Hawkeye State Ringneck Roundup

Hawkeye State Ringneck Roundup

Heavy snow cover and wet springs have made survival difficult for Iowa's pheasant population in recent years, but there are reasons for optimism as the 2009 season begins. (October 2009)

Heavy snowfall and plenty of spring rains kept pheasant harvests at modest levels during the last two seasons, but IDNR officials believe harvests will top the 1-million-bird mark by 2010 or 2011.

Photo by GaryKramer.com.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources pheasant guru Todd Bogenschutz is "cautiously optimistic" about ringneck prospects across most of the state this season, in spite of several strong negative factors impacting Iowa's upland game.

"Those who hunt north of Interstate 80 and west of Interstate 35 can expect generally better hunting than last fall," Bogenschutz said. "Birds in the northeast part of the state are still trying to bounce back from the winter of 2007-08. They still got over 40 inches of snow up there, half as much as the year before, but more than enough to make survival difficult."

Bogenschutz said Iowa has experienced weather trends that are much wetter over the past several years. Heavy snow cover followed by a cold, wet spring combine in a one-two punch that can knock bird numbers back for several years if they don't have adequate escape cover.

"The spring of 2008 was the wettest in the 130 years we've kept records in this state," the biologist said. "The winter of 2007-08 was the 10th worst ever. This is the primary reason our pheasant harvest was only about 400,000 birds in the aftermath of this weather. We're definitely on the rebound. If weather remains 'normal,' we should see a million-plus ringneck harvest again by 2010 or 2011 -- even with the decline in CRP enrollment."

In the early 1990s, Iowa had about 2.2 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Taking this land out of production provided greatly enhanced habitat for Iowa's pheasants and other wildlife. Since this heyday, we've lost about 200 square miles of CRP land every year. In 2009, only 1.6 million acres are still enrolled, with no visible end to the downward trend for at least the next couple of years.

"We still have good habitat," Bogenschutz said. "As long as those hens can find a safe place to drop 11 eggs on the ground and Mother Nature doesn't frown too severely, you're going to see good pheasant production."

Mother Nature still wore a frown last winter in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties, where spring call counts were only seven to nine birds per route this past spring. In Iowa's prime pheasant range in the northwestern part of the state, surveys in Dickinson and Palo Alto counties showed 50-plus calls per route.

"The birds can recover from just about any weather insult within three years, given a return to normal conditions," Bogenschutz said. "The population absolutely tanked in 1983-84 and again in 2003-04, but the birds came cackling back. We're on the rebound once again."

Most Iowans pursue the multi-colored bird within an hour's drive from home. Those who live in the northeastern part of the state can still find pheasants at places like Cardinal Marsh on the Winneshiek-Chickasaw counties border and smaller pockets of upland habitat on both public and private lands. But the best upland opportunities will require a road trip to find consistent success. The Iowa Sportsman's Atlas is an invaluable resource in this regard, listing public-hunting areas, Iowa DNR contacts, sport shops and other amenities in all of Iowa's 99 counties. For more information on this map book, you can call (800) 568-8334, or visit online at www.sportsmanatlas.com.

Iowa is still a state where knocking on doors can produce access to private lands, which definitely produce the best hunting opportunity. There is no doubt that attitudes are changing in this aspect, even in the most rural parts of our very rural state.

Leases and hunting privileges for a fee are becoming an unpleasant fact in the Hawkeye State. Fortunately, we're still years away from scenarios seen in neighboring states like Illinois, where 95 percent of land is privately owned, and essentially you either have to be family or have considerable money to hunt pheasants.

Iowa has vast tracts of public land and countless smaller public areas where bird hunters can venture forth with reasonable expectations for success. I can think of a dozen such parcels where bagging a ringneck in an hour is pretty much a sure thing if the dog is willing to work close and I can remember to keep my cheek on the gunstock.

Obviously, the bonanza offered at these 5- to 50-acre parcels would come to a screeching halt if road directions and GPS coordinates were provided in this article. You can find this hunting on your own with a little initiative and the Sportsman's Atlas. Locating the more popular public hunting areas is simply a matter of stopping by a café or gas station in any small town in the northeastern part of the state and asking directions or visiting the IDNR Web site (www.iowadnr.gov) and navigating to "pheasant hunting" with a couple of obvious clicks.

"Anytime the Iowa DNR explicitly says a PHG or WMA has a good population of game, that property tends to get absolutely hammered," Bogenschutz said. "We post information on survey results on our Web site. Those who take this information and put it together with information on the IDNR's recreational map site (www.programs.iowadnr.gov/ims/website/receiver/viewer.htm) hold the keys to the best public hunting our state has to offer. This is the best way I know to locate those little parcels of land that can offer spectacular hunting."

There are a number of tremendous pheasant opportunities across much of the state that fall between common-knowledge "community spots" and those little parcels that you wouldn't take your computer-challenged brother-in-law to unless he was blindfolded. In this article, we'll explore several opportunities in which a novice hunter with a little common sense -- and initiative -- can experience Iowa's rich pheasant bounty this season.

DICKINSON COUNTY

It would take at least a week of hard hunting to effectively cover all the public pheasant hunting ground in this epicenter of Iowa's ringneck country, with over 20 areas to choose from. The absolute best can't be noted for the reason biologist Bogenschutz cites. But several can stand the short-list scrutiny of this article.

Pothoff WMA is only 156 acres. It is located off 110th Street in the northern part of the county and bordered by private property. The IDNR has enhanced the pheasant carrying capacity here by planting tracts of prairie grass, which the birds won't abandon at the sound of tromping boots. But add a bird dog to the mix and the scenario changes. The first couple parties to push through here have great potential for success. But second place is sometimes referred to as first loser. This is especially true for a crew that plans on hunting where others have been rather than where the birds are going.

Good habitat will attract pheasants throughout the year. Birds that leave in the game bag will obviously not return. But those that cackle away will be back. Keep Pothoff in mind for later in the season, during the week or after a fresh snowfall.

You can kick through Trickle Slough WMA on the north side of Spirit Lake, just south of the Minnesota border in less than an hour. This parcel is only 19 acres, with most birds hiding in the grass until pressure pushes them into heavier cover in the marshland.

Hale's Slough WMA is across Spirit Lake to the east, just south of 110th Street. Two thoughts will go through your mind when coming up with a strategy to hunt this square 242-acre parcel: "ideal pheasant cover" and "a helluva lot of work."

Know up front that this will be no romp in the swamp. If you don't have a good dog, you might as well leave the gun in the truck, too. But if you've got the gumption and the dog has a nose, the ringnecks are waiting.

Portions of Santee Prairie on the west side of the Iowa Great Lakes and south of Highway 9 are easier to traverse than Hale's Slough. This is especially true late in the season when marshy portions of this waterfowl production area are frozen.

Santee Prairie covers 460 acres. A fresh snow enhances chances for success. If a last-day-of-the-season hunt is an annual event for you, this might be the best public opportunity in the state.

PALO ALTO COUNTY

Five Island Lake and the two parcels in the West Fork area in the middle of the county are obvious destinations for upland hunters when you're talking public hunting grounds in this prime pheasant country of the Hawkeye State.

Five Island Lake is just over 1,100 acres. This long, sometimes narrow, project extends northeast out of Emmetsburg. The very best hunting is easy to see but a long walk to get to.

The same situation holds true in the south part of the West Fork Wetlands, a 280-acre parcel of which about 10 percent is serious marsh. Marching to the edge of the marsh can pay big dividends, especially later in the season.

Fallow Marsh offers probably the best public pheasant hunting over 100 acres in the county. This 242-acre project is a cooperative effort of the IDNR and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and is managed by the IDNR. Fallow Marsh is located way out in the boonies, about halfway between Ruthven and Graetinger in the northwest part of the county.

This property is a textbook example of ideal pheasant habitat, capable of sustaining the birds throughout the year -- no matter what Mother Nature brings forth. There are plenty of small grasses like brome and alfalfa close to heavy escape and over-winter cover.

Smart roosters will cackle here at sunrise, gliding into the cattails and dense, tall switchgrass at the sound of the first barking dog or slamming truck door. Even though the habitat of Fallow Marsh approaches perfection, hunting pressure is minimal after mid-season, especially during the week.

EMMET & CLAY COUNTIES

Small areas are true pheasant gems in both of these northwestern counties. It won't take long to educate every bird within two miles of the 82-acre Jim Hall Habitat Area in southern Emmet County or 120-acre Thompson Tract in far southwest Clay County after these words appear in Iowa Game & Fish. But these public hunting areas are exactly what IDNR pheasant guru Todd Bogenschutz is talking about.

Prospecting for the most productive locations on larger properties takes a little longer, but understanding human nature provides a major key to success. Most hunters who head out at a place like Emmet County's 1,503-acre Tuttle Lake Wildlife Area just south of the Minnesota border and north of Dolliver will park on the south side of the project and make a small loop through the cover.

This will drive savvy pheasants in the opposite direction at the first trill of an Acme Thunderer whistle. A better strategy might be coming in from the north off 100th Street halfway across the hunting area before beginning your probe. The Eagle Lake Wildlife Area is at the same latitude a few miles due west, its 376 acres hiding in plain sight just south of the Minnesota line.

Human nature tends to keep many hunters away from state borders, even when the end of your resident hunting privileges are clearly indicated. This is a major reason why both Eagle and Tuttle have "sleeper" status when it comes to hunting.

Ryan Lake, in the middle of Emmet County, has easy access from several different vectors. This 366-acre project isn't classic pheasant cover, but a combination of woods, wetlands and swaths of both tall and short grasses provide edges that birds find quite appealing.

If you plan on hunting here and your vehicle isn't the first one to park along the road, consider taking a long walk around the project and hunting from east to west.

Dewey's Pasture is by far the most popular destination in Clay County. A large portion of this sprawling public hunting area is actually to the east in neighboring Palo Alto County. There are plenty of birds here -- and literally thousands of acres for them to hide in.

Tuttle Marsh is only 137 acres and a much more isolated public area in the northwestern corner of the county, known more for waterfowling than ringnecks. Tuttle is another great late-season hunting area.

GREENE COUNTY

This west-central Iowa county has several good public hunting opportunities, with the option of paying to hunt adjacent private leased lands if you're so inclined. Dunbar Slough on the western edge of the county is the most popular area.

Walking is fairly easy and birds are plentiful here, ideal conditions for working a pointing dog on these rolling 1,832 acres. Dunbar is actually three separate parcels. The largest runs north and south from about 240th to 270th roads. One smaller public area is just east and north of 270th, and another is just due south of the larger area, west of B Avenue.

The Willow Wildlife Area is another good spot. It is also located west of B Avenue just south of 310th. Willow encompasses approximately 156 acres of marshland and grass.

A lesser known, but equally productive, pheasant hunting area is at the same latitude but on the opposite side of the county. Snake Creek Marsh is southeast of Grand Junction and just north of Rippey, with 480 acres of wetlands, grasses and croplands to attract and hold the birds.

FROGGING AROUND

"While the northwestern part of the state is definitely 'Pheasant Central,' lately there are many, many other parts of the

state where you'll still find good hunting," Bogenschutz said. "Mason City is still a ringneck mecca. Cerro Gordo and Hancock counties both have numerous public lands where you can find a high degree of success."

The Union Hills Wildlife Management Area north of Thornton, Clear Lake WMA east of Clear Lake and Ventura Marsh west of Clear Lake all provide plenty of walking room. However, you may not be walking alone, especially on the weekend.

"Hamilton and Marshall counties also continue to offer good hunting, even though weather conditions over the past couple of years haven't helped the birds," Bogenschutz continued. "Traveling hunters might want to take a close look at surveys on the IDNR Web site if they plan on hunting this part of the state. There are several spots I wouldn't necessarily call 'sleepers' . . . but if you try to nod off when walking there, a rooster is liable to scare the daylights out of you."

Some of the best public pheasant hunting can be found on incredibly small parcels of ground. Several years ago, a buddy and I were cruising the gravel between a couple of spots in Mitchell County on opening weekend.

We pulled over momentarily to check the map and saw three roosters walking down the road and entering a small copse of cover. The area turned out to be a township shooting range that was open to the public.

Two birds were all we needed to fill our limits. We had enough time to return to my home south of New Albin in time to catch a few walleyes for supper.

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