The Public Option

The Public Option - Pheasant hunting, 21st Century style | Shooting Sportsman Magazine
Painting By Gary Palmer/

Pheasant hunting, 21st Century style

In our second season hunting together, Rumor, my English cocker spaniel, and I found ourselves sizing up a state wildlife management area in northern Iowa. A shallow basin with low, prairie-grass-covered hills sloping gently to a series of marshy linked wetlands, it was big, vaguely rectangular and very inviting. There were even a few raggedy rows of standing corn stippling the western horizon—just enough to sweeten the pot. “Corn and cover,” of course, has been the mantra of pheasant hunting in Iowa ever since there has been pheasant hunting in Iowa.

The weather was unseasonably warm and humid for November; the landscape was shrouded by a gray mist—not falling so much as simply hanging in the air—and, with the grass wet from overnight rains, I was faced with one of those “pick your poison” wardrobe dilemmas: try to stay dry, or try to stay cool. I ultimately decided to layer a light waterproof shell between my shirt and my vest and leave the chaps in the truck.

There was a well-defined seam between the tawny upland cover and the paler, heavier slough grass, and, with Rumor pinballing around in her usual hyperkinetic fashion, I followed its meandering course. After 40 years of hunting pheasants with pointing dogs, hunting them with a flusher remained a work in progress. It felt a little off, a little out of sync, as if all the moving parts weren’t meshing yet.

Being acutely aware of this, I made a concerted effort to stay focused, ignore the conditions and keep my head in the game. It should have paid off.

When Rumor bounced the rooster out of the slough grass a half- hour or so into the hunt, I was ready. But as I swung the 12-gauge Superposed, I sensed, almost subconsciously, that something wasn’t right. Or, more precisely, that something had gone terribly, sickeningly wrong. When I squeezed the trigger and met unyielding resistance, I knew exactly what it was: Somehow I’d nudged the safety, which doubles as the barrel selector, to the in-between position—a mechanical no man’s land that renders the safety inoperable.

And for want of a nail . . . .

The pheasant, merely inconvenienced, barreled over the hill—and I reflexively fell to my knees in despair. And disgust. And disbelief. Bad words were uttered also. Roosters don’t come easy in these punishing times, especially for those of us who have to rely on “the public option,” and to screw up this royally on a bird that presented himself on a silver platter . . . . It was to weep.

Little did I know that the Pity Party was just getting started.

Iowa does a phenomenal job managing its public hunting areas, many of them distinguished by luxuriant stands of native forbs and grasses as fetching as any you’ll lay eyes on. Shaggily wild, in untamed counterpoint to the regimented fields of corn and soybeans all around them, they seem like the hides of great beasts, rippling in rough red waves beneath the press of the prairie winds.

These properties are so beautiful simply to look at, and they so perfectly match the Platonic Ideal of pheasant cover that you see in your mind’s eye, that a buoyant rush of optimism is the default response to them. (Or at least a tingle, if you’re a particularly flinty sort.) You feel a longing that borders on romantic desire; you can’t imagine a place that looks this good not holding birds.

Ah, but there’s the rub. As well managed and beautifully birdy as these areas are, they are still a shared resource open to any and all who possess a valid hunting license. And no matter how many articles you’ve read along the lines of “Expert Tactics for Public Land Roosters,” the biggest determinant of success or failure, by far, is the hunting pressure a given area receives before you hunt there. Everything else is just marginalia.

This is completely out of your control, obviously, and only knowable within narrow limits. Absent a smoking gun—fresh tire tracks, bootprints in the snow—you just have to hitch up your pants and take your chances. 

There were four of us on that November hunt, and while you shouldn’t put too much stock in the fact that we could boast 200-plus years of collective experience chasing pheasants, it does suggest that we had some ability to read cover and work it in a plausibly effective manner. We could all still walk, too, which is pretty damn important; we were good if not great wingshots (when we were able to make our guns go boom at least); and while our dogs might not have been world-beaters, they did know their business. In addition to Rumor, this crew included Terry Barker’s rangy English setter, JJ, and Erik Forsgren’s tirelessly athletic golden retrievers, Senna and Mika.

After three days of hard hunting, all of it in indisputably excellent cover, our body count stood at four roosters. If things had broken just right, we could have had two or three more; but the bottom line is that we weren’t seeing a lot of birds—and as a result getting very few chances. Rumor made a nifty water retrieve on the one rooster I shot (he splashed down in a pond), but the fizz from a single piece of dogwork, no matter how gratifying, lasts only so long.

The weather had gone to hell on us too. Midday on day one, the winds clocked around from southwest to northwest—we could see the front darkly massing ahead of its advance—the temperature dropped 30 degrees in 20 minutes, and what had been a benignly warm mist morphed into a cold, pelting rain. Then, as the winds intensified and the thermometer continued to plunge, the rain turned to snow, at times creating near-white-out conditions and accumulating inconveniently in the places we wanted to hunt. 

It was a freaking winter wonderland.

By then the Pity Party was in full swing. Thankfully we’d laid in a supply of high-test bourbon at the cabin we were renting along with plenty of wine, beer and NSAIDs, allowing us to attack our pain from multiple angles.

Terry Barker, who’d been hunting this area for years, was our nominal leader. But as the weather worsened and the hunting failed to improve, the burden of command began to take a toll. His normally sunny disposition soured; he seemed defeated, a captain who’d lost confidence in his decision-making ability. This came to a head when his hopes of getting us on private land, slender to begin with (and tethered to a notoriously unreliable local contact), were conclusively dashed. At that point I suggested it was high time we explore some new country—specifically, a cluster of public areas lying roughly 40 miles to the southeast.

“What do we have to lose?” I asked, semi-rhetorically.

It was one of those somber days when the sky stretches gray and featureless to every horizon, and the landscape, too, is leached of color. All things considered, though, it was a promising day to hunt. There was no wind to speak of, it wasn’t snowing (yet) and the temperature was in the upper 20s—just about perfect.

Still, the early returns weren’t encouraging. We looked at several pieces of bottomland that were too heavily timbered to be grade-A pheasant cover, also a large, multi-fingered wetland dotted with muskrat houses that didn’t have quite enough upland habitat to suit us. Then when we came to an area that really made our antennae quiver, we discovered, unhappily, that other hunters had beaten us to it.

We almost had exhausted the possibilities in that neighborhood when we pulled up to a rectangle of cover, 60 acres or so, nestled into the southwest corner of a section. A marshy waterway bordered by a few spindly trees curved through the low ground; beyond that, on the long side of the rectangle, lay a rumpled band of prairie grass red as the coat of an Irish setter.

The best sight of all, though, was the unblemished snow in the parking area—meaning that it had been at least a couple of days since anyone had hunted there.

It didn’t take long to come up with a plan. Terry and I would take JJ and work the perimeter of the area counter-clockwise (Rumor would sit this one out), while Erik and the other member of our foursome, Don Steffin, would dig into the heavier interior cover with the goldens on a generally clockwise course.

A few minutes in, JJ had what pointing-dog people commonly describe as a “sketchy contact” with a rooster, giving Terry one of those unrealistically long chances that you take only because you think you should. Then as we made the turn toward the back side of the property, another cockbird flushed wild out of a finger of stalky horseweeds and flared south over the road. Having endured some prolonged birdless stretches (read: death marches) over the previous days, this level of activity was a positive sign—and when JJ struck an emphatic point near the far fenceline, it was game on.

This time the rooster held fatally tight, and Terry, who shoots a lovely 16-gauge Arrieta, folded him. Two more roosters in that pretty swatch of grass made the same mistake, while another that resisted the idea of being pointed failed to give himself quite enough cushion when he blew out at dicey range. I made a torquing shot with the Superposed, and while it wasn’t a clean kill, JJ, after a few tense moments, was able to run down the fugitive.

Erik killed a cockbird also. “We hadn’t seen a thing,” he told us when we reconvened, “and the dogs put him up fifty yards from the trucks.” In an hour’s time—maybe—we’d bagged five roosters, one more than we’d harvested in the previous three days.

Welcome to pheasant hunting, 21st Century style.

Later that morning a good, old-fashioned prairie blizzard whipped up. We crawled back to the cabin, white-knuckling it all the way, at a blazing top speed of 30 miles per hour. Fortunately the front was a fast-moving one, and by mid-afternoon the fields of northern Iowa lay glittering and almost blindingly white beneath a dazzling blue sky. With time for one last close-to-home push, Terry—back in good form now that he had a limit of roosters under his belt—led us to a spot where Rumor and I could take the 80 acres on one side of the road while Erik, Don and the goldens could take the 80 on the other.

As Erik had observed more than once on this expedition, there was no shortage of cover. Sometimes there just weren’t enough birds to fill it.

I followed Rumor east along the south fenceline, zigging and zagging to hit as many of the birdy-looking patches as possible, then turned north at the corner post. The snow, knee-deep in places, made for tough going in combination with the heavy grass—especially for my short-legged partner, who struggled to maintain forward progress.

There’s a reason, though, that cockers are known in some circles as “little big dogs.” About halfway up the far side of the property, I sensed a sonic commotion, heard a chalky squeal and realized that the dark, plump objects hurtling away at high speed were Hungarian partridge—the ultimate “bonus birds” in that part of the world. Somehow I managed to put the muzzles on a target, and when the bird fell, tumbling onto the wintry steppe of the adjoining stubblefield, Rumor all but tore down the fence to get to the retrieve.

“Not to be denied,” I think the phrase is. How she didn’t snag herself on the barbed wire, I’ll never know—but I’m terribly grateful for it.

The Huns were the only birds we moved in that spot (not that I’m complaining), the pheasants apparently having decamped to the other side of the road—i.e., where Don and Erik were hunting. They killed two roosters and had a crack at a third, so it ended up being a productive day all across the board.

You always hope to finish strong—it tends to blur the less-pleasant memories—and we accomplished that. It would have been nice to get on some private farmland, though.  

Tom Davis is an Editor at Large for Shooting Sportsman.

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