ELLSWORTH COUNTY — Barth Crouch has hunted prairie chickens for more than 40 years. He's dealt with them professionally as a biologist for about 30.
Friday morning, he headed to pastures with some of the best greater prairie chicken populations in Kansas, where he'd hunted successfully many times through the years.
Still, he took two ministers with him to up his odds.
"Hey, with prairie chickens you just never know," he joked with his friends Benjamin Thomas and Leroy Pralle. All three are from Salina, northeast of Ellsworth County.
Crouch is one of the few Kansas hunters who take advantage of the Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 season for prairie chickens in the eastern half of Kansas. Unlike the traditional season later in the year, when most hunting is done by pass-shooting at feed fields, the early season gives hunters a chance to stretch their legs on the tall grass prairie.
"Some may be flying back and forth to grain, but I'm guessing a lot are still staying out here eating grasshoppers," Crouch said as the trio walked from their trucks at about 8 a.m. "They've got everything they need out here this time of the year."
Simply walking until birds are flushed can be a feathered needle in a haystack kind of thing in sprawling tall grass country. Crouch mostly walks the ridges where he's seen or heard them in the spring.
"They go to their leks (breeding grounds) in the fall like they do in the spring," Crouch said. "At least the males do, and they'll do some displaying. I've also seen some juvenile hens around those areas, too."
Why the males go to the traditional breeding grounds when there are no adult hens to breed isn't totally known. One theory is the amount of daylight matches what they find in March and April so they're fooled into thinking it's time to dance.
Pralle let his two dogs, Wishbone and Raisin, loose and the hunters headed north. Wishbone is a German wire-haired pointer and Raisin a wirehair/giant schnauzer cross.
Crouch warned Thomas, on his first prairie chicken walk, to expect the unexpected and promised things wouldn't go perfectly.
"If anything can go wrong on a prairie chicken hunt, it probably will," Crouch said as he took long steps into the pasture.
Fifteen minutes from the trucks, his point was proven when a bird flushed to his left. Crouch's .410 went "click" instead of "boom" as the shell didn't fire.
"Figures," he said as he examined the shell's dented primer. "That would have been a pretty easy shot."
He predicted the birds would be atop the grazed ridges, trying to stay out of the thick grass in the bottoms still soaked from Thursday's rains.
A bird eventually flushed from thick grass at the very bottom of a canyon, catching Pralle off guard and he missed.
"I sure wasn't expecting him there," said the hunter who's known for his good shooting.
An hour into the hunt, a young male prairie chicken flushed in front of Crouch and he shot it at about 30 yards with his .410.
The group headed to another pasture and toward another lek where Crouch had found birds many times. They were there, but spooked 200 yards from the hunters when a herd of wild-eyed cattle ran through the area. A half-mile further, four prairie chickens flushed near Crouch and he shot one that filled his daily limit of two.
Up and down steep canyons and across long ridges, the hunters walked the mile-plus back toward their trucks. Pralle was off working an area while Crouch, his gun unloaded, walked with Thomas.
A spot that should have birds didn't. Four flushed where they hadn't been before.
They held well, letting the hunters get within about 10 yards before they flushed one at a time, heading in different directions.
Thomas locked on one bird and tried a shot at about 40 yards while two others were at half that distance. He couldn't get his single-shot reloaded until the birds were well out of range.
Crouch chuckled at the event, telling Thomas that was about as pretty of a flush as you can hope for when walking the big pastures.
"You can walk a long time and never get into something like that," Crouch said.
You just never know with prairie chickens.