Successful Party Hunting Techniques
By Jason Smith
In the great state of Iowa, we have what is referred to as ‘Party Hunting’, for deer Shotgun 1 and Shotgun 2 seasons. The 2017-18 Iowa DNR Hunting Regulations, Pages 30 & 36, describes ‘Party Hunting’ as:
Helping other Hunters
Resident and nonresident deer hunters with a valid deer hunting license may hunt with and assist other deer hunters only in the season specified on their license. Party hunting is allowed in Shotgun 1 and Shotgun 2 seasons. Hunters must have a valid tag for the county in which they are hunting.
During the first and second regular gun seasons anyone present in the hunting party may tag a deer with a tag issued in that person’s name. Party hunting is not allowed while hunting with a youth tag, regardless of the season.
I’ve read, heard, and participated in many conversations pertaining to party hunting over the years. Some people like it, and some don’t. Some people think it’s safe, and some don’t. Some people have legality type questions that aren’t easily answered by the limited information provided by the state regulations.
In short, party hunting deer in the state of Iowa is a way for parties (groups) of hunters to hunt together throughout the entire season, and legally tag each other’s harvested deer. If your party has ten members with a total of ten valid antlered and ten valid antlerless tags amongst them, as long as the personal tag holder is actively participating in the hunt at the time of the harvests, any one member in your party can legally harvest all 20 deer, and the other members of the party can legally tag them with their personal tags. Also, you can continue hunting within your party after your personal tag(s) have been used, as long as at least one valid tag is still in possession of another active hunter within your party.
It seems to me that there are many more youth and adults getting started into deer hunting today via the use of bow and arrow and / or muzzle loader, and I think that’s great. I imagine the improvements made in both technologies within the past ten to twenty years have aided these trends, along with the many hunting shows that almost exclusively cover these two hunting methods. That didn’t seem to be the case when I was a teenager and was introduced to deer hunting. I didn’t know anyone who had a muzzle loader, and I only heard of a couple who bow hunted, without much success. I, like many of my grade school friends, cut our teeth on deer hunting, via party hunting, during one of the two shotgun seasons.
I’m one of those guys who absolutely fell in LOVE with the party hunting method, and love it still to this day. The comradery amongst the party members is probably the best part, followed closely by the hunting itself. Even if nobody ends up with a wall hanger, everybody goes back to work tired and happy following the season.
Our party hunts aggressively. We use ‘posters’ and ‘drivers’. A ‘poster’ is someone who goes to a specific location and posts (waits) for deer to present themselves. A ‘driver’ is someone who walks through a ‘draw’ (piece of timber) or field, etc. in an attempt to drive (push) deer to the posters. Drivers can and do get shot opportunities, but a majority of our shots are taken by our posters, especially when everything works out the way we planned it.
On the first few drives of opening day, deer tend to group together and pretty much follow each other out of draws, following their favorite escape routes, usually led by does and yearlings, trailed by bucks, (if there are any). If our party has made filling freezers with venison the number one priority, shot opportunities are taken on bucks and does alike. If our party has made wall hangers our number one priority, then does and small bucks get free passes, at least for the first morning or the first day. Big old, wise bucks can sometimes follow the masses out into the open during a drive, but they usually don’t, not even on opening morning.
Wind direction is something to take into consideration, just like it is during bow hunting, but it’s not as vital, because deer are preoccupied with staying ahead of the drivers. Some draws that we hunt can only be effectively driven and posted in one direction, and we are limited on the land that we hunt, so we will hunt these even if the wind is not in our favor. But, ideally, posters should have their scent blowing away from the section of land being driven to them.
If our party wants to fill freezers, we will place posters off of the end of draw fingers. If they are fingers with a short gap of open space between them and another draw, we may strategically place two posters. One at the end of the finger that deer will be exiting, and one at the end of the other finger that deer will be heading toward. Obviously, the more you hunt a piece of ground, the better you are equipped to hunt it in the future. Groups of deer will tend to use the same exit routes year after year, unless dramatic changes are made to the terrain, (e.g. natural structure has been removed, buildings are erected, or the side of a ravine has sloughed off, etc.).
If possible, posters will try to get to their positions by staying out of eyesight, earshot, and scent range of the draw being driven. They will then try to find a spot where they can somewhat conceal themselves or at least break up their outlines, so that they aren’t standing out in the open like big neon pumpkins. They should post where they have an optimal view and shot opportunities of the draw, and specifically the finger, that is being driven. If possible, I personally like to position myself forty or fifty yards directly off of the tip of the finger so that I can see and shoot to both the left and right sides of the finger, as well as the tip of the finger itself. We always make sure we have the game plan effectively communicated prior, so that everybody knows where all posters are and how the drivers are going to push the draw.
If the drivers are thoroughly covering the terrain the way that they are supposed to, it doesn’t take long for this method to produce enough venison to keep our families fed for the year. Provided our shooting abilities are up to snuff.
If our party wants to target wall hanger bucks, we will set our posters up a bit differently. Obviously, we will try to target exit routes that we may have seen cagey old bucks sneak out of in past years, but we will do a few other things too. As mentioned before, we will pass on all does and small bucks. Sometimes, big bucks can and will hang back and watch what happens to the deer ahead of them before they make a move into the open. If the lead deer make it out without being accosted, the buck may confidently step out and follow in their footsteps.
We will also set posters in between fingers, or use what we call a ‘walking poster’ on the outside edge of the draw. Smart bucks somehow recognize when they are being hunted and will either get to the edge of structure and not exit until the last moment, or will pop just to the outer fringe and head back toward the direction that they are being driven from, and circle back in behind the drivers. That’s where these posters come in. They can catch these deer as they swing out wide and back in. The walking poster walks at a slow pace, staying behind the drivers. They can either start out with the drivers, or be the first poster picked up by the drivers as they pass by. This can be very effective, especially when dealing with well-educated bucks that have lived through a few seasons.
Don’t overlook small pockets of structure. As soon as the first shots start ringing out, some bucks make their way for these secluded little islands, and wait out the season in safety. Sometimes, smart bucks will sit out the season in nothing more than a grassy fence line. They don’t get big and old by being stupid. Bucks will lie in these pockets all day long; chewing their cud and watching the orange armies walk and drive around, without getting nervous. They will position themselves in a location to best see, hear and smell in all directions, and usually have multiple escape routes. We usually don’t hit these little spots until our hunting party has dropped in numbers, mid-week. We will play the wind and strategically place our posters to cover the most ground possible, without getting too close. Then we will send one driver in to kick around. If deer are in there, we’re going to see them. Being positioned to get a good shot opportunity has more to do with the luck of the draw than it does skilled posting placement.
I’ve talked quite a bit about posters, but not much about drivers. Drivers are essential to our aggressive style of party hunting. At the beginning of a hunt, drivers will give posters ample time to get into position before starting in. Smaller draws that we are able to lineup and begin from a definitive outer edge are relatively easy to start in on. Larger draws that we have to work in sections are more difficult. Either way, we try to space our drivers out relatively evenly distances apart. If we are driving a segment of a large draw, we will walk into the timber in a single file line, dropping off drivers at their designated starting points. When the last driver gets to their starting point, they holler over to the next driver, and they to the next driver, and so on. This signals all drivers to begin walking.
Due to the size and density of the draws that we hunt, without snow on the ground, we rarely keep in eye contact with one another. We communicate via hollering and whistling to each other. This lets us know where we are in proximity to one another. The goal is to keep all of us in a relatively straight line, walking in the same general direction, toward our posters. Like a large picket fence of bright orange men pushing deer out of the timber. Sounding off to each other lets us know if our spacing is good and if someone needs to speed up, slow down, or stop altogether. The more in sync we can stay, the more effective we are at driving deer out to our posters.
Drivers don’t walk straight toward the posters. We zig-zag back and forth as we move in the primary direction toward the posters. Much the same way I learned how to pheasant hunt in the foxtail. In theory, we should all be zigging in unison and zagging in unison. In reality though, we’re lucky to stay in a semi straight line and to end up in the same order that we originally started out in. Smart bucks can and do stay just ahead of our drivers, and will take advantage of times that we get too far apart, and slip back between us. For this reason, we, as drivers, don’t sneak through the woods. We make all sorts of noise. We sacrifice our own potential shot opportunities for the benefit of providing our posters with more and better shot opportunities.
In situations where we have realized bucks were getting between when driving specific draws, we have implemented the use of a secondary set of drivers, similar to the walking posters that I described before. These drivers sneak through the woods, staying a ways back behind the initial line of drivers. They specifically target those areas where we have witnessed deer repeatedly getting through our drivers in the past. When we are successful with this method, it usually produces a buck that would adorn any proud sportsman’s den.
If you’ve logged many miles walking Iowa timbers, you have realized why they haven’t been converted to farmland. There are usually one or two main stream or creek valleys with multiple smaller fingers or runoff tributaries flowing into them. Timbers are full of these hills, valleys, ledges and knobs. When I’m driving, I do my best to thoroughly cover each of these structures. Two tributaries close together will usually have a hilly knob or ledge at the inside edge of the draw, between where the two tributaries either come together or join a larger creek. Educated deer will move to and hang out on these knobs, and will let you walk by or squirt back behind you here if you let them. In an attempt to prevent this, I walk out to where I can thoroughly cover the finger (tributary valley), then I walk back and around the inner knob, and then back out and up the other finger. The timbers that we hunt have hundreds of these structures, and if you’re hunting in Iowa, I have no doubt that yours do too. As the crow flies, you might only be covering a quarter mile, but you walk like twenty.
Good seasoned deer hunters know the land that they hunt. They remember the lay of the land and know where specific points are and how to best get to them. They’ve seen how smart bucks can be and what they have done to escape in the past. If you’re just joining a group, or hunting land that you aren’t familiar with, pay attention to your surroundings and listen to your veteran party members. They can’t guarantee success, but their advice can help speed up your learning curve and save you much frustration. If you have access to a printer and the Internet, the use of aerial maps helps quite a bit too.
May my shared hunting experience provide you with some new bits of wisdom to implement on your next party hunting adventure. Best of luck, shoot straight, have fun, and stay safe.