Fairly uneventful winter, good hatch and generally strong roadside survey counts make Iowa a go-to rooster state for 2020
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By Tom Carpenter
If you’ve been thinking of traveling to Iowa for a pheasant hunt, the season is shaping up to be a good one. Here’s the scoop.
LAST YEAR’S HUNT
While not up to 2018’s tally, when about 320,000 wild roosters were shot in Iowa, the Hawkeye State still saw more than 284,000 roosters harvested in 2019. “That was about an 11 percent drop, and it more or less reflected our roadside counts,” says Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“But it’s worth noting we also saw a drop in overall pheasant hunter numbers. And the lower hunter numbers may have had something to do with the lower harvest,” adds Bogenschutz. Interestingly, Iowa had about 10,000 nonresident pheasant hunters in each 2018 and 2019, but they collectively brought home 10,000 more roosters in 2019 than they did in 2018. Effort. Chew on that.
“Early effort was often fairly unproductive too,” points out Bogenschutz. Traditionally much hunting energy goes into the season’s early weeks. “Last year saw a late grain harvest, with 90 percent of the state’s crops still standing on opening day,” says Bogenschutz. “Hunting was tough. Those who braved late season, when the crops were in, brought home many a limit.”
WEATHER AND CONDITIONS
Good numbers of pheasants going into winter boded well. But what did that critical season of winter bring?
“Statewide, Iowa has an annual average of 25 inches of snow,” says Bogenschutz. “In winter 2019-20, we had 18 inches. Overall the temperatures, for winter, trended mild, though we did have a couple weeks of extreme cold in January.”
So how did it all pan out? “Hen survival was good,” says Bogenschutz, with few reports of perishing or overly stressed birds: Good news heading into spring.
“Spring was maybe the driest we’ve seen in a decade,” reports Bogenschutz: Good conditions for upland bird production, especially when coupled with the good residual habitat left over from a wet 2019.
HABITAT, BROODS AND COUNTS
First nesting attempts are important, and Iowa had excellent conditions early on. “We essentially had April in March, and May in April,” says Bogenschutz regarding conditions, though May itself may have been a little wet to be 100 percent ideal. June was warm though.
“We had good pheasant recruitment,” cites Bogenschutz. “Brood rearing came off very well, with anecdotally strong reports from all regions of the state. Where habitat is good, birds pulled it off.”
Those numbers were reflected in the state’s pheasant roadside count report, depicted within this forecast. “Overall, 6 of 9 survey regions were at 20 to 30 birds per route … an overall level not seen since 2007,” says Bogenschutz. Thirty birds per route is about a bird per mile.
Consider this grain of salt when looking at the roadside numbers. “We had tough roadside count conditions – very dry – in central to western Iowa,” says Bogenschutz. In other words, those survey numbers could be understated, as pheasants weren’t readily roadside escaping rain or dew.
“Not so in the east,” Says Bogenschutz, where conditions were ideal. Still, there’s no doubt bird counts are up – way up – in the East. The numbers are right there.
“You just won’t be able to go wrong in that swath of country from northwest to southeast diagonally across Iowa,” says Bogenschutz. “North central will be a real sleeper, we’re getting lots of good reports from up there. Southwest and south central could be a little tough for birds,” but counts are always lower there … as is pheasant hunting pressure though.
It’s fashionable (and this reporter says it a lot) to say that late season hunting should be great. Bogenschutz has another take to add this year.
“As of early September here, corn is 28 percent mature compared to 12 percent on average,” says Bogenschutz, “while soybeans are 19 percent mature compared to 6 percent average. Lots if not most of the crops should be well out of the fields by opening day. It is going to be different than last year. It could be an epic opening weekend and early season.”
Here’s something else that Bogenschutz always says that hits me about Iowa. “If we had the hunters, I would bet in the good years we could kill a half million birds here,” he says. Look at the increment between that number and what they’re bagging in Iowa annually. Coupled with those excellent roadside reports for much of the state – actual numbers you can bank on -- this could be the year to pursue Hawkeye roosters.
Tom Carpenter is editor at Pheasants Forever.