By Larry Brown
Dad loved to fish and hunt, so any time I can be afield on Nov. 1, his birthday, it’s a special occasion for me. Dad would have turned 95 last year, and his birthday found me up in the Iowa Great Lakes region, perhaps the state’s most famous fishing destination.
But it was pheasants that had brought us there, not walleyes or muskies. Every year since the late 1980s, the governor of Iowa – first Terry Branstad and now Tom Vilsack – has hosted an annual Governor’s Pheasant Hunt. I’ve been privileged to participate in several, and because I’d never done much pheasant hunting in northwest Iowa, I was especially eager to take part in this one.
The hunt usually includes around 60 participants grouped into squads of five or six. I was on the Hunter Specialties team, along with HS employees Nate Whited and Rich Holtz, Iowa Department of Natural Resources information specialist Julie Sparks, John Synhorst, and local Pheasants Forever chapter member and guide Mike Heller with his Vizsla, Max. John’s Lab and my own veteran shorthair, Donner, gave us plenty of canine support.
We started out in a Conservation Reserve Program field whose grass varied anywhere from knee- to waist-high. With the temperature at just above freezing when we started at 8 o’clock, it felt good to walk. And it wasn’t long before we were into birds. The wind was behind us, and John’s Lab caught scent of a rooster we’d walked by. The dog rooted it out of the grass and John dumped it.
After we hit the fenceline at the end of the property and made a 90-degree turn, the wind was more favorable, and the dogs began to do their thing. Donner gave me a nice point. I rushed my shot with the first barrel, but was on target with my second shot. My dog did his usual nice job on the retrieve.
We had plenty of opportunities in the first couple of hours – sometimes missing, sometimes connecting. But the bird numbers were excellent! As we neared the vehicles, our guard down, Donner buttonhooked, and snapped into a hard point. I tried to set up a shot for Julie, who hadn’t been in on much of the action, but when the bird flushed, I was in her line of fire. I pivoted and dropped the rooster.
After we’d taken a brief break, I unkenneled Dasher, my little 2-year-old. Over the next hour, she and Max made several more points. I finished my three-bird limit, as did Rich.
The usual practice at the Governor’s Hunt is to reassemble for lunch, and the soup and sandwiches were more than welcome to this year’s crowd of hungry hunters. Checking with several other teams, I found a couple that had already limited out; everyone reported seeing excellent bird numbers – a good indication of the general state of the pheasant population in that part of the state.
It was 1:15 when we got started again. Dasher had done such a nice job that morning that I decided to give her more work. With my limit in the bag, I was only handling the dog and carrying a camera, which is almost as enjoyable as carrying a gun.
About five minutes after we’d started, one of our group dropped a cripple into a heavy pocket wetland. Max and Dasher were in pursuit, but quickly darted out the far side, indicating a running bird. Nearly a quarter-mile later, at the far end of the field, Dasher skidded to a hard point. Nate, who still needed one more rooster for his limit, went in to flush. It turned out to be the cripple, and although it tried to fly, it was unable to do so. Dasher pounced on it, saving us one that would otherwise have been lost.
Dasher eventually did give Nate a nice chance over another point, and Max did the same for another member of the group. By the time we’d covered the remainder of the field, we all agreed that, as Kevin Costner said in the movie, this was Iowa, and not heaven – but one is pretty close to the other during pheasant season!
FOR HUNTING PHEASANTS
Over the last few years, northwest and north-central Iowa have boasted very good pheasant populations. Compared to other parts of the state, there’s not a lot of cover in these two sections, much of both being quite intensively farmed. But where cover is present – as you can see from the story of last year that I just related – the hunting can be superb.
Although we were hunting private ground, there is quite a bit of public land – relatively speaking, as no region of the Hawkeye State has huge amounts – up around the Great Lakes. And for our No. 1 hotspot, I won’t pick just one public area, but rather a four county block (Dickinson, Clay, Emmett and Palo Alto) that includes dozens of separate tracts of public land. Altogether, excluding the open-water portions of the large lakes in the area, hunters have about 40,000 acres of public land on which to hunt pheasants in this four county area!
The individual public areas vary greatly in size, from the 7,000-plus acres of Deweys Pasture Wetland Complex, shared by Clay and Palo Alto Counties, through the Ingham-High Wetland Complex in Emmett County and the Spring Run Wetland Complex in Dickinson County (both over 3,000 acres) and down to smaller tracts of several hundred acres, and a few very small ones under 100 acres. (Check your current IDNR regulations carefully. Many of these areas are wetlands, and most will require the use of non-toxic shot even for hunting pheasants.) Maps of some of the larger public areas in this region can be accessed at the IDNR Web site: www.iowadnr.com.
The fact that this part of the state doesn’t have a lot of high-quality cover on private property (in the form of CRP ground, etc) actually works to the advantage of public-land hunters. Of course, the rooster population will be reduced as birds are shot. Other birds will be forced off public areas by hunting pressure, but because the surrounding cover is likely sparse and intermittent, many of them will return to the public areas. And as most of the really heavy cover in this region is on the public areas, the hunting can be almost as good as it was back on opening day once it gets cold and snowy and the birds return to seek shelter from the elements.
I spoke with Chris Larue, the IDNR wildlife biologist working out of the Spirit Lake office, and he confirmed that the public-land hunting in that area is very good.
“Our public areas do get quite a bit of pressure, including from nonresidents,” said Larue. (The area is right on the Minnesota border.) “But the hunting remains very high quality in spite of that. Hunters can be successful right up through the end of the season, if they stick with it.”
Larue was very optimistic about the coming season. “Our bird numbers are high and have been quite stable,” he stated. “And we came through last winter with an excellent breeding population. We’re looking in very good shape for the 2004 season.”
When both pheasa
nt and waterfowl seasons are open, it makes sense to double up when hunting many of the northwest Iowa public areas. As noted above, many are wetlands, and will often hold solid numbers of ducks and geese. Starting the morning by bagging a couple of mallards or Canadas and then switching to roosters, can make for a true mixed bag hunting experience.
There are also Hungarian (gray) partridge to be found in decent numbers in this part of the state. However, huns are not heavy-cover birds. It’s not at all likely that you’ll find them in the really tall, dense grass, cattails and other heavy upland or wetland cover where you’ll often flush pheasants. You’re much more apt to encounter huns along fencerows, in picked corn, or in short-grass areas such as you’ll find along waterways with lighter cover. Huns prefer cover from which they can see approaching predators. If you’re in habitat in which you wouldn’t expect to encounter pheasants and your dog doesn’t alert you to the partridges’ presence, they may surprise you, because you may let down your guard, and they’ll often flush out of that unpromising-looking cover.
Finally, Larue noted, this four-county area does attract a pretty significant amount of hunting pressure, both from Iowans and from non-residents. “On opening weekend in particular, you’ll definitely encounter a lot of hunters on the public areas,” he observed. “However, we’re fortunate, in that there is enough public ground up this way that there’s room for everyone who wants to hunt.”
Larue added that while the pressure tends to decline as the season wears on, the year’s first snowfall seems to bring back quite a few hunters.
There are several other worthwhile public hunting areas in the Hawkeye State. We’ll cover a few other larger and especially good areas, but a search of the public areas brochure will probably turn up something not that far from where you live.
Residents here are fortunate in having some very good public ground in their part of the state. Although Polk is the state’s most populous county, it also boasts a large public area with promising pheasant opportunities: Chichaqua Bottoms, its 6,000-plus acres lying northeast of Des Moines along the Skunk River.
Because Chichaqua Bottoms is so close to Des Moines, it’ll obviously receive a fair amount of hunting pressure. Opening weekend there will certainly draw a crowd. However, later in the season, hunting pressure will decrease fairly significantly. The one exception to this would be during shotgun deer season. Chichaqua Bottoms contains quite a bit of timber and will attract numerous deer hunters, just as it does pheasant hunters. Deer season – especially the opening weekends of both first and second seasons – would probably be a good time for bird hunters to avoid the area. If you do decide to hunt there during deer season, my advice would be to wear orange and to stick to those upland areas farthest away from timber.
Decent jump shooting for waterfowl will also be found along the Skunk River. As in the Great Lakes region, it’s quite possible for hunters to double up on waterfowl and pheasants when both seasons are open at the same time.
Story County, just north of Polk County, has a couple of smaller areas close to each other that also hold respectable numbers of pheasants. Colo Bogs is located east of the town of Colo, just north of Highway 30. About five miles south of there, on the Story-Marshall county line, you’ll find Hendrickson Marsh. The two areas between them total about 1,500 acres.
Both Colo Bogs and Hendrickson Marsh have a good mix of upland and marsh/wetland habitat. Early in the season, the hunting can be quite good in the more conventional-looking upland cover. But once the birds have been pushed around some, and especially once cold weather comes, pheasants will seek refuge in the heavier cover and marshy areas. If it turns cold enough to freeze things pretty solid, hunting the marshy areas will be less difficult and can be quite productive. I’ve taken roosters in both of these types of area myself, both early and very late in the season.
The two Story County areas also offer the possibility of good waterfowl hunting. Nontoxic shot is not required if you’re only hunting pheasants.
Another part of the state that usually has decent pheasant numbers. There are a couple of large public areas in the region at which hunters can expect some sharp action.
The Hawkeye Wildlife Area consists of over 13,000 acres, mostly surrounding the upper end of Coralville Reservoir in Johnson County. Like Chichaqua Bottoms, it’s quite close to a major metropolitan area (Cedar Rapids/Iowa City), so it’ll receive a fair amount of hunting pressure. Also like Chichaqua Bottoms, parts of the Hawkeye Area are heavily timbered. There will be quite a few deer hunters there during shotgun season.
Part of the Hawkeye Areas is also a refuge, so pay attention to the yellow signs separating the closed area from those portions open to hunting.
Hunters will find both the usual upland cover and marshy areas at Hawkeye. Both types of cover will hold birds.
As at some of the other areas we’ve mentioned, the waterfowl-pheasant mixed-bag hunt is certainly possible at Hawkeye. Nontoxic shot is not required for upland hunting.
The Iowa River Corridor consists of several thousand acres along the river, in Tama, Benton and Iowa counties. The land was acquired by the federal government after the record floods of 1993. It’s a very popular area with deer hunters and offers some waterfowling, but the pheasant hunting can be quite worthwhile in the upland portions of the corridor, farther away from the riverbottom timber. Non-toxic shot is not required for pheasant hunting.
Like the northwest, central, and east-central regions, this section of the state has boasted very strong pheasant numbers for the last few years, and there are several good public areas from which to choose.
Our final pick is one of the largest of these areas in the region: Elk Creek Marsh in Worth County. Split right up the middle by I-35, it contains about 3,000 acres, part of which is a refuge; it attracts deer and waterfowl hunters as well as pheasant hunters. Non-toxic shot is required for pheasant hunting at Elk Creek.
FOR PUBLIC-AREA SUCCESS
If you’ve decided to try one of the areas we’ve suggested, or perhaps another public area in a part of the state where pheasants are acceptably numerous, chances of having a successful hunt are quite good. However, there are some measures you can take to increase your odds of putting a few ringnecks in your hunting coat.
If you’re hunting on a weekend – particularly opening weekend – plan to arrive at the area you’ve chosen by 7:30 (half an hour before legal shooting time) at the latest. If you’ve staked
your claim, and it’s a smaller area, other parties arriving later may decide to go elsewhere; if it’s a larger area and other hunters are already there, or arrive after you, you can put your heads together and decide which group is heading which direction. Not only is this better from a safety standpoint, but it’ll also give everyone better odds of encountering more birds and fewer people.
Better advice still: If you’re going to hunt public land, arrange your hunt for a weekday rather than on a weekend.
Those without a dog who hunt public-land pheasants can find the effort an exercise in frustration. There’s a lot of heavy cover in which the birds can hide, allowing you to walk right past them. And if you do knock a bird down, you’ll have difficulty recovering it without a dog. If you don’t own a dog, either find a friend who does to buddy up with you on trips to public hunting area, or hunt other places having less cover.
If you’re staying for a couple of days, or otherwise field-dressing birds to transport home, remember that you must leave a foot, wing, or head attached for identification purposes.
2004 is shaping up to be a great pheasant season in Iowa, and there are excellent public-hunting opportunities for those who wish to take advantage of them. If you want to check out some close to wherever it is that you live, either access the IDNR Web site or contact the agency and request a free hard-copy version of their Public Hunting Areas of Iowa brochure. In the latter case, write: Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 502 East 9th Street, Des Moines, IA 50319-0034 – or call (515) 281-5918.
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