‘Twas a fitting farewell to the last hour of bird hunting in central Iowa. Not a minute from the truck, we were into the thick of things. My little Brittany, Shorty, climbed a steep embankment on the edge of a gravel road and slammed on the brakes. He stood there for ten, fifteen seconds – frozen by the scent of game. As quickly as spoor hit him, it was lost in the swirling Iowa breeze. Shorty eased down the gradual slope, stopping two or three times to reconnect with the running bird. Of course, Shorty’s body language said it all. Great fun – watching the spectacle unfold, in the heartland of the country, on a beautiful, late season morning.
I stayed even with Shorty, and his stop-and-go waltz down the slope. Ahead – where the terrain flattened – was a copse of woody brush that looked like a patch of lilac bushes. I knew that the clutter represented Custer’s last stand when it came to the fleeing pheasant. As they often do, pheasants run as far as they can, then take flight when they’ve run out of options.
Shorty didn’t know any different. Past the brush he raced, about the same time as a rooster dashed from cover and flew away, out of range. My disappointment was quickly replaced with optimism as a second, closer rooster tried to slip out the backdoor of the cover. As quickly as it takes to read this sentence, I had the gun up, and was flailing away at my long-tailed prey. He kept smoking towards the horizon.
My second shot at the backdoor bandit triggered a pheasant exodus from the brush. A whole flock of birds – maybe ten or twelve members in all, and half of them roosters – hopped over me and the road, as if they were tokens in a game of checkers. I stood there with an empty shotgun, fumbling for shells and clinging to the notion that somehow, some way, I could get reloaded in time to pluck a bird from the departing masse.
It didn’t happen.
And the icing on the cake? A covey of quail took me off guard, when they erupted out of the tiny brush pile and dashed away in a tiny whir of wings.
Although it would have been nice to head for home with a couple more plump Iowa pheasants, my friend and I had piled up the birds in our weekend jaunt to the Hawkeye State. It was great fun because the action was so good. It seemed as if we were constantly into the birds.
And when we weren’t flushing them at our feet, they were getting up out of range.
In Iowa, pheasant season is open to January 10th, 2019, while quail season is a bit longer: January 31st. The daily limit is three rooster pheasants per day, and 12 in possession. Hunters may shoot eight quail per day, and the possession limit is 16.
With its weed-lined ditches and draws that snake their way up gentle, rolling hillsides, Iowa’s cover is tailor made for raising pheasants. Unlike my little slice of mid-Michigan – where farmers have successfully drained, tiled, mowed and destroyed any remaining pheasant habitat – a trip to Iowa is a refreshing visit to the way things used to be.
Armed with a plat book and google maps, my partner and I were able to target the juiciest of cover. After calling one of those farmers, he wanted us to meet him at a local watering hole, where he was playing cards. A couple draft beers later, and the farmer said we could hunt all of his 2,000 acres. When his brother joined our table, he said we could hunt his place, too. We got the sense that maybe the farmers wanted to size us up before saying yes.
Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources has reason to be optimistic about their bird hunting possibilities. After conducting roadside population surveys, biologists concluded that they have enough birds to support a harvest of 400,000 roosters, but because there are 2,000 fewer pheasant hunters than 2016, they believe the harvest will be 250,000 to 300,00. They also claim that there are 30,000 fewer pheasant hunters than there was in 2007, when they shot 600,000 birds.
The lack of bird hunters was obvious. Over a four-day weekend, we didn’t see any other bird hunters, which helped open doors to property. Since the farmers weren’t overrun with hunters asking permission, we never wanted for places to hunt.
And even when we did run out of places, there was always the roadside ditches, which can be accessed without permission. Those little nooks – adjacent to cut corn – proved to be real gems.