Photo by GaryKramer.com.
Iowa Department of Natural Resources pheasant guru Todd Bogenschutz is “cautiously optimistic” about ringneck prospects across most of the state this season, in spite of several strong negative factors impacting Iowa’s upland game.
“Those who hunt north of Interstate 80 and west of Interstate 35 can expect generally better hunting than last fall,” Bogenschutz said. “Birds in the northeast part of the state are still trying to bounce back from the winter of 2007-08. They still got over 40 inches of snow up there, half as much as the year before, but more than enough to make survival difficult.”
Bogenschutz said Iowa has experienced weather trends that are much wetter over the past several years. Heavy snow cover followed by a cold, wet spring combine in a one-two punch that can knock bird numbers back for several years if they don’t have adequate escape cover.
“The spring of 2008 was the wettest in the 130 years we’ve kept records in this state,” the biologist said. “The winter of 2007-08 was the 10th worst ever. This is the primary reason our pheasant harvest was only about 400,000 birds in the aftermath of this weather. We’re definitely on the rebound. If weather remains ‘normal,’ we should see a million-plus ringneck harvest again by 2010 or 2011 — even with the decline in CRP enrollment.”
In the early 1990s, Iowa had about 2.2 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Taking this land out of production provided greatly enhanced habitat for Iowa’s pheasants and other wildlife. Since this heyday, we’ve lost about 200 square miles of CRP land every year. In 2009, only 1.6 million acres are still enrolled, with no visible end to the downward trend for at least the next couple of years.
“We still have good habitat,” Bogenschutz said. “As long as those hens can find a safe place to drop 11 eggs on the ground and Mother Nature doesn’t frown too severely, you’re going to see good pheasant production.”
Mother Nature still wore a frown last winter in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties, where spring call counts were only seven to nine birds per route this past spring. In Iowa’s prime pheasant range in the northwestern part of the state, surveys in Dickinson and Palo Alto counties showed 50-plus calls per route.
“The birds can recover from just about any weather insult within three years, given a return to normal conditions,” Bogenschutz said. “The population absolutely tanked in 1983-84 and again in 2003-04, but the birds came cackling back. We’re on the rebound once again.”
Most Iowans pursue the multi-colored bird within an hour’s drive from home. Those who live in the northeastern part of the state can still find pheasants at places like Cardinal Marsh on the Winneshiek-Chickasaw counties border and smaller pockets of upland habitat on both public and private lands. But the best upland opportunities will require a road trip to find consistent success. The Iowa Sportsman’s Atlas is an invaluable resource in this regard, listing public-hunting areas, Iowa DNR contacts, sport shops and other amenities in all of Iowa’s 99 counties. For more information on this map book, you can call (800) 568-8334, or visit online at www.sportsmanatlas.com.
Iowa is still a state where knocking on doors can produce access to private lands, which definitely produce the best hunting opportunity. There is no doubt that attitudes are changing in this aspect, even in the most rural parts of our very rural state.
Leases and hunting privileges for a fee are becoming an unpleasant fact in the Hawkeye State. Fortunately, we’re still years away from scenarios seen in neighboring states like Illinois, where 95 percent of land is privately owned, and essentially you either have to be family or have considerable money to hunt pheasants.
Iowa has vast tracts of public land and countless smaller public areas where bird hunters can venture forth with reasonable expectations for success. I can think of a dozen such parcels where bagging a ringneck in an hour is pretty much a sure thing if the dog is willing to work close and I can remember to keep my cheek on the gunstock.
Obviously, the bonanza offered at these 5- to 50-acre parcels would come to a screeching halt if road directions and GPS coordinates were provided in this article. You can find this hunting on your own with a little initiative and the Sportsman’s Atlas. Locating the more popular public hunting areas is simply a matter of stopping by a café or gas station in any small town in the northeastern part of the state and asking directions or visiting the IDNR Web site (www.iowadnr.gov) and navigating to “pheasant hunting” with a couple of obvious clicks.
“Anytime the Iowa DNR explicitly says a PHG or WMA has a good population of game, that property tends to get absolutely hammered,” Bogenschutz said. “We post information on survey results on our Web site. Those who take this information and put it together with information on the IDNR’s recreational map site (www.programs.iowadnr.gov/ims/website/receiver/viewer.htm) hold the keys to the best public hunting our state has to offer. This is the best way I know to locate those little parcels of land that can offer spectacular hunting.”
There are a number of tremendous pheasant opportunities across much of the state that fall between common-knowledge “community spots” and those little parcels that you wouldn’t take your computer-challenged brother-in-law to unless he was blindfolded. In this article, we’ll explore several opportunities in which a novice hunter with a little common sense — and initiative — can experience Iowa’s rich pheasant bounty this season.
It would take at least a week of hard hunting to effectively cover all the public pheasant hunting ground in this epicenter of Iowa’s ringneck country, with over 20 areas to choose from. The absolute best can’t be noted for the reason biologist Bogenschutz cites. But several can stand the short-list scrutiny of this article.
Pothoff WMA is only 156 acres. It is located off 110th Street in the northern part of the county and bordered by private property. The IDNR has enhanced the pheasant carrying capacity here by planting tracts of prairie grass, which the birds won’t abandon at the sound of tromping boots. But add a bird dog to the mix and the scenario changes. The first couple parties to push through here have great potential for success. But second place is sometimes referred to as first loser. This is especially true for a crew that plans on hunting where others have been rather than where the birds are going.
Good habitat will attract pheasants throughout the year. Birds that leave in the game bag will obviously not return. But those that cackle away will be back. Keep Pothoff in mind for later in the season, during the week or after a fresh snowfall.
You can kick through Trickle Slough WMA on the north side of Spirit Lake, just south of the Minnesota border in less than an hour. This parcel is only 19 acres, with most birds hiding in the grass until pressure pushes them into heavier cover in the marshland.
Hale’s Slough WMA is across Spirit Lake to the east, just south of 110th Street. Two thoughts will go through your mind when coming up with a strategy to hunt this square 242-acre parcel: “ideal pheasant cover” and “a helluva lot of work.”
Know up front that this will be no romp in the swamp. If you don’t have a good dog, you might as well leave the gun in the truck, too. But if you’ve got the gumption and the dog has a nose, the ringnecks are waiting.
Portions of Santee Prairie on the west side of the Iowa Great Lakes and south of Highway 9 are easier to traverse than Hale’s Slough. This is especially true late in the season when marshy portions of this waterfowl production area are frozen.
Santee Prairie covers 460 acres. A fresh snow enhances chances for success. If a last-day-of-the-season hunt is an annual event for you, this might be the best public opportunity in the state.
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