Early-Season Tactics and Hotspots for Iowa Pheasants

Early-Season Tactics and Hotspots for Iowa Pheasants

The early season can end at almost any time in Iowa, but these insights and tips still help to make every day as productive as opening day.

We all know when the pheasant season begins here in the Hawkeye State - it's the last Saturday in October - but when does the "early season" end? Is it a question of weather? If so, I can recall a recent season that saw winter come - with a vengeance - on opening weekend. Is it when all or most of the corn is harvested? In some years - like last season, for example - it can be well into November before that's accomplished.

In my book, it ends when the roosters stop acting like rookies and start outfoxing us at least as often as not. Factors like weather, the harvest, and hunting pressure all contribute to when that happens. Let me illustrate with a hunt of mine from last season.

It was Nov. 15, well past the opener. I'd been watching the progress of the harvest on a farm not far from my place. When I'd driven by the day before, I'd seen that the farmer was just finishing up. The next day at noontime, I was knocking on his door.

With the corn out, the best cover on this farm consisted of a mile-long creek. It had solid cover on both sides, with a boggy spot at the north end containing some particularly heavy stuff. It was a warm day with a moderate south wind. In order to make the most of my big shorthair's sharp nose, I elected to start from the north end.

We followed the fenceline across picked corn to the waterway and crossed over to the wider, heavier stretch of cover on the far side. We were about halfway through when a rooster flushed wild from the far end of the swale - well out of range. Then another flushed wild somewhat closer, but still too far to try for. I was beginning to wonder whether it was one of those "nervous bird" days.

Rooster number three didn't wait for Donner to point either. Unhappily for him, he came right by me, and a load of 6s from my old 16 gauge put him down for the count.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The next bird sat tight in tall grass in the middle of the swale. Dogless, I might well have walked right by him, but Donner had him nailed. I almost had to put my toe under the bird's rump to force him from his hiding place, and when he took off, he gave me an easy shot. He joined the other bird in my vest.

Knowing that I'd have to come back up the creek to get to my truck, I decided to leave the two roosters by the fence, back on the other side of the creek. After depositing them, I started down the narrower strip of cover on that side.

We'd gone maybe 300 yards when Donner caught scent, took a few steps, and settled into a nice point in the grass on the high bank above the creek: another rooster. He too came down hard, but on the other side. But, it being such a warm day, Donner didn't mind the dip he had to take to make the retrieve.

That hunt, which took well under an hour, took place nearly three weeks after the start of the Iowa season, yet it was certainly still an "early-season" experience: The weather was strictly shirtsleeve, and although we had a couple of wild flushes, the birds were about as cooperative as one might expect them to be on opening day.

That particular farm had been hunted a few times prior to my incursion and the good fortune it brought me. But before me, the roosters had been able to hide in the unharvested corn - and, incidentally, the last rows the farmer combined were right along the creek - and thus hadn't experienced the same kind of pressure that they would have been subjected to had the crops been out of the field by opening weekend.

Watching the progress of the corn harvest is always a good idea for Iowa pheasant hunters. If you can hunt a place within the first few days after the last rows are picked, you'll almost always do well. The birds will have been using the corn for cover as well as for food, and it'll take them some time to adjust to the change. They'll usually hang out either right in the picked corn itself, or in the nearest decent cover - maybe a ditch, a fencerow, or - as in the case of my hunt - a waterway.

If the weather stays nice and the harvest is late, early season in Iowa can last as late as Thanksgiving. If the corn's still standing, that's where the birds will be. And that presents some problems.

First of all, some farmers don't want you walking standing corn. You're bound to knock some ears off, and with the profit margin in farming being very thin, it's easy to understand why they'd want you to stay out. Many will give you the OK, however.

But then you have another problem: Pheasants just love to run in standing corn, and unless the field is narrow enough and you have enough hunters, there's not a lot you can do about that. If you can space walkers 12-15 rows apart and put some blockers at the far end of the rows, you'll have some success. But if the field is too large for you to cover, most of the birds will escape either to the sides or out the far end.

If the corn has been recently harvested and there's not much cover surrounding it - and especially if the field has some weeds in addition to the remaining stalks - you may find birds right in picked fields. Be sure to work adjoining fencerows and road ditches thoroughly, even though they don't have a lot of cover; if the birds haven't been pressured much, they're about as likely to try sitting it out as they are to run or flush wild. Early in the year, especially, they'll sit tight in narrow and relatively light cover; in fact, you might walk right by them. But if you have a dog, the rookies that opt to hunker down in the thin spots will be pretty easy pickings.

What you need to remember is that early-season birds can be wherever there's enough cover to hide in. Later, when the Alberta clippers come howling down across the Hawkeye State, the birds will have to seek heavier shelter for warmth. But that won't happen, at least not in most years, until after Thanksgiving.

A very typical mistake is to focus on the quality cover to the exclusion of the other stuff. Sometimes the birds will indeed be in the best hides available, but everyone else hunts that obvious cover, too, and if it happens frequently enough, the birds hanging out there get extremely wary. And it doesn't take all that many contacts with hunters, dogs and guns to make them that way.

I was hunting a farm in Story County with my partner, Dana Dinnes of Kelley. Dana had picked up a rooster on another farm we'd hunted that morning, but that was the only bird we'd seen in range. We

'd been working waterways with heavy cover, and the birds were nervous. We were finding them just fine, but even the hens were flushing out of gun range.

We had just finished hunting the same waterway that was described earlier in this article - the one from which Donner and I had collected three birds so quickly in mid-November. Now it was a couple of weeks later, and, although the weather was still uncharacteristically mild, the birds were beginning to act like veterans. In other words, it looked like the early season was coming to an end.

The only cover that we hadn't worked remaining between us and my pickup was the road ditch - much lighter stuff than the waterway we'd just worked, where we'd pushed plenty of birds, but none in range.

It didn't take long for the action to start. I was on the west side with my shorthair, Blitz, while Dana walked dogless down the middle of the east ditch.

I pivoted his way at the sound of a flushing rooster. Dana dumped both barrels of his double without touching a feather. "Almost stepped on that one," he fumed. "Don't see how I missed it."

"I've had it happen when they surprise me, too," I replied in sympathy.

Just about then, Blitz came to a stop in our ditch. I was walking a bare soybean field on the inside of the fence, and before I could debate how to get into the ditch without having the bird flush while I was straddling the barbed wire, the rooster saved me the trouble. He came up cackling, made a sharp left turn and came right back across me. It was an easy shot.

"Looks like we've been hunting in the wrong place," I told Dana as Blitz brought the bird to me.

Fifty yards farther down, my veteran shorthair repeated her performance. Again the bird - probably because the cover wasn't too heavy - flushed on its own, following exactly the same flight path as the first had flown, and I promptly put number two in the bag. When Blitz pointed a third time, I figured that we were due for a hen, but it was yet another rooster that offered another good shot.

Lesson: After busting our tails in the best-looking cover for most of the day and bagging only one rooster, I'd just shot a limit in five minutes from a road ditch whose the cover consisted of shin-high brome grass.

That was about the tag end of the true early-season hunting last year, but those birds sure acted like it was opening day, even though the season was over a month old. The moral of the story is that, early in the season, you shouldn't ignore anything that could hold roosters. When the birds are giving you the slip in the dense cover, try looking in the skimpy spots. You too may luck up like I did that day.

Conservation Reserve Program acreage is always a good bet for finding Iowa ringnecks. However, all CRP is not equal. Assuming our normal and relatively mild early-season weather, I'd stay out of the very heaviest CRP areas such as those featuring switchgrass and other tall, dense vegetation. The birds don't need to use that cover yet, and, particularly on very warm days, you and your dog will wear yourselves out hunting it. A nice field of brome, however, is another story. When the crops are out, that's ideal early-season cover.

If the field is very big, you'll need a dog - and probably one that covers a fair amount of ground - to help you find the birds. Pheasants will run in CRP, but they'll be reluctant to leave it, which means that you'll need a persistent, patient dog - one that will follow the twisting, turning trail of a slippery rooster for 15 minutes or more. And the dog needs to do this under firm control, because if he loses his head and pressures the bird too hard, you'll end up with a long-range flush and no shot.

The dog will also help you recover any birds you drop in CRP, which contains lots of potential places in which pheasants can conceal themselves if they have any life left when they hit the ground.

How about wetlands? The larger public ones probably don't offer much in the way of early prospects for a couple of reasons. First, waterfowl season is open concurrently, so you're likely to encounter quite a few duck hunters. Second, it's not much fun slogging around in soggy wetlands when it's warm - and from my experience, there aren't likely to be very many birds there early in the season, because they don't need the heavy cover like they will when it turns cold.

All of our major reservoirs - Saylorville, Red Rock, Rathbun and Coralville - are surrounded by large public hunting areas - "PHAs" - much of whose land aren't "traditional" wetlands habitat. Farther away from the water, you'll find quite a bit of more-typical upland cover. There's nothing wrong with giving those areas a try for early season birds. But Saylorville and Red Rock are quite close to Des Moines, as is Coralville to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. These areas are thus almost certain to endure heavy hunting pressure on early-season weekends. But you may do just fine -and you're sure to have far fewer hunters to dodge - if you can hit those spots on a weekday.

Though, as just noted, PHAs will receive quite a bit of pressure during the early season from both residents who don't have access to private hunting grounds and non-residents, that doesn't mean that those areas won't yield up some birds for you. Again, your chances are better if you can plan a hunt during the week. Back when I was teaching high school part-time and didn't have classes that started until late morning, I'd often pick up a couple of roosters from a small public area just a few miles from my house. It got pressure on weekends, but when I was sitting in the parking lot and ready to go at 8 a.m. sharp during the week, I could almost count on having good luck.

As we go to press, this is still a big question mark. The 2001 season was the worst in a history going all the way back to the 1950s, when the Iowa Department of Natural Resources started keeping records.

What does that mean for this year? First, that this won't be an outstanding season: Our bird numbers are simply too low. That's the bad news. But the other side of the coin is that 2002 is almost certain to be better than 2001 - perhaps quite a bit better. Last winter was as mild as the previous one was brutal, which means almost no winter losses. Assuming a reasonable hatch, just about the entire state is going to be looking at an improvement over last year.

By now, you should have seen the results of the IDNR's August roadside survey, which will give you a pretty good idea of where this year's bird numbers will be best. But remember: This is a very generalized picture of what's going on with the pheasants. Last year, I found some areas that were excellent, while others - only a few miles away - were quite poor. It's almost certain that there won't be as many poor areas this year as last. The trick lies in finding the really good ones.

You may well be reading this before the season opens. If so, you should be o

ut doing some scouting. When most of the corn is still up, pheasants aren't very visible. The best times to spot them are right around sunrise and again around sunset. They may be out picking gravel on the back roads, or perhaps getting out of the dewy cover or just moving from roosting cover to food in the morning - and doing the reverse in the evening. They don't cackle as much in the fall as they do in the spring, but on a warm, calm day, you can catch them sounding off. Hearing or seeing birds now, whether it's around a nearby PHA or near your favorite piece of private ground, is important when it comes to deciding where you should do your hunting.

Also, if it's still pre-season, there's time to work your dog on the PHAs, which should give you an even better idea of where the birds are hanging out, and in what numbers. You'll also find out whether the cover has changed, and that too will be valuable information as you plan your hunts.

If you know a rural mail or newspaper carrier, or if you get a chance to sit down with some farmers, maybe in a small-town café, they can also give you some valuable tips on local hotspots. They're the ones who are out and about in farm country and can accordingly tell you where they've been seeing birds. You might even get lucky enough to make contact with a farmer who'll give you permission to hunt his property. You may not be allowed out there on opening weekend, because that tends to be reserved for family or old friends, but maybe later in the season.

Finally, check with your local IDNR personnel. You'll find all the state wildlife management biologists' numbers listed in the Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Regulations booklet, which should be available anywhere licenses are sold. Or you can call the central office in Des Moines at (515) 281-5918, or write them at: Department of Natural Resources, Wallace State Office Building, 502 E. 9th St., Des Moines 50319-0034. Or you can go online at wwwstate.ia.us/dnr.

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