A hard grinding Pearl Jam song creeps out from under a twenty something’s headset two seats away. Reflecting briefly on hearing aids, my thoughts turn to outside the window of the twin engine puddle-jumper. At 15,000 feet, the countryside south of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, looks like painting depicting a quiet, pastoral life. The farmland below appears so placid. Two-story farm houses punctuate a patchwork quilt of alternating squares of soybeans, corn stubble and fallow ground.
The landscape below, crisscrossed by straight roads, is broken by the vein-like patterns of drainage ditches, or more appropriate sloughs, coupled with the leftover grains and lands laid to temporary rest, would prove paramount in my pursuit of ringneck pheasants.
Pheasants are to Iowa what green chile is to New Mexico. For that reason, my friend of 20 years, Don Streit, and I decided to rendezvous in Mount pleasant, Iowa, for two days of upland hunting.
“Guns-n-Noses,” as we call it, is an almost annual event for us. This year, his two sons joined us: Chris, a freshman at Miami University of Ohio, who chucked his homework for bird hunting, and Josh, a starting catcher for the Chillicothe Paints in the Frontier League who knows how to give base runners a premature bench ride. His major-league quickness would come in handy swinging on fast birds. It’s a family affair – upland hunting – in the Streit household.
We met our guide, Hal Chaney, in the early morning accompanied by Jeff Greiner, whose farms we would hunt. Chaney, a full-time professional gun-dog trainer, is a quietly composed, straightforward fellow. He gave us a rundown on rules around his dogs. With an indescribable measure in his voice – possibly an artifact of Nordic heritage so common in the Northern Plains – he explained the “dos and don’ts” around his champion quality English springer spaniels. Our actions could interfere with his voice commands. Aside from our safety, the dogs are his first concern. The rules work – Chaney’s dogs have brought home numerous field-trial ribbons – and they put us on pheasants.
Greiner, bedecked in a blaze orange Purina feed cap, stands almost in complete contrast to Chaney. He’s large and burly, quick to talk up his farm management or give a stiff ribbing over poking holes in the sky with No. 6 shot. Having hunted Jefferson County for more than 30 years, he knows the countryside and he knows pheasants.
Together these men provide guided hunts in first-rate pheasant country. Much of Greiner’s farms are in what the locals call “set aside,” The Conservation Reserve Program, or C RP, is a federal farm policy designed to prop up grain prices, a policy that Greiner laments has failed miserably. While CRP may not have boosted grain income, it has boosted wildlife populations – pheasants included. With CRP, farmers enter into 10 year contracts with the USDA to set aside erodible acreage to remain fallow. Some of Greiners farms are in their second 10 - year contract. They don’t produce grain, they produce pheasants.
The ringneck pheasant was transplanted to the United States from China with the express purpose of proving a game bird. The first birds were planted in Oregon’s Willamette Valley just this side of 1880. The first hunting season opened there 12 years later. Ringneck pheasant are well suited for life in the United States – especially on the Northern Plains. Ringnecks take to thick vegetative cover in sloughs rife with cattails and canary grass – places only a dog can go.
One at a time, Magnum, Margaret, Dan and Dear work just ahead of us. Sweeping back and forth between the five of us. Chaney in the middle, the white and black or liver springer responds to muted whistles and directional hand signals. Chaney never lets them get out of shot-gun range, should the dog push up a bird. In what he calls a windshield-wiper pattern, the springers swing in front of us with infectious zeal.
“Watch their body English,” Cheney says. Their side-to-side patterns tighten as they close in on a bird. “They get electric when they scent a bird.”
And they do. Dog’s nose intently to the ground, the gunner gets a squirt of adrenalin knowing a 3 pound rooster could explode from knee-high canary grass.
Then it happens. The springer forces the bird out of cover. Loud wings and attendant clucking, and the bird is away. Even knowing the dog’s going to push up a bird still doesn’t entirely prepare you for the flush.
I swing my Weatherby to catch up with the fast bird. I miss. Another shot rings out from the direction of Josh and Chris. Wings fold and the big rooster drops to the ground.
“Bird down,” says Chaney in a long drawn-out commanding voice. His dogs are trained to sit immediately at the flush ad the sound of gunfire. They won’t retrieve until he gives the say-so. Plowing through grasses well over the dog’s head. Dan delivers a beautiful rooster pheasant to Chaney.
The scene was repeated many times over the course of two days – more than I ever expected. And Chaney’s rules? Well we broke about all of them the first few flushes. He politely pulled us back into order.
If ever there was a nirvana for upland bird hunting, I think we may have come close Old friends, father and sons together, good dogs and good people. And oh yes, lots of pheasant. For Guns-n-Noses 2000 will be sharp-tail grouse in Nebraska? Mearns quail in Arizona? Iowa will be tough to beat.
Iowa’s pheasant season lasts until mid-January, and Chaney and Greiner guide hunts throughout the season. Airfare to Cedar Rapids from Albuquerque is affordable, as is lodging in Mount Pleasant. You’ll need to rent a car for the hour trek.
But be sure to stop along the way in Coralville at Sheel’s Sporting Goods for a hunting license ($60) and other essentials like premium No. 6 shot for your 12- or 20 gauge. Mount Pleasant has some OK eateries, but plan on supper at the Greiners’. Lori Greiner served up two great meals, and no one left the table hungry.