Tradition trumps drought

Dave Atkinson, Salina, readies a rooster pheasant for his game bag.
Dave Atkinson, Salina, readies a rooster pheasant for his game bag. The Wichita Eagle

RUSSELL COUNTY — For years, the field of native grass was waist-high and full of pheasants.

Saturday, it was ankle-high and Chris Kaufman and friends saw just one rooster pheasant... and didn't get it.

"Tradition is still a tradition," said Kaufman, of Winfield. "The first field of the season is always the same first field of the season."

Kaufman's host, Rod Meier, blamed a severe August hail storm for the flattened field and its few birds.

While his group of 16 hunters eventually found better fields and shot 20 roosters before lunch, many out for Saturday's opening of the Kansas pheasant season must have been doing it for the sake of tradition.

And in some regions it appeared many decided to stay home.

"Hunter numbers and bird numbers are both way down," said B.J. Thurman, a Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism game warden supervisor for southwest Kansas. "Normally we've checked 250 hunters by (noon) and today it was 89. They averaged about one-third of a bird per hunter and 80 to 90-percent of those were old birds. That's the opposite of what we usually see."

Since mid-summer, the agency had warned sportsmen the one-two punch of drought and scalding heat had greatly hampered pheasant production and the survival of chicks and adult birds.

The pheasants appear to have faired somewhat better in north-central and northwest Kansas, where rainfall was better.

Jim Pitman, Wildlife and Parks upland game coordinator, checked hunters north of Salina on Saturday morning and reported plenty of people afield, but not many birds seen or shot. Hail storms are blamed for greatly reducing pheasant populations in some areas.

Meier had low expectations when they tried their traditional first field, where he and Kaufman had opened the season for 26 consecutive years. They had higher hopes at a long field of prairie grass on the farm where Meier was born and raised.

Meier and his father, Melvin, have sculpted the field to be a dream for pheasants and pheasant hunters, with assorted plantings.

A few minutes into the field about 20 pheasants, many of them cackling roosters, flushed out of shotgun range and sailed further into the field.

Soon, drab hens and brilliant roosters started popping up in range.

The hunters walked from the field carrying eight roosters. Many more had been missed or flushed wild. Meier was sure many never flushed from the thick cover.

"That's what I wanted to see," he said. "That's not nearly as good as some years, but we're going to have birds this year."

The hunters continued to go to pastures and Conservation Reserve Program fields of prairie grasses the rest of the morning. Action wasn't hot, but fast enough to keep the hunters happy.

The last walk before lunch was a 160-acre pasture without a lot of tall grass. Meier's Vizla, Snap, busied himself checking what cover was available.

In a small swale with knee-high weeds, the dog locked into a solid point. A rooster flushed, Meier shot it. He said seeing the dog lock up made his entire day.

At the other end of the field, Snap found several more roosters that offered easy shots that were sometimes missed. One bird was just hit in the wing and hit the ground running amid dense grass.

Eventually Snap retrieved the bird to his owner.

"That was good," Meier said as he took the long-tailed rooster. "I never have any complaints when it's opening day."

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