Pheasant season is upon us

Staff Writer
Story City Herald

Iowa pheasant hunters should see more of what they came for, as they step into the field this fall. More pheasants.

A strong rebound in August roadside counts of Iowa’s most popular game bird has buoyed expectations, heading toward the October 25 opener.

“It’s not the ‘good old days,’ but hunters will see noticeable improvement,” says DNR pheasant biologist Todd Bogenschutz. “We have the best pheasant numbers since 2008. People are telling me that more birds are flushing; that they are hearing more crowing and cackling out there.”

Counts this summer averaged 17.4 pheasants per 30 mile survey route, up 151 percent from last year’s 6.9…an all-time low. Of the nine regions monitored, eight had increases ranging from 102-290 percent. Only northeast Iowa showed no change.

Bogenschutz says drought conditions across the past two summers probably kept pheasants in the fields on August mornings, rather than pushing up to road edges, to escape heavy dew. That may have kept many from being tallied on the 200 gravel road routes surveyed. Hunters harvested 10,000 more pheasants in 2013, despite the record low counts.

So, where do you find them, on a fall morning?

“The best habitat will hold birds; good winter cover, good nesting cover, too. Hunters should be happy hunting those areas, over just decent nesting cover,” predicts Bogenschutz. “Hunt around the best habitat, and you will be pleasantly surprised. Talk to the farmers where you will be hunting. Ask what they have seen while harvesting the crops.”

With a better bird outlook, the numbers of hunters should climb, too. Last year, only 41,000 pheasant hunters were in the fields.

“If word gets out of the early season success expected, we could see 60,000 hunters this fall,” predicts Bogenschutz. “We could have a harvest of 200,000 to 300,000 birds.”

Early in the season, standing crops are going to be a factor.

“Harvest is running a little behind. The season is starting a couple days earlier, too,” reminds Bogenschutz. “That could be a challenge for hunters, until the corn is out. Our counts were up; hens with broods were way up. There will be a lot of young roosters, who aren’t wise to the ways of the wild, yet.”

Hunting hours for Iowa’s pheasant seasons are 8 a.m. until 4:30 each day. The daily limit is three rooster pheasants. The season closes on January 10.

Programs Available to Add More Pheasant Habitat

Improving the living conditions for Iowa pheasants is at the heart of the Pheasant SAFE habitat program that is designed to give pheasants a kitchen, bedroom and living room altogether in one spot to maximize pheasant survival and reproduction.

Iowa received 50,000 acres for the program that was divided between primary and secondary counties, based on pheasant counts from 2002-06. Around 27,500 areas remain in the primary pheasant counties, (see the SAFE link at www.iowadnr.gov/habitat).

“We would like to keep the momentum going and keep our pheasant numbers increasing and this program is one way to accomplish that,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the DNR. “But we can’t ask for more acres in the program until the initial allotment is gone.”

Pheasant SAFE is one tool to help boost the bird population. Bogenschutz said Iowa received $3 million through the USDA-NRCS Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program to benefit the DNR’s Iowa Habitat Access Program (IHAP). IHAP plans to add more than 20,000 acres of improved habitat on private land and make those lands available to hunters in the coming years.

He said the Wildlife Bureau is also working with Pheasants Forever to improve pheasant/quail habitat on 40-50 wildlife management areas through the Enhance A Wildlife Area program.

Better Bird Numbers Could Attract Former Hunters

Iowa’s August Roadside Survey pheasant count was the highest since 2008 and that good news has people talking.

“These are our best bird counts in six years and people are telling me they’re seeing and hearing birds more than in recent years,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa DNR. “It’s not the good old days, but it’s the best we’ve had in a few years.”

Bogenschutz said he’s hoping the increase is enough to bring back hunters who dropped the sport when the population hit an all-time low in 2011.

In 2008, there were around 86,000 resident pheasant hunters. In 2013, that number had fallen to 41,000. Nonresident hunters had fallen from a peak in the 1990s of 60,000 to 5,700 in 2012, rebounding to 6,300 in 2013.

“Pheasants have some buzz right now, but is it enough buzz to bring some of the former hunters back? We’ll have to see,” he said.

Youth Season October 18-19

Iowa’s higher pheasant counts mean this will be an excellent year to take kids pheasant hunting, said Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the DNR.

“We have a lot of young birds that haven’t been hunted yet so there could be a good opportunity for kids to be successful,” Bogenschutz said.

One issue could be the late harvest. Bogenschutz suggested youth hunters target habitat near areas where beans have been harvested.

Youth hunters age 15 and younger are allowed to harvest one rooster each day of the two day season. Shooting hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and the youth must be accompanied by a properly licensed adult. Participants must comply with the blaze orange clothing requirement.

Looking for Places to Hunt? Start Online

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources created a hunter atlas showing all areas in the state open to public hunting and included what type of wildlife would be associated with those areas, open seasons and any restrictions.

The interactive hunter atlas is on the front page in the links at the lower left on www.iowadnr.gov.

“The atlas allows hunters a bird’s eye-view of the area and allows them to print maps, if they want,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa DNR.

Another resource is the Iowa Habitat Access Program (IHAP), where private landowners receive assistance to improve habitat on their land in exchange for opening the property for hunter access. The program has added 8,100 acres where hunters can access private property.

Site maps are available at www.iowadnr.gov/ihap showing boundaries, which species would be most likely attracted to the habitat and the location of a comment box where hunters can leave their thoughts on the program.

Walk-in public hunting through IHAP is available between September 1 and May 31.

“We need hunter input on this program so each site has a drop box and survey cards to collect hunter comments. They can either drop the cards in the box or mail them from home,” said Kelly Smith, with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Bureau who manages the program.

Areas are posted with signs, are regularly patrolled by Iowa DNR conservation officers.

“Hunters should respect private property, stay on the land enrolled in the program and pick up after themselves,” Smith said. “This program is only available because landowners were willing to participate in it.”

THINK SAFETY BEFORE OPENING DAY

Hunters heading to the field for the opening weekend of pheasant season are encouraged to review safe hunting practices before they head out.

Megan Wisecup, hunter education administrator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said hunters should get reacquainted with the techniques used to hunt pheasants – be sure to walk in a straight line and know where members of the hunting party are at all times, especially in low visibility areas like terraces, tall switch grass and standing corn.

“Go through the zones of fire with each member of the hunting party, talk about avoiding target fixation and swinging on game,” Wisecup said. “Wear plenty of blaze orange especially on the upper one third of your body. We are encouraging hunters to wear more blaze orange than the minimum required. The goal is to be seen by other hunters.

“The top pheasant hunting incidents all are related to not being seen. The shooter swings on a rooster, the victim is out of sight of the shooter or the rooster flew between the shooter and the victim.”

Wisecup said safety also extends to the canine companions.

“Avoid low shots to prevent injuring your hunting dog,” she said.

“The hunting plan and safety practices are all part of a responsible hunt. The goal at the end of the day is for everyone to return home safely.”

Pheasant hunting related incidents

2013: 1

2012: 3

2011: 3

2010: 2

2009: 3

Tips for a Safe Hunt

· Iowa law requires hunters to wear at least one of the following articles of visible, external apparel with at least 50 percent of its surface area solid blaze orange: hat, cap, vest, coat, jacket, sweatshirt, shirt or coveralls.

· Hunters should stay in communication with each other and to stay in a straight line while pushing a field. Conservation officers have investigated a number of incidents where hunters have been in a semicircle and had been shooting towards one-another.

· Discuss the hunting plan that spells out how the hunt will take place, each person’s role in the hunt and where each person will be at all times.

· Know exactly where standers will be located, especially when hunting standing corn or tall switch grass. Too often the standers get shot by the pushers as they near the end of the field and the birds begin to flush.

· Make sure to unload the gun when crossing a fence or other obstacle to avoid it accidentally discharging.

· Properly identify the target and what is beyond it. This will be especially important for the next few weeks if hunting in fields that still have standing corn.

· If hunting with a dog, never lay a loaded gun against a fence. Hunting dogs are usually excited to be in the field and could knock the gun over causing it to discharge.

· Share the hunt. Take someone new along to help keep Iowa’s great hunting tradition alive.