September 14, 2021
By John Lyszczyk
Any serious whitetail deer hunter has the great state of Iowa chiseled at the top of their list of hunting destinations. Type “Iowa Deer Hunting” into a Google search, and you won’t have a hard time learning about the ample opportunities and the potential bowhunting experience of a lifetime.
In 2019, I was blessed to draw a coveted nonresident Iowa tag. I had made previous trips to Iowa to shed hunt some of the public land in the south-central part of the state, which is where I planned on doing the majority of my hunting, but I didn’t plan on doing this journey alone. My good friend, Jonah, would be with me to document our entire experience on film, and friends, Kyle and Tori, both Iowa residents, let us stay at their place for the duration of the trip.
The first morning’s sit felt as if I was waiting in line for a rollercoaster. I was giddy and wired, with a major case of butterflies. Michigan has been my main stomping ground for my entire hunting career, so for those who know the dynamics of hunting in Michigan, you can understand my excitement to be in the
“Land of Giants.” My smile grew bigger as the sun rose and I turned to Jonah and whispered, “Dude, we’re in Iowa!” The previous day, we’d found several fresh scrapes and a handful of rubs, so I was visualizing scenarios and shooting situations. My mind was racing!
Not long after sunrise, two does came bounding through the woods, staying just out of range. It was late October, and I immediately thought a buck could be chasing them. I grabbed my bow and waited; my eyes fixed on the direction the does had come from.
Suddenly, another deer came running from the opposite direction, jump-starting my adrenaline, but it was quickly diffused because the buck was a spike. He walked right down the middle of the trail we were set up over. “If only we could get a big one to do that,” Jonah said. I grinned like a kid in a candy shop as I watched the spike walk away. The morning passed, and we decided to move to a different spot for the evening hunt, but what a cool start to my two-week, public-land hunt.
The next couple of days were spent feeling out the areas we’d decided to focus on. Kyle had hung several trail cameras to collect intel on which bucks were moving, and where. Prior to our hunt, we’d set out additional cameras in new areas we thought rutting bucks would be using. Our sits were mostly uneventful, as we saw only a handful of does, but we felt optimistic because of the abundance of sign in the area. These mixed emotions created a feeling of uncertainty, which I hoped wouldn’t ultimately lead to a lack of motivation to keep hunting hard.
Then, on the evening of October 31, Kyle called while Jonah and I were on stand and whispered, “I just shot a buck!” We packed up our gear and went to offer assistance. Finally, a harbinger of good things to come!
Jonah and I pulled into the public parking area, where we found Kyle standing with the biggest smile on his face. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged, as Kyle gave us the best details of his successful bowhunt.
That morning, Kyle sat near a beanfield, where he saw 17 does, but no sign of any bucks. He climbed down around noon and ate lunch at the bottom of his tree while also searching for another spot to hunt on his onX app. After analyzing the surrounding area, Kyle decided to pack up and head toward the timber where he saw a lot of the does come out from.
The winds were gusty as Kyle made his way through the woods; choosing to move only when the gusts covered the noise of his footsteps. When the wind stopped, he would stand and glass ahead for deer and sign.
About a mile back into the timber, Kyle found an oak flat that looked promising. As he was creeping to the peak of a ridgetop, he spotted a small buck and a doe feeding in his direction. He didn’t have a lot of cover, so he lay flat on the ground, hoping they would pass by without detecting him. No dice! The buck and doe got within 10 yards, spotted Kyle, and ran off.
Despite spooking those deer, Kyle was still confident he was in the right spot. There was a well-traveled trail coming off of private land with several rubs scattered around it, so he hung his Lone Wolf stand and then settled in for the evening sit.
“The buck came off the private land and made his way down the trail to 20 yards, at which point I shot him!” Kyle exclaimed. “He’s piled up on a flat about a mile from here.” Our onX app showed the deer drag from hell ended up being a little over a mile. It was the hardest drag I’ve ever been a part of, which also made it the most memorable. Worn out and hungry, we loaded up and headed for home at 2 a.m.
The next few days were spent checking trail cameras and restructuring our game plan. A recurring theme kept cycling through my head — time on stand. The next few sits were mostly uneventful. We hiked back a mile deep on some public land to hunt the fringes of a suspected bedding area for an evening sit. The timber was loaded with rubs and beaten trails. This certainly was a great spot, as there were plenty of deer chasing just on the other side of the finger we were hunting. Unfortunately, we were only able to lay eyes on one doe that made a brief appearance at the top of the finger. Despite not seeing any bucks, I felt like the location warranted another sit, so we decided to leave our set hung for the following morning’s hunt.
Jonah and I knew this would be a tough spot to get to in the morning, as we would be attempting to sneak around several bedding areas. Just as we suspected, we bumped several deer during the approach to our stands.
Despite this setback, we settled in and watched the sun rise over the open CRP field. A group of does emerged from the bottom to our south and crossed the CRP field. Now holding my bow, I patiently kept my eyes fixated on the area where they had appeared, hoping a buck would be close behind them. It didn’t happen.
We returned to Kyle’s house that night, somewhat discouraged. My two weeks of vacation time were running out. The rut in Iowa seemed lackluster, and I was beginning to feel like this trip might not be successful.
Kyle and Tori returned from their evening hunt with a pleasantly opposing viewpoint. “This spot seems to be holding a good number of does,” Kyle said. “We had a couple smalls bucks come through chasing. Tori and I both have to work tomorrow, so if I were you, I would give this spot a try in the morning.”
We took Kyle’s advice and made a game plan to access the area we were going to hunt through a cattle pasture and set up with a favorable wind. Morning arrived quickly, and both Jonah and I were exhausted. Consecutive early mornings with long hikes takes a toll on the body. This hunt was testing our bodies, as well as our mental toughness.
As the sun crested the horizon, warming the forest floor, I felt the thermals rising from the ravine we were overlooking. A light breeze brushed my face, and the leaves fluttered softly. Other than that, the woods were silent. November 6 had started with all the right conditions. Now, we just needed the deer to cooperate.
A snap of a stick broke the silence, and I heard a commotion coming down the hill near the pasture fence to our south. I scanned the fenceline and grabbed my bow, looking for the source of the ruckus. Suddenly, I heard a loud “MOOO!” as two cows trotted down the ravine into the bottom on the other side of the fence. Shaking my head in frustration and smiling sarcastically, I hung my bow back up and sat down. The cattle got me good.
Jonah and I promised ourselves we would give this spot a solid effort, but several hours passed without seeing a deer. It was the polar opposite of Kyle’s hunt the day before. I started to wonder if I was cursed. Between the lack of deer sightings and cattle moving through the area, I felt like this hunt was a bust. We decided to stick it out until 10:30 a.m., and if nothing was happening, we’d then move to a new area for the afternoon hunt. At 10 a.m., with the woods still quiet, I decided to rattle in a last-ditch effort to make something happen. I smashed the tines together while scanning the ravine in front of me. It felt good to be proactive. Bowhunting can be a mental game, and staying sharp is oftentimes easier said than done.
Five minutes passed, and still the woods remained empty. Suddenly, my eyes caught movement in the ravine. I could see tines and the flicker of a tail 80 yards out and closing. A quick glance at the antlers prompted me to grab my bow. Turning back to obtain visual contact, my heart began to race, and I quickly regained focus.
The buck sauntered through the woods with a confident posture — head up and ears forward, searching for the rattling he’d heard. I was standing with my bowstring taught, ready to draw at the first opportunity. He closed the distance to 40 yards, then 30, then 15.
As I grunted to stop the buck, I was in a trance; complete tunnel vision, with my eyes fixed on his vitals. My pin settled behind his shoulder and danced slightly until I felt my arrow release. I heard a soft thud, and the buck mule-kicked and bounded away. Coming out of my trance, all I could do was stare at the last place I saw the buck, while listening for him to crash.
“You just shot a giant, bud!” Jonah said while grabbing my shoulder.
I was in disbelief. Up until this point, we had zero opportunities and hardly any action. A week and a half into the hunt, with not much to write home about, was weighing heavily on me. But now, I had a different kind of chest pain. The physical aftermath of getting an arrow into a good buck felt like such a relief.
Upon reviewing the video footage, it appeared my arrow had hit the buck a bit forward, but I was confident it wasn’t in his shoulder. Erring on the side of caution, we decided our best course of action was to quietly leave the area and give the buck time to expire.
We called Kyle to assist with the track job, and he showed up an hour and a half after we got down from our stands. Only 20 yards into our track job, we found my arrow completely covered in bubbly blood — a great sign for a bowhunter.
After slowly making our way through the woods another 20 yards, Kyle suddenly tapped me on my shoulder and pointed at the big-bodied 12-pointer piled up in some multiflora rose. I’ll never forget putting my hands on those antlers and the high-fives exchanged in that ravine in southern Iowa. It was truly a trip I’ll never forget, and I’m already looking forward to my next opportunity to draw another Iowa tag.
The author lives in Marine City, MI, and is an avid bowhunter. You can follow him on Instagram @john_lyszczyk.
Author’s Note: My equipment on this hunt included a Mathews Triax bow, Easton 6MM FMJ arrows, G5 Deadmeat broadheads, Trophy Ridge React Pro sight, QAD Ultrarest, Bee Stinger stabilizer, and Carter Two Shot release aid.