Photo courtesy of Ted Peck.
“I don’t hunt pheasants anymore,” Matt Denniston grumbled while reeling in a scrappy smallmouth in my guide boat last summer. “There simply aren’t any birds around. Ten of us used to go out opening day around Spirit Lake, get our 30 birds and be eating chili by 11 a.m. Nowadays pheasant hunting is more work than enjoyable social recreation.”
Before our trip was over, Denniston gave me the names of a couple of farmer friends who would probably let me “waste my time” stumbling around after ringnecks this fall.
In spite of the fact that we’re losing about 200 square miles of CRP acreage on private land every year, getting permission from a landowner is still your shortest route to a heavy game bag. Knocking on doors for permission to hunt isn’t as productive as it used to be in the Hawkeye State, but most folks have little trouble finding a place through friend-of-a-friend contacts or over a cup of coffee and piece of pie at a local café.
Pheasants are a byproduct of agriculture in Iowa and will remain such as long as tractors can be seen in our fields — even though 800,000 acres have been turned over behind those green tractors since the early 1990s. Every acre that goes back into crop production on private lands makes the outstanding, perpetual habitat found on Iowa’s public hunting grounds that much more appealing.
It has been several years since Iowa has seen a million-bird pheasant harvest. Last season’s “paltry” 400,000 ringneck total still rates right up there with talk about grain prices, Hawkeyes and hurricanes at local coffee shops, even though the season at hand should result in a notable increase in pheasant harvest this year when all the numbers are in.
“If weather patterns return to normal, we should see a million-pheasant harvest again by the 2010 or 2011 season,” IDNR pheasant guru Todd Bogenschutz said. “The ringneck population — especially in northeast Iowa — is definitely on the rebound. I wouldn’t be surprised to see our totals nearly double from last year when all the numbers are in, even though there is no end to the downward spiral of CRP participation in sight.
“I have great faith in Mother Nature,” Bogenschutz continued. “We still have good habitat. As long as those hen pheasants can find a safe place to drop those 11 eggs on the ground, we will have ringnecks. Of course, having Mother Nature smile with a little less heavy snow cover and fewer wet springs will certainly help enhance our upland game numbers.
“The spring of 2008 was the wettest Iowa has ever seen in the 130 years we’ve kept records. The winter of 2007-08 was the 10th worst ever. Weather — not loss of habitat — is the primary reason we harvested historically low pheasant numbers last fall. Habitat is still the key to pheasant survival. We still have plenty of good habitat available in this state.
“Birds in northeast Iowa are still struggling to recover from the winter of 2007-08,” Bogenshutz said. “Although the 40 inches of snow they had to shovel up around Decorah and Cresco was half as much as they got the year before, it was still deep enough to blanket overwinter cover and make survival difficult for the birds.
“Prospects look much brighter this season for those who hunt north of Interstate 80 and west of Interstate 35. This is especially true for those folks who spend most of their time on the public hunting grounds.”
Besides a solid pointer or close-working Lab, the best tool a Hawkeye bird hunter can own is the most recent edition of the Iowa Sportsman’s Atlas. This comprehensive map book is available at many retail outlets, on-line at www.sportsmanatlas.com or by phone at (800) 568-8334.
Within its pages are public hunting and fishing opportunities in all of Iowa’s 99 counties, IDNR contacts and other worthwhile information like lodging and sports shops.
IDNR wildlife contacts are listed for every county. These officials are willing to tell you what PHGs are likely to produce the most pheasants, including those areas that have become PHGs recently and may not be listed in the map books.
DeLorme’s Iowa Atlas & Gazetteer has less detail on pubic-hunting areas but is an almost infallible guide to every back road bigger than a cow path in our state. With these multiple sources of information and a little initiative, I was able to find a sweet little PHG last season that was hiding in plain sight less than a half-hour’s drive from my Allamakee County home.
Much of the hilly terrain of Allamakee, Winneshiek and Clayton counties is better suited to chasing grouse than pheasants. A couple of small parcels of prairie grass that couldn’t stand the notoriety of publication in Iowa Game & Fish are waiting for anyone willing to take the initiative for a little mission of discovery.
Although IDNR biologists like Bogenschutz, Bryan Hellyer and Doug Janke will tell you the location and potential of every PHG under their management, they all stop short of recommending an area for publication in this magazine.
Anytime the IDNR publicizes a PHG or WMA as having a good wildlife population, it gets absolutely hammered by hunters, according to the biologists. Those who hear or read the word later than the vanguard often get there too late and come away disappointed. Therefore, the IDNR prefers to post the information and let hunters take the initiative from there.
The IDNR’s Web site has the information you need to determine which PHGs hold the greatest potential for success. All the prospecting hunter needs to do is compare information from wildlife survey results and the IDNR’s recreational map site, iowadnr.com/ims/website/recreation/ viewer.htm, and factor in a little common sense and outdoors savvy.
From that point forward, success on Iowa’s PHG ringnecks is a simple matter of having a good dog, good field boots and reasonable degree of marksmanship.
The only rooster I shot in Allamakee County last season was the product of a guilt trip that only a Labrador retriever can accomplish. Hanna Banana has a sense of entitlement. She figured the half-dozen western forays we made chasing roosters early in the season were simply a tithe for honoring her presence in our home.
Allamakee is better suited for
big bucks and ducks than pheasants. A substantial whitetail on a neighbor’s farm held most of my attention during the first week in November. Hanna showed her displeasure when the 10-pointer was finally hanging in the pole barn by digging a hole in my pathetic lawn large enough to bury the carcass in, then spending the night on the forbidden territory of our leather couch.
She didn’t seem bothered when I announced that her perfect dog status had been revoked. When she dragged my game bag over to my desk in the den and sat there staring at me with those protuberant Labrador eyes, it was clear that a return to the status quo would require a quick trip to a grassy filter strip along the Upper Iowa.
She kicked up several hens and a rooster that I missed. The second rooster made it halfway to safety on the other side of the river before the second charge from my 20-gauge stack barrel found the mark. Hanna’s eyes when she delivered the well-baptized bird to hand said we were best buddies again.
There are only a couple of small PHGs in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties that justify a walk with the gun in serious pursuit of pheasants. They are so tiny that one hunter can efficiently work them in just a couple hours — not the kind of spots where you could even expect to see a limit of birds, let alone shoot them.
If you want to bust a cap on grouse, my neck of the woods is probably worth the trip. But if a bacon-draped pheasant breast on a bed of mushrooms and wild rice sounds like the perfect pre-Thanksgiving feast, continue west on Highway 9 once you pass through Decorah.
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