It’s a favorite New Year’s ritual…that one last trip to the pheasant fields of the West for sustaining memories far better than even football and basketball.
Iowa City, Iowa – It’s what I do – you know this – the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I get in that one last pheasant hunt before basketball season becomes all-consuming, even at the expense of my daughter’s December 27th birthday.
How committed am I? Well, when I left Ohio on Tuesday morning I scribbled her a note. “Sorry Laynie, but happy birthday, anyway. See you Friday!”
And if you don’t pheasant hunt there’s no need to even try to explain. Nothing…not basketball, football, or even baseball, has the sustaining qualities of a day in the field with great dogs and friends hunting late-season rooster pheasants.
A month ago I went to western North Dakota with friends Jerry Moenning, Pat Jewett and Ron Straiting. But there wasn’t time enough for travel that far west this week – and the weather out there isn’t cooperating, anyway. Recent snows, drifting, and closed roads have made the Dakotas out of the question.
So the next best option was an easy seven-hour drive to eastern Iowa, and Washington County, to the Highland’s Lodge and a couple of days with host and owner, Ryan Giannini.
I’ve written about Highland’s before; and for my money, if you don’t have the private acreage farther west on which to hunt, you cannot beat the managed conditions of Highland’s fifteen hundred acres of classic Iowa pheasant habitat. I’ll boldly say, that it’s as good as any Orvis sanctioned operation you’ll find in the Dakotas…and hundreds of dollars less per day.
Press Pros sponsor Jim Hemmelgarn and son A.J., from Sidney, joined me this week and by Wednesday afternoon we were checked in, tucked in, and ready to work out the kinks with guide Wade Kisner for the last couple of hours of shooting light.
Like any good commercial pheasant operation, Highlands will offer a mixture of some wild and mostly-released birds. But their propagation system here is so unique that you’ll never distinguish the difference between the two. And a half hour into our late-afternoon hunt Wade’s beautiful English Setter, Lou, had pinned a bird and was on steady point. A.J. Hemmelgarn, a fine athlete during his days at Lehman High School, is an even better wing shot and dropped the flushing bird with one shot.
Thursday dawned overcast and with a stiff west wind, and birds were holding tight for another pair of Kisner’s setters. Within the first ninety minutes Jim, A.J. and I had five birds in the backs of our coats, and having satisfied my own gunning appetite I left my old Ithaca double in the truck in favor of a Nikon camera.
Scenting conditions were just right…perfect! Points and flushes were predictable, and the shooting for Jim and A.J. was as good as it gets; and good enough for television as Kisner was having our hunt filmed for a January airing on the Hunt Channel, on Dish Network. Videographer Eric Benson settled in beside me to swap trade secrets on photography. And proudly I’ll share that Eric was using the latest Nikon D800E camera. Nikon, if you haven’t noticed the ads on the site, is one of the original sponsors for Press Pros.
Wade’s setters, Lou and Adelaide, were not only beautiful, but as well-trained as any dogs I’ve ever hunted behind – and I’ve shot over just about every gun breed there is. And if you haven’t hunted here, and want to, one of the advantages of booking a hunt at Highlands is that you get that kind of dog work as part of your hunting experience.
There are at least a half dozen full-time guides available, and nearly all have their own favorite dogs. Wade has setters, while others have Viszlas, German Shorthairs, and even Springer Spaniels. Dogs add so much to your hunting experience because they save you a lot of walking…and a lot of time searching for downed birds. And as good as the hunting is, when it’s over and done with it’s the dogs you’ll come home talking about. It’s the dogs, like Lou, that’ll bring you back!
By 1 pm we had our limit of morning birds and were back at the lodge for a tasty lunch of area-produced hamburgers and fixins’. No one ever goes hungry at Highland’s, and obviously the word’s getting out.
There are several Ohio hunters who have read about it on Press Pros in the past five years, and share with me now that they come here regularly as part of their fall and winter calendar. It’s that good.
But if you’d like to do the Highland thing for yourself it’s an easy seven-hour trip from the Miami Valley: West on I-70 to I-74. Take I-74 west and north to I-80 at the Iowa state line and then turn west to Iowa City. I-80 intersects with state route 218 (4 lane road) and you turn south and drive about 20 miles and you’ll see the sign for Highland Hunting Lodge.
I’ve heard this, too. “I’m not driving that far and paying too much to hunt pen-raised birds.”
But some of those same Ohio hunters drive to the Dakotas and spend a thousand a day to shoot a mix of wild and pen-raised birds. At Highland…you spend just $225, plus $125 guide and dog. A night’s lodging in their comfortable facility is just $60 a room, which includes Ryan Giannini’s pancakes for breakfast. And in the evenings…you fall asleep by the huge wood-burning stove as you watch the bowl games and the snow flies outside. If you want to see more, go to their website, www.highlandhunting.com.
As for Laynie’s birthday, there’ll still be cake left when I get home Friday, just in time for New Year’s and a full schedule of January basketball next week. And the basketball’s good. I’m not gonna’ lie.
But if could get more of those MAC and Shelby County readers to do this with me just once…well, I think they’d understand when I say: Football and basketball are good, but those memories won’t carry through winter, spring, and next summer to another season…like that which you get from chasing late-season roosters.
Even your daughter’s birthday. But it has to be a really special daughter, too. And she is!