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Another pheasant feast on horizon in 2021

Wildside column: Numbers projected to be similar to 2020 harvest

A rooster pheasant leaves tracks in a snow-filled Buchanan County road ditch in mid-February. Iowa’s pheasant population is unchanged from last year, and Department of Natural Resources officials anticipate a good hunting season. (Orlan Love/correspondent)

Iowa hunters this fall may have more pheasants than shells to shoot at them.

Pheasant numbers are good, according to the Department of Natural Resources, whose recently completed August Roadside Survey showed statewide pheasant numbers essentially unchanged from 2020, which the DNR rated as a “very good” hunting season with a harvest of 300,000 roosters.

Hen pheasants scratch for grit in mid-February along a gravel road in northern Buchanan County. A snowy January and a frigid February tested pheasants’ survival skills, but a dry spring yielded a good nesting season. (Orlan Love/correspondent)

Ammunition, meanwhile, including the 12-gauge upland game loads popular with pheasant hunters, is hard to come by.

“Don’t think you’re going to walk into the store and find your exact favorite load on the shelf. It’s just not the case this year,” said Ernie Traugh, proprietor of Cedar Valley Outfitters in Marion.

Several boxes of 12-gauge shotgun shells that have accumulated over the years sit on a shelf awaiting the Oct. 30 opening of pheasant season. With ammunition in short supply, Orlan Love of Quasqueton said the shells, while not his preferred upland game loads, will come in handy this year. (Orlan Love/correspondent)

Traugh said demand, fueled in part by an influx of 8 million new gun owners in the past year, is outstripping production. Dealers aren’t getting their full orders and ammunition flies off the shelves shortly after its arrival in stores, he said.

“People should be trying to acquire ammo now,” Traugh said.

While shells will be in short supply, pheasants should provide plenty of excitement in most regions of the state, said Todd Bogenschutz, the DNR’s upland game manager.

This year’s statewide index of 20.1 birds per route is nearly identical to last year’s 20.3 birds per route, he said. Based on that index, Bogenschutz said Iowa pheasant hunters should harvest from 250,000 to 350,000 roosters during the upcoming season, which runs from Oct. 30 to Jan. 10.

This year’s index represents a 21 percent increase over the 10-year average of 16.6 birds per 30 mile route.

Bogenschutz said pheasant numbers increase with mild winters followed by warm, dry springs and decline with snowy winters followed by cold, wet springs.

The past winter and spring, he said, was “a mixed bag for upland wildlife” with a harsh, snowy winter followed by the driest nesting season in 27 years. Based on those patterns, the DNR’s model predicted a stable to slightly increasing pheasant population — a prediction confirmed by the roadside counts.

The roadside counts, in turn, show a high degree of correspondence with harvest totals.

Prospects are especially good in four of the state’s nine regions with the highest numbers of pheasants per 30-mile survey route in the north-central (31.81), the west-central (31.61), the northwest (29.64) and the central (25.53) regions.

Pheasant densities in the other five regions are as follows: northeast, 19.65; east-central, 11.29; southeast 10.33; south-central, 8.54; and southwest, 4.94.

If Iowa’s dry growing season extends into October, most crops will be harvested by the pheasant season opener, which bodes well for successful early season hunts, Bogenschutz said.