By Joe Wilkinson
One and done. That’s the route many hunters took this past weekend. Opening day was Saturday, for what promises to be a meager pheasant season.
The forecast for a record low harvest has pushed hunter numbers down. Still, it was fairly busy on opening day, across north central and northwest Iowa. That’s where pheasant numbers are highest — though still woefully short of “the good old days.”
“Saturday was very busy. We had a lot of hunters up here. I checked about 70 people in Kossuth County,” recounted conservation officer Virginia Schulte, as I jumped in the vehicle with her on Sunday.
It was apparent after an hour that most of those Saturday hunters were staying home on Sunday. A couple hunters were halfway across the 180-acre Eagle Lake Marsh, in northern Kossuth County. We noted a couple parked trucks, too. Without telltale blaze orange visible, they might have been waterfowl or deer hunters, on the mixed grassland, wetland, tree-lined complex.
Much of the marsh habitat was “wetland” in name only. The depressions showed where water had been. Except for a few wet spots, only the larger areas showed any depth, leaving more cover for pheasants; pushed into remaining habitat as the combines brought in the crops.
We caught up to three hunters as they finished a drive along a high drainage ditch, about 9:30 a.m..
“We worked the heavy cover; just kicked up three hens back a ways off this ditch bank,” said Dave Berdan, pointing a couple hundred yards behind him.
They and their four Labs had two roosters for the morning. They were leaving for home — St. Cloud — pretty soon; cutting the weekend short in time to catch Sunday afternoon football. But they were satisfied with the hunt, especially knowing the outlook.
“We were a little surprised (Saturday). We hunted state land near Eagle Lake; probably saw at least 10 roosters by 10 o’clock,” said Berdan. “We worked the heavy cover; the grass on the edge of a picked cornfield.”
Through the morning, Schulte checked a couple of other groups: two here, three there. No one had more than three birds on this second day. And they all said there were a lot of hunters out on opening day.
One reason for the crowds across Iowa’s Prairie Pothole region — in north central and northwest Iowa — is the availability of public land; much of it managed for upland game and waterfowl. Wetlands, marshes and shallow lakes dot the landscape. A 10-mile drive turns up places like Goose Lake, with more than 200 acres of prairie, wetland and food plots. Iowa Lake Marsh and Iowa Lake Wildlife Area add another 860 acres, straddling the Kossuth/Emmet county line. A combination of state and county conservation board ground provide hundreds of acres of waterfowl/upland habitat.
Just acres? To the south, Union Slough National Refuge stretches nine miles, with sections of it a mile or more wide! This is different country than much of Iowa: it’s flat with shallow wetlands, and much of it is public. Pheasant numbers are down to be sure, but the habitat offered on those public areas harbors a few birds and offers a lot of opportunity.
With most fields picked by this past weekend, most of those birds had no choice but the public land. “The birds are fairly concentrated on our public areas. Pretty much every piece of private land is farmed,” noted Schulte. “Where the birds are now is where they will be for the rest of the season.”