SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota is not the only place to hunt pheasants.
Hunting is picking up steam again in Iowa as bird counts increase, said Todd Bogenschutz, an upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
“It seems like the folks east of us that don’t want to drive all the way out to the Dakotas (when) they can get good pheasant hunting in Iowa. We seem to catch a lot of those people,” Bogenschutz said.
Non-resident hunters in Iowa come mainly from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan. “In that order,” Bogenschutz said. Fifty percent of the non-resident hunters come from those states, he said.
The state does draw hunters from 38 states, he said.
Choosing Iowa was once more common in the late 1980s and 1990s. Yet, the state has still drawn attention of national hunting organizations and publications over the past years as a good place to hunt pheasants.
Pheasants Forever referred to Iowa as an “up and coming pheasant hunting powerhouse state,” in its 2021 Pheasant Hunting Forecast.
Iowa and South Dakota were once running ringneck to ringneck in pheasant-hunting harvests in the late 1980s and 1990s.
In 1987, just over 1.4 million ringneck pheasants were bagged by hunters in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Hunters bagged 931,250 in South Dakota that year, according to the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Department (GFP).
“If go you back to the mid-1990s, there was a lot of times Iowa was harvesting more pheasants than South Dakota,” Bogenschutz said.
In terms of the two top pheasant-hunting states in the country, “It used to be that it kind of switched back and forth between Iowa and South Dakota,” he said.
Hunters in Iowa harvested more than 1 million birds throughout most of the 1990s and nearly 1 million in 2000, according to a 2014 Pheasants Forever presentation to the Iowa Legislature. Numbers hit more than 1 million in 2003, but after that, a combination of factors helped drive the numbers down.
Meanwhile in South Dakota, the pheasant harvest numbers have reached 1 million or more every year except three from 1999 through 2020, according to the GFP. The numbers have earned the state its bragging rights for the top pheasant hunting state.
Bogenschutz said the harsh winters that hit Iowa from 2007 to 2012 dramatically reduced the pheasant population.
Iowa also lost pheasant habitat over the years.
“We have half the habitat we had back in the 1990s. Subsequently, our bird counts have been cut in half,” Bogenschutz said.
But things have improved. The past several winters have not been as harsh. And the state still had about 1.7 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land as of May 2021, according to the Farm Bureau.
A return to past glory in Iowa?
The 2020 pheasant hunting numbers weren’t quite as good as 2018 but hunters got 300,000 roosters in Iowa during the 2020 season, which was the second highest harvest reported in more than a decade, according to the DNR.
The past several years have shown that pheasant hunting is improving in Iowa.
The Iowa DNR said hunters bagged nearly 320,000 roosters in 2018. That was highest harvest total since 2008. In 2017, hunters harvested an estimated 221,000 roosters, the DNR said.
In 2019, there were nearly 284,000 pheasants harvested.
Bogenschutz said statewide bird counts are comparable to last year but counts will vary across the state.
“…if you go to southeast Iowa, the counts are much lower but if you go to northwest Iowa, the counts are much higher,” Bogenschutz said. “We think basically the whole northwest half the state is going to have a pretty good season. Our folks around Spirit Lake are saying it could be our best season in 30 years as far as bird numbers.”
COVID-19 brought in new hunters to increase the number of hunters to 60,000 last year, Bogenschutz said. Some of those hunters had more time because of COVID and they could return to or start hunting. He’s not certain if all those hunters will be able to get back out this year.
According to the roadside survey, the pheasant harvest this year could be 250,000 to 350,000.
The numbers may be looking good for Iowa but Pheasants Forever said hunting will be tougher this year in South Dakota. The drought negatively impacted the number of birds, Pheasants Forever said in its forecast for the state.
The grazing and haying of CRP land along with hot days in June, for example, all impacted bird counts, Pheasants Forever said.
Still, the season in South Dakota could be better than anticipated, especially in some areas of the state, according to Pheasants Forever.
Bird counts are a guide
The average hunter hunts for five days based on Iowa surveys, Bogenschutz said. The season lasts three months.
The state’s bird count is important to hunters because of the limited time they can invest in hunting, he said.
“Most hunters want to know what the population is doing,” Bogenschutz said.
Non-resident hunters are more mobile than resident hunters so they will follow bird counts to know the best place to hunt, Bogenschutz said.
Many resident hunters will hunt close to home. But they still want to know the bird population in their areas, he said.
The Iowa season runs from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from Oct. 30 through Jan. 10. The daily bag limit is three rooster pheasants with a possession limit of 12.