Have no fear, Des Moines residents -- there's plenty of rousing ringneck hunting in central Iowa. (January 2007)
Photo by Tom Migalski
When it comes to ringnecks, Des Moines-area upland bird hunters won't be left out in the cold this year: Thousands of acres of pheasant-friendly habitat and strong populations of birds lie within a short drive of the metro area.
The north-central region historically hosts the best pheasant hunting in the state. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources' efforts on both public and private lands have paid off in dramatically increased pheasant hunting opportunities.
But as public lands have been expanded and pheasant habitat created through plantings of native prairie grasses, wildflowers and grain crops, private landholders have hit that habitat hard. More-efficient farming techniques, along with housing and commercial developments, have cut more acres than the IDNR has been able to replace. The Conservation Reserve Program has salvaged huge tracts of private land, but it can't keep up with the rate of habitat destruction.
"I usually steer hunters to our bigger complexes," said Todd Bogenschutz, the IDNR upland wildlife biologist in Boone, "simply because these lands can hold birds longer in the winter than the smaller ones."
Weather is always the important factor, noted Bogenschutz. Even though 80 percent of a given area's birds may be hunted out by the end of the season, pheasants are so prolific that they'll easily repopulate to the original level. Flooding in the spring or unseasonably cold spring weather can put a damper on the rebound, however, and occasionally does.
Spring weather has a lot to do with numbers of birds. The wetter the spring, the fewer the chicks that survive into adulthood. In central Iowa, two or three hatches take place every year, and this year the numbers are looking pretty good.
Here's a look at the region's ringneck hotspots. Late-season shooting should be good at these, some of which are long-recognized producers, and some of which are up-and-coming venues boasting a bunch of birds.
MARIETTA SAND PRAIRIE
"We've just acquired an area that is being reconstructed to prairie and will play host to the best public grassland habitat in the county," said Mike Stegmann, director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. "The prairie is now 229 acres in size, and has portions in various stages of reconstruction. It's located two miles southwest of Albion and has been opened to public hunting since September of this year."
Work done here by area managers has pheasants in mind. Seedings will provide a variety of grasses and wildflowers, which in turn will encourage chick growth during the nesting season and provide plenty of summer feed and good winter cover.
Projects like the Marietta Sand Prairie are extremely important. Wiota native Eric Buchberger, a guide knowledgeable about pheasant hunting on lands both public and private, points to the changing landscape as a cause of potential concern.
"Hunting will never go back to the way it was in the 1970s because of the lack of habitat," he asserted. "The farming industry, centered around the price of crops and cattle, directly affect pheasant numbers. When crops are selling high, and farmers are planting low crops rather than entering the fields into the CRP program, pheasant habitat suffers.
"Fields used to be 'dirty,' so to speak -- there were lots of weeds and grass growing along with the soybeans and corn. Farmers have gotten better at their jobs, and now the fields have less weeds and rough areas that pheasants would be using if they were there. Hybrid corn gets taller, and the stalks won't break down, all of which lessens good ringneck habitat. Farmers want to go right to the barbed wire and get that extra row or two of corn in there -- and there goes the pheasant habitat."
Public shooting areas at the Marietta Sand Prairie lie next to occupied homes. A strictly enforced 200-yard no-shooting zone borders them. Watch for the posted signs.
The new prairie is the result of cooperation among several groups including the MCCB, Iowa Native Plant Society, Pheasants Forever, Whitetails Unlimited, Iowa Prairie Network and several others. All state game rules apply.
The Marietta Sand Prairie is on Knapp Avenue between 180th and Stanley Mill Road. A map of the venue is available on the Marshall County Conservation Board Web site at www.co.marshall.ia.us. Contact the Marshall County Conservation Board at (641) 752-5490 or the Otter Creek Wildlife Management Unit at (641) 752-5521.
Jensen Marsh is one of those overlooked public spots that can run either hot or cold. The 190-acre area managed by the Madison County Conservation Board is open to public hunting.
"Of all our Madison County public lands, Jensen Marsh is the best for pheasant hunting," said Jim Liechty, director of the Madison County Conservation Board. "The area is mainly wetlands where hunters are targeting waterfowl, but there are some upland areas where there are pheasants. When it's a dry year, the wetlands are overgrown with sedge and cattails, which the pheasants will use."
The habitat is a good mix of well over 100 kinds of marsh and prairie plants. Ringnecks have whatever cover they want at their disposal, and at times Jensen Marsh will hold plenty of birds. A 40-acre prairie grass field complements the 80 acres or so of marshy area located north of the old railroad bed. The abandoned elevated railroad bed adds a unique feature that can give shooters a birds-eye view of the fields. The 50 acres of woodland border the pheasant habitat and serve as a natural barrier.
In the dead of winter, grasses and other thick cover are crucial for survival, according to the IDNR's Bogenschutz. Thick, tall stands of vegetation help shield birds from the blowing snow and reduce the effects of wind chill. Low-hanging conifer branches create a sort of tent, and tall, dense cattails or bulrushes form a natural windbreak during blizzard conditions.
To reach the marsh, travel a half-mile west of Bevington on Highway 92 and two miles south on County Road R 35, which is also Bevington Park Avenue. Continue east on 228th Lane, following the signs. Jensen Marsh is three miles south of Bevington. For more information, contact the Madison County Conservation Board at (515) 462-3536 or the Bays Branch WMU at (641) 332-2019.
CHICHAQUA BOTTOMS WMA
Known as one of the finest pheasant-hunting areas in the state, Chichaqua Bottoms WMA stands he
ad and shoulders above other pheasant destinations.
The sheer size of this public hunting area is one key to its success. At 6,431 acres, Chichaqua covers a lot of territory in northeastern Polk County. A good bird dog is a real asset in cover that seemingly spreads out forever.
"I'm a firm believer that a guy should have a dog while hunting, if only for retrieving purposes," said Buchberger. "Pheasants are tough -- like a fox with wings. You've got to believe in your dog, and not try to second-guess him. I don't know how many times we've walked along talking with our guns hanging down and someone's told me how much energy my dog has. I've told them he's just playing around -- and then off goes the rooster."
Buchberger uses a Labrador as his flushing dog. Early on in the season, a pointer works out well, since the birds aren't running so much, noted Buchberger, but later in the season, a pointer will be on a clump of grass, and by the time the hunter gets there the bird will be long gone. By December and January, when the cover is thinner, a pheasant will run from one piece of cover to another, and a flusher will stay on a hot trail until he flushes the bird.
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 board. The area sees some heavy hunting pressure.
For additional information, contact the Iowa Wildlife Bureau at Red Rock Management Unit, (515) 961-0716. The Polk County Conservation Board, (515) 323-5300, is another good source of information.
ROLLING THUNDER PRAIRIE
The Warren County Conservation Board has developed an impressive public shooting area south of Des Moines in cooperation with Pheasants Forever. The 282-acre prairie consists of natural grasses with wooded creek banks that offer both cover and food to winter ringnecks.
"The primary cover is tallgrass prairie, and there are trees, brush and brambles in the bottoms and a small timbered area on the northeast end," said Jim Priebe, director of the Warren County Conservation Board.
The pheasants are somewhat isolated by nearby pasturelands, said Priebe, but the birds are there, along with the deer, quail and turkeys.
Rolling Thunder is accessible from Union Street and 80th Avenue. The 200 acres on the west side of 80th Avenue are still in a completely natural state, having not been plowed since the land was purchased and set aside by the board.
"January hunting means the birds are going to be skittish," said Buchberger. "Birds are bunched up this time of the year. You might not see but three or four during the morning, and after lunch come onto about 30 birds in one spot. A team effort works really well this time of year. The hunter with the dog will want to walk a strip of cover while the shooter stands about three-quarters of the way down. The dog will push the birds, and they'll run right towards the stationary hunter. He can get some good shots this way, but safety is always the first consideration."
Buchberger recommends looking for a spot off the beaten path later in the season, and this area certainly qualifies. Don't be afraid to walk clear to the back border to hunt the edge of the property. You don't want to be hunting right off the parking area, because the birds won't be that close to the noise.
For additional information contact the Warren County Conservation Board at (515) 961-6169 or the Red Rock WMA at (515) 961-0716.
NEAL SMITH NWR
That famous line from Field of Dreams -- "If you build it, they will come" -- certainly holds true at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Thousands of acres of wildflowers and native prairie grasses including switchgrass, big and little bluestem and Indian grasses have been cultivated. As a matter of fact, most of the refuge consists of excellent pheasant habitat and holds large numbers of birds. Nearly all of it is open to public hunting.
A good bird dog is almost a necessity in the 8- to 10-foot-high grass, though much of it can be lying on the ground if the weather has been severe or the snow heavy.
The word "refuge" tends to scare hunters off, but apprehensiveness is uncalled-for. Bird hunters with a dog or in a group can shoot several birds a day when conditions are right.
Pheasants keep to a routine, just as the rest of us do. In the morning hunters may find them along roads or other areas where the birds can pick up some gravel. By midmorning the birds are in the heaviest cover they can find. It's in thick grass, ditches, marshes and other impenetrable stuff that birds will rest or hide until late afternoon. And it's when the birds are moving from one type of cover or food source to another that they're the most vulnerable.
"This area of Iowa has switchgrass, grassy areas along timber and marshy wetlands around the lakes on public hunting lands," said Buchberger. "In a field of high grass you've got to have a game plan, and you can't just walk through the middle of the field and hope you'll come onto pheasants. When I'm hunting with a group for wild birds, we're quiet and not yelling back and forth while we're hunting. These birds are wary and educated. On a large field we'll work the outside edges and basically make a circle, driving the birds inward to a ditch, dip or some other feature that will help concentrate them. We work our way in and have the birds in basically one spot."
Neal Smith NWR is 18 miles east of Des Moines on state Highway 163 in Jasper County. Hunters traveling from Des Moines should take highway 163 to exit 18 and then follow the signs along the paved entrance road. For additional information, contact the refuge at (515) 994-3400; e-mail, NealSmith@fws.gov; Website.
HENDRICKSON MARSH WMA
"Story County is primarily a corn and bean agricultural area as far as land use is concerned, and grasslands and forage crops are very limited," said Steve Lekwa, conservation director of the Story County Conservation Board. "The IDNR manages Hendrickson Marsh Wildlife Management Area three miles northeast of Collins. The state area is seeded native cover and some restored wetland cells. Hendrickson is primarily a shallow lake-based waterfowl migration area with adjoining uplands composed of mixed food plots, timber, brush and seeded grass lands."
What the marsh lacks in extensive grasses, it makes up for in proximity to winter food sources. A rule of thumb, according to Buchberger, is to look for great bedding areas close to sources of food. Winter spillage and standing crops are important sources of energy to birds facing the rigors of cold weather, and the nearby thick grass and brush provide hunkering-down places in which roosters can huddle up against the dropping temperatures.
Hendrickson Marsh is two miles west of Rhodes on E63 and a half-mile north on the gravel road. For more information, contact the Saylorville Wildlife Manag
ement Unit at (515) 432-2235.
If there are too many hunters at Hendrickson, consider 117-acre Skunk River Flats area, three miles southeast of Ames. Skunk River Flats has limited hunting, but contains the sort of cover that harbors pheasants.
Buchberger gives the IDNR high marks on its pheasant habitat production, even though he has lots of private land contacts and guides on private lands. One of Buchberger's favorite spots is, in keeping with his smaller-out-of-the-way-hotspot mentality, a 40-acre public land with a row of grass that borders nearby timber. Not many people know about it, and it illustrates the fact that good pheasant hunting on public land doesn't have to be limited to the conventional big-acreage management units. Buchberger's little pheasant paradise yields birds nearly every time he hunts it. Just look for accessible spots like the Skunk River Flats that are near productive private lands with good pheasant habitat.
For information on hunting the Skunk River Flats contact the Story County Conservation Board, (515) 232-2516. To contact Eric Buchberger, call (712) 254-0747; e-mail, email@example.com
Find more about Iowa fishing and hunting at: IowaGameandFish.com