The Free Press, Mankato, MN

News Ticker

Sports Columns

October 27, 2012

Pheasants are back in Northern Iowa

VENTURA, IOWA —

Once upon a time in northern Iowa —  not too long ago, really — the pheasant hunting season opener held every year on the last Saturday of October was a big affair.

By Friday night, motel parking lots along Highway 18 in Clear Lake would be clogged with pickup trucks bearing out-of-state plates and hauling dog kennels.

Blaze orange was the dominate color the next day as people lined up at the Ventura Volunteer Fire Department’s annual fund-raising pancake breakfast.

Then, fortified by stacks of pancakes and sausage, hunters streamed to the parking areas of public hunting areas to claim a spot for the 8 a.m. opener.

But a series of severe winters and poor nesting seasons, combined with expiring Conservation Reserve Program contracts, has changed all of that.

Friday night, there was plenty of room at motels, no line at the pancake breakfast on Saturday.

And as I followed longtime Iowa hunting buddy Tim Ackarman to the private land we were going to hunt, we drove past several large public hunting areas where parking lots were empty just a few minutes before legal shooting time.

Apparently, even the positive numbers released in August by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources from roadside surveys weren’t enough to override the dismal pheasant hunting success in the Hawkeye State in recent years.

According to DNR, bird numbers were up about 35 percent in north-central Iowa and 16 percent statewide.

While that number is modest, Ackarman, a freelance outdoor writer, said DNR biologists had told him that birds may have been undercounted in many areas because of the dry summer that resulted in poor census conditions.

A heavy dew in the morning forces birds out of grassy areas to roadsides where they are more easily observed.

What’s more, Ackarman told me he had been seeing more birds than the numbers suggested in his travels along northern Iowa’s rural roads.

Perhaps even more important, after several years of negative numbers, positive numbers — even small ones — are a step in the right direction.

But even if the birds might prove to be scarce, we agreed as we followed our dogs along a fence line to our hunting spot Saturday morning that a crisp temperature of 29 degrees, barely a hint of a breeze and a clear sky was perfect bird hunting weather.

The mild, open winter and warm, dry spring that was kind to Iowa pheasants has been a two-edged sword for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts.

Virtually every wetland in the area is bone-dry. The water level of Clear Lake, a popular recreation lake a few miles southeast of where we hunted, is down nearly three feet.

And because of the drought that allowed for haying of some lands enrolled in conservation programs, half of the area we were hunting had been cut for hay earlier. The remaining cover was open and sparse.

Nevertheless, just a half-hour into the hunt, we had one rooster in the bag, a we-bird that flushed along the Winnebago River that barely flowed at a trickle.

We managed to see another four roosters and just one hen on that parcel before moving to another nearby property, an expansive spread of lush switch grass owned by his father, Craig Ackarman.

In two more hours of hunting that area, we managed to bag two more roosters, missed another. Numerous other birds flushed well out of range.

We agreed that dry conditions that created poor scenting for the dogs meant we undoubtedly walked passed birds in the expanse of thick cover.

By noon, we and our 11-year-old dogs were spent.

Measured against the best days of our Iowa openers together, three birds in four hours for two hunters is nothing to crow about.

But compared to the bad old days of Iowa pheasant of recent years, we weren’t complaining.

And the dozen or so cagey roosters wise enough to flush beyond shotgun range suggest better days are yet to come.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by email at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Sports Columns
  • Courrier: There are no winners in MSU football saga Where to start? In 28 years in the business, there has never been a more odd, twisted, rollercoaster story than the Todd Hoffner saga. And that was before he came back to the Minnesota State campus this week, when strange became tragic and the chance

    April 17, 2014

  • Thoma column: Twins are scoring lot of runs; can this continue? The Minnesota Twins entered Sunday's play with the American League's second-highest number of runs scored. And, they haven't had the advantage of hitting off their own pitching staff. OK, it's dreadfully early in the season, far too early to draw co

    April 14, 2014

  • Courrier: Masters is first sign that winter has been conquered Don't know if anybody noticed but it's been a tough winter, with brutal cold and piles of snow that are now just disappearing. If not for an exciting season of local basketball and hockey, it would have an unbearable four months. Minnesota State had

    April 10, 2014

  • Thoma column: We all know the Ryan Braun saga: Winner of the National League MVP award, flunked a drug test, convinced the arbitrator to toss his suspension on the basis that his sample was mishandled, was snagged anyway in the Biogenesis investigation, suspended

    April 7, 2014

  • Focus will be on Mavericks' QBs this spring The Minnesota State football team began its spring practice period this week, 14 workouts in 27 days, trying to see who has been working hard to maintain a starting position and which backups might be ready to get more playing time in the fall. The b

    April 4, 2014

  • Thoma column: For the remade Twins, 2014 looks like more losing The start of the baseball season is supposed to be about fresh beginnings, wide open promises and the hope that springs eternal in the human breast. I'm here to quash that kind of optimism among the followers of the Minnesota Twins. (I strive to be a

    April 1, 2014

  • Shot clock isn't answer for high-school basketball A few weeks back, the state's basketball fans were all riled up that during a state-tournament game, the Hopkins boys spent much of the four overtimes holding the basketball, preferring not to shoot until the final seconds of each extra period in the

    March 28, 2014

  • Thoma column: Projected lineup is Mauer, Arcia and a bunch of outs The Minnesota Twins begin play in earnest in less than a week -- weather permitting -- and wow, do they have lineup issues. They scored 614 runs last season, 13th in the 15-team American League and almost 100 under the league average (702). Justin Mo

    March 26, 2014

  • Thoma column: Perkins extension may not be such a relief over time In the abstract, long-term contracts for relief pitchers are bad bets for teams. Nobody seems to be too concerned about that rule of thumb when it comes to Glen Perkins' new deal with the Twins. The contract, worth more than $21 million in guaranteed

    March 17, 2014

  • Courrier: No. 1 seed has brought no guarantees for MSU Since the Minnesota State men's basketball team started this nearly annual tradition of playing in the NCAA II tournament, the home team has almost been unbeatable in the regional. The Mavericks have played in nine of the last 10 national tournaments

    March 14, 2014