By Joe Wilkinson
Iowa Department of Natural Resources
DES MOINES– Iowa deer hunters likely stepped out into single-digit cold Saturday, the opener for the first shotgun season. That’s closer to typical weather than the balmy 30s and 40s the previous weekend. What better way to kick off the 60th anniversary of Iowa’s deer season, than by stocking up on hand warmers?
Like many other wildlife species, deer were pretty well wiped out by European settlement and overhunting by 1900. Slowly recovering, there was still more than a decade of controversy before the first season was approved across 45 counties in 1953. With a herd estimated at 12,000 to 15,000 statewide, differing sides warned of not enough deer to warrant a season… or too much crop damage. Still, hunters took 3,782 in that Dec. 10 through 14 season.
Compare that now, to a yearly harvest of 115,000 or so; spread across several seasons and nearly four months in the fall and early winter. There is a lot more science, information… and interest in hunting Iowa’s big game.
That interest peaks, as about 140,000 shotgun deer season hunters head to the woods and fields; either Dec. 7 through 11 or Dec. 14 through 22.
“Shotgun hunters account for more than half of Iowa’s deer harvest. Much of our deer management hinges on the shotgun seasons,” noted Tom Litchfield, DNR deer research biologist.
That interest means money in the bank for a variety of businesses and conservation measures. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in its latest (2011) outdoor recreation survey said Iowa deer hunters account for $197 million in retail sales. That supports 3,300 jobs. The state and local governments take in $21.4 million in fees, sales taxes and other sources. Another $23.5 million goes to the federal government. Most of that returns in the form of funding for wildlife and habitat protection and enhancement.
Hunter success rates this year should reflect lower overall deer populations. Liberal use of antlerless tags for a decade have increased the doe harvest; thus reducing reproduction. Hunters should consult with property owners, to see if deer numbers are acceptable. It may be prudent to back off on doe harvest for a couple of years.
Another unknown, as more boots hit the ground, is the effect of Epizootic Hemorrhaging Disease (EHD). Landowners and early hunters report finding more than 1,000 deer carcasses, possible victims of EHD. More will turn up as shotgun hunters cover new territory.
“With the season in its latest possible (start) scenario… most crops will be out. Also, it could be colder. A lot of hunters like having a little snow on the ground, so the potential for that is higher, too.”
Snow helps with tracking deer. Still, you need to be in the right place to begin.
That’s where party hunting has advantages… and carries extra responsibility. “Iowa’s hunting tradition has evolved with party hunting, in conjunction with drive deer hunting,” said Litchfield. “That enables shotgun hunters to be very effective in taking greater numbers of deer over a shorter time… important with seasons of only five and then 9 days.”
As you move those deer, keep the wind in mind. The deer do.
“You don’t want to push deer into the scent of your blockers. Set them up so the wind is in their favor. Move the deer into a crosswind. Or have the wind at the back of the drivers,” suggested Litchfield. “It encourages the deer to move earlier and more slowly. Then, they are not running as they come by the blockers.”
That means less chance of a shot going astray. With friends and family in close proximity, safety has to be your first concern. Blaze orange outerwear– covering your torso– is mandatory in shotgun season. More of it– gloves, a cap, coveralls– is better. The same advice that is repeated each year… is good one more time. Know where your gun is pointing and know what lies beyond your target.
1953… that first hunt
“I remember it was snowy and cold. I went with my father and some others, to a farm in Sioux City. It had quite a few deer on it. I had one of those regular (traditional) bows,” recalled a then-16 year old Des Moines youth. Six decades later, he told me he would just as soon stay out of the spotlight.
“I sat in a ravine with a lot of little trees and brush… to see what came along. It was hard to get a clear shot. The (first) arrow didn’t go the direction I wanted. Eventually, I got lucky.”
And so came one of Iowa’s first modern season deer kills; perhaps the first with a bow.
Up to 20,000 licenses at $15 each were authorized that first year. In his book, “Whitetail; Treasure, Trophy or Trouble?” naturalist and author Larry Stone noted that biologists had estimated it might take a harvest of half the herd to keep the population in check. Still, there were post-season complaints from western Iowa that too many had been killed. Iowans disagreed back then, too.
The Iowa Conservation Commission spent several years ironing out whether to offer hunting as a deer control tool in certain areas or to provide sustained hunting. Over the years, the commission and its successor, the Department of Natural Resources basically follow both courses. Each year, adjustments are made; be they buck only tags, adjusting county by county antlerless quotas, adding or suspending short bonus seasons… or other fine tuning.
And it started with a 16 year old kid, sitting on a cold, snowy hillside.