STAFFORD COUNTY — Saturday morning, for the 28th consecutive year, game warden Phil Kirkland drove afield for the opening day of the Kansas pheasant season.
A look in his rearview mirror, where thick clouds of dust trailed like vapor trails behind a jet, reminded him it was going to be a slow day.
“Last year was really tough,” Kirkland said. “This year is going to be tougher. It’s just been so dry. I can go days without seeing a bird. Some hunters say they’re (hunting) just because it’s a tradition, but I don’t expect to find much.”
For several months, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has said pheasant numbers are down in many regions for the second consecutive year because drought left hen pheasants few places to nest, and pheasant chicks few places to hide and feed.
Kirkland said as recently as 2010, pheasant numbers were impressive in his region that includes Edwards, Pawnee and Stafford counties.
“That year I was checking guys that were averaging about two birds per hunter,” he said. “Years like that most of the locals were limited (with four roosters each) by noon because they’ve been raised hunting pheasants and know where to go.”
Those were also the days when game wardens could drive about any rural road in central and western Kansas on any weekend and busy themselves checking hunters from the nearest small town and a wide variety of states.
Miles and minutes rolled steadily Saturday as Kirkland drove back roads through what’s usually good habitat without finding any hunters.
He said the ongoing drought also robbed central Kansas game wardens of the usual October chores of checking waterfowl hunters at Cheyenne Bottoms.
“That’s normally a seven-days-a-week thing because you can always find hunters out there,” he said. “This year it’s totally dry. It’s been a bust but we’ve still got things like spotlighting we can work on.”
It was nearly two hours into the season when Kirkland finally found a group of about 10 hunters pushing a field toward the road. Two hunters had the long tailfeathers of rooster pheasants sticking from their game vests.
The hunters, all from southeast Kansas, were happy to show Kirkland their licenses, and even happier to be afield.
“I come every year as much for the camaraderie, and so I can let my dog work. I’d come whether there are any birds or not,” said Scott Shaw, who’d been hunting the area for about 20 years. “Last year was the worst. We’ve killed two birds already but I think we’ve already seen more birds this year than last.”
Looking inside his cap, where he’s listed results from past bird hunts, he noted the group had shot 14 roosters during the 2011 opening weekend.
Kirkland left the group and eventually found a father leaving a field with his two young children. They’d seen no birds in a few minutes of hunting.
Four hours into the season Kirkland had checked just the two groups.
“During good years I’d have seen 250 to 300 hunters by now, honestly,” he said. “I’ve seen more deer than pheasants or pheasant hunters on opening day.”
Eventually dawn’s light breeze changed to a full-fledged gale that had dust clouds blowing from fields and roads, and tumbleweeds streaking across the landscape in 20 foot bounds.
Kirkland was driving slowly through such dust clouds when he spotted the orange dots of hunters working a weed patch at the corner of a field of irrigated corn. Kirkland predicted such places would hold more pheasants, because they’d had access to water in the fields through the summer.
The group of eight hunters had about as many birds when they walked to Kirkland’s truck to talk and show their hunting licenses. They also blamed the current weather conditions for not shooting more birds.
“The wind is killing us,” said Phillip Fyffe of Manhattan. “We can’t hear the birds, and we had quite a few flush behind us. The birds can really gain altitude and fly away a lot faster.”
As Kirkland and the hunters headed in different directions, he predicted few hunters afield would be as successful as that group that was hunting with a local farmer. He also said the combination of warm temperatures and howling winds would force many of the few hunters afield to quit early.
Kirkland issued no citations on opening morning, though he could have. One hunter had left his hunting license in a distant vehicle, while the law states it must be in his possession while hunting. Kirkland allowed him to get a ride to the distant vehicle. All was well when he showed a valid hunting license upon his return.
“I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and a chance,” Kirkland said. “Those are the guys who pay my salary.”