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The Iowa Bird Chaser Story

Nick Martin is on a quest to shoot a wild, public land rooster pheasant in each of Iowa's 99 counties.

The Iowa Bird Chaser Story

Wild birds and wild places summon hunters to take on unique and individual challenges to push their passions to the highest levels. (Photo By: Nick Martin)

Bird hunters love a good challenge. We appreciate working hard for success and exploring new covers with our bird dogs, family, and friends. As we evolve as hunters, we often begin to challenge ourselves individually and take up our own unique upland challenges. The Iowa Bird Chaser is one of those hunters.

Nick Martin of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, started hunting the ring-necked pheasant with his dad and brother in his younger years. The Martin household kept a variety of bird dogs over the years, including brits, griffons, and German shorthaired pointers. Martin’s passion for pheasant hunting evolved from following his dad with a BB gun to taking up a .410 and later, a 12-gauge shotgun. Early on, pheasant hunting largely meant just going where they knew birds were. In recent years, after picking up his own bird dog, Sophie—a four-year-old wirehaired pointing griffon—Nick has changed his approach altogether. He now finds himself as a student of the pheasant and its habitat, and spends his time studying how food, cover, seasonality, and other factors influence pheasants. It’s this enthusiastic curiosity that compelled him to take on a radical upland bird hunting challenge: To shoot a wild, public land rooster in each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

old photo of pheasant hunters in iowa
Nick Martin has been hunting ring-necked pheasants with his father and brother since he was young. (Photo By: Nick Martin)

The Iowa Bird Chaser

GUN DOG: How did you come up with this idea?

Nick Martin: As a lifelong Iowan, I’ve always been passionate about our state and its pheasant hunting history, and I knew I wanted to do something to challenge myself. In addition to pheasant hunting, I’ve become very passionate about public land hunting. Iowa is 95 percent privately owned, which makes this tricky, but because we don’t have many other opportunities for wild upland birds and because I wasn’t planning on doing any extensive travelling while I’m still learning here, this just made sense.

I’ve been self-employed for nine years and now work as a home inspector. Our busy season slows down when the hunting season picks up, so it really works out for me. I am very fortunate to have a supportive wife and a career that aligns so well with being able to take the time to go hunting.

GD: When did you start this challenge and how long do you think this will take you?

NM: I started in the fall of 2020 and had a goal to hit 15 counties. In that first year I learned that because of all the unknowns and variables, 10 counties per year was going to be much more reasonable. If bird numbers are up, I may get a few more in a good year, but I’m figuring it’s going to take me nine to ten years to complete all 99.

As of mid-November 2022, I’m at 21 counties. I’ll be able to take off for a few 2 to 3-day trips and take down a few more counites this year and spend some time hunting around the holidays. This year pheasant populations are up, so I’ll also focus on a few of those limited-opportunity counties.  

GD: Tell us about your bird dog.

NM: Sophie is my four-year-old wirehaired pointing griffon. She hunts slow and methodical, is tight-working and stays within gun range. Her style is a pretty good fit most times for hunting pheasants and she tends to slowly sneak up on birds.

She’s my first bird dog and I’ve trained her on my own with the help of some friends and my local NAVHDA chapter. I’ve attended training days and taken some second-hand opinions from others. She has a softer temperament and a great off switch inside the house, which I really like.

wirehaired pointing griffon with pheasants
Nick Martin enjoys hunting with his close-working Griffon, Sophie. (Photo By: Nick Martin)

GD: What’s your strategy and how are you planning this project?

NM: For the first couple seasons, I was taking off for a few days and diving into a counties a few hours away, or if I had an afternoon available, I’d hit a local county. Lately, I’ve been taking more multi-day trips to check off a few counties at a time.

When making plans, I start with access first. The majority of this is done through digital scouting with OnX Maps. Each county is a little different and some have only limited land access through IHAP (Iowa Hunter Access Program) where the Iowa Department of Natural Resources partners with private landowners to allow hunter access.

pheasant hunter using onx maps for digital scouting
Nick Martin employs digital scouting through OnX Maps for identifying suitable hunting grounds before heading out to distant Iowa counties. (Photo By: Nick Martin)

After I find suitable habitat and cover, the next step is finding a food source, mainly corn. If you’re in Iowa and you can find good habitat next to corn, you’re going to find pheasants. After that, I locate the nearest water source, usually a creek or small pond. I’ve also had success focusing on rolling hills with drainages and draws where the thicker, un-mowed cover usually holds birds.

Because I am often travelling a good distance, I always have a Plan A, B, and C when I go into an area and I find several options nearby. There are times where I show up to a field and there are hunters there or the field I planned to hunt has been mowed, so it’s critical to have a few options ready to go.

GD: What have you learned and how are others helping you along the way?

NM: I learned a lot that first year. Trusting my dog and letting her lead the way has been the biggest lesson, as well as not getting hell-bent on sticking to a plan. The birds have also taught me a fair amount, and I’ve begun to trust my gut instinct. Just the other day, I hunted against a stiff, cold wind. I was finding birds along the backside of the hill where they were hiding to get away from the wind.

Although it is super rewarding to do this all myself, I’ve realized that if I really want to get this done, I’m going to need a little assistance, so last season I started hunting with some new hunters. Nothing came from handouts, and no one has given me a freebie, but people may reach out with some intel or send some general info to help point me in the right direction. This really helps to know if bird numbers are looking good in a certain year to help me knock out some of the harder-to-access areas or those with lower pheasant populations.

four pheasant hunters walking in a field in iowa
Nick Martin has begun to get a little help from friends in completing his unique upland challenge. (Photo By: Nick Martin)

GD: How are you documenting your journey and how can we follow along?

NM: I didn’t have a formal plan when I started, other than to take a photo with my dog and the county sign with each bird. Along the way I’ve received a lot of encouragement and positive feedback from people wanting to follow along, so I started recording videos and posting them on my YouTube channel. I make a video from each county and the first few seasons are already up there. I record the hunts each season and post the new videos on Sundays during the off-season, usually starting up in February, right when the post-season blues start kicking in!

You can also see more of the day-to-day activities during the hunting season on my Instagram (@iowa_birdchaser).

GD: Any favorite or memorable counties so far?

NM: Franklin County back in 2021. After locating the right habitat, I found a few birds at a spot, but they were very smart. They kept escaping to a far-off corner of the property that I could not easily get to. It took me four or five tries and I had to come up with a few different strategies to finally figure things out. I had to wait until the late season when a creek froze so I could access the corner where the birds were holding up in. After all this work, I ended up shooting the biggest rooster I’ve ever taken, with the longest tail feather and biggest spurs. He looked old and had hardly any white around his neck. My dad ended up mounting that bird for me and I’m happy to keep that memory forever now.

ring-necked pheasant rooster wall mount taxidermy hanging on wall
Nick Martin had his biggest-ever rooster mounted to enjoy the memory forever. (Photo By: Nick Martin)

GD: Do any counties pose themselves as particularly challenging?

NM: Northeast Iowa is hilly. There’s much more timber and cattle ground with less grasslands and CRP plots. I’ve been watching bird numbers and roadside counts and populations are up this year, so I’ll try to get up there while it’s good. I’ll need to utilize the IHAP sites and hope for the right conditions when I go.

99 counties in iowa
Nick Martin's progress as of mid-November 2022. (Photo By: Nick Martin)

Polk County will also be tough. It has a good amount of public ground, but it’s the most developed part of Iowa with lots of urbanization and lots of hunting pressure. I’m planning to visit it once the late season hits and the snow is on the ground after the fair-weather hunters have hung it up.

GD: How do you hope to inspire others to take up their own unique upland “challenges”?

NM: For me, this is all about the dog work, the memories, and the different stories from each county. I hope to motivate people to get into the outdoors and I also want to share that bird hunting is bigger than just killing birds. We all have our own reasons for bird hunting, so make it about your own. Maybe it’s the conservation aspect, the habitat management, or the dogs. No matter what we do with our time as hunters, there’s always something we can do to give back to the sport and help others in our own ways.

People are reaching out to me as they are setting their own goals and developing challenges. Some of these people I’ve met and shared the field with, and others are sharing the inspiration they’ve received from me. I just had a girl reach out to say that she’s now challenging herself to catch a fish in each of Iowa’s 99 counites!

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