Last season, Iowa resident Nate Strickler and his good friend, Jason Pendergraft, traveled 4,040 miles in their home state and bagged 103 roosters during 26 trips, averaging a little fewer than four birds per outing. Yet, for Strickler, these numbers are more a means of record keeping than boasting. He attributes his success not to gear and technique, but rather the strength of relationships—with one’s family and landowners, with one’s dog and, perhaps most importantly, one’s consciousness.
Strickler values truck time over a day’s limit, the smile on a first time pheasant hunter’s face over the length of a tail feather. He will share a truck cab with any hunter, as long as they follow his safety rules, respect the landowner, and, at the end of the day, pen a story in his glovebox upland journal. For Strickler, pheasant hunting is less about hunting, and more about living, “being present in the moment,” as he describes it.
Strickler, a corporate executive at Wells Fargo and married father of three—ages 11 and younger—juggles a very full life. “Pheasant season has gotten harder for reasons other than bird decline,” he said.
Though his career requires a great deal of time and travel, it also affords a large amount of personal vacation time. “One of the beautiful aspects of my life,” he said, “is that I have a forgiving wife and interested kids with whom I can share this passion.” Strickler rarely spends more than an hour and a half driving to a hunting destination and never stays overnight, as family remains his highest priority.
“My wife and I have become very good at planning,” explained Strickler, “We’re good at determining a location based on family obligations, same with my hunting partner.”
Building a Bird Network
Strickler owns only the property on which his home sits in suburban Des Moines. All of his hunting opportunities are the result of building relationships, many of which started with the knock on a farmer’s door. Since the early 2000s, Strickler has formed close relationships with approximately 75 private landowners.
Trust remains an essential component for the sport of pheasant hunting in Strickler’s eyes. “What I used to do—every time I hunted their ground, I would handwrite a ‘thank you’ note and tell a story about the day, take a photo afterward, of my first dog, “Murphy” or “Gunner” now, or of the kids if they were with me.” Immediately after arriving home and cleaning birds, Strickler would write his story and bubble wrap that photo and place the package in the mail the next morning. “It’s not about what I shot, but what I saw,” he said. “Were there coyotes out there? How was the field? What was the ratio of hens to roosters? There was an appreciation for me creating the time to write that story, take that picture, and a lot of times it resulted in a phone call, asking me to tell them more.”
Strickler hunts over a Vizsla named Gunner who just turned 7-years-old. Strickler first’s dog was a Vizsla as well, named Murphy, whom Strickler trained himself. Murphy tragically passed away from cancer in 2009.
In summer 2001, when Strickler and his family were living in Windsor Heights, in the heart of Des Moines, he bought the book Best Way to Train Your Gun Dog
by Bill Tarrant and conducted the table and field work in the buffer strips within city limits. “I had a starter pistol, raised some homing pigeons, and used them to train,” he said. “The starter pistol made for some memorable stories when the police came.”
“Your most important equipment is your dog,” said Strickler. Though he will go out for firearms deer opener with buddies, Strickler recognizes pheasant hunting is where his heart lies. “For the dog work first and foremost,” he explained.
Advice to Hunt By
As Strickler has matured as a hunter and gained more experience, he has determined a hierarchy of equipment. According to Strickler, the most important quality of any piece of equipment is that it should never distract from living in the moment:
- Choose proper footwear to ensure you can cover more ground and spend more time in the field while avoiding blisters. Strickler prefers 8-inch Danner Pronghorn boots and Scheels Outfitters Upland Merino wool socks. “The boots you wear are more important than your shot size choice,” he said.
- Keep in shape and be able to work the field.
- Wear water-resistant pants, such as Browning Pheasant Forever upland pants or upland chaps. “It’s hard to work the field if you are soaking wet,” said Strickler. “Wear something that won’t collect moisture or burrs.”
- Stack layers of long underwear and long-sleeve shirts and a maybe a hooded sweatshirt for warmth, remove as necessary as the day wears on.
- Shoot a gun with which you are comfortable. “I shoot a Benelli M2,” he said. “A gun is a piece of equipment that lends to experience. I like the black composite stock of the M2. It is rugged. I learned to shoot it quite straight.”
- Choose a shot size and brand with which you are familiar, know how it patterns. “I prefer high brass 6 shot,” said Strickler. “I prefer lead over steel, might drop down into 4 shot with steel.”
Rooster Record Keeping
Though Strickler values the right upland apparel and a great dog, arguably the most essential piece of equipment never leaves his truck. “Since 2001, we have kept a journal from every outing,” said Strickler. He and his hunting partners record tail feather length from each bird, maintain accounts of every detail—weather, temperature, angle of the sun, the amount of wind and its direction. “I like reading about how the environment is changing, how I have matured as a hunter, and bird populations—what did I see, and how did I shoot?” Upon returning to a piece of land, Stickler and his hunting partner will review previous entries concerning the property. They will determine how to pattern the birds, and how aggressively they should hunt.
Never Gets Old
The pheasant opener in Iowa for Strickler still feels like Christmas day when he was a kid. He gets up early, not because he is worried about field pressure, but because he can’t sleep, he says. “How many people my age and older can say that anything in their life brings them that joy? I am so excited,” he said. “What will unfold, watching that sunrise?”
Strickler maintains a rather unique tradition of letting the first rooster of the season escape unscathed. “Every first rooster in the season gets a pass,” he said. “We watch that first rooster fly away.” What started as a coincidence has become an annual mainstay, and Strickler appreciates knowing he’ll work for what’s to come. “We are repaid tenfold,” he says.
Strickler emphasizes the importance of supporting causes like Pheasants Forever and other conservation organizations, allowing this world to remain as natural as we can. He believes conservation in harmony with agriculture is possible, and necessary. He argues, just as the weather is cyclical, we as a society are going to come back around. We are going to see the harm we have done to our environment because we have pulled out that watershed, bulldozed the land for maximum crop yield. “I hope we hold on long enough to be there,” he said, “to be influential and to be the leaders when the greater society embraces our messages.”
Finally, for all pheasant hunters this season, Strickler offers this last piece of advice: “Like everything in life, you get what you commit to it. Invest in the trust of people, absolutely in the dogs, invest in the equipment. The more positive experiences we can share, the better we can support our conservation mission.”
Story by John Hennessy. John is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack.