Once upon a time, the opening day of the Iowa pheasant hunting season was something of an event.
Today, not so much.
Where pickups sporting dog kennels once crowded motel parking lots the night before, vacancy signs now glow brightly.
Unlike a decade ago when claiming a hunting spot on a public hunting area meant getting to the parking lot hours before, many now stand empty when legal shooting time rolls around at 8 a.m.
Truth to tell, Iowa’s pheasants — and pheasant hunting — have fallen on tough times in recent years.
There was a time when the annual Iowa ringneck harvest routinely flirted with, even exceeded, the magical one-million-bird mark, the last time in 2005.
This year, it is expected that only about 100,000 roosters will find their way to hunters’ bags during the season that continues through January 10, 2014.
By comparison, in Minnesota, once a perennial also-ran when compared to Iowa’s annual pheasant harvest levels, hunters are expected to bag more than 200,000 birds.
A perfect storm of several snowy, extended winters followed by cold, damp springs, along with rising commodity prices and dwindling wildlife habitat, particularly Conservation Reserve Program acres, have conspired to cause the Tall Corn State’s pheasant numbers to plummet.
The annual August roadside wildlife surveys conducted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources indicated that pheasant numbers this year declined 18 percent from 2012 levels.
And even though pheasant numbers last year finally had posted small gains after six consecutive years of declining numbers, they still were some of the lowest in four decades — hardly anything to crow about.
As the pheasants go, so go the hunters.
During the late 1990s, some 200,000 hunters hit the fields to hunt Iowa pheasants, including about 50,000 non-residents.
In recent years, fewer than 50,000 hunters pursued Iowa ringnecks. Only 8,000 traveled from out-of-state.
It would probably be accurate to say that those that still return to the state are prompted to do so less by the prospects of bagging a few ringnecks, than tradition.
Including this hunter.
As has been the case for nearly three decades, after a fortifying breakfast, courtesy of the Ventura Volunteer Fire Department, Tim Ackarman, a longtime hunting partner and freelance outdoor writer, and I waded into an expansive field of thick native grasses a few miles north of that tiny community.
Two years ago, his father, Craig, retired from farming and decided to give some of the land that had provided him with a living for so many years a rest.
He enrolled 200 acres into the Conservation Reserve Program. Where corn and soybeans once grew, tall prairie grasses and native forbs now wave in the breeze.
With a stiff wind blowing from the northwest, we were just a few yards from our trucks when Sampson, my 12-year-old springer spaniel suddenly got very intense, the old dog’s tail wagging furiously as he snaked through the thick grass.
“He’s already birdy,” I yelled to Ackarman. Moments later, a rooster clattered into the air. My first shot rocked it, a second anchored it, sending it spiraling down.
Barely five minutes into the 2013 season, we had our first bird in the bag.
Ninety minutes later, back at the truck to give the dogs a water break, we had four handsome roosters in our game bags, two short of our limit. We had flushed several more.
Ackarman decided to save a final opportunity to bag his third bird for later in the day when he could take another dog, his aging 11-year-old Lab, Junior, out for a hunt.
Instead, he followed me with a camera, as I followed the dogs back into the cover.
A few minutes later and just two hours into our opening day hunt, a rooster climbed into the wind and I intercepted it with a load of No. 4 steel to fill my three-bird limit.
Now, even in the best of times, a limit of ringnecks is a noteworthy event. But in view of the tough times Iowa ringnecks are in right now, it was particularly gratifying.
More important, it underscored the importance of good pheasant habitat.
In spite of the kinds of challenges nature can throw into the ringneck mix, if there is quality habitat, there will be birds.
There is that famous phrase, one uttered in a popular movie about baseball that coincidentally was filmed right here in Iowa: “Build it and he will come.”
An opening day limit in the worst of times for Iowa pheasants underscores a similar truism: Plant grass and they will come.”
Into all of those fields of dreams.
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org