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Anderson: Caitlin Clark isn’t the only Iowa woman riding a success streak

Caitlin Clark was still in middle school when Abby Stone moved to Iowa from Downers Grove, Ill., to attend Iowa State University.

Stone, 27, wasn't then and isn't now a particularly avid basketball fan. And she hastens to add that Iowa State is a rival of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, whose women's team, led by the sharpshooting Clark, is in Minneapolis this weekend for the Big Ten women's basketball tournament.

But like Clark, the all-time NCAA Division I leading hoops scorer — women's or men's — Stone knows something about proving herself in fields that traditionally have been the province of men and boys.

For that reason, she says, she supports Clark, Hawkeye or not, and all other "kick-butt women in whatever they do."

Serendipitously, Clark and Stone are riding waves of resurgence in Iowa. The latter's upswing isn't evident inside the state's gymnasiums, where basketball mania is fever-pitched. Instead, it's found outdoors, where Iowa's iconic gamebird, the ring-necked pheasant, is making a comeback.

Among all states, Iowa has followed only South Dakota in the number of these florid birds harvested by wing shooters in recent years.

The approximately 370,000 Iowa roosters felled in the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 seasons (compared to Minnesota's estimated 200,000 bird harvests) is a far cry from the 1.9 million pheasants killed by Iowa hunters in 1973-1974. But the Hawkeye State rooster rebound is notable nevertheless because as recently as 2011, Iowa hunters managed only 46,000 pheasants in their collective bag.

"Habitat loss has been the main reason for the Iowa pheasant decline, that and the slow erosion of the Conservation Reserve Program," said Todd Bogenschutz, Iowa Department of Natural Resources upland wildlife research biologist. "Consecutive severe winters in 2007 through 2011 also were a significant factor."

Stone's father was a hunter, but he died when she was only 8 years old, and her older brother didn't want the responsibility of taking her afield as she grew up.

Undeterred, during her senior year at Iowa State, she signed up for an introductory hunting program sponsored by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF).

Friends hadn't invited her to give hunting a try. Nor did any friends join her.

"I decided to take the bull by the horns and do it myself," she said. "I was tired of relying on other people to take me."

After graduating with a degree in animal science and moving to Des Moines, Stone learned about a similar mentored hunting program organized specifically for women sponsored by the Northern Polk Pheasants Forever (PF) Chapter.

"We know there are young women who move to Des Moines for their first job after college," said Kirk Eno of Des Moines, a past president of the Northern Polk chapter. "Some of those women come to the mentored hunts we offer, and some of the women are older. We shoot trap and take them to a hunting preserve to show them what pheasants and pheasant hunting are all about. If they like it, they can come back a couple weeks later for a more advanced program."

The Northern Polk PF chapter's most recent Des Moines banquet drew 500 people and netted more than $100,000 for land purchases and habitat development, as well as hunting and conservation programs.

"Pheasants hunting goes back a lot of generations in Iowa," Eno said. "There's a lot of interest, not only in our banquet and programs, but in our annual golf fundraiser, which this year drew 144 golfers. At it, we auctioned two tickets to an Iowa women's basketball game, which was a big hit."

A veteran of both Northern Polk PF mentored hunts, Stone is now a chapter volunteer.

"As it turns out, there are a lot of different kinds of people involved in hunting, and who want to get involved in hunting, than I thought there would be," she said. "It's not just older white males, but younger people and people of different sexual persuasions. And vegans. At our last women's hunt we even had a vegetarian. People are opening their minds to the benefits of harvesting their own food."

Stone was exposed to turkey, duck and deer hunting through the NWTF-mentored hunting program. But she likes pheasant hunting best, she said, because being outdoors with other people is enjoyable "and because when you hunt pheasants you get to hike and move and you don't have to be silent," as in deer and turkey hunting.

Stone's next project is helping Northern Polk and other Iowa PF chapters start a Women on the Wing Pheasants Forever chapter. Designed to attract women who are interested in sustainable food harvesting, land and water stewardship, and hunting, 13 Women on the Wing PF and Quail Forever (PF's companion organization) chapters can be found in 10 states, including Minnesota.

"We'll open the chapter to all Iowa women who are interested," Stone said.

Meanwhile, to ensure she is never alone while trying to score a pheasant — the equivalent, after a fashion, of Caitlin Clark having someone to pass to on a fast break — Stone now owns a 2-year-old cocker spaniel named Jimmy.

And that brother who wouldn't take her hunting as a young girl?

He still lives in Illinois.

"Now," she said, "he wants to come to Iowa to hunt with me."