Public Land Success: Tips to Bagging a Mature Buck on Iowa’s Public Hunting Land

I’m proud to be an Iowa hunter! In fact, I’m a fourth generation Iowa hunter. Most of my hunting skills have been sharpened by the hours I’ve spent on the acres of public land that are offered to Iowa residents and non-resident hunters.

Here in Iowa there is, currently, over 450,000 acres of public access hunting! That’s right, almost ½ a million acres there for you and I to use for outdoor recreation and hunting. So, if you’re thinking that you have nowhere to go and hunt, you’re dead wrong! There are excellent hunting spots all across our great state. It just depends what you are trying to chase!

With the fall coming up, many of us have already begun the beginning stages of whitetail fever. I can’t wait for the morning air to turn cool and crisp. For the leaves and crops to begin to turn color. I can’t wait for the “fall smell” to hit the air either. If you’re an outdoorsman, you know what I’m talking about. There are those days when I step out my door and say in my mind, “This is a good day to be in the timber!”

I’m lucky to have quite a few private acres at my disposal. However, I don’t just stick to private land only! I also live very close to over 2500 acres of public land that follows a river bottom. It’s prime ground for big timber giants! In fact, the local hunters in the area consistently harvest bucks ranging from 150” to 200+” every year out of these timbers. No kidding!

But you can’t expect to just walk in to any public land and see these giants. You have to put in your time and effort to make it happen. Remember, there are, sometimes, dozens of other men and women planning on hunting the same grounds as you. Just like you have to outwit whitetail you will have to outwit and outwork other hunters too. Hopefully these tips and tactics will give you the edge to harvesting a true Iowa trophy.

Pick Some Property
Like I said previously, Iowa has countless acres of Public Hunting throughout the state. Chances are there is a property close to you wherever you live. And don’t discount the small pieces.

Too often hunters will find a small patch of public property that may only be 30 acres or so of timber or prairie. DON’T PASS THIS OVER! I’m telling you; too many people think this way. But some of the biggest bucks killed on Iowa public property have been harvested off of these patches that nobody else pays attention too.
Remember, even if they are small, deer will still “hole up” or “pass through” these areas in their daily routines. They aren’t stupid. If there is no pressure there, deer will catch on to that and grow very old without anybody bothering them!

But don’t ignore the larger properties either. With an increase of acres, there is an increase of areas to hunt! Seems logical, but many don’t think that way. With larger property, you’ll need to do a bit more prep work, but if you harvest a trophy whitetail next fall, it makes it all worth it!
Regardless, it’s good not to focus all your attention on one piece of public property. Have two or three “in your pocket”. Remember, you need a backup plan if somebody else has beaten you to your plans.

Start in the spring
I can’t stress this enough! If you are planning on hunting a certain area of public property, you need to start looking at it in the late winter or early spring.

When I moved to the area that I now live in, I knew that if I was to hunt this public land right, I needed to know the layout of the property, its boundaries, its food and water sources, and the travel patterns of the deer that were living on it. What better way to do that than getting out there in the spring for a good “cabin fever” hike.

Google maps or a good GPS app on your phone can help you out with this a bit. It will give you a satellite view of the property that will help you map out your walk and allow you to gain a mental map of the area. Trust me; if you plan on walking in there during early morning hours the following fall, you need to have a clear mental map in your head.

While you’re hiking be looking for deer tracks and trails. Make a mental note of where they are heading. Note any “pinch points” that might be a good place for a stand. Look for areas where the deer are bedding. Look for those multiple melted oval shapes in the snow. Who knows, you might even be lucky enough to find a few sheds in the process. Sheds antlers are good indicators of which bucks made it through the season and which bucks would be available to you the following fall!

If you have the ability, on a GPS unit, make any waypoints or notes that might help you understand how deer are moving through the property. If you don’t have that, carry a notepad and a pencil. Note obvious landmarks to help you do the same. It won’t take long for you to compile those to see what’s truly happening on the property. This will give you a HUGE advantage over the “weekend hunters” that sometimes use the property.

The Iowa DNR website now has an amazing online atlas for hunters to use. It outlines al the public acres in Iowa. It also allows you to zoom in and to get a good idea of the property.

Go the Distance
If you are planning on setting up on public land to bow hunt or gun hunt, you need to know a few things before you choose to do so.

Iowa State Hunting Regulations allow the use of blinds and stands. But there are some strict rules as to how you can use them. They cannot be permanent. They also cannot penetrate the bark of a tree! Make sure when you are on public land you are abiding by the laws! Those who don’t could ruin the future use of the property for others.

As you are planning your setup for the fall, go the distance! I truly mean that. If you’re planning on hunting a particular piece of public land make sure you are willing to make your way DEEP into the property and here’s why.

Chances are there are others who plan on jumping into the property also. But from my experience, those are the locals that like to hang on the edge of that property. Maybe they don’t have enough time to walk deep into the woods. Maybe they don’t want to harvest something deep inside the property and have to carry it out. Whatever the reason, deer will figure this out. When there is a lot of pressure in those outskirt areas, the deer will not be there! Make your way to where nobody else wants to be!

One last Scout
In late August or early September you need to make your way to those deep areas of the public property you are going to hunt. Remember, choose your area wisely. Make one last scouting walk around the area.

Look again for deer trails. By this time, there are probably some feeding areas established. They might be local soybean or cornfields. Maybe there are some acorns falling. Whatever it may be, the trails will show you how the deer are traveling and which travel routes they are using most.

Make sure you note the prints on the trail too! Are the majority showing movement in the direction of a local field? If so, hunt the area in the evening! They are most likely moving along this trail during the setting sun hours. If the tracks are heading deeper into the woods, that’s a morning trail. They are most likely returning on that trail to their bedding areas.

Note any rubs and scraps lines that might be beginning. Usually you will start seeing these in late August. Deer will begin to rub the velvet off their antlers during August and thus, will start rubbing on trees in the area. But they will also do this to strengthen the muscles in their necks allowing them to be better prepared for the epic battles over estrous does in the area when the rut hits.
Rubs on larger trees will often mean bigger bucks in the area. By late September and early to mid October, you will start seeing scrapes too. Finding a scrape line will be of huge value to you! Moving a stand to take advantage of this might be a wise thing to do!

As always, remember when you are making your stand setups be conscious of the normal wind direction of the area. Set it up so that you can hunt the setup with the most common wind. And the less you can disturb in the area, the better. Get your stand up, and leave it be until you are heading back in there to hunt it!

Put in Your Time
This advice seems obvious, but some hunters don’t think about it. Over the years, I started having more success at bigger bucks when I made an effort to increase my time in the stand. I realize that not all folks can do this. But if you can, do!

Every year I take some time off of work to do just that. I am in the stand at least 1 hour before official sunup. It’s dark, but with my mental map, I’ve never had a problem. I get to see the does filter back into the bedding areas and usually, a buck is in tow. Especially during the rut!

Remember, on public land, when guys see a car parked there, they are more likely to leave the area alone. So the earlier you park your car, the fewer disturbances there might be by other hunters!

Pack a sandwich, drink, a good book, and settle in. To be honest, it’s quite relaxing. Just don’t fall asleep! Things can happen very quickly. And if you’re not prepared, you might miss your chance!