RUSSELL COUNTY — The scene was classic central Kansas. Valleys of oaks, cottonwoods and elms. Highlands that are a patchwork of harvested cropfields and native prairies.
But the feel was classic central Canada at Friday’s dawn, with the temperature 11 degrees and the wind chill worse as Rod Meier and six friends began hunting deer.
“At least we’re not sitting in treestands,” Meier said as he made long, cross-prairie strides to where he’d lean against an ancient limestone post as friends walked along the frozen Smoky Hill River, flushing six bald eagles through the sky and about 20 deer across the prairie.
Meier, of Salina, has been leading longtime hunting friends for about 35 years through the lands around where his family has farmed, ranched, and worked in the oil fields for generations. Most of their hunts had been for pheasants, which in good years flush by the scores from some fields.
Friday they employed the same walkers-and-blockers strategy as they tried to fill deer permits.
“I guess I’ve just never had the patience to sit and wait,” Meier said, “and I like the camaraderie of hunting like this.”
Minutes before each push, strategy was planned with boot tips tapping maps drawn in the dust, or a fingernail pointing at satellite photography pulled up on phones. Usually two or three hunters were elected to make the sometimes long walks through creek bottoms or canyons, with the wind at their backs so their scent and sounds might stir deer into moving.
Those posted at possible escape routes got most of the shooting, but paid for it dearly. Their high vantage points had them unprotected from the skin-numbing north wind, for a half-hour or more at a time, on one of the coldest hunting days Meier could remember.
The whitetails were as troublesome as the weather.
“The problem is the deer are really bad at following our plans,” one of the hunters grumbled after a long, detailed strategy session.
Repeatedly, deer exited timber or brush out of practical rifle range of the hunters, and a few shots were missed at deer that ran within range. Cord Charvat had the day’s only kill, a doe that stopped within about 50 yards, from a spot where Meier expected to see 30 to 40 deer but saw just six or eight.
Meier, Barth Crouch and Gary Charvat, the group’s most experienced hunters, theorized that many deer, including crafty old bucks, were probably bedded amid the broad expanses of Conservation Reserve Program grasses. They’d be harder for hunters to find and better insulated against the cold.
Near noon, the temperature had risen to 12 degrees when Meier and crew surrounded a large thicket of cedars and tall grasses.
“There’s always a really nice buck in here,” Meier said, catching his breath after hustling to a vantage point that overlooked two main escape routes. “The problem is getting it to leave. He normally just stays in there, moving from cedar to cedar.”
As if to prove it possible, two does slowly moved down the gully to Meier’s left, carefully sticking to the lowest and thickest cover possible.
“Look at that, they’re just going to stay in the cedars and double-back on the walkers,” Meier whispered. He watched as Cord Charvat unknowingly walked within 20 yards of where the pair of deer had hidden before moving on.
At the end of the push, Gary Charvat said he’d glimpsed a nice buck moving slowly amid the cedars.
“He was right there, but I couldn’t shoot because I didn’t know where everybody else was at,” he said.
He and Meier slowly moved back through the cedars, hoping for a similar look at the buck, knowing all the hunters were waiting behind them. The buck wasn’t seen ... by them.
Crouch was walking back to get a truck, retracing a route he and others had walked into the cover, when a trophy-class buck rose from the grass and streaked off, not offering a safe shot.
Meier muttered a few unprintables when he heard the news, then added, “He stayed in there until everyone had walked past, then he went out the back and bedded down again. He out-smarted us.”
That fact, for at least a while, stung even more than the wind chill.