When Keith Houghton says that you can set your watch on the prairie chickens’ arrival to the cropfields he hunts in the Kansas Blue Hills, he isn’t exaggerating.
“Lately, they’ve been coming in at 4:20 (p.m.),” he said as he leaned against a fence post at the edge of a cut cornfield and surveyed an endless landscape of rolling prairie. “They’re very predictable.
“They’ll follow the same path from their roost out on the prairie to the feed every day, unless there’s a major change in the weather. You just have to do your scouting, and then hope they fly over you when they come in.”
Houghton, who owns the prestgious Ringneck Ranch controlled shooting operation, spends most of his time taking customers on hunts for stocked pheasants. But he also offers hunts for wild prairie chickens. He had just finished arranging 16 hunters in the cover around the cut field the prairie birds were commuting to.
Now the wait began. But not for long.
At 4:23 p.m., the first flight of prairie chickens left the grasslands and headed toward the crops. Hunters hiding behind hay bales clicked the safeties off on their shotguns, fired multiple shots and watched as several birds fell.
“I was off by three minutes,” Houghton joked.
From that point, the hunting only got better. Two more large flights of prairie chickens arrived as the bright orange sun began to sink into the horizon. More shots were fired, bird dogs raced out to retieve the prizes and excited hunters posed for pictures with their take.
By the end of shooting hours, the group had nine prairie chickens in the bed of two pickup trucks. And Houghton was basking in the glow of a stunning sunset and another successful prairie chicken hunt.
“You know, there were no prairie chickens here when I was growing up,” Houghton said of his family land in north-central Kansas. “But now, this area has some of the best chicken hunting in the state.
“I’d say we saw 125 to 150 chickens tonight. And that’s tough to beat.”
That’s one of the reasons Houghton enjoys living on the rugged, remote grasslands of the Blue Hills. His family homesteaded this land in 1872 and Houghton is the fifth generation to live there.
He was a commercial airline pilot for years, but he decided to follow a dream and open a commercial hunting operation upon retirement. Now in its 30th year, Ringneck Ranch is a nationally known destination.
In years such as this one, when the Kansas pheasant population is down, hunters can come to the operation Houghton runs with his wife, Debbie. They can hunt for pen-raised pheasants with the help of veteran guides and experienced bird dogs. Hunters also can stay at the ranch and dine on gourmet meals.
As a bonus, they can enjoy some world-class hunting for prairie chickens.
Nationwide, populations of the gamebirds have dropped at the same rate as the prairies themselves have disappeared. But Kansas, particularly the part where Houghton lives, still has plenty of prairie chickens.
Houghton sees the proof almost every hunting season. When the weather gets cold and kills off the insects on the prairies, the birds fly to the grain fields to feed. And for large groups such as the one Houghton played host to recently, that can result in outstanding hunting.
But hitting the elusive gamebird can be harder than it looks. With their flap-flap-glide flight style, they don’t appear to be traveling that fast. But hunters will tell you differently.
“Most hunters shoot where they was, not where they is,” Houghton joked.
One of the successful hunters, Jim Reid, is well aware of that. He shot two prairie chickens, but not without leading them before firing.
“I had to lead them about the length of a canoe,” he said with a laugh. “They’re on you before you know it.”