Iowa Quail Hunting Forecast 2019

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Iowa quail hold strong through a difficult winter as numbers remain at the 10-year average

By Curtis Niedermier

Iowa has been a bright spot among Midwestern states when it comes to upland bird hunting for the last few years. The 2018-2019 season was particularly productive. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the quail harvest was up 142 percent over the 10-year average (and the highest in 11 years), while the pheasant harvest was up 45 percent above the 10-year average.

Quail, in particular, have enjoyed a healthy rebound thanks to mild winters beginning in 2014.

Unfortunately, this past winter and spring weren’t too friendly to the Hawkeye State’s bobwhite quail, and hunters should expect to see a downtick in overall numbers this season compared to the banner season that preceded it.

However, don’t fret over the change, as the August roadside survey results show quail numbers are still at the 10-year average and hunting should still be quite good in the southern third of the state – the bird’s primary range – whether you have access to private land or spend your days behind a bird dog on public parcels. 
 

Weather

Heavy snow, wet spring made their mark in Iowa's quail country. Everything was looking good for bobwhites in Iowa up until about mid-January, says Todd Bogenschutz, an upland wildlife research biologist with the Iowa DNR.

“Until about mid-January it had been a really good winter. Then it really went down,” he says. “We got down to zero and below zero and got snow, and then it warmed up and we got freezing rain. Then it got cold again and froze, and quail can’t dig through ice."

“February was the snowiest in state history,” Bogenschutz adds. “We had almost 2 feet of snow in February, which is what we normally have in a full winter.”

The rough winter reduced quail numbers going into nesting season, but the birds’ troubles didn’t end there. A fast snowmelt and heavy springtime precipitation were ill-timed. 

“May was the sixth wettest in state history, in 150 years, right when nesting season was cranking up and all the birds were going down on the nests, so the timing wasn’t really good,” says Bogenschutz. “June continued kind of in the wet trend. July and August kind of turned a little bit drier, but they typically do. Temperatures were bouncing around. We had some hot weather and some cool weather. That first nesting effort was probably pretty rough on them. But quail are persistent re-nesters so they had a second or third time."

“We’re always looking for that first really good hatch,” he adds. “That’s what makes for a really good year. They were persistent, so there could be a fair number of smaller birds – younger birds – on our opener this year. But opener could really be a challenge this year. All that wet weather came during our planting, so our planting was one to two weeks behind. So I’m afraid on our opener it might just be a sea of standing crops. As harvest progresses, hunting should get much better.”

According to the August roadside survey conducted this year, quail are down 36 percent statewide. Still, the results are on par with the 10-year average and rival what was logged back in the early 1990s.

While Iowa does conduct its roadside survey in the central third of the state (running east to west), habitat is limited in that band, and this year’s numbers were down substantially in that range. It’s the southern third of the state where hunters should pay the most attention. The southwest zone was down 49 percent from 2018, with the southcentral zone down 21 percent and southeast down 57 percent.

Click this link to read the entire August roadside survey report and to see a distribution map of small game and upland species in Iowa. 
 

Habitat and conditions

As mentioned, the best quail habitat occurs in the southern third of Iowa, which flirts with the northern extent of the bobwhite quail’s range. The quality of the habitat in that stretch is generally good, but habitat types and the amount of it vary throughout the zone, so hunters should consider localized cover types when scouting for quail.

“Certainly the southeast corner of the state is more timber,” says Bogenschutz. “The southwest is more ag. And southcentral is kind of the transition zone. Generally, why we have quail down there is it’s the southern part of the state, so there are mild winters, and the soil is poor, so there’s more intersection of pasture, ag and timber."

“As quail hunters, you’re always looking for that area where the crops meet the brush. You don’t want turkey timber or deer timber. You want brush for quail. And where that crop, pasture and brushy cover all come together, that’s kind of your ideal mix for quail.” 
 

Top spots

While there’s some overlap between pheasant and quail ranges in the state, Iowa quail hunters should be more particular about targeting good quail habitat this year to increase their odds of successful days afield. 

“Our densities are down all across southern Iowa, but I think any of our public lands across the southern part of the state can be good,” says Bogenschutz. “Our best densities this year are in southcentral Iowa, just a shade lower in southwest, with the southeast being lowest. If you see good looking habitat, even if it’s in the southeast, if you can get permission you’ll probably do pretty good.”

Hunters should obtain a hard copy of the “Iowa Sportsman’s Atlas,” which shows roadmaps as well as public hunting lands, or view the online Iowa DNR’s Hunting Atlas to scout publicly accessible hunting lands owned or managed by the state.

Also, the Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP) has been a successful venture whereby the state works with private landowners to improve habitat while also opening up the land for public hunting. IHAP is a win-win for bird hunters, but especially quail hunters since most of the state’s IHAP lands are in the southern part of the state. Learn more about IHAP and download area maps.
 

Insider tips

Local intel might be the best tool for quail hunters in Iowa. That doesn’t mean bugging the locals for spots. Rather, hunters should keep tabs on the progress of the fall harvest around public hunting areas and study aerial maps to locate the best mix of cover.

As mentioned earlier, the beginning of the season could be challenging due to the amount of crops still in the fields.

“I’m not saying don’t come opening weekend, but have expectations of what the landscape may look like,” says Bogenschutz. “Some of our late-season hunting this year, from Thanksgiving and on, might be better than normal. There might be a lot of birds that haven’t been hunted yet.”

Bogenschutz also points out that there were a lot of Prevented Planting acres in Iowa this year that were left unplanted due to the wet soils during spring.

“That could make for ideal habitat,” he adds. “A lot of cover crops went in. Those fields could hold quail if they’re near other habitat. Sometimes they just leave it idle and it comes up to weeds, though a lot of them will do a cover crop. They plant winter wheat or cereal oats or rye. That makes good habitat for quail."

“The challenge with those Prevented Planting fields is that, usually by fall, farmers start working them up because they want to plant it the next year. So it’s kind of hit or miss. The guys that are really on it will probably have them ripped up by Thanksgiving.”

Private land hunting is always a possibility in Iowa. All it takes many times is a friendly and well-timed request. But there’s also plenty of IHAP properties, U.S. Army Corps of Engineer lands and state-owned Wildlife Management Areas for hunters to pursue in one of the country’s top bobwhite quail destination states.
 

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