Tactics For Taking Iowa's Late Ringnecks

Tactics For Taking Iowa's Late Ringnecks

The late-season methods of Gene Murray and Dave Prine, two of the Hawkeye State's most accomplished pheasant hunters, can put birds in your bag this year.

The pheasant is Iowa's favorite game bird, and has been for as long as anyone reading this possibly can remember. The first pheasant season in the Hawkeye State was held back in the 1920s, and it didn't take long before Iowa and its neighbor South Dakota became known as real meccas for visiting ringneck hunters.

Iowa has a 2 1/2-month-long pheasant season, and over a bunch of those seasons taken together, some of the local guys who get out a lot to chase roosters are bound to get pretty efficient at it. In fact, there are quite a few hunters in the Hawkeye State who truly deserve the title "expert," and it's been my good fortune to meet with and to hunt with a few of them. Two of the best, for my money, are Gene Murray of rural Wapello and Dave Prine of Mahaska County.

Interestingly, both Gene and Dave come from a part of the state in which the pheasant hunting tradition doesn't reach quite as far back as it does other places. I can recall hunting Mahaska County in the early 1970s and finding lots of quail but never seeing a pheasant. In fact, that portion of southeast Iowa south of Oskaloosa was closed to pheasant hunting until 1971, although the boundary line jogged south far enough so that Gene's family's farm was on the open side.

As a result, both of them grew up hunting quail - of which there were plenty in southeast Iowa in the '60s and '70s - rather than pheasants. "I can remember when it was a big day if we even saw a rooster pheasant," recalled Dave. "It was the same thing with deer - and, later, turkeys, when they moved into this part of the state."

Even though both Dave and Gene enjoy pheasant hunting, they're nostalgic about the quail they shot when they were growing up. "I really miss all those coveys," said Gene. "I sure wish there were more of them now."

Having quail for quarry will better a shooter's accuracy with small, fast targets. Prine and Murray started their bird-hunting careers with bobs, and that undoubtedly helped, as both of whom are crack shots when pheasants are the targets.

Gene Murray knows the value of a steady pointing Lab. He also hunts with springer spaniels. Photo courtesy of Gene L. Murray

Both men realize the importance of dogs to the pheasant hunter in quest of success. Prine got his first Lab in 1980 - a black dog named Luke that I remember with fondness - and has stuck with the breed ever since. Now he'll typically have three of them at once: a semiretired veteran, an up-and-coming youngster, and a steady dog in the middle of those extremes on which he relies for most of his hunting.

Murray has had springers and Labs for a number of years. Right now he has a veteran springer and a young pointing Lab.

(Because I own pointing dogs, I like to kid Gene about finally having seen the light with the pointing Lab. Meanwhile, Danny Redding, a mutual hunting partner, and I have done our best to convince Dave Prine that he ought to try one of our shorthairs. We haven't succeeded yet.)

Given the areas in which they do most of their hunting, Prine's and Murray's choices of dog are quite logical. Murray, for example, focuses on switchgrass, spending maybe 80 percent of his time afield in this tall, heavy cover. In switchgrass, a pointing dog can't afford its human partners most of the advantages that it offers in more open country. When they do go on point in switchgrass, the bird will often have run off by the time you get there. And if you're not hunting your dog with a bell or a beeper, you won't find him on point in switchgrass!

Speaking to the cooperation necessary between hunter and dog, Murray said, "In switchgrass, teamwork is really important." Labs and springers work quite close, especially in very heavy cover, which is exactly what you need in switchgrass. The birds will run around, but a persistent dog that doesn't push them too hard will often succeed in cornering them and forcing a flush.

"For me, I've got to have a real close worker in switch," explained Murray. "I'm only 5 feet, 6 inches, and I can't see the bird in tall cover like that if it flushes very far away."

There's also a premium on a dog that can really retrieve in such tall, dense cover. If a bird comes down crippled, and if you don't have a good retriever, you're likely to lose it. Labs and springers are breeds that really shine in the retrieving department.

Prine hunts a lot of what might be described as "strip cover": waterways with or without buffer strips, fencerows, etc. He formerly spent more time hunting conventional Conservation Reserve Program land - larger fields planted in grass such as brome. However, Mahaska County's total CRP acreage has diminished by several thousand acres, so Prine has far fewer of those larger, more wide-open fields at his disposal nowadays. Much of what he has left to hunt is particularly well-suited to his Labs' aptitudes.

Prine farms full-time with his father-in-law, and though Murray's an outdoor writer by profession, he lives on the family "home place," where he grew up. As both come from agricultural backgrounds, and both own small farms on which, they're proud to say, they observe sound conservation practices, they realize full well the importance of the right kind of habitat to assuring a healthy complement of pheasants.

"I just got more acres enrolled in buffer strips this year," Prine told me, referring to the CRP Buffer Strip Initiative. A landowner involved in the initiative agrees to remove the crops from a strip of ground 99 feet wide on either side of a waterway and to plant the strips in grass cover.

Remarking on his involvement in habitat management, Murray remarked, "I've got about 100 acres of native grass right here on my place. That makes it pretty easy to slip out during the season and see how the pheasants are doing."

Because of their occupations, both have a good bit more time for hunting than does the average person. In fact, an average year may find both of them out hunting pheasants for 40 or 50 days of Iowa's 2 1/2-month-long season.

Since Prine's actively engaged in farming, his hunting schedule is linked to the progress of the harvest. But even work hours aren't just work for him. "While we're harvesting," he explained, "I'll get a pretty good idea of what the bird population is like and where they are. You might look at that as sort of on-t

he-job scouting for birds.

From the time he starts hunting, Prine's likely to continue right up through the end of the season - but with more time off these days for deer. A shotgun hunter for years, he's recently taken up muzzleloading as well.

Prine and Murray still live in the places in which they grew up, so it's hardly surprising that their local contacts are of enviable quality. Given that, it's equally unsurprising that both rarely stray from the neighborhood to chase ringnecks. "I don't get out of the county very often to hunt pheasants," admitted Prine. Echoed Murray: "Nearly all my hunting is done within probably 20 miles of home."

Being a homebody like that can offer both advantages and disadvantages. It works out quite well when the bird numbers are strong in your back yard - and not so well when they're really down. But except in unusually poor years, these guys are going to find birds whether the roosters are just next door or in the next state.

I've lived in Iowa almost all my life, but I've moved around - much more than either Dave or Gene has. Ordinarily I won't hesitate to drive 100 miles or more to hunt pheasants, even though I have quite a few good spots within five miles of my house. But last year it was my local spots that paid off for me: I shot over half my birds within that five-mile radius.

Some people would say that outdoor writers like Murray can always find time to hunt, and it appears that Dave Prine does a pretty good job of that once the harvest is in and the fields secured. In any event, the flexible schedules characteristic of their occupations mean that, in addition to being able to go afield often, they also do a lot of solo hunting.

"It's not unusual for me to unleash the dog and just go hunting for 45 minutes or an hour, and sometimes be back with two or three birds," said Murray. "And I don't even mind tackling big pieces of cover - up to 500 acres or so - by myself."

As both live on their own farms, on which they've established appropriate pheasant habitat, neither has to go far to hunt! Both stick mainly to private ground near home, but Murray will occasionally pay a visit to a public area. "Especially late in the season, after just about everyone else has given up, some of the public areas can be pretty good," he said.

Hardcore hunters like Prine and Murray are also aware of something else that more casual hunters often overlook: When opening-weekend success is poor - usually as a result of a late harvest, and lots of unpicked corn, perhaps combined with lower-than-average bird numbers - hunting later in the season can be really good. Two causes produce this situation. First, not as many of the young and inexperienced roosters will have gone home to someone's freezer; second, what often happens following a disappointing opening weekend - no matter what the reason - is that many of the less-dedicated hunters will hang it up for the season. They'll figure that the birds just aren't there, so why bother?

Take a tip from the guys with experience: A bad opening weekend usually means better hunting later in the season, and fewer hunters to compete with. Serious ringneck chasers capitalize on such things, and so should you - assuming you don't want to pass on some really good hunting.

You're not going to be a standout pheasant hunter in Iowa unless you can shoot - and these guys can shoot. Both Murray and Prine have, on occasion, succeeded in bagging over 100 roosters in a single season. Easy to do if the birds are there and you have the time, you say? Well, take off a couple of months and give it a try yourself. You've really got to love being out there in all kinds of weather; you've got to have a dependable dog (or more likely two - that much hunting can wear one out); and you've got to be able to shoot.

We often think of pumps and autoloaders as being the popular choices where pheasant hunters are concerned, and you'll certainly see more of them - mostly in 12-gauge - than anything else. But the more I talk with serious pheasant hunters, the more I find them choosing a double of some sort, either an over-and-under or a side-by-side. Murray and Prine are both double shooters.

Dave Prine's a traditionalist like me: We both favor old side-by-sides. When we first met, he had a Parker, an L.C. Smith, and an A.H. Fox, all in 12-gauge; since then he's added a Winchester Model 21 to the collection. One day a few seasons back, he and I, each shooting a Model 21, each took a limit of roosters; his a 12, mine a 20, both guns were made before we were born. Hardware with a history sort of adds something to the hunt. Prine still does most of his pheasant shooting with either the Model 21 or the Fox.

Murray shoots a more modern double, a Ruger Red Label over-and-under; it's a 20 rather than a 12. I shoot nearly all my roosters with a 16 these days. I've failed to persuade either that it's the best choice.

A serious target marksman particularly adept at trap shooting, Prine also does well in the even more challenging game of live pigeon shooting. He generally uses the same loads for pheasants that he does for pigeons: 1 1/4 ounces of 7 1/2 shot, usually Winchester's AA Super Pigeon Target Load, or the same formula from B&P. When he can find them, he also likes 6s in the same shells.

Many 20-gauge shooters insist that you need 3-inch Magnums for pheasants; Gene Murray disagrees. He prefers 2 3/4-inch loads, usually with 6s, although he'll go with 5s or even 4s later in the season.

Murray pointed out another reason for a lone hunter to choose a double. "I think it's a real safety factor," he said. "If you're crossing a fence alone, with no one to hand the gun to, it's still easy to unload it, stick it under the fence, and then load up again when you're on the far side." I hunt alone a lot and agree completely - and you can also take a quick glance down the barrels, before you reload, just to make sure they're clear.

Whether you hunt with them or just talk to them, you can learn quite a bit from these guys.

"I don't think pheasants are all that smart," offered Murray. "But they always seem to have a pretty good escape route figured out. If you hunt the same ground a few times - or if you look over the cover and can guess what that escape route is likely to be - you can cut them off and put yourself in the right place for a shot."

Dave Prine is perhaps the most alert hunter I've ever seen afield. Birds don't take him by surprise. I tease guys with flushing dogs by telling them that they don't have the same kind of advance warning we do with our pointers, but there's a negative to just waiting for the dog to go on point: You can get caught napping. While the dog is going to find most of the birds for you, there are always those surprise flushes.

"Always anticipate the flush," is one of Prine's favorite say

ings. Hunting with him reminds me of that, which has the effect of making me a more watchful hunter. And it's a valuable tip to remember if you hope to come out on top more times than not when you're pursuing Hawkeye State ringnecks.

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