Early Muzzleloader: Iowa’s Ace in the Hole

Iowa’s early muzzleloader season has become an increasingly hot ticket in recent years. On the right farm, it can really be an ace-in-the-hole for early season success. Aside from the youth season, early muzzleloader is the first opportunity Iowans have to break out the guns for whitetails, and it is the only gun season with a ‘resident-only’ allocation. It attracts a varied array of hunters, from the laid back, weekend warrior that would rather hunt in the warmer weather… to the die hard big deer manager that has pegged a target buck and has a slim window to tag him before the rut throws patternability to the wind. Whatever your goals are, you can find success during this time of year, but it’s definitely not easy. With only 9 days to fill a tag, there are a number of things that can make or break your chances at an early fall bruiser.

Before we jump into strategy, let’s take a quick look at what October means to a whitetailer in Iowa.

Understanding October
October is great time of year to be outside. Fall is in the air. Harvest is in full swing. Leaves are turning. Temperatures are usually bearable. It is certainly an enjoyable time of year from a weather and aesthetic viewpoint, but it can also be an extremely frustrating time of year for a whitetail hunter.

Generally speaking, the middle 2-3 weeks of October are the slowest of the entire year for deer movement. The ‘October Lull’ as many folks call it, is the black sheep of hunting timeslots. Not only are the mature bucks dead to the world, it seems as if every animal you see is sluggish. The lull can be attributed to a number of factors, but the bottom line is deer just don’t move as much. Unfortunately, early muzzleloader season tends to mirror this slower period of deer movement.

By buying an early muzzleloader tag, you’ve essentially accepted the challenge of hunting bucks that are rarely on their feet during shooting hours. As tough of challenge as that may be, it isn’t an impossible venture. It just takes a little extra effort to push Lady Luck on your side.

Step 1: Find the Bucks
With a limited number of days to hunt, you can’t afford to hunt bucks that aren’t there, nor can you waste time sitting in unproductive stand locations. By the end of September, most bucks will have dispersed from their summer ranges and settled in on a fall home. That leaves approximately three weeks to find them before the season starts. Really, the biggest hurdle in hunting early season bucks is finding them. Bucks are still homebodies during mid-October. They aren’t doing the same thing each day, but their mannerisms are pretty nonchalant and simple, geared more around the daily necessities (food, water, and sleep) than the impending rut.

Make note of possible bedding areas, feeding areas, and watering areas, and active scrapes on your properties and get some trail cameras out covering them. Make sure the time stamps are correct on the cameras and really study the photos that come in. Pictures speak volumes as to where deer might be coming from or going. Any buck that shows up on camera (especially around daylight or dusk) is sure to be in the vicinity come Oct. 13. Step one is always finding the bucks. Step two is what I like to refer to as ‘buck profiling’.

Step 2: Profiling
Ever watch Criminal Minds on television… profiling and hunting murderers? Well, profiling bucks is essentially the same concept, slightly less involved of course and with less human death. Basically, we learn all we can about whitetail biology, combine that with any real-time information we’ve gathered (i.e. recent trail camera photos), and use that information to better predict movement.

So, at this stage in the game, what do we know? We know that bucks tend to stick around home during early muzzleloader season. We know that when they get out of bed, movement is likely structured around the daily necessities, water and food. We also know there is a strong possibility that most of this movement will occur after dark and that movement around dawn and dusk is likely close to their beds. We’ve set our cameras and have taken pictures of bucks we want to hunt, so we know there are target bucks in the area. All that is left to do is build a strategy to put them in gun range.

Step 3: Quality Setups
Every property is different, and deer use every property different, so it is difficult to write a blanket solution for stand setups; however, I believe there are a couple key points to make that especially relate to early muzzleloader hunting.

For one, muzzleloaders are extremely efficient! Personally, I feel the absolute biggest advantage early gun hunters have is the ability to shoot out to 250 yards. If you are confident at longer ranges, by all means play that card. Set stands that can cover a lot of area. If you are on a food source, set stands that cover multiple entries and that give you a foolproof wind. If you are worried about bumping a buck out of his bed, try to find a fringe setup where you can get in undetected. Shots may end up being longer, but they also might be the deciding factor to success.

The flip side to the efficiency argument is to turn to a highly aggressive approach. If the bucks are hanging up before dark (which as we know is a strong possibility), you might not want to wait for them. Get in closer to their beds. ‘Go big or go home’. It might mean taking a risk a bowhunter wouldn’t dream of taking, and you may only get one chance at the buck you want, but with only a few days to close the deal, are you out much if it fails?

In Conclusion
Early muzzleloader season in Iowa is a gambler’s bet. It may pay dividends or leave you for broke, but there is certainly success to be had. If you are one of the Iowans with a tag for the 2019 season, you’ve chosen to take on the challenges of hunting whitetails in the middle of October. Do your homework, use whatever advantages are available, and when that wary old buck decides to get out of bed a half hour early, make the shot count. After all, you only get one!