Iowa pheasants show resilience, offering a promising 2019 hunting season even after enduring record precipitation levels early in the year
By Andy Fondrick, Digital Marketing Specialist at Pheasants Forever
After a 2018 season that produced the best pheasant harvest numbers in a decade, poor nesting and brood-rearing conditions shouldn’t slow down the momentum for hunters in the Hawkeye State. Although late snow and heavy rains may have made for difficult conditions, all indications are that much of Iowa’s pheasant population held steady through the abnormally high precipitation levels.
There should be plenty of opportunity to bag Iowa roosters in 2019, especially once the late corn and bean harvest starts to wrap-up.
Weather and Conditions
After a relatively mild start to winter in Iowa, historic snowfall in February tested pheasants across the state after a string of pretty good winters going all the way back to 2013.
“February went down as the snowiest in 147 years with a state record 23 inches of snow,” says Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife research biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “In a normal year, Iowa sees 25 inches over the entire winter, let alone almost that much in a single month.”
Luckily the slow start to winter meant upland game didn’t have to endure multiple months of deep snow and harsh conditions.
“Regionally, all areas saw above-normal snowfall,” says Bogenschutz. “The southern third of the state saw more ice-mixed snow, especially in the south-central and southeast regions. Snow with several layers of ice virtually sealed the birds out from feeding on any waste grains in crop fields. Food plots and unharvested crop fields were the only places birds could find abundant foods.”
Once things began to thaw, there was a bit of a weather break in early spring providing normal conditions before the weather changed again, testing upland birds yet again.
“May was the sixth wettest in 124 years, as well as the 22nd coolest. Not the weather pattern you would dial up for a good nesting season,” Bogenschutz says. “All regions were above normal with 10 or more inches of rain in April and May. The south-central and southeast regions reported the highest amounts, over a foot of rain.”
Bogenschutz reported that most of the major rivers in Iowa, including the Missouri River, Des Moines River, and the Mississippi River were at flood stage into late June.
Habitat, Broods and Counts
According to Bogenschutz, the abundant moisture did help to provide some good cover growing conditions, so upland habitats are in great shape; however, that moisture may have also made for challenging nesting conditions.
“Roadside counts indicate lower hens with broods, total hens and chicks in most regions,” Bogenschutz says. He believes this winter may have accounted for higher losses of hens than previous years.
Even with the poor nesting conditions, Bogenschutz is still very optimistic about the outlook for hunters this fall.
“Given that the roadside surveys showed pheasant numbers were more or less unchanged in seven of nine survey regions, the fall looks very promising, given that last year’s harvest was the best we have seen in a decade” says Bogenschutz.
“The biggest surprise is how stable the bird numbers were given the challenging weather,” he says. Bogenschutz goes on to say that even with the record precipitation amounts this winter and spring, it does not appear hen survival was drastically reduced in most regions.
“Spring rains definitively impacted nesting but we still counted broods,” Bogenschutz says. “The biggest concern is that spring was so wet, farmers were late getting crops in the ground, meaning pheasant opener will likely see little, if any, harvested crops. This may make the early weeks of the season more difficult to hunt.”
The full Iowa roadside report is available here
Even with the counts staying consistent in recent years, reports from the fields may paint an even more promising picture.
“Recently, we have been getting more reports from landowners that they are seeing lots of broods,” says Bogenschutz. “One even said this is the best he has seen in years, which is interesting given the counts didn’t show that kind of change.”
After a 2018 hunting season that saw 320,000 roosters harvested, the most in a decade, Bogenschutz feels that this year could be another strong year for pheasant hunters in Iowa.
“The 2019 roadside index is nearly identical to 2008, when hunters harvested almost 400,000 roosters in the Hawkeye state,” says Bogenschutz. “However, I expect our harvest this fall to only be about 250,000 roosters. In 2008, there were 86,000 bird hunters in Iowa and this fall I expect our bird hunter numbers will only be 53,000.”
With some regions up, and others down, the overall numbers for Iowa stayed relatively unchanged, except for the south-central and southeast where populations were down significantly, 45-50%.
“With the exception of those two regions, I expect bird numbers similar or perhaps slightly lower than last year, which was our best in a decade, so I think the fall looks pretty dang promising given the weather we saw,” says Bogenschutz. “Statewide pheasant numbers are down 17% from last year, but this was mostly driven by the south-central and southeast regions. If not for these regions, I think the statistics would have said the population was unchanged from 2018.”
If numbers are relatively unchanged with exception of the southern part of the state, where should you head in search of longtails in the Hawkeye State this year?
“Based on the roadside counts, the north-central, west-central and central regions had the best overall densities,” says Bogenschutz, adding that any part of the northern two-thirds of the state should provide good hunting opportunity for pheasants.
Bogenschutz believes that things may be slow to start the season with crop harvest likely running later than usual, but the hunting should improve as the season progresses. Late season longtails may be the play in Iowa this season, but don’t wait too long as harvest numbers begin to drop as the calendar turns to December.