SCOTT COUNTY — Seven men — most decades past their last graduation — rushed to meet a school bus Saturday morning. Aboard the bus they were joined by four Labrador retrievers and Mason, a schnauzer as happy to be going hunting as any.
For the past two seasons the bus that’s customized for local pheasant hunts has seen little use.
“I don’t think we hunted enough last year to make a full day combined,” said Ron Kershner, the bus driver, co-owner and avid hunter from Scott City. “I think we hunted about an hour opening morning last year and headed to town.”
Hunts were once planned months in advance; Saturday’s opening day of pheasant season hunt was hastily put together a few days prior.
Camaraderie in the bus that’s been customized with gun racks, water troughs for dogs, and air-glide captain’s chairs was one of the main attractions for the hunters, who predicted they might average a bird per hunter.
Now best known as the hometown of Wichita State basketball player Ron Baker, Scott City was once known as one of the best pheasant hunting areas in Kansas. Several years of drought changed that.
“We only shot seven last year and 67 the year before that,” Kershner said. “The year before that we shot 402 and 331 the year before. Things have really changed.”
Kershner piloted the black bus down dusty roads and the first half-hour walk saw more mule deer than pheasants. Brad Boulware shot the only rooster to rise. Seconds from the cover, the hunters were on the bus and headed to another spot.
As well as adding to the social aspect of the hunt, traveling in the bus saved a lot of time and confusion. “If you have a bunch of pickups you’re always having to wait as somebody has to drive somebody to the other end of the field to get a pickup,” Kershner said. “If we have this bus and one other, (there are at least four hunting buses in Scott City) we can handle 30 or so guys pretty quickly.”
The rest of the day the crew took turns walking fields and moving the bus to the other end, where the driver and another hunter tried to intercept pheasants flying from the walking hunters. Most were surprised by the number of birds they found.
Still, there was not doubt it wasn’t like old times.
As they walked from a long line of overgrown cedars edged in grain, the hunters carried four roosters. As they walked, one remembered when a larger group had shot 24 wild roosters from the same half-mile walk not many years ago.
Traffic on the back roads didn’t slow the hunt. Five years ago, the dust never settled as opening-day hunters by the hundreds raced about, and the sound of gunshots was as common and rapid as fire crackers on the Fourth of July.
Kershner’s crew only saw four hunters drive by at one field, and never heard a distant shot. They also didn’t waste many shots of their own.
Locals raised chasing wild roosters, the hunters didn’t miss many birds that rose within range. Their dogs found every bird they dropped. Mason, the little schnauzer with the well-trimmed coat and clean dog smell, contributed by finding two downed roosters in hair-thick cover for Brice Eisenhour.
Amid the group were several landowners with some of the finest pheasant habitat in western Kansas on their ultra-private grounds, which certainly helped with group’s success. At the end of the day, the bird barrel on the bus held 20 dead roosters.
“Honestly that’s about 16 more than I expected us to get,” Brad Boulware said. “We just haven’t been seeing many birds.”
Unlike past seasons, Kershner said they’ve invited no out-of-the-area groups for this season.
“We might get out again if we get some snow,” Boulware said.
“I think it will take several good years (of good hatches) to get anywhere near where we used to be,” Kershner said.
When those better days arrive, he and others will be rushing to meet the custom hunting bus many more mornings per season.