Iowa's Border Run Ringnecks

Iowa's northern-tier counties present some of the best pheasant hunting ground in the state this season. Here's your plan for making a successful border run on Iowa ringnecks. (November 2009)

The author and his Lab, Hanna Banana, show off the results of a successful northern-tier pheasant hunt.

Photo courtesy of Ted Peck.

"I don't hunt pheasants anymore," Matt Denniston grumbled while reeling in a scrappy smallmouth in my guide boat last summer. "There simply aren't any birds around. Ten of us used to go out opening day around Spirit Lake, get our 30 birds and be eating chili by 11 a.m. Nowadays pheasant hunting is more work than enjoyable social recreation."

Before our trip was over, Denniston gave me the names of a couple of farmer friends who would probably let me "waste my time" stumbling around after ringnecks this fall.

In spite of the fact that we're losing about 200 square miles of CRP acreage on private land every year, getting permission from a landowner is still your shortest route to a heavy game bag. Knocking on doors for permission to hunt isn't as productive as it used to be in the Hawkeye State, but most folks have little trouble finding a place through friend-of-a-friend contacts or over a cup of coffee and piece of pie at a local café.

Pheasants are a byproduct of agriculture in Iowa and will remain such as long as tractors can be seen in our fields -- even though 800,000 acres have been turned over behind those green tractors since the early 1990s. Every acre that goes back into crop production on private lands makes the outstanding, perpetual habitat found on Iowa's public hunting grounds that much more appealing.

It has been several years since Iowa has seen a million-bird pheasant harvest. Last season's "paltry" 400,000 ringneck total still rates right up there with talk about grain prices, Hawkeyes and hurricanes at local coffee shops, even though the season at hand should result in a notable increase in pheasant harvest this year when all the numbers are in.

"If weather patterns return to normal, we should see a million-pheasant harvest again by the 2010 or 2011 season," IDNR pheasant guru Todd Bogenschutz said. "The ringneck population -- especially in northeast Iowa -- is definitely on the rebound. I wouldn't be surprised to see our totals nearly double from last year when all the numbers are in, even though there is no end to the downward spiral of CRP participation in sight.

"I have great faith in Mother Nature," Bogenschutz continued. "We still have good habitat. As long as those hen pheasants can find a safe place to drop those 11 eggs on the ground, we will have ringnecks. Of course, having Mother Nature smile with a little less heavy snow cover and fewer wet springs will certainly help enhance our upland game numbers.

"The spring of 2008 was the wettest Iowa has ever seen in the 130 years we've kept records. The winter of 2007-08 was the 10th worst ever. Weather -- not loss of habitat -- is the primary reason we harvested historically low pheasant numbers last fall. Habitat is still the key to pheasant survival. We still have plenty of good habitat available in this state.

"Birds in northeast Iowa are still struggling to recover from the winter of 2007-08," Bogenshutz said. "Although the 40 inches of snow they had to shovel up around Decorah and Cresco was half as much as they got the year before, it was still deep enough to blanket overwinter cover and make survival difficult for the birds.

"Prospects look much brighter this season for those who hunt north of Interstate 80 and west of Interstate 35. This is especially true for those folks who spend most of their time on the public hunting grounds."

Besides a solid pointer or close-working Lab, the best tool a Hawkeye bird hunter can own is the most recent edition of the Iowa Sportsman's Atlas. This comprehensive map book is available at many retail outlets, on-line at www.sportsmanatlas.com or by phone at (800) 568-8334.

Within its pages are public hunting and fishing opportunities in all of Iowa's 99 counties, IDNR contacts and other worthwhile information like lodging and sports shops.

IDNR wildlife contacts are listed for every county. These officials are willing to tell you what PHGs are likely to produce the most pheasants, including those areas that have become PHGs recently and may not be listed in the map books.

DeLorme's Iowa Atlas & Gazetteer has less detail on pubic-hunting areas but is an almost infallible guide to every back road bigger than a cow path in our state. With these multiple sources of information and a little initiative, I was able to find a sweet little PHG last season that was hiding in plain sight less than a half-hour's drive from my Allamakee County home.

Much of the hilly terrain of Allamakee, Winneshiek and Clayton counties is better suited to chasing grouse than pheasants. A couple of small parcels of prairie grass that couldn't stand the notoriety of publication in Iowa Game & Fish are waiting for anyone willing to take the initiative for a little mission of discovery.

Although IDNR biologists like Bogenschutz, Bryan Hellyer and Doug Janke will tell you the location and potential of every PHG under their management, they all stop short of recommending an area for publication in this magazine.

Anytime the IDNR publicizes a PHG or WMA as having a good wildlife population, it gets absolutely hammered by hunters, according to the biologists. Those who hear or read the word later than the vanguard often get there too late and come away disappointed. Therefore, the IDNR prefers to post the information and let hunters take the initiative from there.

The IDNR's Web site has the information you need to determine which PHGs hold the greatest potential for success. All the prospecting hunter needs to do is compare infor­mation from wildlife survey results and the IDNR's recreational map site, iowadnr.com/ims/website/recreation/ viewer.htm, and factor in a little common sense and outdoors savvy.

From that point forward, success on Iowa's PHG ringnecks is a simple matter of having a good dog, good field boots and reasonable degree of marksmanship.

The only rooster I shot in Allamakee County last season was the product of a guilt trip that only a Labrador retriever can accomplish. Hanna Banana has a sense of entitlement. She figured the half-dozen western forays we made chasing roosters early in the season were simply a tithe for honoring her presence in our home.

Allamakee is better suited for

big bucks and ducks than pheasants. A substantial whitetail on a neighbor's farm held most of my attention during the first week in November. Hanna showed her displeasure when the 10-pointer was finally hanging in the pole barn by digging a hole in my pathetic lawn large enough to bury the carcass in, then spending the night on the forbidden territory of our leather couch.

She didn't seem bothered when I announced that her perfect dog status had been revoked. When she dragged my game bag over to my desk in the den and sat there staring at me with those protuberant Labrador eyes, it was clear that a return to the status quo would require a quick trip to a grassy filter strip along the Upper Iowa.

She kicked up several hens and a rooster that I missed. The second rooster made it halfway to safety on the other side of the river before the second charge from my 20-gauge stack barrel found the mark. Hanna's eyes when she delivered the well-baptized bird to hand said we were best buddies again.

There are only a couple of small PHGs in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties that justify a walk with the gun in serious pursuit of pheasants. They are so tiny that one hunter can efficiently work them in just a couple hours -- not the kind of spots where you could even expect to see a limit of birds, let alone shoot them.

If you want to bust a cap on grouse, my neck of the woods is probably worth the trip. But if a bacon-draped pheasant breast on a bed of mushrooms and wild rice sounds like the perfect pre-Thanksgiving feast, continue west on Highway 9 once you pass through Decorah.

When this highway starts to vector northwest, you'll be approaching the county line and a worthwhile pheasant destination called Cardinal Marsh.

Highway 9 crosses into Howard County about a mile east of Cresco, a great place to stop for a bowl of chili and a quick look at the Iowa Sportsman's Atlas. You'll see a couple of small PHGs just south of town. These have the potential for stuffing more than one set of tail feathers in your game bag.

At first glance, the map of Howard County reveals precious little when it comes to public-hunting opportunities with upland potential. This is where spending a little time on the IDNR Web site and putting an Iowa tan on your truck from running the back roads will provide an epiphany for finding success on Iowa ringnecks on PHGs just south of Minnesota.

There is a little star on the Iowa Sportsman's Atlas map northwest of Cresco that marks the Bonair Shooting Range. This parcel is only 15 acres, maybe a third of which is suitable pheasant habitat.

Private lands, most of which are farmers' fields, surround the Bonair site. Once the grain is harvested, the run of pines, bramble bushes, tall grass and water looks like mighty fine escape cover for local pheasants.

I'm giving this spot up to you in the knowledge that I'll never see another bird there again. You probably won't be the first to read these words and will realize the wisdom in the IDNR's trepidation about focusing on specific PHGs.

Three years ago, a buddy and I harvested three roosters on this stamp-sized site in probably 45 minutes. Last year, Hanna and I arrived just as a neighboring farmer was completing harvest and managed to bag one ringneck. From there, we drove northwest to a PHG slightly smaller than the average Iowa farm and took down one more bird. This was enough walking for one day. We got home in time for supper.

As a rule, the farther you travel west across Iowa's northern tier of counties, the better the pheasant hunting gets. Mitchell County is about like Howard County when prospecting for birds -- put miles on the truck and boots on the ground and your efforts will likely be rewarded.

If you spend a day walking the upland habitat on the 2,911-acre Elk Creek Marsh area west of Northwood in Worth County, your efforts will be rewarded, especially now, with the harvest well along and opening day cowboys out of the picture.

From Emmet County west, you're looking at pheasant hunting opportunities that helped create Iowa's legacy as a national ringneck mecca. Pheasants in northwest Iowa are recovering nicely from the brutal winter of 2007-08. But the hunting isn't as good as when Matt Denniston started hunting in the mid-1960s and 1970s.

Although Iowa is still blessed with an abundance of upland habitat, there simply isn't as much cover as there used to be. We will probably never see this kind of cover again.

Think of northwest Iowa as a sink full of frothy soap bubbles. The sink was full of hot water and little bubbles -- ready to do the dishes back in the 1970s. As the dishes were done, the number of bubbles diminished, but the bubbles got larger -- just like edges of smaller fields melding into larger fields as small family farms being absorbed into larger operations. The acreage is the same as it always was, but now there are fewer fences and grassy waterways to hold the birds.

Although it has been years since folks have seen a covey of 100 birds rise as a line of drivers approached on a traditional Iowa pheasant drive, you'll still see more roosters rise than there are shells in the gun if you walk far enough.

It won't take more than a couple of hours to work through the 82-acre Jim Hall habitat in southern Emmet County. Hunting the 376-acre Eagle Lake Wildlife Area just south of the Minnesota state line will take most of the day.

There is too much ground for one day's walking on the Tuttle Lake Wildlife Area north of Dolliver on the same 100th street latitude as Eagle Lake. The best access at Tuttle is on the south side of the project.

Most locals don't see Ryan Lake as classic bird cover. But pheasants love edges. Ryan Lake has plenty of edges, with younger birds hiding in the swaths of prairie grass, while the savvy old roosters glide noisily into the marsh, where they will find relative safety until we get a good freeze.

The epicenter of Iowa's pheasant hunting universe used to be around Mason City. Some would argue that it still is. But if you're talking public-hunting opportunities, Dickinson County takes the blue ribbon.

There are more than 20 PHGs in Dickinson County. Many of these parcels are 100-400 acres and can be hunted in a day.

Pothoff WMA is surrounded by private land in the northern part of the county. The IDNR has done substantial habitat work here, resulting in a carrying capacity for ringnecks beyond what you might expect for a mere 156 acres.

You won't be the first to hunt Trickle Slough north of Spirit Lake. But you might be successful if you're the first after our initial snowfall of the year to kick through these 19 acres of grass. If the snow is heavy, expect the roosters to be hunkered down in the marsh grass.

The family treadmill can remain a glorified clothes hanger for a few more

days if you take on 242-acre Hale's Slough south of 110th Street. This is one tough walk for both you and the dog. But if you manage to kick some birds out, the shot will likely be a close one.

Ease around to the east side of the Iowa Great Lakes and you'll find easier walking on the 460-acre Santee Prairie project south of Highway 9. Santee Prairie is primarily a waterfowl production area. Wait until the marsh grass freezes before heading out. If you have fresh snow on the ground and a good dog, this may be the best PHG for ringnecks in the entire state.

With all of the lodging and dining amenities an old pheasant hunter could ever need, Spirit Lake is a great base of operations for a multi-day hunt. When the time comes to head back home, Iowa's second tier of counties offers plenty of upland game hunting diversions to slow down your return.

Palo Alto and Clay counties are both firmly in the 10-ring if you're looking for Iowa's PHG bull's eye.

Fallow Marsh is a 242-acre project managed by the IDNR between Ruthven and Graetinger in the northwest part of Palo Alto County that approaches ideal if you're talking pheasant habitat.

By this point in the season, hunting pressure here is fairly light. Surviving birds that were pushed out by the grand parade during initial weekends of the season have returned and are waiting for you and the dog.

Dewey's Pasture may be the best-known public pheasant-hunting destination in the state, straddling the Palo Alto-Clay County line with more than 2,500 acres of prime bird ground.

"There is a great deal of diverse cover at Dewey's Pasture," veteran IDNR biologist Bryan Hellyer said. "We have a matrix of open water, marshland, prairie grass and food plots here that meet every pheasant's habitat needs."

When looked at in its entirety, Dewey's Pasture can be overwhelming. Remember: pheasants find comfort in edges.

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