Central Iowa's Best Public Pheasant Hunts

Central Iowa's Best Public Pheasant Hunts

In some of the Hawkeye State, last winter's severity may have hurt this year's pheasant action. But at these public spots, this season's hunting should prove rewarding. (October 2008)

Pheasants Forever biologist Dave Van Waus expects pheasant populations to have rebounded from last winter's harsh weather at a number of Iowa's public sites.
. Photo by Windigo Images.

The good news is that ringneck hunting in the Hawkeye State has been exceptional over the last several years. The bad news is that last winter's snow and ice have thrown a monkey wrench into the works. The pheasant population in a large part of the state took a hit, and it'll be a couple of years before things return to normal.

"The area below a line drawn from the southwestern corner of the state to the northeastern corner had severe winter weather from Dec. 1 through March 15," said Dave Van Waus, a regional biologist with Pheasants Forever in Iowa and himself an avid bird hunter. "The snow and ice conditions covered the area nonstop and a lot of birds disappeared due to exposure, predation, suffocation and a lack of food. During an average winter about 40 percent of the population is lost, but due to the severity of this past winter, the percentages were a lot higher."

The same thing happened during the winter of 1999, said Van Waus. It took a while, but the pheasants bounced back, and that's what Van Waus expects to happen again. If a property is specifically managed for upland birds, there will still be a huntable population, even below the line in the hardest hit parts of the state. The habitat was developed and provided a degree of protection, but there's no guarantee.

Upland birds northwest of the imaginary line escaped with milder winter conditions and good survival rates.

It's not all doom and gloom. Here's a look at public lands at which you should be able to bag your limit and enjoy good hunting in 2008.

The winter had no adverse affect on Chichaqua River Bottoms birds, said Van Waus. As a matter of fact, the area now ranks right up near the top of the list of good public hunting spots statewide.

The habitat and access here are excellent. Des Moines-area hunters will find large tracts of habitat and a lot of room to roam. Switch grass provides excellent cover and a dog can be a real asset in rough country like this. Any hunter who has targeted pheasants in high grass knows how easy it is to miss birds that hunker down or just run an endplay around you. Food plots pull in birds looking for a meal, and the thicker stuff is where they'll rest and recuperate.

A rule of thumb is to look for great bedding areas located close to sources of food. Thick grass and brush provide places for ringnecks to hunker down, where roosters can huddle up against dropping temperatures. They'll still be moving around a lot this month when the weather is good, so don't overlook any likely spots, no matter how thin the cover.

The Chichaqua River Bottoms Wildlife Management Area covers 6,431 acres on the Skunk River in Polk and Jasper counties. Contact the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Red Rock Management unit at (515) 961-0716 or the Polk County Conservation Board at (515) 323-5300.

Dunbar Slough is another top spot where the pheasants emerged from winter relatively unscathed. The number of birds available is normal, and the hunting should be very good.

The complex is an interwoven group of county, state and federal lands in west-central Iowa. Agriculture and grasslands combine into large tracts of good pheasant habitat, and the birds love it.

Pheasants need contiguous, open grasslands to do well, and the Dunbar Slough Complex offers just that. Fields of at least 30 acres are required for successful reproduction and good survival rates. Private leased lands are found nearby that can provide a good hunt, but it's pay as you go.

Dunbar Slough lies on the western edge of Greene County west of Jefferson. Access is from 240th through 270th streets. To reach Dunbar Slough, travel three miles south of Scranton on state Route 25, then three miles west on 270th Street and half a mile north on B Avenue.

Willow WMA is south of the slough off 310 Street and includes an additional 156 acres of good pheasant hunting with a lot of available marsh and grassland. For further information, contact the IDNR's Bays Branch Unit at (641) 332-2019.

Van Waus gives a thumbs-up to this Boone County hotspot.

Most upland bird hunters wouldn't think of plying a marsh for ringnecks. Hunting is tough on cattail fields and swampy grass at Harrier Marsh WMA, but don't overlook the possibilities here.

Hunt the thin stuff first, and then work your way into the thicker cover. Roosters in thin cover are more likely to run and flush early. In the heavy grass they'll hold until the dog can point or flush them out. Single hunters almost have to use a dog to be effective on this type of terrain.

Unless they're pressured, these roosters keep a fairly predictable routine. In the early morning they'll be picking up gravel along roads and other areas where it's available. By mid-morning the birds have moved into heavy cover where they'll hide until the late afternoon. When the birds move from one type of cover to another is when you're most likely to see them.

Predators have a hard time working large contiguous tracts of land and a lot of birds here are able to survive the natural predation. Statistically, when the only nesting habitat is fencerows, it takes seven miles of thin cover along fences to have one successful hatch. Predators can easily work both sides of the fencerow and they'll find most of the young birds. When nesting habitat sprawls over a few hundred acres, brood survival rates are much better.

Harrier Marsh WMA covers 426 acres of combined prairie and wetlands a mile south of Ogden on U.S. Route 169 and then a half-mile east on 230th Street. For more information, contact the IDNR's Saylorville Unit at (515) 432-2823.

Whether you call the Wright County public lands the Lower Morse Complex or the Elm Creek Complex, this area still represents great pheasant hunting on a mixture of swampy ground and expansive grasslands.

The area is a complex of public lands like Elm Lake, Morse Lake and Lower Morse Lake and the Big Wall Lake areas, all of which are loaded with ringnecks. A variety of habitat make

s the public lands ideal for upland birds that will gladly use the fields of cattails, grasses and marshy ground. Best of all, it's a spot where last winter didn't hurt the pheasants.

Diversity is the name of the game at the Lower Morse Complex. Switchgrass and other reestablished native grasses provide the ringnecks with excellent cover and good places to nest and feed. Seed crops in the food plots are alfalfa and hay, which also play an important part of the birds' success.

Hunting the complex is traditional for the most part, but you'll have to gauge your tactics by hunting pressure. These birds experience heavy pressure on the weekends and will retreat into the tangles and thick cover. Solo shooters will have a tough time without a dog.

The 466 acres of marshland on Elm Lake are on U.S. Route 69 six miles south of Belmond. The 100 acres or so of marsh and grasslands on the Morse Lake property are a mile south of Belmond on the same road. Lower Morse Lake is two miles north of Lake Cornelia and covers 1,149 acres, most of which is upland habitat. The Big Wall Lake marsh covers nearly 1,000 acres five miles east of Clarion on state Route 3 and then eight miles south on Route 69. The Olaf property's 36 acres of marsh and grass are always worth a try if hunters crowd you out of the other areas. Olaf is five miles west of Belmond on county Route C20 and then a mile and a half north. For more information contact the IDNR's Big Marsh Unit at (515) 532-2765.

Small but mighty, parcels of Fallow Marsh can be hotspots for birds owing to excellent cover and cultivated food plots. Hellyer picks this as a prime spot within the Ruthven and Ingham-High wildlife management units, where he oversees the public shooting.

"The mixture of diverse habitat should bode well for upland game hunters, no matter if they're hunting in the early or the late seasons," Hellyer said. "We're expecting a normal pheasant population in spite of the winter conditions we've had over 2007 and into 2008."

The area is covered with good winter cover in the form of cattail marshes, old prescribed burns, food plots and generally picture-perfect pheasant country. The native prairie and cool-season grasses and legumes round out the offerings, and pheasants can be just about anywhere.

Though only 259 acres, Fallow Marsh has received top-notch management work. The removal of undesirable trees, restoration of prairie habitat and establishment of wildlife food plots are works in progress.

The complex is located in Palo Alto County. Several smaller public properties are included in the Fallow Marsh Complex east of the 1,185-acre Dewey's Pasture Complex in the northwestern part of the county, any of which can harbor pheasants. These include Fallow Marsh about five miles southwest of Graettinger, the 24-acre Perkins Marsh off 410 Avenue and the 233-acre Prairie Gold Wildlife Area north of Emmetsburg off 450 Avenue. A host of other smaller public hunting properties are located in the northwestern section of Palo Alto County. For more information call the IDNR's Ruthven/Ingham-High Wildlife Management Unit at (712) 330-2563.

The West Fork WMA is another of Hellyer's top picks for early-on pheasant hunting prospects.

"This public area supports and over-winters hundreds of pheasants every year," said Hellyer. "Due to its size and habitat, you can go and spend the better part of the day hunting."

West Fork is a popular spot for upland bird hunters, and the competition is probably a little bit stiffer than at Fallow Marsh, said Hellyer. The habitat is similar to Fallow Marsh with the exception of the expansive cattails.

Prescribed burns are a big part of habitat improvement and management activity. Burns control undesirable tree and brush encroachment, create diversity, remove thatch and litter, put nutrients back into the soil and prepare ground for prairie reconstruction.

Every prescribed burn is different, and biologists typically use good anchor points such as roads, lakes, rivers, streams or a mowed firebreak to contain them. Most burns are started on the downwind side of the targeted area after a test fire. It will be a while, but when the growth comes back or switch grass is established, pheasants have some of the best cover they could hope for.

Hellyer recommends that bird dogs carry a bell or beeper. Hunters can easily lose their dogs in the acres of native grasses.

West Fork is already an upland bird hunter's paradise and is only getting better. The West Fork WMA covers 1,600 acres, most of which is on the floodplain of the West Fork of the Des Moines River. It lies north of Emmetsburg off 320 Street in Palo Alto County.

or additional information, contact the Ruthven/Ingham-High unit at (712) 330-2563.

The refuge is well known as a hunting hotspot for a variety of game but often overlooked when it comes to ringnecks. One old hunter and retired wildlife biologist always used the adage that if you build it, the birds will come. That's been proven true on the refuge. Thousands of acres of switch grass, big and little bluestem, Indian grasses and wildflowers have been established, and they hold lots of birds.

The word "refuge" tends to scare off hunters, but most of the property is wide open to public hunting. Next to avoiding the refuge altogether, the mistake most bird hunters make is to think they can forgo bringing a good dog. Anyone serious about scoring birds will recognize this as dog country right off the bat. The grass can reach from 8 to 10 feet high. Trudging right in through the middle of a field without a dog will virtually guarantee you'll miss a lot of birds. Move in with a plan. Try to herd the birds into one section of the field if you're with a group or use your dog to force them into a corner against cover, timber or other natural obstruction if you're by yourself. You can lose a dog easily in this stuff, so if your dog isn't well trained, make sure you have a way to keep track of him. Losing a few shots is worth it if you value your canine friend.

Pheasants have their pick of great habitat. The original stands of prairie grasses include oak, walnut and hickory trees as well as wetlands and water. Well over 4,000 acres are open to public hunting. Watch for signs indicating no-hunting areas that include trails, buildings and fenced-in grasslands where buffalo roam.

Management practices include controlled burns that simulate the prairie fires of the Old West. When the fires start and roosters are flying in every direction, it's always a surprise to see how many of them there are. The burned-over acreage produces the vigorous growth of several plant species and soon reproduces excellent habitat. There are so many pheasants on the refuge that they actually threaten to displace the native prairie chickens -- not a bad problem for pheasant hunters.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service beg

an reestablishing native prairie grasses in 1990 and improvements are ongoing. The refuge is adding acreage as it becomes available for restoration efforts.

Staffers at the refuge are reluctant to concentrate hunting pressure by directing hunters to specific spots, but that isn't a problem. Just look for thick grass, marshy stands and underbrush. Get into the right habitat and you'll be on the birds.

Parking is on the marked and mowed areas only.

The refuge is five miles south of Prairie City on state Route 163. Take the Prairie City exit from Route 163 at Des Moines and the entrance road to the refuge is within eyeshot. Follow the brown signs for about five miles to the refuge nature center where you can pick up a map.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is 18 miles east of Des Moines in Jasper County. For information, contact the refuge at (515) 994-3400, by e-mail at NealSmith@fws.gov.

For more information on pheasant hunting, contact the IDNR research station in Boone at (515) 432-2823.

Dave Van Waus and Pheasants Forever can be reached at (641) 377-3480.

Contact the Iowa Tourism Division at 1-888-472-6035 for lodging.

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