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John Cross column

John Cross, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn. –

— The northern Iowa countryside hasn’t changed a whole lot in two months.

Last Wednesday, the landscape was as brown as it was on Oct. 29 when the Hawkeye State’s ringneck season opened for its 2011 run.

On that day, when my frequent Iowa hunting partner, Tim Ackarman of Miller, Iowa, and I set our dogs loose on a brisk Saturday morning, it was with lowered expectations.

Roadside surveys conducted in August had the Iowa Department of Natural Resources putting the ringneck population down by half from 2010 levels due to the severe winter and poor spring nesting weather.

Nevertheless, each of us still managed to bag a brace of birds by day’s end.

That success was tempered however by the knowledge that with the harvest completed, hunting was as easy as it was going to get. Finding surviving birds in the ensuing weeks likely would only get more difficult.

Our hunch was partially correct.

On a subsequent hunt two weeks later, we managed to bag our six birds in a brief 90-minute hunt on property Ackarman has enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

As in many Upper Midwest states, Iowa’s ringnecks have taken it on the beak for the last two years. Snow that fell early and deep, some inopportune ice storms that made foraging for the already stressed birds nearly impossible, followed by wet damp springs have created tough times.

In the best days of Iowa ringneck hunting, the annual harvests routinely exceeded a million birds. The last time the annual harvest flirted with that magic number was in 2005, when over 800,000 birds were bagged

For the last couple of years, the figure has been closer to 200,000 birds and harvest predictions for the 2011 season are expected range from 150,000 to 200,000.

Last week, the only birds our dogs put up in gun range were hens.

Several other birds, possibly roosters educated by a season’s worth of being pursued by my partner and his Labrador, Hank, flushed too far ahead to determine sex.

On another tract owned by Ackarman’s father, recently seeded with prairie grasses that is just beginning to get established, the Labrador managed to run down a rooster that had evidently been winged by another hunter.

The dogs put up several more hens and eventually, two nervous roosters from the thin cover.

By the time I caught up with either one with my shotgun, they were only marginally in range: Both of my shots were “Hail Mary’s” more out of frustration than any real hope of connecting.

And then my partner had a nice opportunity at a rooster that burst into the air at his feet. He threw his over/under to his shoulder and drawing a bead on the straight-away flier — an easy shot — pulled the trigger.

Click. He had forgotten to load his shotgun.

Except for the cripple captured by the dog, our bag for four hours of hunting was zero.

While a bird or two would have been nice, success is never assured while hunting late season birds.

What is somewhat encouraging, at least in the immediate area we were hunting, is that while high crop prices are putting the same pressure as elsewhere to row-crop as much land as possible, a few farmers in the area aren’t chasing the commodity cash.

Thanks to the general sign-ups for Wetland Reserve and Conservation Reserve Programs, expanses of grass now grow where just a year or two ago, corn and soybeans stood.

While the total acreage of grasslands in the area will never equal the amount enrolled during the first round of CRP that began in 1986, what is out there is of better quality — switch grass and hardy prairie forbs instead of the brome grass that dominated the countryside back then.

So with a bit of cooperation from nature — a couple of mild winters and warm, dry springs — the area could be poised for a bit of ringneck renaissance, at least measured against their present dismal state.

We can only hope.

In the meantime, we left some birds to seed the come-back.

Iowa’s pheasant hunting season concludes January 10, 2012. Minnesota’s pheasant hunting season concludes Jan. 1, at sunset.

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