Hunting Iowa’s Wild Pheasants

By Troy Hoepker

As my son Dylan and I turned onto the gravel road leading to our opening day hunting spot last fall we kept our fingers crossed that maybe we’d be lucky enough to be the first hunters to arrive at the IHAP public hunting farm. It was still a half-hour until shooting time and fortunately for us as we pulled into the gate, there wasn’t a soul around. As happy as I was about having the whole place to ourselves, part of me couldn’t help but think of how times have changed in Iowa. Years ago, a good looking public spot like this would have had multiple hunting parties waiting for the first minute of legal shooting time to arrive.

We sat in the truck for a bit and noticed a dozen or more birds on the road down in the bottom ground below our parking spot. They were drying themselves off and pecking a bit of grit to start the day. We saw that a majority of the birds were roosters and as we watched, more birds came out of the ditch and onto the road. We’d definitely picked the right opening day spot!

I quietly opened the door and sauntered back to the tailgate while Dylan stayed in the pickup. As I dropped the gate and began gathering things for the hunt, a rooster cackled loudly in the field to the north. Then again, and again, getting closer and louder with each and every cackle. He was heading right for the pickup and the road. It reminded me of a turkey coming straight at the call, gobbling his head off the entire way. Now louder than ever, the rooster topped the hill where the CRP grasses turned to solid clover where we were parked. At 25 yards he stopped, his molten golden colors reflecting brilliantly in the sunlight while the white ring around his neck stretched out for a better look. If there could have been a thought bubble above his head it would have said, “Oh no, it’s opening day!”

After eyeballing us for a few seconds he quickly slipped back the way he came down the hill in a hasty retreat. It was still 15 minutes from legal shooting time as we prepped for the day. We loaded guns and lastly put the collar on Ace, who had been impatiently whining and crying in the backseat of the truck for the last 25 minutes. It was now 8 A.M. and he was finally loose in his element. The natural direction to hunt would begin with the road ditch below us where the many birds we had witnessed now found refuge.

We walked the ditch at length without a bird stirring although Ace was dashing around in a frenzy of bird-scented delirium. Near the river bridge stood a row of cedars and as Ace came whirling around them, the first of over a dozen roosters took flight, all too far to shoot. It was as pretty of an opening day scene as you could ask for. However, watching almost all of them sit down a couple hundred yards away in the silvery, frost blanketed cover they called home. We took a right turn and headed toward them.

Falling back into old routines like a cowboy taking to the saddle, Ace began working the cover diligently. He was birdy when we got in the general area where they landed and it wasn’t long before he locked up on a solid point. Dylan flushed the bird from in front of Ace’s nose and had to spin a little for the shot. A clean miss. But as the gun erupted, another bird not far away dashed to the air and tried for an escape. I brought the gun up and pulled it rearward, clean into the pocket of my shoulder with a good sight picture and the bird fell as the trigger broke. The first one for the year was down. I kept a mark on that bird as a couple more rising cackles sounded off just out of shooting range.

The next bird surprised Dylan coming up right at the end of his gun barrel. Startled a bit, Dylan fired but likely didn’t get a good barrel point on the bird as he sailed safely away. A few more birds had wised up to the fact that opening day had arrived and escaped before we could get close enough for a shot. We crossed the creek and just on the other side we had dual roosters rise in unison, crossing in the air with each other as they flew. I managed to punch a hole in the air on that rise, consoling Dylan that even the old man misses sometimes too.

As we progressed, the sun’s rays quickly began melting the night’s heavy frost and even though Ace remained hidden in the grass as he worked we always knew where he was. He was soaked completely with cold dew and his body heat generated his own cloud around him wherever he went. At times we just followed the cloud for the next half-hour or so. We couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of him. The steam absolutely billowed from his body.

After exhausting our search in the area where most of the birds had landed we had sufficiently scattered birds to the north across more of the farm. We worked the boot leather for a bit tracing several hundred yards towards a weedy soybean plot where we surprisingly found nothing. Under a pond dam not far away we jumped a bird for a third time and he was really getting onto this game quickly as he didn’t let Ace or us get within sniffing distance. But as we made the turn on the backend of the farm a cackle surprised us on our left. I instinctively just shouldered the Benelli as I turned and found the distant target and pulled the trigger. The rooster was as far as I have ever shot and I’m pretty sure I’ve maybe even passed on birds at that distance in the past. I might have been as surprised as Dylan as we watched the ringneck collapse in mid-air and drop near the field edge. Ace was there to find my bird.

“I didn’t even shoot.” Dylan exclaimed thinking the shot was too far. “When you hear a cackle like that, you already know what your target is even though you haven’t seen it yet. Then it’s just a matter of reacting naturally and trying to get on target as quickly as possible before they’re out of range.” I told Dylan. It was one of the better shots, dare I say luckiest shots I’ve pulled off in a while but sometimes it’s okay to let your kid think that Dad is the best shot in the world, right?

Dylan had a rough day shooting to start the season and I managed to bag two Iowa public land roosters, but the memories from an opening day of pheasant season in Iowa with my son are what will remain forever etched in my mind.

Making memories for yourself just like that are just a few months away. For generations, Iowans and out-of-staters alike have been making their own memories over the Iowa landscape chasing our most famous game bird. Those traditions of pheasant hunting have been shared and passed down in our state and the states surrounding us more than almost anywhere on the planet in the last century. As we approach 100 years of pheasant hunting in Iowa, there is certainly still a good number of birds to be found here. We may not have the numbers we had 30 years ago, but with a little extra work, some good scouting and some good shooting, a day’s limit is still very attainable.

This year’s Iowa pheasant season begins on October 29, 2022. We hunted multiple public spots in 2021 with success and while Iowa may not boost as many public-hunting acres as some surrounding states, we still have thousands of acres of public habitat that you can find. Finding great private land to hunt on can be as easy as knocking on a few doors with a smile and a handshake as well.

This fall focus on finding good habitat near a food source. The bird hunting only gets better as more of the harvest is completed. On warm bluebird days look for birds in fencerows, waterways, and thinner cover and conversely when mother nature turns things colder and nastier narrow your focus to better winter habitat that is thicker and holds more structure.

It’s always wise to hunt into the wind or cut the wind diagonally. Give your dog some scent to work with and it also helps conceal your sound. The best piece of advice I can give anyone is to always trust the dog. Too many times we think we know better or want to follow our own plan, but a dog’s nose knows what we can’t. Trust it. When birds are really jumpy you can also post hunters near the edge of cover as walkers flush them. Conversely some birds will sit tight and let you pass right by them. Instead of walking in straight lines, considering walking in a zigzag fashion. Sometimes even stopping and holding still for a bit can make a patient bird anxious enough to spring airborne. Pheasants are notorious for holding onto the last bits of cover so be sure to walk out the place you’ve been walking to the very edge.

Take a few of these tactics to the field this fall hunting Iowa’s favorite game bird.