By Kent Boucher
If you are like me your favorite hunting season is when you feel most alive. Calling upon skills you haven’t used for a year, clearing your schedule of nearly all other responsibilities and breaking the gaze into the digital abyss are just a few of the rare indulgences we get to enjoy when we are hunting. As much as we love our favorite hunting seasons there are still 8 more pages to the calendar and we should always strive to make the most of all the time God gives us. So how do we accomplish this? There are probably a million answers to that question and each of us would have our own preferences, but here are 50 suggestions I think would do the trick.
1. Shed Hunting: In the whitetail state we not only have a lot of deer, we have a lot of big bucks. If you have never got to enjoy the feeling of a fistful of Iowa ivory a month or two ago now’s your chance for a rebound by scooping up the antlers that are on the ground instead of on the deer’s head.
2. Snowshoeing & Cross Country Skiing: As my cousin likes to remind me every spring, “sweatshirt season is almost over.” He means it’s time to lose the additional winter pudge. Slapping a pair of snowshoes or skis on your feet can achieve two miracles: 1) You will hate snow less and 2) You will hate exercising less.
3. Practice makes… better: If you have ever had to endure the bitter taste of tag soup because you missed the shot, then you know how motivating it is to improve your aim before next season. Spend your offseason at the gun range getting your sight dialed in and your trigger pull adjusted to a squeeze.
4. 3-D Shoots: Many hunters prefer archery equipment during deer season. Perhaps the best advantage for using a bow is the convenience of practice. As convenient as flinging arrows in your basement is, making a trip to a 3-D range to shoot life-like targets can revitalize your desire to fine tune your aim and equipment.
5. Honey-do List: Ehhh I’ll get around to that later.
6. Ice Fishing: Before you pack away your insulated bibs after late muzzleloader season, wear them to your favorite summer panfish honey hole. Bring along a 5 gallon bucket, an ice auger and some short poles and start salivating over the prospects of bluegill backstraps.
7. Speaking of Muzzleloaders: Do a deep clean. Do a full take down and give special attention to your firing pin assembly to be sure it isn’t getting packed with powder and corrosion.
8. Showtime: Gun shows, outdoor shows, antler auctions, Iowa Deer Classic- plenty of productions centered on our favorite activities can be found around our great state throughout the year and can be enjoyed for the small cost of admission.
9. Fly-tying: This is something I have always figured was way too complicated for my artistic deficiencies. But after observing a self-taught expert teach a few lessons to the outdoor club at the school where I taught, I learned this is an art that anyone can be successful with given the proper equipment and time.
10. Head North: The trout program in Iowa is exemplary. Exploring our trout streams is a memorable pursuit that can be enjoyed throughout every season. Bring a knife and some matches and enjoy a shore lunch.
11. Iowa Destination Vacation: Fantastic vacationing destinations with plenty of outdoor activities to keep you busy can be found within our own state. Enjoy a week of the lake life in the Iowa Great Lakes area or take in the beautiful, verdant bluffs and forests found in the Driftless portion of the state where some of Iowa’s best fishing and hiking opportunities abound.
12. Shopping Detours: Before you set out on your destination vacation, do a little research to see if there are any local/family owned sporting goods stores along your route.
13. Finish that Mount: I’m preaching to myself here. Come up with a plan to get last year’s European mount or the tail feathers from that big rooster hanging on the wall.
14. Become a Gatherer: Remember this was the other half of the food attainment plan for our ancestors. Morel mushrooms, raspberries, mulberries and walnuts are just a few of the edible resources that are waiting to be found and enjoyed.
15. Sportsman in Training: Although the harsh, cold weather of a late season hunt may keep your kids out of the deer stand until they are old enough to call in sick when they miss the school bus, the hunting offseason has many months of warmer weather perfect for digging some worms and wetting a line at your favorite farm pond or camping at a state park. Foster positive outdoor experiences early in your child or grandchild’s life. It worked on me.
16. Wildlife Paparazzi: Each time I upload the latest pictures from a trail camera I feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Of course I hope to get meaningful scouting information, but honestly just looking at the critters that stroll past my cameras is reason enough to hang them.
17. ATV Adventures: I have yet to meet a person who has not found enjoyment in exploring the outdoors on a good set of knobby tires.
18. Hunt a Forgotten Season: Chances are either deer, waterfowl, turkey or pheasant season is your preferred season, but they are far from the only hunting seasons you can enjoy in Iowa. Quail, Ruffed Grouse, Gray Partridge and Squirrel seasons all stretch to January 31st, Cottontail Rabbit season runs through February 28th and don’t forget late Crow season which runs from mid-January-March 31st. You also have an entire year to hunt coyotes so there is plenty of opportunity to use your hunting equipment well beyond your favorite season.
19. Bow Fishing: Keep your bow drawing muscles in shape is by using a bow in lieu of your fishing pole. In Iowa this is only allowed for “rough fish” species, but that’s also one of the benefits to this hobby, rough fish are generally ignored when it comes to fishing, but with bow in hand they literally become the target species.
20. Geocaching: What may seem like aimless wandering to the untrained spectator is actually careful navigation to a set of coordinates. Geocaching also provides a good reason to expand your familiarity with OnX or Google Earth mapping technology as well as an excuse to upgrade to a more comfortable pair of hunting boots and purchase a hand held GPS unit.
21. Pattern your Shotgun: If you find yourself consistently missing doves, pheasants or ducks, it could be a result of lack of practice, but it could also be a result of never checking the pattern in which your shotgun sprays pellets. Sock away your next large sheet of cardboard and fire down range at a normal scatter gun hunting distance and see what happens. You might need to buy that pheasant choke after all.
22. Tackle Box Clean-out: Prevent your next crankbait brush pile by reorganizing your lures. You can also transform your tackle box from a landfill back into a lure storage container by responsibly disposing of all old monofilament segments, lure packaging and rusted hooks.
23. Pour Your Own Plastics: Just as tying flies can provide some additional satisfaction when you fool a trout with your handiwork, the same sense of accomplishment applies when you are hauling in a largemouth on your own Iowa made Texas Rig. Do a little searching online for the right molds and colors.
24. Become an Educated Conservationist: The more you understand about the ecosystem you hunt in, the better you will perform as a predator. Sop up as much information as possible from books, magazines, podcasts or even classes and seminars. Seek out topics ranging from plant identification to animal behavior.
25. Sharpen Your Skills…and Your Knives: Dull knives aren’t quite as dangerous as dull hunters, but they still can do some serious damage. Take the time to go through your field dressing kit and hone all your blades back to the condition where you can effortlessly and meticulously carve up your trophy.
26. Bon Appétit: Tail feathers, long beards and antlers make for permanent souvenirs but the meat is really the prize of a hunting season. Finding new ways to prepare your game can be both delicious and incredibly rewarding. Consult wild game resources authored by experts such as Hank Shaw and the folks at MeatEater Inc. to find inspiration.
27. Plan your next big wilderness adventure: As excellent as the hunting is in Iowa, there are many big game species that can only be found in other states or countries. Being able to hunt in areas where these species can be found requires extensive planning. Use your offseason to figure out the tag application process, hunting regulations and the zones you would like to hunt in as well as the gear required for your trip.
28. Winner, Winner Fish & Game Dinner: Hunting advocacy organizations such as Pheasants Forever, Quality Deer Management Association, Ducks Unlimited and National Wild Turkey Federation as well as many churches and local game clubs host banquets featuring different wild game dishes as well as door prizes, raffles and silent auctions. The best part is all the money raised at these events is used for worthy causes that often center around the goal of better hunting.
29. Pack Out Practice: If you are planning a hunt that could involve you strapping your game to your back and packing it out several miles you need to practice hiking with a heavy pack before you dive into such an endeavor. Order your pack and use milk jugs full of water or sand to simulate the weight of a moose quarter.
30. Fish with a Guide: Elusive species like Muskie or Paddlefish can be nearly impossible to hook and require specialty tackle to do so. Booking a trip with a guide right here in Iowa can help you cross another species off your fishing bucket list.
31. Catfishing: Not only are catfish the biggest fish you will catch with regularity in Iowa, but they are also excellent for eating. There are many successful ways to fish for cats, but I recommend setting aside some time during their spawn and work the banks of the Mississippi River with some live bait and a slip bobber.
32. Trolling (the pre-social media kind): Trolling is a great way to fish if your boat is good on gas and your patience for finding fish is dwindling. A beetle spin tipped with a minnow has put many striped bass and crappies in the boat for me and my grandpa through the years.
33. Bird Watching: Get some additional use out of your deer hunting binoculars and pick up a good field manual to help you identify each species of bird you encounter while you enjoy a more subtle variety of wildlife viewing.
34. If You Build It, They Will Come: Thankfully this isn’t just limited to Dyersville. If you find yourself frustrated with the number of deer you are seeing during hunting season then you probably need to change your landscape in some way. Consider hiring a deer habitat consultant to walk through your property with you and help you identify the biggest needs. Use your offseason to plant native grasses for better deer habitat and some late season food plots that draw deer to your property.
35. Inspect Your Setup: I recently heard that the most common hunting injuries in the Midwest are related to tree stand accidents. Everything weathers eventually and though your honey hole hanger has been holding steady for 10 seasons straight, you still need to check it over closely for any broken or rusted welds, as well as frayed and rotted straps.
36. Help the DNR: Although many people associate the DNR with restrictions and fines, I truly believe we have one of the best DNR agencies in the country. Don’t agree with me? Ask a non-resident hunter how they feel about trying to hunt deer in Iowa. The DNR works very hard to protect and expand our natural assets, so why not give back? Consider volunteering to teach a hunter safety course, help with water quality sampling projects, or participate in litter clean ups.
37. Become a Wildlife Linguist: Find a call you like and take it with you everywhere. Rip off a rolling feed call to notify your coworkers that you just dropped off a box of donuts in the break room or blast out a few turkey yelps when your spouse sleeps through their alarm.
38. Grow Your Own: As delicious as wild game is, a balanced meal includes some veggies as well. Our state doesn’t just grow the best deer, it also grows the best produce. Don’t be surprised if gardening helps you pick up some green thumbing skills that will transfer over to your food plot projects as well.
39. Scouting: There’s really only two ways hunters have the opportunity to shoot a true Iowa Giant- 1. By coincidence you end up in the right place at the right time or 2. You put yourself in the right place at the right time based on information gathered during the offseason through hours spent glassing field edges, locating warm season bedding areas and rub lines from last season.
40. Campfire Sans Matches: As outdoorsmen, we encounter fire building more often than most people. Practice some alternative fire building techniques that would make your 50th great grandparents grunt with approval.
41. Trap Lines: Learning how to outsmart a wily old fox or snapping a 60 pound beaver in a Conibear trap in the creek on your family farm will give you a sense of wild that drove fur traders to expand across our country several hundred years ago. Plus the extra cash from selling your furs will help fund your tag purchases next fall.
42. City Slicker Camping: This is the type of camping that is less likely to result in your wife and kids not speaking to you for 4-5 days after your trip is over. Air conditioning, daily showers, flushable toilets, bike paths, electricity… you get the picture. There’s not a lot of “roughing it” involved, but many times that’s best for the whole family.
43. Outdoor Photography: Hunkering down in the timber as the sun rises and sets during deer season provides excellent views of nature cycling through a day. Many of the most beautiful natural scenes I have enjoyed and snapped photos of have been while hunting. I often ask myself, why limit these incredible sights and sounds experiences to only hunting season?
44. DNR Auction: Every year the Iowa DNR compiles a massive collection of confiscated hunting equipment and they hold an auction to sell off the equipment as well as to raise money for their own needs/projects. Get a deal on a “new” gun and help support the fish and game projects of Iowa.
45. Yak & Pack: Iowa has numerous rivers across the state that are perfect for kayaking. Check out the Iowa DNR website where you will see designations of different types of rivers. Rivers classified as “meandering” allow you pitch a tent on sandbars and spend the night. Build a campfire and fry up a few fish you catch from the banks of your waterfront property.
46. Use Your Gym Membership: Another problem that beleaguers deer hunters is cardiovascular problems. Hiking to your setup loaded down with hunting gear and then dragging a deer back to your truck is physically taxing for hunters who are out of shape. Spend some time most days this offseason getting at least some cardiovascular exercise.
47. Enjoy Iowa as it was: Large mammals such as bison and elk used to call the prairies of Iowa home, but as Iowa’s prairies have been replaced with crop land, housing and roads these large mammals have been pushed out as well. The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge provides a flora and fauna time machine for its visitors to see just how these giants roamed the prairies of Iowa not so long ago.
48. Wing Dams & Walleyes: All along the banks of Mississippi River are angular structures called wing dams. In the upper regions of the Mississippi, walleyes love to hang out near these structures and trolling along them offers a great chance at hooking a glowing eyed predator or two.
49. Get Fido In Shape: Most gun dogs gain that title based on what they do for 3-4 months out of the year. The rest of the time they are family dogs who live mostly indoor lives with exercise that is mostly limited to the range their owner can throw a ball or a leashed walk around the block. If you want to maximize your dog’s success during hunting season make sure she stays sharp with her field training and her physicality.
50. Build Your Own Gear: Hunting with your own hand crafted decoys, calls, bow or hunting blind can bring about a new level of satisfaction when you fill the game bag or notch your tag. A quick online search will yield numerous instructional resources to help you complete your project.
Go ahead, dry your eyes and let your hunting heartache heal. If you even get through a handful of these suggestions your offseason will fly by and you’ll be back chasing your favorite game before you know it. And oh yeah, the honey do list I almost forgot… brownie points are hunting currency my friend. Give a little, spend a little. Here’s to the offseason.