steadily across the hill above me. Through my trusty Nikons, I scanned the group: doe, doe, doe, buck!
And unlike the ones I had been watching, this one had real potential. Through the distance and fading light, I saw four up with good mass, along with the squared frame of a mature buck.
Down went the glasses and up came the gun, out the left-most window of my elevated blind. The race was on.
Panning left to right to follow the moving buck, I’d just about settled the crosshairs when I ran out of window and the buck walked out of view.
Quickly and frantically, I pulled the in barrel, moved to the next window and tried to reset on the Trigger Stick as quickly as possible.
I located the buck and was just settling in when I ran out of window again. Only one window left!
Gun out. Find the buck. Settle the crosshairs. Almost out of window and with the buck still moving, I hollered, “HEY!”
He stopped, and I fired.
Then all was lost in a cloud of sulfurous smoke. Almost immediately the adrenaline crash set my mind reeling.
Was this was the culmination of a three-year quest? The shot felt good. The buck looked good, but doubt about both began to creep in.
Like many hardcore whitetail enthusiasts, Iowa had long been on my bucket list. For a number of reasons, I’d never made a concerted effort to get myself there.
The wheels were finally set in motion when Mike Mattly, public relations manager for PRADCO Hunting Division, prodded me into applying for an Iowa tag. Mike is an Iowa resident who lives not too far north of Albia, where the largest hunter-killed whitetail was shot in 2003.
I first got to know Mike indirectly through another hunt in Saskatchewan, coincidentally in 2003. One of the hunt sponsors was Knight Rifles, at the time a division of PRADCO. Mike asked several writers, myself included, to test prototypes of a new muzzleloading rifle, the Revolution.
The fact they were prototypes didn’t really set in until I read the serial number on mine: 00000007. Lucky, I thought.
It turned out to be a successful hunt, and I ended up killing what was at the time one of my biggest bucks.
In 2008, Mike suggested I apply for an Iowa tag and invited me to hunt property he owns and leases. It was three years before I finally drew a tag.
Like Saskatchewan, Iowa has a well-earned reputation for producing some of the biggest bucks in North America. There are several reasons, not the least of which is a virtually unlimited supply of the right food at the right time. This is big agriculture country, and deer have access to tens of thousands of acres of corn, cut corn and soybean fields when they need it most, just prior to winter.
That, conveniently, is when Iowa’s various firearms seasons take place. It is more than mere coincidence, however. It is, in fact, a big part of the reason Iowa has such a healthy population of mature, trophy class bucks.
An oft cited University of Georgia study showed states with the highest proportion of record book bucks have three things in common: short firearms seasons that occur after peak rut and rules that permit only shotguns or muzzleloaders. Iowa has early and mid-December shotgun seasons of five and nine days, respectively, an eight-day early muzzleloader season for residents only, and a three-week late muzzleloader season. They also limit the number of nonresident tags.
After waiting three years to draw mine, I arrived in Iowa with all the anticipation of a kid on Christmas Eve. I had barely enough time to take a few shots before heading afield.
Despite being in a padded, hard-sided case, my scope was knocked off zero in transit and needed re-sighting. I did the best I could shooting off a rickety bench in a 40-knot crosswind and felt pretty confident out to 100 yards, which would be my self-imposed limit.
Iowa hunting that time of year can be phenomenal, but there is a price. I’d heard how cold it can get in December, so I came prepared, I thought, with warm clothes. Mike also secured me a Heater Body Suit, something for which I quickly became grateful.
Being from New England, I’m no stranger to the deep, bone chilling cold of a moist climate, but I expected the drier Midwestern air to be a bit more manageable. What the Midwest lacks in humidity, it more than makes up for with wind. Even on the calmest days, teens and single digits are punishing — and that’s what we faced on our morning hunts.
That cloud of cold air has a silver lining. Peak rut might be a mature buck’s most vulnerable period, but just after the rut is a close second. His gas tank is empty just before the most stressful time of year, and if he’s going to survive the winter, he needs to fatten up quickly.
While mature bucks aren’t quite as foolhardy as during the rut, they’ll be out and moving more in daylight, and they’ll be a lot more patternable if left undisturbed.
Our morning routine was fairly simple. The deer would be leaving the fields and headed to bed around first light. We merely needed to intercept them. Mike and his dad had been watching the fields on a regular basis and had a line on where several good bucks were feeding and where the best ambushes were located. It sounded good in theory.
That time of year, whitetails tend to be fairly faithful to a particular food source. Unfortunately, deer leaving a section of cut corn have plenty of options on which way to go. While we saw a few bucks, none were of the caliber we were after, and the action was usually over quickly.
That was not unexpected, as mornings can be tough. In order to survive, deer need to balance their energy budget by taking in more calories than they expend. The very act of feeding burns calories, and the colder the temperatures and the higher the wind chill, the more calories are burned. When you consider that dawn is often the coldest part of the day, it’s not surprising there’s a short flurry of activity right around daybreak.
After that, things taper off quickly, although there can be a minor spike of activity an hour or two after sunup. Unless pushed, the deer typically won’t move again until afternoon.
My first afternoon stand was in a large wire-frame ground blind covered with canvas and designed to look like a round bale. The blind sat at the top of a hill with 350 acres of CRP on one side and 350 acres of cut corn on the other. The place certainly had potential, but not with the icy wind blowing 30 knots.
I saw a few does, one small buck and several unidentified deer that jumped the fence at 150 yards. We returned to the same spot the following morning with somewhat similar results, although less wind equated to slightly more deer movement, including three racked bucks.
With heat-robbing winds remaining calm, prospects for the afternoon hunt looked good. Discouraged by the first afternoon, I opted to pass on the hay bale blind in deference to a new location — a converted garden shed overlooking soybean and cornfields. My optimism soared when I’d seen five deer before 1:30 p.m. Things died down until around 4:00, when deer began to materialize out of the timber. My vantage allowed me a great opportunity to watch them mill around in a brushy staging area before they ventured into the open.
The fields were filling up and the sun was sinking when I finally spied a tempting buck. At fist glance he didn’t look special. I figured him for a 3.5-year-old, possibly nudging 150 inches with decent mass for his age and a good spread. Closer inspection revealed both beams carried double rows of P3 and P4 tines, giving his rack the appearance of a shark jaw. Unfortunately The Mako Buck, as we later dubbed him, never offered a clear shot.
Meanwhile, Mike’s son, Nick was having some action up at the hay bale blind.
Three bucks were slowly making their way out into the corn. When Mike’s dad called the shot, Nick wasted little time in anchoring a dandy 10-pointer.
The next morning, we got in early and moved one of Mike’s ground blinds to a new location where the deer seemed to have shifted their travel route. They responded by shifting back to where the blind had been before we moved it. Regardless, none were shooters.
That afternoon, I went back to the garden shack, hopeful for another encounter with The Mako Buck. He didn’t show. I saw several young bucks before dark and one giant that appeared far across the field in the waning moments of visible light. All the activity was exciting, but I was starting to feel the pressure.
Morning number four proved fruitless, adding even more pressure to the afternoon hunt.
The hay bale blind had proven itself once, and Mike’s dad saw several bucks the night after Nick’s kill. Then there was the garden shack and a possible crack at The Mako Buck. As I labored over my choices, another option came up.
While hunting with Mike, I bunked down the road with Josh Cobb, who runs Medicine Creek Outfitters. Through a rather unfortunate turn of events, Josh had an empty camp, which left him more time than usual to scout his leases. He’d been watching a buck and graciously offered one of his blinds that might offer a crack at the big deer. He cautioned that it could be a long shot. “He’s been coming out between 150 and 200 yards of the blind,” Cobb said.
That got me thinking back to my gun. We’d been so busy I hadn’t had time to sight-in under more favorable conditions, and I didn’t feel confident about a long shot. Mike quickly solved my dilemma by offering up his gun, a prototype Knight Disc Extreme.
Normally, I avoid borrowed guns, but these were exceptional circumstances. Mike has shot muzzleloaders competitively, is intimately familiar with his guns and was quite confident in his gun out past 200 yards. Any hesitation vanished after I looked at the gun’s serial number: 00000007. The afternoon hunt suddenly took on a fateful flavor.
The blind, a pop-up on an elevated platform in the bottom of a bowl, sat in the midst of a huge cut cornfield with dense bedding cover on two sides. As the shadows lengthened, deer began to filter out of the timber and fanned out across the corn stubble. My hopes rose with the appearance of each new group of deer, then fell when closer inspection showed them to be does and young bucks. The day was rapidly drawing to a close when the events described in the opening passage unfolded.
By the time the cloud of muzzleloader smoke cleared, the field was empty. Just before the lights went out, I made an attempt to ascertain where the buck was when I shot — to no avail.
Agonizingly long minutes passed before Josh and Mike arrived. I did my best to guide them by flashlight to where I thought I’d last seen the buck. The change in perspective, combined with a lack of light and the fact that everything looks the same in a sea of cut corn, made the task more difficult.
“The gun went off, and deer went everywhere,” I recounted. “All I can say for sure is he was facing that way when I shot,” I said, pointing downhill. Mike and Josh went to search while I began walking circles to look for any sign of a hit.
I watched as their flashlights danced across the corn stubble, each cut stalk and discarded husk looking eerily like the tines of a fallen buck. They were so similar that I nearly missed it when their lights picked up the real thing. I raced the 100 yards to Mike, Josh and my fallen buck. Despite my hasty field judgment and blink-of-an-eye decision, there was no letdown.
The buck had everything I could have hoped for, including the thick neck and dense square shoulders of a mature buck. The antlers had wrist-thick bases ornately engraved with deep perlations. I was so excited I’d barely noticed how cold it had gotten since the sun went down. Read Recent Articles:
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• When the Wind Blows: Strong winds seem to send deer underground, but you can find them. This article was published in the Winter 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.