Iowa's Best Ringneck Hunting

Opportunities abound for topnotch pheasant hunting in the Hawkeye State this fall -- you just need to know where find the birds. (Nov 2006)

The morning was '¦ frustrating.

Opening day of the 2005 pheasant season, and Dave Novak and I were hunting on his uncle's farm near Marengo in Iowa County. The place has textbook habitat: a wide, grassy draw bisecting medium-sized cornfields, a big patch of Conservation Reserve Program grass nearby to provide ideal nesting cover -- even an impenetrable patch of thorny brush that could shelter birds from the most determined predator.

We'd shot many roosters on the farm in years past, but this morning our efforts had so far proved futile. Despite walking slowly through heavy stands of switchgrass and canary grass we hadn't flushed a single bird. Not even a hen!

But just as we were tiring enough to lapse into a daydream, the event that makes pheasant hunting exciting happened: A rooster exploded from under Dave's feet, cackled, and made a beeline for the thick brush.

It took Dave a few seconds to regain his composure, but he's a seasoned hunter, and, having refocused his attention, he swung his Winchester on the bird; the rooster folded with the shot. It left a lasting memory of last year's opener, and we went on to have a fun, productive season.

Last season, Iowa pheasant hunters reported a mixed bag. Some found outstanding bird numbers; others' experience was more like what Dave and I found: slim pickin's, a few birds scattered here and there. The big question now is: What's in store for the 2006 season. Will there be plenty of birds, or will the season yield more exercise than roosters?

Biologists and veterans of the ringneck wars alike predict a good season, but guardedly, concerned about habitat changes that have made Iowa pheasant hunting more challenging. Whether hunters find excellent or poor hunting, few doubt that the face of Hawkeye State pheasant hunting is changing.

"The potential is good," said Iowa Department of Natural Resources' chief pheasant biologist Todd Bogenschutz. "We had a mild winter statewide, and that helps,"

Of course, he had to qualify his answer a little bit. I had asked him to predict this fall's pheasant season in late April, and because of publication schedules, this article was written in early May. A lot can happen in the spring and summer that has an impact on fall pheasant abundance.

"With good spring nesting conditions pheasant numbers should be up over last year," continued the biologist.

Whether Iowa's 2006 statewide season will be a memorable or mediocre depends on two factors, and while one can be controlled, the other can't. Habitat is the key. "With no habitat, there are never any pheasants," said longtime pheasant hunter Jim Tinker, of Cedar Rapids. "Never."

Habitat, of course, varies from spot to spot across Iowa. In general, it's gradually improved on public land, and is often ideal on private CRP grasslands. Elsewhere on private land, habitat quality is variable, but in general is declining as farmers continue to remove fencerows and waterways.

The news isn't all grim. Pheasants Forever and other conservation groups have mounted a strong effort to encourage landowners to improve habitat, and in some places they have been remarkably successful.

"Our PF chapter continues to plant food plots in the midst of large CRP fields that are away from trees that encourage hawk and owl predation," said Pheasant Forever volunteer Matt Schrantz, of Lisbon.

Weather is the wild card that can't be controlled. "I know the DNR has attributed good pheasant hunting to mild winters in previous years, and I agree that helps," said Tinker. "But in my experience, dry weather from April through June is an even better predictor of good fall hunting."

Biologists and hunters agree that cold, wet weather during this critical nesting period drowns eggs and chicks and often leads to a poor fall season.

Weather conditions also have a long-term effect on pheasant numbers. When I related to the biologist that I'd hunted some public areas with excellent habitat but poor pheasant numbers last year, he pointed out that local weather patterns can reduce the breeding stock of wild birds. "It can take two seasons of ideal weather on good habitat for bird numbers to bounce back," he explained.

This can also explain why hunting may be excellent on one farm but poor on a nearby farm with similar habitat. "It could be that one farm caught a heavy hailstorm that killed chicks," offered Bogenschutz.

Where does the chief pheasant biologist predict the best hunting this fall?

"I look for the northwestern, north-central, central, and east-central regions of Iowa to have the best hunting this fall," he said. "These regions generally have the best habitat, and they also have the highest density of breeding hens."

Some of the sharpest predictions come from IDNR regional biologists. Scattered throughout the state, they're in almost daily contact with landowners, pheasants and habitat.

Biologist Bill Ohde is based down in the southeastern Iowa town of Wapello. Southern Iowa has never been known for outstanding pheasant hunting, and Ohde's turf is better known for ducks than for ringnecks. Despite that, his prediction for this fall is optimistic.

"Birds came through winter in great shape," he said. "I'm seeing more hens and roosters than I have in several years."

He's also seeing habitat shifts. "More and more stream buffers are going in," he noted, "and our CRP acreage has been stable, but clearing of fencerows and brushy draws keeps going on. They tend to cancel each other out, and some of the older CRP land isn't as productive as it once was. It could use some disturbance."

Ohde's prediction, made in May, before nesting success could be determined, is that we could be looking at the best pheasant hunting we've seen in several years. "Our numbers in southeast Iowa haven't been good for the past several years, but were looking like the late '90s this year," he said.

One of his favorite spots is Horseshoe Bend Wildlife Area in Louisa County. "It's an inviolate waterfowl refuge until Dec. 1, but pheasant hunting is allowed from then through the end of the season," he said. "Non-toxic shot is required on the 2,600 acres of Iowa River floodplain. There is a diversity of native prairie, willow thickets, and patches of annual weeds and wetlands. It ha

s plenty of pheasants and is big enough to sustain a lot of hunting pressure."

Ohde also likes Cone Marsh in Louisa County and Cedar Bottoms in Muscatine County.

The turf of biologist Tom Neal, based in Spencer, is on the opposite end of Iowa from Ohde's territory. Normally Neal's Ruthven Unit gets hit with some of Iowa's worst winter weather.

"We didn't really have any significant winter mortality this year," he said. "There is a good population of breeding birds. Unfortunately, with the exception of a small amount of public land, hunting quality is almost completely dependent upon CRP -- 90 percent of farmland in this area has zero habitat."

Neal's district includes many smaller public-hunting areas, and many of them are marshes. "I like to hunt pheasants on public marshes," he offered, "especially late in the season when they are frozen over. They have heavy cover, and birds gradually move in as the season progresses."

Although Neal is pessimistic about the loss of farmland habitat in his district, his prediction for this fall up in Northwest Iowa calls foresees what he calls "reasonably good hunting."

Biologist Rick Trine manages the Otter Creek District from his Marshalltown office. This part of Central Iowa includes what was once the epicenter of some of the nation's best pheasant hunting.

"There is a good density of breeding hens, and the winter was relatively mild," said Trine. "The quality of hunting this fall will depend on nesting success."

Trine is concerned about reductions of habitat on private land in his district. "We lost a lot of acres of CRP in the last few years," he said, "and farmers continue to tile waterways. This makes the waterways smaller, and they usually have shorter grass and poorer pheasant habitat. This is somewhat counteracted by improved habitat on some existing CRP land due to changes in requirements."

Trine's favorite public hunting area in his district is the Iowa River Corridor. A place I know well, it's one of my preferred ringneck hunting areas. Much of the land was purchased following disastrous 1993 floods. Over the years the IDNR has planted hundreds of acres with prairie grasses, and nearby farm fields provide pheasants plenty of food. Barring floods, the area is a pheasant factory. Unlike most small patches of habitat, the Iowa River Corridor offers hunters a vast array of grasslands. Hunters can walk for hours without ever working the same patch of cover twice.

Dave Novak and I made a mistake two seasons ago: We went to the corridor on opening day. It was jammed with hunters, roads were filled with pickups and SUVs, and we could see parties of hunters moving through the grass everywhere. We didn't even hunt there, but drove on and hunted a friend's farm.

But the Iowa River Corridor hunting experience changes within a few weeks. Pressure drops just as nearby farmers begin harvesting crops. Birds move in from surrounding areas just as hunter numbers decline. It's definitely a place to hunt toward the end of the season.

Andrea Evelsizer, a professional wildlife biologist employed by Pheasants Forever, is based in North Liberty near the Hawkeye Wildlife Area, but has a statewide perspective on pheasant numbers.

"The 2005 August survey showed bird numbers right at the 10-year average, and we had a mild winter. I'm very optimistic about this fall's season," she said.

Last fall I hunted the Hawkeye Wildlife Area several times and didn't see many birds. When I conveyed this to the biologist, her explanation was that the birds were in the grass, but the area is heavily hunted, especially early in the season.

"This area has excellent cover. Those birds know how to avoid hunters. Birds congregate there in late season. Hunting after Christmas is often productive in the Hawkeye Area," she said.

When asked about her favorite public areas, she replied that Iowa has many small public areas. "Some are off the beaten path, are overlooked, and get a minimum of hunting pressure," she said. "A copy of the Iowa Sportsman's Atlas will help hunters find these places. Many are managed by county conservation boards."

Talking with Iowa biologists often confirms what long-term pheasant chasers know: Hunting is changing. We may have nearly as many birds as we did in the "good old days," but they are living in different habitat conditions and are more challenging to hunt. Wise hunters understand the changes and modify tactics for maximum success.

"When I was a kid I never had a dog," said Cedar Rapids-based hunter Bill Schneider. "There were lots of weedy or brushy fencerows, and it was easy to flush birds and get shots. Now the habitat that a hunter can work without a dog has largely disappeared. The birds are there, but they are in big blocks of CRP or public-land grass. Flushing birds without a good dog is a real challenge."

Jim Tinker echoed those sentiments. "I never needed a dog in my early hunting days," he said, "but now a good dog is nearly essential. "

Both a farmer and an avid pheasant hunter, Chuck Hallier had this to offer: "This will be my 20th season hunting Iowa pheasants. I've also hunted them in Texas, South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota. Bird densities near my Linn County farm are down since the early to mid '90s. It correlates with a reduction in CRP land."

He's still somewhat optimistic about this fall's season though. "When I was planting my crops this spring I saw quite a few birds. They wintered well," he said.

Hallier agrees that the nature of pheasant hunting has changed dramatically. "Birds are concentrated on good habitat," he noted, "and a good dog is essential to success. Long gone are days when three or four dogless friends could walk a farm and limit out by noon. Farmers need to get as much money as they can from their land, and fencerows are disappearing."

Although Hallier longs for the good old days, he's still a keen hunter. "I have been blessed with five children," he remarked. "Three love to hunt. I enjoy hunting with them, as it teaches them respect for the environment and skills that few kids today will ever be exposed to. Nothing gives me more joy than to see my kids gain skill and discipline through hunting."

THIS FALL'S FORECAST

From talks with wildlife biologists, hunters and farmers scattered across Iowa, there emerged several clear patterns that can help with successfully bagging roosters this fall.

Everyone agrees that birds wintered well. Numbers are excellent on good habitat, and the hunting outlook is positive; the season in the offing holds promise to be a great one. No particular region of Iowa looks dramatically better than any other, although birds are scarce in extreme southern and northeast Iowa. The quality of local habitat is more critical than the region.

Traditionally configured farms will be less likely than ever to hold bunches of birds. The quarry will instead be concentrated in areas containing large amounts of CRP land, and in public hunting areas.

"Pheasant hunting today requires a lot of preplanning with land owners and a lot of time working with your dogs so everything comes together for a successful hunt," said Hallier.

Where will the best hunting be this fall? Hunters in all parts of the state can likely up their odds for successful hunting by being aware of habitat trends and recognize the changes that have taken place.

Early in the season, hunters should concentrate on good private-land habitat if they can get access. Otherwise, most hunters, especially those without dogs, will probably find the best hunting on smaller parcels of public hunting land. County conservation boards manage most of these properties. Some are as small as a couple of acres. Many have excellent habitat that can be worked effectively by one or two hunters without dogs, and they'll yield plenty of ringnecks.

Expect early-season crowds in the big popular public hunting areas. Wait a month or so until most of the other hunters give up for the season and birds move into the big prairies and CRP fields as crops are harvested. Head for these areas when the cold wind is blowing, ice coats the marshes, and pheasants are hunkered down in the heavy cover.

A dog is a great help in the big fields, but the venerable received wisdom about a dog being essential isn't completely true. Dogless hunters working big patches of grass can up their odds by hunting these places after an inch of snow has made tracking birds possible. One of the most exciting types of pheasant hunting involves cutting a track and following it until a gaudy bird claws for the sky on a frosty morning.

Dogless hunters can also better their chances by hiking to the far corners of big public areas to hunt places rarely trodden. Often birds sense that these places are relatively safe, and hang out there.

Iowa pheasant hunters should be aware that some of the best habitat is on public marsh areas, where non-toxic shot is mandated even for upland hunting. Fortunately many of today's nontoxic loads are deadly on ringnecks. I stopped worrying about non-toxic shot requirements by getting rid of my lead shot a couple of years ago and using Hevishot or steel for all my bird hunting.

This fall's Iowa pheasant hunting won't rival that of the state's very best years, but the odds of it being a very good year are high. Don't miss it!

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.