Drought touched but didn’t torch Iowa: Pheasant numbers about like last year, meaning a good season on tap
By Anthony Hauck
It’s deja vu all over again for Iowa pheasant hunters, and that’s a good thing.
Hunters slid nearly 300,000 roosters into game vests in Iowa last year – the second-highest harvest in more than a decade – and the state’s upland research wildlife biologist, Todd Bogenschutz with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, says hunters collectively should approach or exceed that number in 2021. A total bag of 350,000 is in the realm of possibility.
“The birds are there, so the harvest totals will depend on how many hunters return,” Bogenschutz said.
That total harvest number is a signifier of pheasant prominence. Hindered by habitat loss and compounded by weather – bad winter and spring weather from 2007-11 – Iowa’s status as a pheasant producing power withered.
Pheasant prospects turned up in 2015, but it’s taken hunters a while to get the memo. Take bunches of birds and enter the lone welcome Covid variant, that being the outdoor recreation boom wrought by the pandemic, and the 62,000 hunters afield was the highest total in Iowa since 2009.
Eric Sytsma, Pheasants Forever’s senior regional representative based in Oskaloosa, says there’s room for even more hunters to return, or root out roosters in Iowa’s grassland for the first time.
“We’ve got birds, and you can find them on any public hunting area that has grass in the state. And a lot of them,” Sytsma says.
While the drought of 2021 touched Iowa, it didn’t torch it.
The annual Iowa August Roadside Survey revealed a statewide pheasant index of 20.1 birds/route, nearly identical to last year’s estimate of 20.3 birds/route. The late summer routes and counts show the strongest pheasant numbers reside in west-central Iowa, trailed closely by the north-central region, then the northwest and central regions. The lead three regions averaged at or more than 30 birds per route, marking the first time since 2007 three of the nine survey regions have topped that even number.
Bogenschutz says the gravel census shows birds readily available in the upper tiers of the state. “Hunters can expect a good pheasant season for most of the state again this year, with the best hunting being north of I-80,” said Bogenschutz.
Sytsma, who connects regularly with the in-state Pheasants Forever network of members and volunteers, said the DNR report is corroborated by info coming through PF channels, either via windshield time or late summer field outings.
“All reports from the top regions are that people are seeing lots of birds. If you’re hunting in those areas, you’re going to have a lot of fun this fall,” Sytsma said.
Just missing the region podium is the central survey region, but pheasant hunters there have no reason to stay on the sidelines. The pheasant index here checks in above the statewide average at 25.5 birds/route, a 25 percent increase from last year.
Pheasant prospects dim south of I-80, where snow and ice diminished the overwinter population, and the birds left standing weren’t as in prime of shape heading into the breeding period. Southeast Iowa took the biggest hit, with the index there dropping 64 percent. Iowa’s southern range is far from void of birds, Sytsma says, but will come down to more output, both in calories burned and boot leather worn.
Because of dry conditions an early crop harvest anticipated, Bogenshutz suspects the late October pheasant opener this year could be a “can’t miss” event. He notes hunter success is very good on those openers when most crops are out of the fields, substantially reducing pheasant escape cover.
For hunters, almost equal to the bird population is the public acre access population, another area of growth in Iowa this year. Enrollment in Iowa’s walk-in hunting offering, the Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP), is at an all-time high of nearly 40,000 acres. And in the “forever” category, Sytsma notes Pheasants Forever, the DNR and partners permanently conserved 2,369 additional acres in the last year. As the acquisitions become part of the publicly-owned ledger as county conservation areas, state wildlife areas or federal Waterfowl Production Areas, the data is then added to online applications like OnX Hunt and the interactive Iowa Public Hunting Atlas
Iowa’s pheasant season opens Saturday, October 30 and runs through Monday, January 10, 2022.