Outdoors

Tall corn could hinder pheasant hunts

Wildside column: But payoff could still come down the road

Pheasant hunters walk through a patch of foxtail grass during this 2015 outing. With the corn harvest still in progress, pheasants could have plenty of places to hide this fall. (Orlan Love)
Pheasant hunters walk through a patch of foxtail grass during this 2015 outing. With the corn harvest still in progress, pheasants could have plenty of places to hide this fall. (Orlan Love)

Though I may not be an expert harvester of pheasants, I am, after having been foiled by thousands of the wily birds during the past 55 years, an expert in how they get away.

A pheasant that flushes out of range (or flushes within range but is missed) always will fly to the best cover available.

If that cover is within sight and not impregnable, hunters have a good chance to chase that rooster down and get him on his second flush.

Such second chances, however, will be highly unlikely when the 2018 pheasant season opens Oct. 27.

That’s because almost every pheasant in the state will be just a short flight (or walk) away from the safest of all ringneck refuges — standing corn.

The late harvest, delayed by one of the wettest Iowa autumns on record, poses extreme challenges for opening weekend hunters.

In this era of 32,000 10-foot-tall stalks per acre, no one I know even attempts to hunt standing corn. In the first place, few if any farmers, rightly fearful of broken stalks and dislodged ears, would even permit it. Second, you could not see or shoot over it if somehow miraculously a pheasant did happen to flush in range. And, third, if your dog did happen on to the scent of a running pheasant, you might not see your dog again for hours, if ever.

At mid-month, 17 percent of Iowa’s corn for grain crop had been harvested, which is just four days behind average.

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At the same time, however, just 19 percent of the soybean crop had been harvested, which is 11 days behind the average and the smallest percentage of the soybean crop harvested by mid-October since records began.

With the long-awaited arrival of dry weather last week, combines have been running overtime, but until the soybean backlog is eliminated, the corn harvest likely is to fall farther behind average.

So, with more than a fourth of the state’s surface covered by standing corn, what’s an opening day hunter to do?

Two actual pheasant harvest experts — Department of Natural Resources upland game biologist Todd Bogenschutz and veteran hunting guide and bird dog breeder and trainer Steve Ries of Alburnett — advise hunters to scout for a favorable spot, be there when the season opens and be quiet.

At 8 a.m. many pheasants still will be in their roosting areas — generally grass and/or weeds — where hunters can surprise them before they flee to standing corn, Ries said.

“You want to keep the noise down so you don’t spook the birds before you get to them,” he said.

If possible, start the drive next to the nearest standing corn so you push the birds away from it, Bogenschutz said.

Don’t miss, both Ries and Bogenschutz advised. There will be few opportunities for redemption.

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Based on the August roadside survey, which counted a statewide average of 21 pheasants per 30-mile route (up from 15 last year), the DNR projects the state’s second-highest population in a decade.

Last year, an estimated 55,000 hunters harvested 221,000 roosters — a number Bogenschutz expects to climb into the 250,000 to 300,000 range this year.

“We have enough pheasants to support a harvest of 400,000, but we need more hunters to reach that level,” he said.

The delayed corn harvest won’t make opening day hunters happy, but more roosters will be available later in the season, which should please hunters in it for the long haul, Bogenschutz said.

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