Iowa's Early-Season Pheasant Primer

The 2003 pheasant season is shaping up to be one of the best in years. After several tough seasons, things are starting to turn around.

The author with a nice rooster taken near his home in Hardin County. Photo courtesy of Larry Brown

By Larry Brown

It was the last week of the season, and I was out chasing roosters with my shorthairs and my partner, Dana Dinnes of Kelley. We started by working a mile long waterway on my neighbor's farm. There wasn't a lot of cover, but with no snow and a relatively mild winter, I figured there might be a few birds there. Unfortunately, my first-year rookie Dasher only found us a lone hen.

Across the dirt road from that farm, another of my neighbors has established some nice CRP buffer strips along a fairly short section of the same waterway - less than a quarter-mile in all. I'd tried that stretch of creek before, alone, and had bagged nothing but frustration. The birds were there for sure, but they all ran on me and the dog, flushing well out of range out the far end of the cover.

Not wanting to repeat that performance, I sent Dana on a roundabout route to the point at which the buffer strips ended in the middle of a bare field. Once I saw he was in place, I sent Dasher into the cover.

It wasn't long before the sound of the bell on her collar told me that she was getting birdy. But because Dana was in place as a blocker, the birds were reluctant to flush - at least until I was about 50 yards from where the tall grass stopped. Then it was pure pandemonium with birds going every which way - but none in my direction. Dana missed one, and I saw him drop another.

When I got to him, he'd picked up his victim and was reloading his double barrel. "I took a long shot right away, then got this one," he said, holding up the bird. "Then I had about 3 or 4 roosters go right over my head while I was standing here with an empty gun!"

He indicated that most of the birds had headed on down the creek, where there was more grass and timber after we crossed a few hundred yards of open ground. I thought about sending him ahead again, to block where the creek went under a bridge on a gravel road. However, with good cover on both sides of the stream, I figured we'd be better off staying together.

A couple of minutes after we hit the next stretch of good cover, Dasher caught scent, dropped off the bank to check out a pocket of heavy grass and slid into a solid point. The rooster was nearly screened by the cover when he came out, but I managed to drop him in the adjacent field.

Unfortunately, only two or three hens sat tight for us the rest of the way out to the road.

After lunch, I switched dogs to Dasher's veteran kennelmate, Donner. We tried some more buffer strips, and a few sections of road ditch, with no success. I was about out of options, but suggested to Dana that we might want to check another stretch of ditch not far from my house. One of my neighbors has very good cover, plus a nice cornfield that wasn't fall-plowed and thus provided a readily available food source. When I didn't have much time and didn't want to go far, I'd often take a quick check of that particular section of road ditch.

Again I sent Dana ahead to block, figuring the birds might try to run on us. The tactic worked to perfection. By the time I'd covered the 200 or so yards between us, Donner had pointed three times. The first two were roosters, both ending up in my vest. I figured I was due for a hen when he hit his third point, and indeed that was the case.

The walk back to the pickup, with Donner working the opposite ditch, was unproductive. But with legal shooting hours almost over, I suggested we work past the truck, to the next crossroads.

Donner pointed maybe 50 yards past the truck, but it was another hen. When he locked up again, Dana had to give the flushing bird a hard look to make sure what it was. Dust in the road ditch and the bird's tanner-than-usual feathers made it hard to tell for sure until, still well within gun range, it let out a cackle. Dana dumped it in the adjacent field.

A YEAR OF RECOVERY
Iowa ringneck hunters will confirm that a hunt like the one I just described would have been highly unusual in the 2001 season, especially late in the year. But last year, bird numbers were up just about everywhere, and, especially in the better areas, hunting remained very good right up to the end of the season. And just like in 2001, Mother Nature gave us another break on the weather. Mike Carroll, my old hunting partner who now lives in New York, complained about the heavy snow they were getting every time I spoke to him on the phone. I rubbed it in by telling him that we were finding lots of birds, and the ground wasn't even white!

As we look ahead to the 2003 season, the success Hawkeye State hunters enjoyed in 2002 and the mild winter we enjoyed bode well for another very productive season.

What isn't yet certain as this is written is just how successful a nesting season the birds had this spring. However, by the time you read this - or shortly thereafter - the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' annual August roadside survey results should be available. A summary of the report will appear in many of the state's larger newspapers; you can also go online to find the information at www.iowadnr.com. The survey will provide information on pheasant numbers for the entire state, and will also break down those numbers more specifically by region.

Generally speaking, those regions that had the best bird numbers last year are likely to be strong pheasant areas again this year. I spoke to Todd Bogenschutz, upland game biologist for the IDNR, about last season's success.

"There's no question that 2002 was a much better year for pheasant hunters than 2001," verified Bogenschutz. "Our harvest was under half a million birds in 2001 - the lowest we've ever recorded. We still don't have the final totals from 2002 yet, but right now it looks as if we probably doubled the harvest. I think we were right around that million bird total for last season."

I asked Bogenschutz to point to some of the better areas from the 2002 season.

"To start with, every region was up from 2001, but there were some parts of the state that were way down and had a long way to recover," he explained. "Some of the best reports came out of the central, east central, north central, and northwest regions.

"It looks like the northeast and most of southern Iowa were still down last year," he continued. "But those areas still showed improvement ove

r 2001."

My own pheasant hunting experience pretty well mirrored what Bogenschutz had to say. The area in central Iowa comprising Hardin, Hamilton and Story counties had been one of the few places where hunting held up fairly well even in 2001, and bird numbers were excellent in 2002. In 2001, hunting had been generally poor in the area made up of the counties of Mahaska, Keokuk, Iowa, Poweshiek, and Jasper, with some locals calling it the worst they'd ever seen. My experiences there in 2002, as well as conversations with other hunters, indicated a very strong recovery from the previous year.

I didn't do any hunting in north central or northwest Iowa last season, but heard very good reports from friends who did.

I did spend a fair amount of time in the southwest part of the state, and, like in the east central, bird numbers were greatly improved over 2001. However, southern Iowa in general remained somewhat spotty, according to reports from other hunters.

PROSPECTS FOR PUBLIC AREAS
While much of Iowa's best pheasant hunting is found on private land, some public areas saw hunters achieve good results last year, and are likely to offer similar action again this year.

Perhaps tops on the list would be the many public areas in the north-central and northwest regions; in particular, the area composed of Emmet, Dickinson, Clay and Palo Alto counties has a large number of very good public areas. Hunters, however, need to be aware of the fact that many of these areas - and a lot of others in the northern part of the state in particular - are restricted to nontoxic shot only. Check your current IDNR regulations to be sure.

Hunters in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area have the large Hawkeye Wildlife Area surrounding Coralville Reservoir. They're also not far from the Iowa River Corridor Project, in Tama and Iowa counties.

Des Moines area hunters have the 6,500-acre Chichaqua Bottoms area, Big Creek's 3,000 plus acres, and almost 11,000 acres surrounding Saylorville Reservoir. All of these are located within an easy drive, just north of the capital city.

Hunters from Sioux City and Council Bluffs have some 10,000 public acres in the Loess Hills in Monona and Harrison counties. There are also some public areas along the Missouri River that don't get a lot of attention from pheasant hunters.

In northeast Iowa, probably the best areas are a couple of marshes in Bremer County, north of Waterloo: Sweet Marsh and the Aldo Leopold Wetland, totaling about 3,500 acres between them. Another excellent bet would be the more than 4,000 acres of Big Marsh, west of Waterloo in Butler County.

SOME TIMELY HUNTING TIPS
This year the season will open on Oct. 25, which probably seems far away as you're reading this. However, now is the time to start making arrangements, especially if you hunt private land and haven't yet spoken with the landowner. Now is not too early to do so. Landowners can also give you a good idea of how the pheasant numbers look in their specific areas.

Whether you plan to hunt public areas or not, now is also a good time to be looking them over. If you have a dog - and hunting on public areas without canine assistance is tough because of the heavy cover - you should be out working him on public ground, That's the very best way to get a good idea of both the cover conditions you're going to encounter, as well as a rough idea of the pheasant population.

If you're thinking of trying a new part of the state - perhaps because of what you read in the IDNR's August roadside survey - now is the time to be looking over your new territory. You can get a pretty fair idea of pheasant numbers by driving secondary roads early in the morning, around dawn and the first hour or so afterwards, especially when it's sunny and calm and some dew's on the grass. These conditions will bring the birds out on the road, where you can see them.

You should also be putting in some practice with the shotgun. Whether you shoot clay birds off a hand trap or at the local trap, skeet or sporting clays range, practice now will mean more birds in the bag when the season gets here.

Look over your hunting equipment. Maybe you need a new vest or hunting coat. If so, I highly recommend blaze orange. Iowa has no blaze orange requirement for pheasant hunting, but I insist that everyone with whom I hunt wear at least an orange cap. A vest or hunting coat with some orange, in addition to the cap, is even better.

If you're replacing boots, do it now, and take the time to break them in. Opening day is not the time to do that! I've seen more than one hunt ruined by painful blisters.

There are no significant changes in the hunting regulations for the upcoming season, but be sure to get a copy of the IDNR's latest rules anyhow. Remember that hunting, fishing, and trapping regulations are all published in the same booklet now. They should be available, but the seasons, hours, and bag limits will be published in a separate brochure. (The IDNR waits to put these out until waterfowl seasons and limits have been set.) They should also be available now, so make sure you get both publications.

The weekend prior to the opener is the special Youth Pheasant Season. This is for hunters aged 15 and younger, each of whom must be accompanied by a licensed (and mandatorily unarmed) legal adult (18 years of age or older). This is a great way to introduce youngsters to the sport without all the crowds and commotion that will come when the general season opens a week later.

Get ready for a great 2003 season. With bird numbers up everywhere, it's shaping up to be the Hawkeye State's best in several years!



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