CRUNCH … CRUNCH … CRUNCH. I looked over at Mike Mattly and he just shook his head and laughed. The shin-deep snow we were trudging through was coated with a solid inch of ice that shattered like broken glass with each excruciatingly noisy step. If deer have a sense of humor, they were laughing, too. Every whitetail within a country mile had its ears turned in our direction, as we plodded in the pre-dawn toward the hay bail blind where we’d make our morning sit.
Mercifully, we arrived at our stand and settled in. And, predictably, most of the deer we saw that morning were on the opposite end of the field thumbing their noses at us. By 10 a.m. we’d had enough and decided to regroup over an early lunch.
Local newspapers described it as the “Ice Storm of the Century,” with Appanoose County, where I was hunting, the epicenter. The freezing rain that had swept southern Iowa just prior to my arrival had left a path of destruction in its wake. Downed utility lines left tens of thousands of Iowegians without electricity. Broken trees, coated with thick ice, littered yards and city streets. Remnant cars still dotted the ditches and schools were closed, it was bad.
I’d arrived at NAHC member Josh Cobb’s lodge the previous night. Josh is a good friend and owner of Medicine Creek Outfitters-specializing in the corn-fed bruiser whitetailed bucks Iowa is famous for. As I cruised the rural roads on my way to the lodge, the landscape took on a surreal quality simultaneously beautiful and ominous.
It seemed I was jinxed from the get-go. As planned, I’d arrived in time to dial in my Knight KP1 rifle equipped with the requisite slug barrel, per Iowa regulations and then get out in the field for an evening hunt. One look through my scope, however, put an end to that. It was completely fogged up, and our attempts to dry it out were futile. Mike, who works for Knight Rifles in Centerville 20 miles away, came to the rescue. That evening, we mounted a fresh scope on the rifle and zeroed it in at the company’s indoor range.
Over lunch Mike and I discussed our meager options. Still hunting was out of the question. Not only were the woods too noisy, they were dangerous. Ice laden branches tossed to-and-fro by gusting winds created the perfect conditions for widow makers those pesky dead falls that can maim, or even kill, unfortunate passersby. Spot-and-stalk? Not bloody likely. Even if we achieved a spot, there would be little chance of pulling off a stalk. Organize a push or two? We weren’t that desperate … yet.
It was evident by the minimal deer movement we were seeing that they were holding tight, spooked by the constant sound of ice breaking free of the branches and crashing to the ground. We agreed that the best plan was to remain patient. We’d continue to sit on stands and hope that the deer would eventually begin moving to food sources. Cold temperatures put the odds of that happening in our favor. They had to eat.
Sit Tight, Hope For The Best
I looked over at Josh. He looked cold but determined. We were settled into some scant cover on the top of an exposed knob, overlooking a wooded draw that provided a choke point to an alfalfa field. Two hours of legal shooting light remained, and for the umpteenth time, I wiped tears from my face, as a raw northwest wind found chinks in my cold weather clothing.
A smallish buck, the third we’d seen, wandered out of a point of woods below us, using the same path nearly every deer we’d seen so far had taken. It was a great setup and we saw several deer, but by dark it was apparent the mature bucks were either extremely nocturnal, or completely holed up. We packed it in, and hiked back to the truck.
Josh laid out my mission when I got up early the next morning. “You can leave from here,” he told me over breakfast. “Walk straight up that wind row just north of the farm until you come to where it intersects with a draw that comes in from the west, can’t be more than a half mile. Go into the woods and angle to the north east until you come to the creek bottom. You’ll see part of an old bridge, that’s where you want to be. Find a place where you can see into the woods and sit tight until I get there.”
Josh’s plan was to do a gentle push a couple hours after first light, walking in from the west. As soon as I arrived at the bridge, I knew our strategy had a snag. Heavy ice and snow hanging from every tree and bush had cut visibility to next to zero in the woods. I moved to the edge of a small field and plopped down in the snow. It wasn’t the best setup and I couldn’t see much, but it was all I had.
Dawn broke cold and crisp but I saw very little deer movement. An hour and a half passed before the only deer I saw, a fork horned buck, moved swiftly past me, checking his back trail. I knew Josh was on his way. Fifteen minutes later he showed up shaking his head and we headed back to the lodge.
That night I hooked back up with Mike for a change of scenery, and hopefully a change of luck to hunt from a box blind positioned above a winterwheat field and an adjacent plot of standing corn. We saw more deer during our sit but once again, no shooter bucks. Mike assured me they had seen several good bucks back here and that it was just a matter of time. Problem was, we were running out of time.
OK, now we were desperate enough. Josh called on a few friends the next morning and we tried a few pushes, placing posters at predictable choke points in wooded draws and creek bottoms. Trouble was, the deer easily pinpointed drivers and standers, and successfully evaded both doubling back behind the drivers or breaking cover far from the posters. It was worth a try, but ineffective given the noisy conditions. Back to sitting.
Better Late Than Never
It was bitter cold the final evening of my hunt, and Mike and I decided to sit in the box blind where we’d seen several deer the previous evening, hoping a decent buck would finally show. The semi-permanent shelter provided some comfort from the cold as we settled in and began glassing the woods on the far side of the corn plot.
Deer movement began shortly after we arrived with the predictable appearance of several corn munching does and fawns. As the deer meandered through the field, we kept our eyes peeled on the wooded creek bottom on the back side of the food plot. It was post rut, and battle weary bucks would need to replenish their reserves for the approaching winter.
While deer traffic had been uncharacteristically slow during the first 3 days of my hunt, movement was now in full force. During the first hour or so, we saw at least 30 deer, including several marginal bucks as well as a pretty decent one that was missing an antler.
In about an hour my hunt would be over, and I was resigned to the fact that I would probably go home buck-less. Mike raised his binoculars for the umpteenth time and then quickly straightened up in his chair. “There’s a good buck in the field, just to the right of that tree that’s hanging out over the corn!” I was glassing the corn, looking for the buck, when I caught peripheral movement to my left. A mature buck was emerging from the corn and onto the wheat field. “You mean that one walking out into the wheat?” I asked.
“What? No! … Oh, that one will do!” I could now see both bucks, but the one that was stepping onto the winter wheat field had my full attention. I eased the rifle up as the buck casually walked out into the open and into my crosshairs. The angle was poor but the buck was relaxed so I let it play out. A few minutes later he gave me a broad side look and I tucked a 12 gauge slug in tight behind his shoulder at 145 yards.
We waited until dark and then walked over for a close-up look at my buck. He was an 11-point dandy; tall, dark and horn-some, a bonus, really, considering the icy conditions. It just goes to show: never say never. We snapped a few photos and then loaded the buck into Mike’s truck and headed to the lodge. Once there, we field dressed him and propped him up so he would freeze in a good pose for more photos in the morning.
Power had been restored to most area residents and clean up was well under way by the time my hunt wound down. Residual yard and utility work would take weeks, if not months to complete, as trees and broken branches still littered yards and driveways. With another hunting season winding down, the whitetails would slipback into their winter feeding and loafing routines, the storm and the intrusion of the orange army soon forgotten.
I said my goodbyes to Josh and Mike and then eased back in my seat as I turned the truck north, toward Minnesota. While frustrating at times, it had been a good hunt. I reflected on the long hours sitting in the cold … waiting for a change of luck and played back the chain of events that led to the final payoff at the eleventh hour, when the buck emerged from the woods and onto the field. The tough hunts are the ones that leave a lasting impression.
I swerved as a gaudy rooster pheasant flushed from under a tuft of grass in the ditch, barely missing my windshield as it glided over the front of my truck. He lit in a corn stubble field a couple hundred yards away, and I smiled and made mental note: I need to try to get back down here before pheasant season closes next month.