By Larry Brown
We all know that Iowa is a great state for pheasants. And the truth is that, generally speaking, the very best hunting is found on private land. There’s not as much hunting pressure, which really makes a difference after pheasants have had some exposure to hunters.
I’ve been lucky enough to hunt some farms for as long as 20 years. But eventually the land changes hands, or the good cover ends up in crops. You can’t count on those private honeyholes forever.
The state of Iowa doesn’t own enough land with really topnotch pheasant habitat. However, once acquired, it’s managed to provide a good mix of food and cover. Especially late in the season, when cold and snow start to force the birds to seek out heavy cover, public hunting areas are more likely than any but the very best private properties to provide what the birds need.
In this article, we’re going to take a journey around the Hawkeye State and pick out several excellent public areas, eventually ending up in the place that we consider to be the very best in the state. And we’ll also give you some tips on how to increase your chances for success when hunting public land.
Quite a few of our public areas now require non-toxic shot. They are listed both in the current copy of Hunting, Fishing, and Trapping Regulations, and in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Public Hunting Areas of Iowa brochure. But we’ll provide that information here as well.
We’ll make our tour around Iowa using the four districts (Southwest, Southeast, Northeast, Northwest) into which the IDNR divides the state.
Between the two areas, there’s a total of nearly 5,000 acres in state ownership. And even with part of that total taken up by the lakes themselves, that still leaves quite a bit of room to hunt.
Both Three Mile and Twelve Mile are more or less no-frills lakes, so you won’t find a lot of the area off limits to hunting because of parks, picnic grounds, etc.
You’ll find excellent upland cover along with some crop fields. The terrain is mostly rolling hills. And in addition to pheasants, there is some possibility of finding quail on these two areas.
Des Moines area hunters have a couple of pretty good areas very close to home. Both lie just north of the metropolitan area.
The first is Chichaqua Bottoms, which totals about 6,500 acres. This is an area that has gradually expanded over the years. As the name would indicate, it is mostly flat bottomland. Although some of it is wooded – it also offers good hunting for deer and turkeys – much of the ground has very good upland habitat
Small areas near large cities usually aren’t very good choices, because they can receive too much pressure. Chichaqua, however, is big enough that even with Des Moines so close by, the birds won’t all get shot out or chased off the place.
The other pick would be Big Creek. It’s about half the size of Chichaqua, and part of the land is taken up by the lake as well as a park and other recreational facilities. But there is still quite a bit of good habitat, especially on the north and west sides of the lake.
Hunters should note that Big Creek is a partial wildlife refuge, with the boundaries indicated by yellow and black signs.
Hawkeye’s dimensions push the 14,000-acre threshold. About half of that acreage is taken up by the lake itself and by timber, but the other half is either marsh or typical upland habitat. Part of the area is also a designated wildlife refuge.
Most of the pheasant hunters working Hawkeye will focus on the obvious cover – the good upland habitat. However, once the birds have been subjected to pressure, they will use the marshy areas as well. If you’re not finding birds on high ground, you should be prepared to get your feet a little bit wet by going into the shallower portions of the marsh. If it turns cold enough in the last month or so of the season, much of the marsh ground will ice up, making for easier hunting.
The Iowa River Corridor lies west of the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area. Basically Iowa River floodplain terrain, it was purchased by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after the severe floods of 1993. In total the Iowa River Corridor contains thousands of acres of cover lying along the Iowa River in Tama, Benton, and Iowa counties.
This area can be especially productive for pheasants in those years when the river does not flood. Those planning on hunting this area need to know that it has been designated non-toxic shot only.
The final choice in this part of the state is the area surrounding Hawthorn Lake in Mahaska County. The state land totals about 1,700 acres. This is a spot I hunted many years ago, before the lake was ever flooded. There is some timber down closer to the lake, but in the hills surrounding it are features of more interest to the upland bird hunter: nice stands of grass and small crop fields. While you’re afield for pheasants at Hawthorn, you may get lucky and find a covey of quail in addition to the ringnecks.
Sweet Marsh, with a total of about 2,300 acres, is located near Tripoli in Bremer County. It has some decent upland habitat, and like some of the wetlands we have mentioned previously, the marsh itself can be quite good as well, especially after ice-up.
Big Marsh lies north of Parkersburg in Butler County. I
t’s about twice as large as Sweet Marsh, and has quite a bit more typical upland habitat.
Both of these marshes are partial refuges.
Union Hills, located in southwest Cerro Gordo County near Thornton, comprises about 21,000 acres. It has more upland cover than either Sweet Marsh or Big Marsh, although there is also a small marsh on the area.
Another good area in this part of the state is Elk Creek Marsh, located north of Joice in Worth County. Interstate 35 splits this area in two; part of it is a refuge.
Elk Creek totals nearly 2,800 acres, and although part of it is a marsh, there is also quite a bit of very good upland habitat.
Non-toxic shot is required on both Union Hills and Elk Creek Marsh.
One good area in the southern part of this region is Dunbar Slough, in Greene County. Dunbar totals over 1,600 acres. Non-toxic shot is required, as it is a partial refuge. Although (as the name indicates) much of the area is a shallow marsh, part of it is also upland or prairie ground. And even the shallow marsh shouldn’t be overlooked for pheasants, as is the case with some wetland areas discussed above.
But this region also contains the best public ground in the state. To get there, we need to head quite a way north from Dunbar, up to the area surrounding the Iowa Great Lakes, near the Minnesota border.
And rather than pick one specific area, we’re going to focus on a block of four counties – Clay, Dickinson, Emmet, and Palo Alto – that among them harbor dozens of public areas offering a total of about 40,000 acres of high-quality pheasant habitat.
I asked Richard Bishop, chief of the IDNR’s wildlife division, for an evaluation of the area.
“It’s undoubtedly one of the finest recreation areas in the state,” confirmed Bishop. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put a lot of money into some of those areas, as part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited have also made generous contributions of private dollars.”
Pheasant hunters shouldn’t underestimate the value of these public areas to ringnecks, even if they were established mainly with waterfowl in mind. Waterfowl managers know that ducks and geese need good, grassy habitat surrounding wetlands in order to nest successfully. And those surrounding areas end up providing excellent nesting and winter cover for pheasants as well.
Although some of the public areas in this region are small – under 100 acres – others are much larger. The biggest single parcel is the Dewey’s Pasture Wetland Complex, with over 7,000 acres. It’s located on the Clay-Palo Alto county line. It includes a couple of shallow lakes, a slough, some small marshes, and a significant amount of surrounding upland habitat.
Other large public areas include: the Tuttle Lake and Ingham-High wetland complexes in Emmet County, with nearly 5,000 acres between the two; the Spring Run and Kettleson Hogsback complexes in Dickinson County, also with a total of about 5,000 acres; and Dan Green Slough, its over 700 acres sited in Clay County.
Hunters heading for this pheasant mecca should note a couple of very important points. First, non-toxic shot must be used on all public land in this four-county area. Second, many of the public areas – especially the larger ones – are partial refuges.
A complete list of all the public ground in Iowa can be found in the IDNR’s Public Hunting Areas of Iowa brochure. This is available free by writing the IDNR at 502 East 9th Street, Des Moines 50319-0034 or by calling the IDNR at (515) 281-5918.
Hardcopy maps of some of the larger public areas are also available and can be requested free from the IDNR. However, many additional maps can be found at the IDNR website listed above.
First, because these areas usually have heavier cover than what’s characteristic of a typical Iowa farm, hunters without dogs will find themselves at a real disadvantage on most public areas. If you’re going to hunt public land dogless, stick to the smaller areas and mark your birds carefully when you knock them down.
Not surprisingly, public land is subject to a lot of pressure early in the season, most especially on opening weekend. Non-residents target it, as do residents without access to private ground. But much of the initial pressure will drop off appreciably after the first two weeks or so. And one of the advantages of our top hotspot in the northwest is that there are so many public areas that you should be able to find one that isn’t overrun by hunters.
Whenever possible, hunt public areas during the week rather than on the weekend; such scheduling offers a reliable way of avoiding much of the hunting pressure. Also, if you arrive at 7:30 or so in the morning to stake your claim, you’re likely to at least start the day without being surrounded by other hunters.
And remember that – as we’ve indicated throughout the article – public areas can be especially good late in the year because of their heavy cover. Also, don’t forget about the refuge areas after waterfowl seasons close. Many of them will be open to pheasant hunting for the season’s last couple of weeks, and the action can be especially good, because those areas will not have been hunted all year.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Iowa Game & Fish