Hunting Whitetails: Public Land Abounds In Southern Iowa

It’s only one hour after legal shooting time in the morning, and already you’ve let one 140-class, 8-point walk past your stand because you’ve been told that there’s a monster in the area!

Within minutes, however, you know you’ve made the right decision. First, a doe, and then hot on her heels, head and massive rack thrown high in the air, is that buck you’ve been waiting for. As he passes to your right not 15 steps from your stand, you draw. Stiff-legged, the buck walks into your shooting lane. “Eighteen yards,” you say to yourself as the fiber optic pin settles — shakes — then settles rock-steady behind his shoulder.

Almost without warning, you watch as white fletching buries itself in the buck’s vitals. In an explosion of oak and hickory leaves, the whitetail bolts. Holding your breath, you watch… 50 yards… 75 yards… then he’s down!

Julie Johnson harvested this nice 8-pointer.

With restraint you didn’t know you had, you wait. Fifteen minutes turn to 30, and 30 to 45 minutes. Finally, weak-kneed, you make your way over to where the buck lays. “Twenty-four inside spread if it’s an inch,” you say to the fox squirrel that’s climbed down the shagbark next to you. Ivory-white, the buck’s heavy antlers and 10 polished points glisten like gold in the morning sun. You realize you’re breathing again; still, your hands shake and there’s what can only be a rock in the pit of your stomach. It’s going to be a while, you think with a smile, before you’re ready to handle a sharp knife and notch your tag. Fortunately, time isn’t a problem.

Some Fine Whitetail Hunting
Fantasy? Maybe to some, but in The Hawkeye State of Iowa, hunts like this play and replay themselves over and over throughout the fall. Hunters from all across the country take part in some of the finest whitetail hunting the United States has to offer.

It’s not a secret any more that Iowa has some of the biggest whitetails in the nation. And that makes drawing — ah, yes, there’s a lottery-style drawing for both non-resident archery and shotgun permits — an out-of-state Iowa deer tag right up there with sitting across from Regis Philban and knowing, 100 percent, that your “final answer” for the $1 million pay-off is on the money — no pun intended.

But let’s just say that you’re one of the fortunate few to have drawn an archery tag for the coming season. Now what? You don’t know anyone in Iowa, and from your home in eastern Pennsylvania, it’s quite the roadtrip to go knocking on doors for a week during the summer. And besides, you’ve heard that while Iowa landowners present one of the last bastions of “ask and ye shall receive” hunting permission, deer season is an entirely different matter.

Martelle, Iowa, resident Dustin Stewart shows off his fine Iowa buck he took with his bow

Sound like a problem? Ordinarily, it would be just that; however, this apparently down-and-out archer is in luck, thanks to southern Iowa’s wealth of deer-rich public hunting lands.

From a point just slightly west of Interstate 35 in south-central Iowa east to the Mississippi River, archers, as well as turkey and upland bird hunters, have more than 46,000 acres of outdoor potential waiting at their fingertips. Much of it receives little in the way of hunting pressure, save for a few days during December’s regular shotgun season.
Archers, in many instances, will find a surprising and very pleasant lack of company on these areas, with only the occasional squirrel hunter to provide anything even closely resembling competition. Of course, hunting pressure does increase slightly during the first two weeks of November, as this period brings the annual rut into full swing; still, though, there will not be many other hunters.

“Except for during the regular shotgun season in December, we don’t see a whole lot of non-resident archers on our public areas down here,” said Keane Maddy. A lifelong resident of Centerville in Appanoose County, a nationally known hotbed for those seeking an audience with one of The Hawkeye State’s bruiser bucks.
Maddy currently serves as public relations director and marketing manager for Bug-Out Outdoorwear (515-437-1936). Along with his brother, Jason, Maddy also operates Maddy Brothers Guide Service (515-452-1060), a high-quality, low-hunter-number guiding business specializing in archery and blackpowder whitetails, as well as spring turkeys.

Many Public Places To Hunt
“Most of our local archers have private ground to hunt, and since non-resident archery tags are on a quota, that doesn’t leave many folks to hunt places like Lake Rathbun. And there’s almost 16,000 acres there,” said Maddy.
And statistically, he’s right about the “not many folks” part. During 2000, the state of Iowa offerred only 6,000 non-resident deer permits, of which no more than 35 percent, or 2,100, were set aside for archers. These 6,000 non-resident permits, then, were distributed over 10 hunting zones. Southern Iowa, for the most part, is comprised of Zone 4 (1,200 tags/420 archery), Zone 5 (1,500 tags/525 archery) and Zone 6 (780 tags/273 archery).

As an example of this low-pressure hunting opportunity, Maddy’s Lake Rathbun which, according to the DeLorme Mapping’s Iowa Atlas & Gazetteer, covers some 15,900 acres, falls within Zone 5. Even if 100 non-resident archers were to descend upon this particular area — even on the same weekend — each would, theoretically, have almost 160 acres to him or herself. That’s not bad, especially when one considers that, first, Rathbun is in one of Iowa’s most popular public hunting areas, and second, the chances of 100 archers being on Rathbun on the same weekend, even during the rut, is non-existent. And if that’s the case on 15,900 acres, just think how lonely the smaller wildlife areas are.

Southern Iowa’s public lands can basically be divided into three categories — wildlife management areas, or WMAs, state forests, and the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge (UMNWR). Whitetail hunters should be excited to know that the aforementioned 46,000 public acres located in southern Iowa do not include the lands designated as UMNWR, which encompasses some 200,000 public acres stretched from north to south along the eastern edge of The Hawkeye State.

Wildlife Management Areas in southern Iowa are many and varied. Some, such as the Lake Rathbun complex, contain thousands of acres, while other out-of-the-way areas may include fewer than 200. The largest WMA in the state, Rathbun, is located just north of the town of Centerville, and between Highways 5 and 142.
The public lands surrounding the lake are a mixture of agriculture, reverting pasture, wetlands, and timber, all of which combine to create excellent, though often very rugged and physically demanding, whitetail habitat.
Maps of the area, invaluable tools for those looking to make their first trip to the complex, are available by contacting the Southeast District Office (Rathbun Unit) of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources at 515-774-4918.

WMA’s West Of Lake Rathbun
Other WMAs located to the west of Rathbun include Mt. Ayr (1,150 acres), Ringgold (1,200), Sand Creek (2,580), Dekalb (1,995), and Little River (2,000), while to the east, hunters can choose from Soap Creek (519), Eldon (1,300), and Fox Hills (1,297). All of these areas, as well as public lands located farther west of Rathbun toward the Missouri River Valley, can be found detailed in the Iowa Atlas & Gazetteer.

Iowa’s southern state forests also can be very productive in terms of big whitetails. Units of the Stephens State Forest (11,000 acres) are located both to the west and east of Lake Rathbun, with the western sections near the town of Lucas in Clarke and Lucas counties, and the eastern unit seated astride the Appanoose and Davis county line. Farther to the east, hunters will encounter an additional 8,000 acres of public lands in the form of the Shimek State Forest. Divided into several units, the Shimek lies along the Des Moines River between the towns of Keosauqua and Donnellson.

And finally, there are the Mississippi River floodplains. Here, tangled lowlands and marshes give way to high bluffs and rocky outcroppings overlooking the mighty Mississippi, creating some of Iowa’s most spectacular scenery.
And not only do the UMNWR lands, waters, and wetlands offer fantastic whitetail hunting, but some of the best wild turkey, waterfowl, and small game opportunities to be found in the Midwest, not to mention some incredible multi-species fishing.

Maps aren’t an option for those making their first — or their 101st — expedition into this expanse of backwater, they’re a necessity; fortunately, maps and other information about the UMNWR are readily available by contacting the refuge headquarters in Minnesota at 507-452-4232.

(Editor’s Note: Please check the website for current information on tag availability and other hunting questions.)

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One Response to “Hunting Whitetails: Public Land Abounds In Southern Iowa”

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    Tom Collora Jr.

    Thanks for this info…My cousins live in Iowa and love the state very much.

    Reply