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 firstname.lastname@example.org.