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24
Hawkeye Pheasants: An Early-Season Primer


Iowa's 2004 ringneck season is shaping up to be another great one. We give you the wheres and the hows right here.


The author congratulates his shorthair after its nice retrieve of a Union County bird. Photo courtesy of Larry Brown

By Larry Brown

The snow had all melted, and the resilient cover had sprung back to life. The dogs told me that it was time to go see if we could find some pheasants, and I was eager to oblige them. Young shorthair Dasher and her companion, Brittany Diesel, were both anxious to be out and hunting when I dropped the pickup's tailgate. Dasher got first call, and I turned her loose in the Conservation Reserve Program grass on the familiar farm just a few miles from my home in central Iowa.

Although Dasher showed interest - probably scenting where birds had been recently - we produced nothing in the little corner field by the road. A pair of birds flushed wild - too far ahead to distinguish cock or hen - by the bridge over the waterway that divided the property in two.

We followed the stream north, and when we reached the strip of switchgrass that bordered the creek, things began happening. Birds were popping up in ones, twos and half dozens. They were wary survivors, bunched up in some of the best cover around and not very eager to make targets of themselves. By the time we worked below the farmstead, we'd moved several dozen birds without seeing a single rooster in range.



We followed the waterway east, to the boundary fence with the adjacent property, and then headed back south. There were more birds along that edge, but again, with the exception of a couple of hens, our approach made them too nervous to stick around. The fact that the fairly strong north wind was now at our backs didn't help our cause.

Finally, Dasher hooked out and around, caught scent, spun, and froze in her tracks. She pinned the rooster between us perfectly.

Next it was Diesel's turn on the other side of the waterway, and it was pretty much the same story: birds flushing well ahead, with the exception of a few straggling hens.

The hilly terrain caused me to lose sight of my Brittany momentarily, and when I spotted him again, he'd crossed the waterway, to the side Dasher and I had already worked, and was locked on point under a tree, staring into a clump of tall prairie grass. I figured it was probably old scent from some of the birds we'd moved, but when he wouldn't respond to my whistle, I knew I'd have to investigate. Fortunately, I was wearing my tall rubber boots, because the stream was fairly deep and too wide to jump.

Nothing happened until I stepped almost right in front of Diesel's nose, at which point a rooster erupted, giving me a good pheasant cussing for all he was worth.

I'd like to think that would have been the second in the bag had I been carrying a gun, but it was mid-March, and the dogs and I were simply conducting our own little post-season census to see how Old Man Winter had treated the local pheasant population. By the time I'd hunted both dogs, I'm sure we'd flushed well over 100 birds - all out of about 50 acres of CRP cover on that one farm!


A LOOK BACK: 2003 AND THE WINTER
Whenever I'm asked to predict how the coming pheasant season is going to shape up, I rely heavily on an evaluation of the previous season and of the winter weather. In a nutshell, 2003 was an extremely good season almost all across the Hawkeye State. While final harvest figures were not available from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, upland game biologist Todd Bogenschutz estimated that we'd topped the 1 million mark - a figure Iowa failed to reach in either 2001 or 2002.

"If we didn't harvest a million birds, it's because we're still down in resident hunter numbers," said Bogenschutz. Resident hunter numbers fell significantly in 2001, when Iowa experienced its worst pheasant harvest on record. Although 2002 was a much better year, resident hunter participation was still below normal.

I also spoke with Dave Van Waus, regional biologist for Pheasants Forever here in Iowa. "I heard nothing but fantastic reports from last season," Van Waus told me. "Hunters were finding lots of birds, right up to the end of the season. They might have had trouble getting close to roosters late in the year, but they were still seeing them."

Van Waus' report echoed my own experience. My last hunt of the season took place on the same farm where the dogs and I conducted our March "census." We'd seen maybe 50 or so birds that day, but, unfortunately, all of the close ones were hens. I did see roosters, but they were flushing out of range.

As usual, I hunted a number of different areas of the state last season. The central, north-central, and northwest regions were probably the best. (Both Bogenschutz and Van Waus agreed.) Southwest Iowa was definitely up from 2002, although perhaps still somewhat below the excellent numbers of 2000 and earlier. A friend and I had a couple of very good late-season hunts in Woodbury County. For me, the biggest disappointments were the east central and southeast regions - both probably up from 2002, but still not approaching the excellent numbers found there in the 1990s. The northeast and south-central regions also showed improvement, but both have quite a bit of ground to make up.

Did my own post-season "census" reflect how well the pheasants wintered elsewhere? Well, the farm I hunted had excellent cover near food, which is the key for pheasant survival when the snows come. Last winter, we had heavy snow from about mid-January to mid-February, but then it melted fairly quickly. And we didn't have any serious blizzards in March.

But we did have snow cover which lasted several weeks, and IDNR studies show that we will lose in the neighborhood of 4 percent of our pheasants every week there is snow cover. So there undoubtedly were some losses, most likely greatest in the southwest, west-central and central regions. The fact that eastern Iowa received less snow may aid them in their recovery.

But even bigger factors in predicting this year's bird numbers involve the nesting season. If May and June are both warmer and drier than normal, that almost always means an excellent hatch. By now, the IDNR will have had time to assess the nesting season, and the results will show up in their annual Roadside Survey. Those results, which are to be published in the state's major newspapers in early to mid September, will show which regions have the highest bird densities. (You can also go online and check out the survey at www. iowadnr.com.) It's likely that those will once again be the northwest, north-central, and central regions.

One area in which we may not see much improvement this year is CRP acreage. Commodity prices (especially for soybeans) are very high, which may encourage farmers to plant more crops rather than enrolling in set-aside programs. However, the IDNR, PF, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service continue to emphasize the "permanent" CRP options such as buffer strips and windbreaks. And while landowners can only enroll in conventional CRP during specified signup periods, they may sign up at any time for the special programs such as buffer strips and windbreaks.


PUBLIC AREA OPPORTUNITIES
Although Iowa doesn't have as much good-quality hunting land for pheasants as most ringneck chasers would like to see, there are some good options available in every part of the state. The best reports I heard last year came from public areas in the north-central and northwest regions. One of the heaviest concentrations of public land combined with excellent bird numbers can be found in Iowa's "Great Lakes" region, in Dickinson, Emmet, Clay and Palo Alto counties. These are mainly wetland areas on which nontoxic shot is required. (Public areas requiring nontoxic shot will be so indicated on the signs on the area. A complete list of those areas can also be found in the IDNR's "Public Hunting Areas of Iowa" brochure, as well as in the hunting, fishing and trapping regulations booklet. Both are available free from the IDNR.)

Even if you live in one of the larger metropolitan areas in the Hawkeye State, chances are good that you're not that far away from some pretty decent pheasant hunting on public land. Near Des Moines, for example, you have the areas surrounding Red Rock and Saylorville reservoirs, plus the Chichaqua Bottoms area - a total of over 40,000 acres. Hunters in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area have the Hawkeye Wildlife Area surrounding Coralville Reservoir, plus the Iowa River Corridor Project in Iowa, Tama, Benton and Poweshiek counties, totaling almost 20,000 acres.

Waterloo-Cedar Falls area residents are not quite so fortunate, although they do have Sweet Marsh in Bremer County and Big Marsh in Butler County - about 7,000 acres total. The largest areas available to Sioux City-Council Bluffs-area hunters are the Loess Hills State Forest and Wildlife Management Areas - some 6,000 acres - and several areas along the Missouri River that total another 10,000 acres or so.

Remember that hunting on public areas will always be much less crowded on weekdays as opposed to weekends. Pressure will also drop off later in the season, and those areas farther away from big cities will receive less attention than the nearby ones.

Most public areas feature relatively heavy cover. This means that they can be very difficult to hunt without the assistance of a good dog. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that if you don't have a dog, you should avoid public areas entirely - or find a friend with a dog to hunt them with you.


GETTING READY FOR THE SEASON
Having mentioned dogs, we might as well continue our discussion on that subject. A lot of pheasant hunts are spoiled by dogs that are either out of shape or in need of some refresher training. This is the time of year you should be doing something with your dog several times a week. Just walking will help, along with reviewing basic obedience commands. But you should also try to take your dog into the field, perhaps to a nearby public hunting area, at least once a week. That will allow you to work him in the cover, and hopefully to find a few birds with him. It will also help get him (and you) in shape for the upcoming season.

How important is conditioning for a dog? Well, last year in South Dakota, on opening weekend, dozens of dogs died. Heat was a prime reason, but a well-conditioned dog can hunt in warm weather as long as you don't overdo things, and as long as you provide it with sufficient water. Our opener falls a couple of weeks later than does South Dakota's, and we seldom see temperatures in the 80s. But temps in the 70s are not so unusual. If it's that warm, take frequent breaks with your dogs and carry water for them unless you know that there's a stream or pond on the area you're hunting. And when you come to a stream or pond on a warm day, give your dog a few minutes not only to drink, but also to swim a little and cool off. The birds will still be waiting for you, and your dog will last a lot longer if you don't hunt him too hard when it's warm.

It's warm right now, and the best times to do pre-season work with your dog are either early in the morning or right before sunset. Also, if you're out and driving around at those times, that's when you're most likely to spot pheasants. That will give you an idea of how the population looks in the area you'll hunt.

If you're looking over private ground, try to visualize what it will look like after the crops are harvested. Right now, everything is pheasant cover. But where will the birds be once the corn and soybeans are in the grain bins? The farm you're looking over may have nothing but fencerows and waterways in addition to crop fields, but even those small cover areas will hold quite a few birds if the general pheasant population is high, especially early in the season.

Renew your acquaintances with landowners. Now, before the harvest starts, is an excellent time to talk to them. You may find they've bought or leased some new parcels of ground, or perhaps they're no longer farming land where you've previously had permission to hunt.

It's also time for you to sharpen your shooting eye, if you haven't done so since last season ended. A few rounds of trap, skeet, or sporting clays at the local club will help you get reacquainted with your gun. Even a couple of boxes of clay birds and a hand thrower will give you and a buddy a little practice.

And speaking of guns: If you need to get something done to yours, now is the time to visit the gunsmith. If you wait until the week before pheasant season, you'll find that a whole bunch of other people have waited too, and you shouldn't be surprised if the gunsmith tells you he can't get to yours by opening day.

Do you have all the gear you need? Maybe it's time for a new hunting vest or coat. If so, I highly recommend one with a decent amount of blaze orange. Iowa doesn't yet have a blaze orange requirement for upland hunting, but I for one certainly wish they did. I simply won't go afield without wearing at least a blaze orange cap, and usually a vest or jacket that has some orange as well. This is especially important on opening weekend, when there are a lot of hunters afield. You're almost certain to encounter other groups on public areas. And even if you're hunting private ground that's been reserved for the exclusive use of your party, don't be surprised if you run into other hunters. It seems that there are always some misunderstandings about property lines and things like that. Or a landowner may have given permission to one group, and the farmer who rents or leases the ground may have done the same with another group.

You need new boots? Now's the time to get them, too. Do some walking in them now and you'll avoid blisters on opening day.


KNOW THE RULES
There'll be no any major changes in pheasant hunting regulations this year. The season will still open the last Saturday in October (the 30th this year) with legal shooting hours of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Remember that you need to set your clocks and watch back an hour Saturday night. We only get in one day of hunting under daylight savings time!) Limits will remain the same, at three roosters in the daily bag and a maximum of 12 in possession. Also remember that if you field-dress your birds, you must leave either a fully feathered wing or head or a foot attached to the bird for identification purposes.



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