The saying “it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you” applies to January pheasants.
Their hyper-suspicious nature derives in part from having been hunted by dogs and people since late October and by coyotes and raptors all the days of their lives. Their native skittishness is deepened by midwinter snow that obliterates most of their cover, exposing them as dark spots in an otherwise white world.
In warmer snow-free days, the widely scattered pheasants could hide anywhere and were at times approachable by dogs and hunters. But now they’re concentrated in cattails, willow thickets and switch grass — their last refuge from predators’ hungry eyes — and they’ve gone to DEFCON 1, all eyes and ears attuned to approaching danger.
Just how attuned was impressed upon us on Jan. 8, when Terry Franck, Tyler Franck and I, accompanied by their Labs, Rocky and Bella, plunged into a supposedly little hunted expanse of Conservation Reserve Program grassland.
The three of us and a few other friends who hunt together in various combinations — Arthur Clark, Bobby Moses, Hunter Franck, Ed Franck and the Chesmore brothers, Rusty and Kent — had been enjoying an excellent pheasant season, easily our best in the 21st century.
Improved habitat and favorable overwintering and nesting weather had fueled a statewide 18 percent increase in pheasant numbers, based on the Department of Natural Resources’ annual August roadside count. In northeast Iowa, where we hunt, the index had increased 115 percent. During the preceding year, we thought we’d done well to harvest 73 roosters, and we expected to do better this year, maybe even reach the 100-rooster milestone.
The birds were there, as the landowner had said, but we couldn’t get close enough to even tell if they were hens or roosters. The feather and bone remnants of a few coyote-killed pheasants proved the birds, though unmolested by humans, had hardly been unhunted.
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Exhausted after two hours’ trudging through deep snow, we abandoned the field with frustration at our own ineffectiveness and deeper appreciation of late season pheasants’ elusiveness.
Getting to our season goal — 100 roosters, a round number but no big deal — suddenly seemed a much taller order, and we were far from overconfident when we renewed the chase on Jan. 10, the last day of the season, still nine birds short.
This time Terry and I were joined by Quasqueton natives Ed Franck of Ankeny and brothers Kent and Rusty Chesmore, of Cedar Falls and Verona, Wis., respectively. Fronted by three talented Labrador retrievers — Terry’s Rocky, Rusty’s Chase and Kent’s Harper — we were able to execute some flanking and blocking maneuvers that we were too short-handed to attempt two days earlier.
Initially we chased many wild-flushing birds from the smaller of two adjoining fields into the larger, where we again witnessed from a distance a mass South Dakota-style exodus of pheasants. We watched them glide several hundred yards and disappear into the far northern fringe of the CRP field.
Rather than plod directly after them and watch them escape again, we divided our forces with Kent, Harper and I circling to the west end of the field to block escape routes, while Terry, Rusty and Ed, with Rocky and Chase, pushed slowly and steadily toward us.
The last roundup could hardly have gone better. The drivers drove some roosters to the blockers, who dropped them in the snow. The blockers intimidated would-be skulkers and flyers, who tarried too long and fell victims to the oncoming drivers.
With long midwinter tail feathers protruding from every vest, we tallied our bag: eight down and one to go. Moments later, Rusty’s dog Chase caught the season’s 100th rooster on the ground.