Brutal winters took a toll on the birds over the last few years, but IDNR management strategies have helped pheasant numbers rebound -- especially at the public areas near our population centers.
Pheasant hunting can take a lot out of a guy. Trudging through switchgrass and heavy brush is hard traveling for most of us, especially when toting a shotgun. It doesn't help when there's a long drive before the hunt begins and hours in the car when you're bone-weary on the way home.
A lot of ringneck hunters living in our more populated areas really aren't sure of where to go for some good shooting. There isn't any reason to drive halfway across the state when excellent public hunting areas, open to whomever shows up, lie so close to home. If you don't belong to a private club or know someone who happens to own a few hundred acres of prairie, our public hunting lands are for you.
Surprisingly, some of the Hawkeye State's most productive pheasant hunting is done within a stone's throw of city dwellers. Wildlife areas like Hawkeye, Big Marsh and Tieville-Decatur team up with some of the state's best bird hunting opportunities, like Chichaqua Bottoms, to put a day's hunt right in our back yards.
Severe winter weather several years ago drastically reduced the number of pheasants statewide. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources responded by intensively managing public areas with pheasant hunters in mind -- establishing row crops, reintroducing prairie grasses and acquiring hundreds of acres of brush and riverbottom lands.
Much of this habitat improvement and land acquisition took place in wildlife areas, county conservation properties and other public lands just a short distance from population centers so that urban hunters could enjoy them. Increased winter cover, food sources and better spring weather have combined to help to restore pheasant populations.
Though the hunt isn't over until the last shot is fired, wildlife biologists are optimistic that this year will be a good one. Some areas are loaded with roosters; others are still recovering. But all in all, it should be worth the time to go afield.
If you're looking for excellent upland hunting opportunities in your neck of the woods, here are some top destinations for ringnecks this year.
"In 2004 there was high water, but the water came down early enough for wheat and foxtail to come up," said IDNR wildlife biologist Tim Thompson. "We had decent pheasant hunting last year, and the locals hunting out there said they were seeing higher numbers of roosters, which was the exact opposite of the year before."
The high incidence of roosters will be a boon to area hunters, and will raise the numbers of harvestable birds. The area's heavy brush and grass means guys with dogs will likely be shooting higher numbers of birds as a result.
"The biggest wildlife area here is the Hawkeye Wildlife Area," said Thompson. "Hawkeye, along with other state lands nearby, totals about 14,000 acres. We have about 3,000 acres we try to maintain in row crops for pheasant habitat, but it always depends on flooding."
The productive habitat is mixed, with abundant sources of food and cover, and when the privately owned fields are cut, pheasants begin concentrating on the public lands. Some of the acreage is under water or marshy, while much is timbered and typical upland pheasant habitat.
To check the bird population before a trip to the wildlife area, Thompson recommends making a phone call to either the wildlife area or his office. Hawkeye WMA is located in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids areas along the Iowa River at the Coralville Reservoir in the eastern part of the state.
For more info, contact Coralville Wildlife Management Unit at (319) 354-8343.
IOWA RIVER CORRIDOR PROJECT
Purchased by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Iowa River Corridor Project covers nearly 20,000 acres in Iowa, Poweshiek, Tama and Benton counties in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids areas. The area tends to flood; if the spring has been dry and the river hasn't moved out over the flood plain, good cover for nesting hens means good hunting later on.
"The Iowa River Corridor Project was real good hunting last year," said Thompson. Management practices are focusing on the encroaching willows, and according to Thompson, the only effective way to stop them is by burning out areas of the floodplain. There are just too many to dig out.
Along with property owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, public areas belonging to county conservation boards and the state offer good hunting opportunities. "Don't overlook the small areas," said Thompson. "Check some of the County Conservation lands. There are a lot of birds on some of them."
Smaller properties in the area include: Randolph WMA, in Iowa County, which has about 100 acres of upland habitat three miles south of Belle Plaine on Highway 21; Otter Creek Marsh WMA in Tama County, which covers over 2,000 acres of marsh and prairie lands a mile northwest of Chelsea on E66; Dudgeon Lake WMA in Benton County, covering 1,735 acres of upland, marsh and wooded country.
Even smaller plots of public hunting land owned by the state can be productive, such as the little 80-acre West Salt Creek WMA located 5 miles southwest of Vinton on T Avenue. Hitting these smaller areas just right can be tricky, since it doesn't take many hunters to make a crowd. Look for row crops and fields with thick cover adjacent to these public areas. They can harbor a lot of birds and provide good shooting, especially if you've gained permission to hunt the surrounding private properties as well.
For more information on hunting the Iowa River region's public lands, contact the Coralville Unit at (319) 354-8343.
BIG MARSH WMA
"In general, last year wasn't too bad, and this year we've started out pretty dry so we've got good potential for rebounding well, barring hail, flooding and hard rain," said Ed Weiner, a state wildlife biologist with the Ruthven Wildlife Management Unit near Sioux City. "Pheasant numbers are dependent on the rainfall. As the rainfall goes up, total pheasant numbers go down."
This holds as true with the Big Marsh Wildlife Management Area as it does anywhere in the state. If springtime indications hold true, the pheasant population should be fairly high this year. The Big Marsh is located near Cedar Falls and Waterloo in Butler County.
About half of the area's 4,380 acres consist of
excellent upland bird habitat, while the rest is divided between timber and marsh. The West Fork of the Cedar River roughly borders the northwest section of the management area, and there are pockets of county conservation board properties nearby. (The refuge area's signs are yellow with black lettering. Firearms, trespassing and pursuing game birds are all prohibited on this parcel during pheasant season.)
Big Marsh WMA is six miles north of Parkersburg on Highway 14. For additional information, contact the Big Marsh Unit at (515) 532-2765.
"The Tieville-Decatur wildlife area in Monona County is one of our premier pheasant areas," said the IDNR's Weiner.
Tieville is a fish and wildlife restoration area. The Iowa Wildlife Bureau purchased about 500 acres of farmland here and seeded down about 100 acres to create ideal pheasant habitat. "Tieville is a series of three river bends that have been connected by lands owned by the state," explained Wiener. "A lot of these lands were underwater at one time, and after the water level lowered due to channelization, the resulting dry land belongs to the state rather than reverting to the adjacent property owner."
Ringneck hunters will find lots of grassland to target with plenty of roosters to shoot -- but they'll need to keep in mind where the state line is. "When you get along the Missouri River you need to make sure you know where you are," Weiner cautioned. "The state line doesn't follow the channel, and you can be in another state without realizing it. You can't hunt there without a license from that state."
Sited on the Missouri River at the Iowa-Nebraska state line, Tieville-Decatur WMA covers 970 acres. Roughly a quarter of the area is in bottomland timber, while the majority is upland habitat with a thriving pheasant population. The area is three and a half miles west of Onawa on 175. For more information contact the Missouri River WMU at (712) 423-2426.
This WMA near Castania and Turin covers over 2,000 acres, and according to Weiner, it has some good pheasant habitat. Loessfield has a nice mix of upland timber and grassland with a unique feature: prairie ridges. At present, these ridges are about 200 to 250 feet above the terrain down along the river. The ridges are sharp and run southwest to northeast.
Another interesting feature of the area is that it's exceptionally dry. Prairie plants like the yucca, normally found hundreds of miles west in Nebraska, are found on high, exposed slopes. In the deeper sheltered areas, plants native to Kentucky have become established.
The IDNR has been busy acquiring WRP land in the region with pheasant management in mind. Though populations of ringnecks are generally not running high, they're increasing, and the hunting is getting better; hunters have plenty of room to spread out.
Surprisingly, some of the Hawkeye State's most productive pheasant hunting is done within a stone's throw of city dwellers.
The Loessfield Wildlife Management Area, just east of the Sioux River, follows the riverbank for a short distance. Parking lots are scattered throughout the area. The area's convenient for hunters in the Council Bluffs and Sioux City areas.
Information on Loessfield WMA can be obtained by contacting the Missouri River Wildlife Management Unit at (712) 423-2426.
CHICHAQUA BOTTOMS WMA
Dave Van Waus, the regional biologist with Pheasants Forever in northwest Iowa, describes Chichaqua, which is easily accessible for Des Moines hunters, as one of the finest pheasant areas in the state.
"A lot of work has gone into Chichaqua Bottoms to make it good for game and non-game species alike," said Patricia Peterson-Keys, a naturalist with Chichaqua WMA who is herself a pheasant hunter.
The IDNR has recognized the importance of habitat management and realizes that the birds will only be there if the habitat will support them. "We've come to realize that what was done in the past was to manage smaller areas which weren't that productive for pheasants," said Peterson-Keys. "To manage for pheasants, you need 30, 40, 80 to 300 acres of open grassland -- not necessarily contingent, but close together.
"Pheasants are an open-grassland bird, and I always say that we manage the vegetation, not the species. You need the right kind of vegetation. You can say that if you build the habitat, the birds will come, and that the amount of habitat you have will determine how many birds will survive."
The IDNR and the Polk County Conservation Board jointly own thousands of acres in the Skunk River valley in the northeastern part of the county, with the vast majority belonging to the County Conservation Board. The area sees some heavy hunting pressure in its upland timber and prairie, some of which is dense. Hunters with bird dogs will have a decided advantage. The roosters' irritating habit of holding to cover until you step on them is always a problem in high grass. Here's where a good setter, pointer or retriever will shine, and probably mean a higher number of bagged birds.
Additional information can be obtained from the Red Rock Unit at (515) 961-0716.
LOST GROVE LAKE WMA
"We have got 1,580 acres of premier pheasant area at the Lost Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area," said Bob Sheets, a wildlife biologist with the Maquoketa Wildlife Management Unit. "Guys hit it hard during pheasant season, but they never get to the breeding stock. Every year we have excellent reproduction. If hunters spend a couple hours out here they'll probably get a bird."
Lost Grove has been open for nearly 10 years, with plenty of planning going on to enhance the pheasant hunting. "We're just waiting to put a lake in," said Sheets. "In the meantime we've been developing the upland habitat. We have 250 acres of native grasses, 150 acres of row crops, 80 acres with additional forage and three small wet areas that are growing cattails. There's ragweed, cedar and all sorts of annual weeds you could expect to find on idle land."
According to Sheets, a good bird dog is invaluable any time heavy cover is being hunted. "A lot of public land birds tend to run instead of fly because they're harassed so badly," he explained. That's where a well-trained dog is worth its weight in ringneck feathers."
Increased winter cover, food sources and better spring weather have combined to help to restore pheasant populations.
The area is located five miles east of Eldridge and six miles north of Davenport in Scott County; the Utica Ridge Road bisects the area. For additional information on hunting the area, contact the Maquoketa WMU at (563) 652-3132.
GOOSE LAKE WMA
"The southern portion of the Goose Lake management area is good," said biologist Sheets. "There are 500 acres of really good wintering habitat of smartweed, willow, cattail and bulrush. There's cropland nearby where the pheasants can feed and then go back into cover."
Some good shooting is to be had in this public hunting area near the Davenport area, but to hunt it properly takes considerable persistence. "It's a hard hunt, and tough on the dogs, because they tend to get cut up, since the brush is so thick," said Sheets. "But what's new about that in pheasant hunting?"
Birds spend first light in the morning looking for gravel and grit and begin feeding soon afterwards. They're most vulnerable when moving between fields where they roosted and the heavy cover where they'll spend midday. During the evening hours, birds will begin moving back towards the fields where hunters can typically get off a few more shots.
Goose Lake WMA is five miles north of Jefferson on Highway 4 in Greene County. Contact the Maquoketa Wildlife Management Unit at (563) 652-3132 for more information.
For more information regarding any and all of the public lands for pheasant in the state, contact the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Wallace State Office Building, Des Moines, IA 50319-0034. Or, residents can call (515) 281-5918 and request a copy of the Iowa Public Hunting Areas brochure. The IDNR can also be reached at
www.iowadnr.com. Trip planning assistance is available from the Iowa Tourism Office at 1-888-472-6035 or online at the address