FORT RILEY — When Dave McNeal hunts quail, he often feels like he is in the middle of a war zone.
Tanks ramble across the rugged landscape in the distance. The boom of artillery fire shakes the ground. And the crisp sound of gunfire cuts through the cold fall air.
Welcome to Fort Riley, the army base with some of the best quail hunting in the nation.
That's McNeal's world in November and December, when the ground is covered with frost or snow and the bird hunting is at its best.
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For McNeal, a retired first sergeant who was stationed at Fort Riley in the early 1970s and again in the 1980s, that's the time to begin following his bird dog through the thick cover where he once conducted maneuvers.
"Hunting here is definitely a unique experience," said McNeal, 63, who lives in St. George. "Where else will you be hunting and hear the artillery blasts and run across fake villages?
"Because a lot of this land is left wild and woolly for maneuvers, there's a lot of great cover for wildlife. It can be challenging to hunt, but I don't think there are too many places where you'll find the quail that we do."
McNeal got a reminder how good it can be last month when he took Dave Zumbaugh of Shawnee and Zumbaugh's daughter, Rachel, on a hunt.
Not long after they left the truck, a German wirehair pointer, Mattie, locked on a solid point.
When the hunters moved in, two coveys of quail exploded into flight. Shots rang out, birds fell and another good hunt was under way.
"Over the years, I've probably covered every inch of this base, either on maneuvers or hunting," McNeal said. "When we would bivouac (set up a temporary encampment on training missions) and we would flush quail, I would make a note of it.
"I kept a map of all the places I found birds and I would go back there."
Walking through thick grass and heavy brush — and down paths where tanks had rolled through the cover — McNeal and the Zumbaughs found plenty of quail on this day. By the time they were done, they had flushed four coveys and had killed seven birds.
"We had our chances," McNeal said with a chuckle. "But these birds can be hard to hit, especially in this heavy cover."
One thing is certain: Fort Riley has no shortage of good cover. About 71,000 of the base's 101,000 acres are open to hunting.
Military training takes precedence, of course. The areas that are open to hunting change with the Army's schedule.
Hunters also have to purchase a special Fort Riley hunting permit, in addition to having a Kansas small-game license. And firearms have to be registered before they can be brought onto the base.
Remote fields filled with prairie grasses, brush and timber stretch for as far as the eye can see. There also are crop fields, ponds and food plots scattered throughout the grounds.
Wildlife biologists on base manage part of the land for wildlife, and it shows. Fort Riley has an abundant population of quail, deer, turkeys, prairie chickens, waterfowl and even elk. It also has pheasants, though not nearly as many as it once did.
"I remember in the 1970s when you couldn't go 500 yards without flushing a pheasant," McNeal said. "It isn't like that anymore.
"We still have pheasants, but you have to work for them."
You also have to work to find the quail. With Fort Riley's sea of habitat and rugged terrain, a hunting trip can often feel like a military training exercise.
Hunters often have to cover a lot of ground before locating birds. But McNeal feels like he has an edge.
After hunting Fort Riley since the 1970s, he knows where the coveys traditionally are found — and where the birds will go once those coveys are scattered.
"Last year the hunting was great. It wasn't unusual to go out and find seven coveys," McNeal said. "This year we're finding four coveys on our better days, but that's still good.
"This is about the only place I'd want to hunt. The way I look at it, I'm spoiled."