Pheasant Season Preview

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For some, the anticipation starts weeks before. It might be the week you step up work with the dog. Maybe it's when you check with the property owners. It could be a couple sessions with clay birds. Or it might not come until the night before, packing your gun, shells and jacket and the portable kennel for the next morning.

Then, it's Opening Day, 7:55 a.m. After a two-hour drive--or a short walk out the back door--there are a couple final sips of coffee as you stand at the field edge, talking with your partners. A few more ticks of the clock...and the pheasants await.

Pheasant season in Iowa is an event, not just a box on the calendar. It's two or three generations stepping out into corn stubble and grass waterways on the family farm. It's high stepping into over-your-head switchgrass, anticipating that whir of wings and familiar cackle.

And this year, it comes with a pretty good forecast. "We should harvest about 900,000 roosters this year. That's up about 200,000 from a year ago. I think hunters will be happy," anticipates Todd Bogenschutz, upland game biologist for the Department of Natural Resources. "Our roadside counts came back about 20 percent higher than last year. Crop harvest is running close to normal. As long as we have good weather for the opener, I think hunters will be satisfied with what they see this year."

A mild winter and typical spring boosted pheasant numbers. The august roadside counts averaged 35.9 pheasants per 30-mile route. Just once in the last seven years has that been higher. "We had a good carryover of hens. And I think we had a pretty good hatch overall," says Bogenschutz. "The eastern third of the state suffered through a pretty hard drought. It's going to impact reproduction there. Generally, though, hunters are going to see more birds than they saw a year ago."

And when hunters are happy, Main Street merchants are happy. Pheasant hunting is a $170 to $250 million dollar boost to Iowa's economy. And much of that is felt in small town motels, hardware stores, restaurants and other businesses.

On Opening Day, Bogenschutz steers hunters toward that habitat, if they can find it. "Look for grassy areas where birds roost; areas next to corn and soybean fields," says Bogenschutz. "The birds are going to move there for their morning meal. Usually you can intercept them moving from roosting cover to feeding areas. Late in the day, it'll be the same routine. Work that habitat interchange between crop fields and grassy cover."

Opening Day is not always a Norman Rockwell painting, though. Warm, wet or windy weather; maybe standing corn are often factors. And it was just a handful of years ago (2000-01) when ice and snow cover lasted most of the winter, leading to an all time low pheasant harvest the next fall. It is a simple reminder that habitat-year round habitat-grows more pheasants. With about two million acres of Conservation Reserve Program land out there, some areas are sitting pretty comfortably. Northwest, north central and central counties show much improved counts, over the last few years.

As usual, my opening day will be a couple days delayed. And with 4-month old Molly on the end of a leash instead of the 'veteran' Jane quartering ahead of me, I doubt if I get any real hunting done. But we have to start some where. Besides, my preseason call to the owner did confirm, 'the quail are back.' Just a covey or two, but a welcome bonus when an extra slow one gets up once or twice a season.