VanHorn family hunt

Bill VanHorn (far left) let his wife, Sara, and children do the shooting during Iowa’s second regular gun season last month. Daughter Allisa (middle left) and son Wylie took two deer each while Sara added another. 


Normally it takes marksmanship, woodsmanship and persistence to harvest a mature Iowa whitetail.

Sometimes a wealth of fortuitous timing and dumb luck (emphasis on dumb!) helps as well.

The deer population had been down across much of North Iowa the past few years. DNR responded by changing the first of the area’s two December gun seasons from either sex to buck only.

With some pressure taken off the does, numbers appear to be improving.

I hunted the second season with longtime friend Bill VanHorn, his wife Sara and their older kids (now young adults) Wylie and Allisa. Rounding out the group were Todd Humberg and his son, Dylan.

We saw deer at every spot we hunted and generated shooting opportunities on most drives.

When party hunting during Iowa’s regular gun seasons any hunter may shoot a deer, or multiple deer, so long as fellow members have unfilled tags. (This is the only scenario in Iowa where one person may legally harvest game on behalf of another.)

It was women and “children” first this year: Sara shot a yearling — aka button — buck, Alissa killed a nice doe and a younger buck, while Wylie took a button buck along with a beefy nine-pointer. The Humbergs each shot respectable bucks as well.

That left Bill and I as the only members failing to down venison, as our tags went to those who doubled up.

He and I consistently volunteer to be the drivers who push deer towards more favorably positioned blockers.

While this seems a plausible excuse, truth is I whiffed on a pair of does that broke out in front of me rather than head towards the blockers.

Like any happy papa, Bill was perfectly content to let his kids enjoy the shooting opportunities, and quite proud of their performance.

I likewise was happy for the youngsters and more concerned about filling the freezer than drawing blood. Yet I must confess blowing the chance to score personally didn’t sit well with the old ego.

Fortunately I had an opportunity to redeem myself via an unfilled landowner tag.

I’d originally cleared Saturday through Tuesday for party hunting, but we punched our last tag Sunday before noon.

We’d also hunted our farm along the Winnebago River on Saturday, displacing numerous deer in the process.

Rather than risk over-pressuring the tract I decided to let it rest for a few days, allowing resident deer to return while hopefully gathering some refugees from adjacent properties.

This left all my proverbial eggs in one basket, however, as due to work obligations I had only Friday available to hunt.

Having such a brief window, and operating alone, I employed stillhunting: slipping slowly and quietly through dense cover with the wind in my face, hoping to spot a deer before it spotted me.

I drove to the east end of our property just before shooting light, slipped out of the truck, loaded my Remington 11-87 and donned my blaze orange vest.

Only then did I notice the pocket where I usually keep my deer license and tag was unzipped, and empty.

Mentally retracing my steps, I remembered registering the deer I’d tagged on Sunday using DNR’s online harvest report system. Hopefully I’d forgotten the license and other tag at home rather than losing them in the field.

After a short drive I found both items exactly where I’d left them: on a shelf near all my other hunting gear. Dumb!

By then it was already a half-hour after shooting light. So much for stealth.

Luckily there were no deer at the east end of the property, allowing me to access the first of two willow thickets apparently undetected.

I waded the tangle of Reed canary grass and brittle branches methodically, trying to be silent but having only modest success. Halfway through I heard sudden movement up ahead.

Although I never saw the cause, the unmistakable sound of a deer snorting and blowing soon thereafter confirmed I’d been busted. Deer one, hunter zero.

The remainder of thicket one was unsurprisingly empty. A wide firebreak separated it from the second, much larger piece.

I decided to take a stand overlooking this opening in hopes a deer might pass through while allowing any animals alerted by the recent disturbance to settle down.

Several eagles trading along the river kept me entertained for half an hour, but no deer moved.

Resuming the stillhunt, I found some deer trails that allowed me to move a bit more easily than in the last parcel.

You’d normally associate the term “lucky call” more with traditional athletic pursuits than hunting, but I was about to receive one.

Thicket number two is bisected by a small and shallow drainage ditch, which at the time was nearly dry and conveniently frozen over.

I’d just reached the edge of this comparatively large, open travel corridor when my cell phone vibrated. (I’d had the sense to mute the ringer.)

Not recognizing the number, and wanting to remain quiet, I chose not to answer. There was a voice message, however, and being in a good place to take another stand I decided there was no harm in stopping to listen.

The call was from Alex Fosado with the DNR, informing me local wildlife officials were seeking deer from which to collect tissue samples for disease testing.

His message was just finishing when a hefty doe stepped casually into the clear. I dropped the phone, shouldered my gun and filled my tag.

Had I not forgotten my tag, received that call and listened to the message I wouldn’t have been standing there to execute my easiest stillhunting shot ever.

Fortuitous timing, dumb luck, lucky call, full freezer.

Tim Ackarman, a regular columnist — and occasional outdoors writer — for the Globe Gazette, lives in Miller


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