In my lifetime bagging a limit of pheasants has gone from an expectation to a goal to a rare but extremely pleasant surprise.
During the golden age of Iowa pheasant hunting, the 1960s and ’70s, the spectacular game birds were so plentiful only a lack of effort could thwart accomplishment of the three-rooster daily bag limit.
They were so conspicuous along gravel roads motorists could almost take their surpassing beauty for granted.
When Iowa was rightly considered the pheasant capital of the world, the ringneck, had it been native, would have served well as the state bird.
In those days of abundant hay, pasture and oats, brushy fence lines, weedy corn and fallow undrained wet spots, the roosters were so thick even poor shooters without a dog would eventually broadcast enough lead to fell three birds. I know this from personal experience.
With the passage of decades, almost imperceptibly from year to year, soybeans replaced the small grains and hay, herbicide banished the weeds, bulldozers grubbed the fence lines and tile drained the wet spots.
Deprived of their living quarters, pheasants gradually became fewer and farther apart, and limits became harder to come by.
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The decline is well documented in Department of Natural Resources statistics, which record that Iowa’s annual pheasant harvest fell from an average of 1.5 million roosters in the 1960s and ’70s to 688,000 in the first decade of this millennium and to 203,000 in the current decade.
Data from the DNR’s August roadside surveys, which count pheasants along 30-mile rural routes, describe a similar trajectory.
In the 20 years from 1962 to 1981, the statewide index topped out at 79.4 pheasants per route and averaged 55.9 birds. In the most recent 10 years, when adverse climate has exacerbated habitat losses, the statewide index has averaged just 14.2 pheasants per 30-mile route. In northeast Iowa, where I and my friends do most of our hunting, the index has averaged just six birds per route during the past decade.
In such straitened times, a bird apiece is a good day, and a hunt has to go exceptionally well for the thought of a limit to even cross our minds.
But there it was, a half-hour into our Black Friday hunt among the recently harvested crop fields of Buchanan County.
At 8 a.m., Terry Franck of Quasqueton and his fellow 1980 graduate of East Buchanan High School, Rusty Chesmore of Verona, Wis., accompanied respectively by their able Labrador retrievers, Rocky and Scout, plunged into the west end of a four-acre thicket of willows and horseweeds, surprising a dozen still lounging roosters and hens.
Hunting into a stiff east wind, they shot three roosters and I, blocking on the east side of the thicket, shot two more as they fled. By 8:30, we shot our sixth, an escapee who shortsightedly took refuge in a nearby road ditch.
With three birds to get and so much of the day remaining, the seldom thought or spoken “L” word suddenly gained currency.
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Our next foray, a two-mile hike along a buffered creek, yielded nothing, and our third foray, into a patch of switch grass, yielded only the disappointment of misspent shells and missed opportunities — an omen that the day’s early success was perhaps even more exceptional than we thought.
We then targeted an island of grass, weeds, brush and trees in a sea of chisel-plowed cornstalks, with Terry, Rusty and their dogs again driving through it from one end while I blocked at the other.
Though some birds left early, Scout flushed a rooster at Rusty’s feet, and another that skulked ahead of the dogs took cackling flight when he saw that I barred his path.
With their tail feathers protruding from our vests, we reversed course, thinking one last bird from already-hunted cover would be too much to hope for.
But a rooster that had earlier evaded us soon burst from cover, clinching our limits on a rare day of extremely pleasant surprises.