Encountering Iowa Bobcats
When Bret Paulsen filled his archery tag with a 155 inch, eleven point bruiser of a buck in mid November, some would call it a very successful fall already. What he didn’t know at the time was just how incredible his month of November for 2011 was yet to be in Iowa’s great outdoors! With his tag full, Brett decided to try his luck at something else that peaked his interest, predator calling.
Armed with a new furharvester’s license, a single shot NEF rifle chambered in .204 caliber and a Johnny Stewart Preymaster 4 electronic caller, he set off for a farm he’d hunted in the past, tucked away in Southeastern Iowa and beautiful Van Buren county. This last spring, Bret got the opportunity to see a bobcat from only ten yards away as he was turkey hunting, so he knew they sometimes frequented the area. On the first morning of attempts, Bret managed to call in a coyote and put it down! The trip was a success, but he still wondered if there was a cat wandering around there with his name on it.
After first light on day two, Bret walked into the field and set up. “I set up on the corner of a pond dam. To the left was the pond and to the right was short grass in CRP. To the right of that was a timbered draw,” Bret described. He placed the caller about 20 yards away and began with some cottontail distress. With the caller bellowing continuous bunny cries for several minutes, Bret decided to change it up a bit and start some rodent distress noises. The caller was still playing when something caught his eye.
“There was something just sitting there, facing the caller about 25 yards away!” Bret continued, “It happened, all of a sudden! I pulled the binoculars up and realized what it was.” But Bret had a problem. He needed to swing the gun, complete with a fixed bipod, to his right to get a shot. “I moved the gun, put the crosshairs on his chest and it was over! The cat dropped!” Bret did a great job of getting moved for the shot without alerting the cat. After it was over, Bret’s first thought was, “Wow, it actually happened!”
The shot had found its mark perfectly, right in the chest. You won’t see a prettier bobcat than Bret’s! This 17 pound female was loaded with very pronounced spotting throughout its body. Even the DNR officer that checked his cat in commented that it was the most beautiful cat that he had processed. While the 2011 numbers aren’t tallied yet, only 8 of the 265 bobcats harvested during the 2010 bobcat season were taken by calling methods. Bret’s accomplishment is something that very few Iowa hunters have ever had the opportunity to do.
Admitting that he is still new to predator calling, Bret jokingly said, “I’d rather be lucky than good, any day!” I needed some of Bret’s luck myself this past bobcat season. I tried over forty times to call a cat during the season. Partners and I kept killing coyotes, which was great, but I never did bag a cat. It wasn’t because I didn’t call in a few though. I called in three separate cats but wasn’t able to get a shot at any of them for one reason or another. One bobcat hunt in particular will haunt my dreams for years to come. I hunted a spot where I had sightings of several different bobcats in the past year or so. Since they frequented the area, I decided to call every part of the entire 800 plus acre area that I had permission for in one day, until I called in a bobcat. On my fifth attempt, I sat down right in the timber with trees surrounding me and a wide river off to my right about 20 yards. There were some deep ravines south of me that I believed held these local cats at times. I hung my electronic caller in a tree behind me about twenty yards and played a three minute long series of rabbit distress. Waiting seven minutes, I turned it on again. In it’s first minute of continuous sound, all heck broke loose!
A bobcat came flying down the embankment and into the timber with me. Upon reaching the forest floor, it turned and came straight at me! Fumbling, I struggled to mute the caller. As soon as I did, the cat stopped only fifteen yards away, but he was completely hidden from me behind a tree about three feet in circumference. I had the shotgun across my lap and the rifle at the ready on its bipod, so I shouldered the rifle quickly and put the scope on the tree. This cat had to come out from behind that tree eventually and when he did I’d be ready. “Finally, I’ve got you now!” I thought to myself. If he moved to the left side, dead cat! If he moved to the right side, dead cat! I waited quietly, all the while trying to calm myself down a little. I had all the time in the world.
Behind that tree, there was uncertainty filling this cat’s mind. In a flash of speed and agility that is difficult to even put into words, my cat launched itself out of there like something you see in the cartoons, only without the smoke trail! It was like watching something unbelievable to my own eyes as I observed the cat bound out of the timber, unharmed and out of my life forever. Some lips squeaks as he was exiting were to no avail. The movement was so quick that even had I shouldered the shotgun, I do not believe that I would have connected with a shot.
I wasn’t sure whether to put my head in my hands and cry at that point or pursue the cat further or what? The whole thing was surreal and almost like a figment of my imagination. The wind was not necessarily in my favor, swirling around the trees in the bottom ground. Maybe he had caught movement from me as I tried to mute the caller? I’ll never know what made him retreat so fast, but I do know that calling bobcats can be a thrilling experience!
The DNR allowed the first harvest opportunities for these cats in 2007. Since then, the harvest quota has increased and so has the bobcat population growth here in Iowa. Hunters and trappers must possess a furharvester license in order to legally take a cat. There is a season limit of one cat per licensed furharvester and the season opens on the first day of the trapping season. The season is open for harvest opportunity in 35 counties. They include the southern three tiers of counties in the state along with Guthrie, Harrison, Monona and Woodbury counties. An open zone quota of 350 was set for the 2011 season. There was a grace period for trappers after the quota was met until midnight of the following day. Once a cat is harvested, hunters must contact their conservation officer within 24 hours. This year’s quota was met on November 29th after 25 days.
It is not uncommon to see the occasional bobcat North of the hunting zones set forth by the DNR however. More and more Iowans in the middle and northern portions of the state are starting to see these elusive cats as their populations expand from the South. Bobcats will especially move north in better numbers along Iowa’s natural travel corridors of rivers and streams. Iowa DNR furbearer and wetland biologist, Vince Evelsizer, explained some of the reasons behind the open harvest zones and those counties that are closed for harvest. “We need the bobcat population to be strong in the Southern counties because bobcats that are moving into Iowa are doing so from the South. That is the population that will feed their growth for further expansion to the Northern counties of Iowa.” Vince continued, “We’d like to let the population become more established outside of the harvest zone before we allow harvest in those counties. We want them to gain a good foothold in those areas first.”
The good news for hunters in Iowa is that the quota has been steadily increasing in the harvest zone for the last few years. Bobcats have become a familiar sight in counties along the Missouri border. Striking a balance between keeping the population strong and allowing some take of these critters by furharvesters is a delicate subject. While many people are hopeful that the zone will get larger or the season limit will increase, Vince pointed out, “It is important to let the harvest numbers do well without hurting the population growth from expanding North so that in the future, it may be possible to expand the harvest zone.” Iowa DNR wildlife biologist Todd Gosselink was able to give a few details as well. “The reason the quota is so conservative is because it is possible to over trap bobcats. They average 2 to 3 kittens per litter which is much smaller than other species, so we want to stay conservative in the harvest quota to allow for growth in their population and expansion.”
Trapping and hunting these cats can still be possible for residents from Northern Iowa who, like Bret did, are willing to head south to give it a try. There are plenty of public hunting areas available within the bobcat zone and resident landowners are often times willing to lend permission to trappers or hunters to rid their ground of nuisance critters of all types. Scouting methods can work well for hunting or trapping cats successfully. Besides seeing them in certain areas, looking for tracks can be one of the best ways to find an area that is holding a bobcat or two. Bobcat tracks are round in shape and will typically have no claw marks, unlike a coyote track, because cats keep their claws retracted while walking. There will be four toe marks and they will be in front of the entire palm pad. The palm pad will have six lobes and the rear of the pad print will have a signature “M” shape.
If plenty of tracks are around an area that you are hunting, then there is a good chance that you have found a bobcat’s core area. “Females may have a territorial area of around twelve square miles, but during the time that they are raising their kittens, the size of that area shrinks and they’ll spend more of their time in a smaller core area”, said Gosselink. “Females are more territorial than males and have boundaries that usually don’t overlap other female territories much at all. Males have an average territory size of 18 square miles and that area may envelope several female home ranges. Males roam around a lot more.”
It’s no secret that bobcats like cover. Trappers in the South that specifically target bobcats will often make sets along “runs” in the weeds or set snares in spots where critters are crossing under fences. In 2010, 91 were caught in snares, 50 in footholds and 58 in conibear traps. 105 of the cats caught that year were intentionally targeted. A lot of these cats were caught in areas of heavy cover or travel routes in and out of that protective cover. Whether you’re hunting or trapping, Todd Gosselink suggests these tips, “They love streams and rivers. Timber is important, but a good brushy grass mix with good rabbit habitat in conjunction with timber, are great spots to find bobcats. Brush piles are also a good focus area for trapping and hunting.”
In a study performed on Iowa bobcat carcasses, it was found that 60% had rabbit remains in their stomachs. The majority of other prey species found included: 20% mice or rodent and 15% squirrel. It is of note that only 2% contained bird remains. One contained turkey and one pheasant. Like any predator they will obviously seek out the opportunity for any prey source when given the chance however.
Callers that have successfully called bobcats often describe details of the hunt just like Bret did, earlier in this story. As if they appear out of nowhere, they will just be sitting there unannounced, leaving you to wonder how long they’ve been there. The term “peeping tom” never held so true as in the case of a bobcat sitting at the edge of the cover just watching after you’ve been calling. A hunter needs to have keen eyesight and keep their movement to a minimum when calling in cat country. As in the case of the cat I called in, also be prepared for a cat to come running while your sound is playing. Cats will often times pounce towards the source of sound quickly while they can hear it unlike coyotes who tend to use their nose more often.
Along with our magnificent whitetail bucks and our large gobblers, bobcats have joined the list of trophy animals for Iowa hunters and trappers.