By Larry Brown
Before Jim, Roy and I had even gotten a chance to dive into the cover behind Roy’s house, we caught sight of two or three dozen pheasants dropping into the heavy grass. What more could three anxious pheasant hunters want?
Half an hour later, we had our answer: more-cooperative pheasants! We waded the head-high slough grass behind my veteran shorthair, Donner, and Jim’s golden retriever, Rocky, but the birds had all the advantages in that cover. And they’d been hunted before. Although several hens would have offered shots, the hunter-wise roosters didn’t stick around long enough for any of us to get in range.
From the slough behind the house, we headed across a bare soybean field and into a patch of Conservation Reserve Program grass around a pond. Jim and Roy took the “low road,” while Donner and I worked the slope above the pond.
Donner hit scent along the edge of the tall switchgrass, and before long he was locked on point. This rooster had chosen good cover, but he flushed over the adjacent, open field, giving me a perfect shot. Donner scooped him up and headed back on the run.
As Donner and I started downhill to complete the pincer movement with Jim and Roy, who were coming around the bottom edge, a second rooster flushed wild. He was too far out, and I let him go. Then another flushed, heading over the CRP towards the hillside Donner and I had just worked. My shot connected, but the bird didn’t drop. However, I had a pretty good line on him, and thought we stood a good chance of finding him later.
Meanwhile, Jim collected a bird that flushed off the low side of the cover. We met up and compared notes. I told them that I wanted to work back around and up the hillside to see if Donner could locate the cripple. About halfway up the hill, Donner skidded to a halt, pretty much on the line I’d seen my cripple follow. “Dead bird!” I told him. He dove into the cover and came out with the leg-busted rooster. When you get dog work like that, you know why it pays to feed them!
Donner’s younger understudy, Dasher, got her chance next in a couple of nice CRP buffer strips near Jim’s sister’s house. We followed one waterway to the road. Right before we ran out of cover, Dash managed to corner a couple of birds with nice points. Unfortunately, both were hens.
The next buffer strip – another of the 6-foot high switchgrass variety — did hold a rooster, but the wind was at our backs, and the dogs didn’t scent the bird, which flushed behind us. I took a fleeting shot over the tall grass and saw the bird go down on the far side. The cover screened all of us, including the dogs, from accurately marking the bird’s fall. Both humans and dogs had to negotiate a hog-wire fence to get into the little pasture into which the bird would have tumbled. When I didn’t see him anywhere in the short grass, I was immediately concerned.
“He must have come down with good legs, and in short cover like this, they don’t leave much scent,” I told Jim. We looked both upstream and down on the little waterway that ran through the pasture, but the rooster had more than enough time to make an escape, and the dogs never seemed to pick up a trail.
After lunch, we hunted more buffer strips along a couple of waterways that met in the middle of a harvested cornfield. I took my third bird just as we started: A pair of roosters flushed near the point at which the waterway went under a bridge on a gravel road. The first one was too far out. I went to my tight barrel on the second, and Dasher made a nice retrieve of a bird that fell stone dead. As I’d been a little off target on the two previous birds, that made me feel much better.
Jim collected another bird, at which point we decided to call it a day.
If you think that the above hunt took place in some remote location far from one of Iowa’s larger cities and the resulting pressure from its pheasant hunting residents, think again! We were in Benton County, less than a half-hour’s drive from downtown Cedar Rapids. Right next to one of the fields we hunted, cars whizzed by at 65 miles an hour on Highway 30.
We don’t usually think of good hunting opportunities being available near Iowa’s larger cities. Between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City – only 20 miles south of there – and their respective suburbs, there are close to a quarter of a million people, which is a lot by Iowa standards. But it’s historically a pretty good area for pheasant hunting, and there are a number of public areas where hunters stand a good chance of some late-season action.
I spoke with my friend and occasional hunting partner, outdoor writer Phil Bourjaily of Iowa City, about ringneck opportunities in the area. He immediately brought up the Hawkeye Wildlife Area. Located between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, just off I-380, this is one of Iowa’s largest public hunting areas, sprawling over more than 13,000 acres. It surrounds most of Coralville Reservoir, but it also follows the floodplain of the Iowa River, back upstream (to the west) for several miles on the west side of I-380.
Phil pointed out that Hawkeye is quite good early in the season, after the crops on adjacent private land have been harvested and the birds filter into the heavier cover on the public ground. Nevertheless, it does get a significant amount of hunting pressure from area residents, and things can get tough as the season wears on. However, part of the area is a refuge and therefore closed to hunting until the end of waterfowl season. (The refuge boundaries are marked by yellow and black signs.) But the refuge areas are open to hunting after the end of the year, giving pheasant hunters a 10-day window before their season ends. Especially if the weather is cold and there is a fair amount of snow, quite a few pheasants will have moved into the refuges, and the hunting can be excellent for these birds that have not experienced pressure for a couple of months.
Tim Thompson, Iowa Department of Natural Resources biologist with the agency’s Coralville Wildlife Unit office, also recommends Hawkeye. “The Hawkeye area was very good last year,” he told me. “We had several relatively dry years in a row, which allowed our bird numbers to build up. It may not be quite as good this year because of heavy rains in the spring, and the fact that the water level in the reservoir is up well above normal, but there should still be decent numbers of pheasants.
“Hawkeye has an excellent combination of food and cover,” he continued. “On private land, birds can
often find one or the other, but not both like they can on the wildlife area. That really helps them make it through hard winters and keeps our bird numbers up even when they drop off elsewhere.”
“Although the rains and flooding undoubtedly hurt nesting success this year, I did see some pheasant broods with pretty good sized chicks before the rains came. And I’m sure that some of the hens that lost nests due to rain and flooding will renest, so that there will be some late-hatch birds, as well.”
Other than the refuges, there are no special regulations in effect on Hawkeye WA. Although it receives quite a bit of waterfowling pressure, pheasant hunters are not required to use nontoxic shot. (In fact, there are no requirements for non-toxic shot at any of the public areas we’ll mention in this article.)
If you follow the Iowa River upstream from the upper end of Hawkeye WA, you’ll come to the Iowa County town of Marengo. Continuing from Marengo and following the river through a corner of Benton County and well into Tama County runs the Iowa River Corridor Project. Much of this land, in the floodplain of the Iowa River, was acquired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service following the record setting floods of 1993. Other, smaller areas are owned either by the IDNR or by one of the respective county conservation boards. But to a hunter, the effect is all the same: It’s all available to hunt, several thousand acres of it – and the late-season action can be quite good.
As at Hawkeye WA, bird numbers along the Iowa River Corridor have built up quite well over the past few years. It’s been on the dry side of normal, and pheasant reproduction has been pretty good. This year may not be quite as good as last because of heavier rains and spring flooding. However, the habitat furthest away from the river itself – much of which consists of tall prairie grass adjacent to crops on neighboring private farmland – usually provides good action on pheasants, even late in the season. Also similar to Hawkeye is the fact that the heavier cover draws the birds once the crops are harvested, and especially when snow and cold weather arrive.
Phil Bourjaily says that though this is a particularly large area, and that the birds can be quite scattered here, it’s definitely worth the effort.
There are several other, smaller public areas within an hour’s drive or so of Cedar Rapids that can also be quite good for late-season pheasants. There’s a public hunting area surrounding Pleasant Creek Lake, north of Palo. It will have suffered less from flooding than the river bottom areas such as Hawkeye and the Iowa River Corridor, according to Tim Thompson. He rates the pheasant hunting there as fair to good.
In that same area, just east of Palo, is the Chain-O-Lakes Area. Flooding will have affected it more than it will have influenced Pleasant Creek, but it also deserves checking out by late-season ringneck chasers.
The last Linn County area worthy of mention is Matsell Bridge, located along the Wapsipinicon River northeast of Cedar Rapids. Much of the area is timbered, but the adjacent upland areas will hold some pheasants.
As for public areas in neighboring or nearby counties, Dudgeon Lake, located just outside Vinton in Benton County, is one of interest. It’s fairly large, at over 1,700 acres. While much of it is either timber or marsh and only about a quarter is characteristic upland habitat, it does hold pheasants. And late in the season, the marshy areas should not be overlooked either.
Otter Creek Marsh, near the Tama County town of Chelsea, is slightly farther away but definitely worth the drive for a late-season hunt. As with Dudgeon Lake, only a relatively small portion of Otter Creek’s 3,400 acres is upland cover, but the marsh itself has excellent habitat for late-season roosters. Like Hawkeye, Otter Creek is a partial refuge, giving pheasant hunters a week and a half in January to chase roosters before the season ends.
Especially late in the season, after shotgun deer season is over, it’s fairly easy to access private land here in the Hawkeye State, and the rewards can be well worth the effort. The area surrounding Cedar Rapids tends to be pretty good pheasant country, so if you find a farm with good cover and secure permission to hunt, you may well be in for some good late-season action.
Late season means heavy cover, which in turn often means CRP ground on private land. The most recent listings of CRP acres show that all the counties surrounding Cedar Rapids have decent amounts of ground set aside under the CRP. Linn County itself has about 12,000 acres, Benton 15,000, Jones 18,000 and Cedar 13,000. Some of the other counties in the region have even more: Tama 28,000, Johnson 22,000, and Iowa 39,000. Because of the rainfall patterns this year – heavier north and east of Cedar Rapids – those counties to the south and west, which also have greater amounts of good winter cover in the form of CRP, are likely to have better bird numbers as well.
If there is much snow cover, some of the larger fields set aside under the CRP and planted in brome grass may be of little value to the late-season hunter. However, the CRP buffer strips – up to 99 feet of cover on either side of a waterway – are often planted in tall, heavy prairie grass, such as switchgrass. This is excellent winter cover, even when the snow is quite deep, and these are the kinds of places you should be looking for when scouting for private land pheasants late in the season.
I shot a brace of roosters on a private land hunt not far south of Iowa City last January, hunting just that kind of cover. And if I had been able to get access to the adjacent farm, where I saw numerous birds flush from similar heavy, buffer strip cover, I’m quite sure I would have finished my limit. Unfortunately, the landowner wasn’t home.
FOR THE LATE SEASON
Late-season birds are survivors, and it takes some planning and careful execution to put a December or January rooster in the bag.
Remember that pheasants have both excellent sight and hearing. When I’m on a late-season hunt, I try to park at least 100 yards from the cover I’m planning to hunt. I make as little noise as possible when getting out of the vehicle and loading up. While I’ll often run my dog with a bell or beeper earlier in the year, to make it easier to keep track of its whereabouts in heavy cover, I try to hunt as silently as possible for late-season birds. I do use a beeper, but it’s one I can activate remotely from my transmitter. If the dog gets into heavy stuff and I lose contact, I can switch on the beeper to relocate him. Hunting with shorthairs and a Brittany, I can also run the beeper in the “point-only” mode, which means that it doesn’t sound off until the dog has a bird pinned.
Going to a larger size shot is a good idea when targeting late-season birds. On opening day, you’re hunting a lot of fledglings – birds of the year less than full-grown. By December, the yearlings that have
survived will be nearly as big as the second-year veterans, and they’ll all have started to put on more fat to help them cope with the cold. Most people shoot pheasants with 6s, which is a good all-around choice. However, I’ll often switch to 5s for December and January birds.
Changing to a tighter choke can also be wise. Especially with a 12 gauge and 1 1/8 or 1 1/4 ounce loads, you can be pretty successful for most of the season with an improved cylinder choke; modified is probably a better choice for late-season birds. Some veteran hunters will recommend full, but for the average hunter, that may well be more choke than he can take advantage of.
The combination of heavier clothes and gloves – added, possibly, to your having to fight through snow, will make you slower to bring your gun into action. Thus, with a larger shot size and tighter choke, you’ll not only be better prepared for more experienced birds, which will probably flush farther out, but you’ll also be compensating for your own slowness.
All too many residents of the Hawkeye State switch to deer when the shotgun seasons roll around, in December, and forget about ringnecks afterwards. That’s unfortunate, because the late hunting can be great – and if you fail to take advantage, it will be that much longer until next season rolls around.
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