In a scene duplicated hundreds of times across central and western Kansas early on Saturday’s opening of pheasant season, nine hunters formed a well-spaced line, loaded their shotguns, called their dogs close and waited.
When Scott Elder softly said, “OK, let’s do it,” he stepped into a tradition more than 50 years old.
“I’ve made every opening day since I was little, except for in 2009 when my wife was in a bad accident,” said Elder, 63, hunting again in the area where his family homesteaded in the 1870s. With him was his brother, Lee, their three sons and some close friends.
“Dad always took a break from farming because our uncle came back and was really into hunting,” said Lee Elder. “That was back in the ’50s and ’60s. We started with single-shot shotguns and haven’t missed many opening days.”
Twelve minutes and less than 200 yards into that first walk, guest Tyson Seirer shot the first bird of the latest Elder family opening day. Though the family has hunted the 160-acre parcel for so many decades, Scott Elder, of Leawood, has owned it since 1991. Since, the family has worked to improve the habitat.
Scott’s jagged line of nine moved over rolling Conservation Reserve Program grasses, toward where his brother and three others were waiting, hoping to cut off birds that flushed ahead of the other hunters. But none did. In fact, no others flushed on that walk.
Swinging like a garden gate, the group then worked the other three sides of the property, seeing just a dozen pheasants. The three roosters that flushed well within range where bagged. One took some impressive dog work by Scott Elder’s Lab, Gus, when it sailed about 250 yards before falling.
The brothers were happy to be afield, but not pleased with the small take from land that holds such promise.
“This is the third year it’s been pretty tough. A lot of years we’d kill 20, maybe 25 on that same walk,” Scott Elder said. “That’s pretty disappointing because I annually spend, maybe $2,500 a year on food plots and maintenance. We saw more when we walked it last year.”
Population remains low
Seirer, a Pheasants Forever biologist from Beloit, was also expecting better things from the half-morning walk on what he considers good habitat. After big birds numbers during the 2010-11 season, he watched the Mitchell County pheasant population fall steadily, and far, during the following three years of drought.
He was impressed with the number of birds he saw this spring, and said conditions were far better for reproduction than during the previous three years.
“It’s better than last year, but it’s still nowhere near what we’re used to,” said Seirer. “We have enough birds this year some hunters will go out and shoot a limit (of four), but most won’t.”
Seirer, also an avid pheasant hunter raised in pheasant country, said it may be difficult for Kansas’ pheasant population to come back to “the good ol’ days” of the early 1980s, or even years like 2008-10.
“We only have about half of the habitat we used to,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of CRP, and a lot of (native prairie) has been put into croplands. We’re also seeing less and less milo and wheat and more soybeans and corn.” The latter two don’t offer as much cover for pheasants as the other crops.
Lee Elder, who lives on the family’s 135-plus year homestead, agrees with Seirer that increased use of specialized herbicides in recent years has also greatly reduced the amount of native plants that help young pheasants survive through the summer.
A major part of Seirer’s job is to help landowners find conservation programs that might help pay for improved upland bird habitats. A little land-use adjustment can go a long way toward improving pheasant populations.
After working the 160 acres of grass and food plots, the hunters moved to a large field of harvested milo that held little food or cover. No pheasants were flushed during the half-mile walk. Next was a milo field on land owned by the Elder family.
Success in milo stalks
Unlike most, the field was bordered on two sides by traditional treelines that had grown up in dense weeds. At least five rooster pheasants flushed ahead of the hunters from the southern trees and weeds and flew out into the field that was dense with tall milo stalks and grass.
“This is great stuff, a lot of food and cover,” Seirer said. “So many milo fields get disked right away, are cut really short or grazed and nothing’s left for the birds. This is good.”
The first rooster taken from the field fell when the hunters were half-way to the end. The last 100 yards of walking saw several roosters flush within range. Some fell, some did not, including a long-tailed bird that caught the wind and rocketed above more than half of the gunners. At least 15 shots were fired at the bird and not a feather was ruffled.
“We might as well have just opened a box of shells and dumped them on the ground”, Lee Elder later joked. “That was pretty good.”
The group eventually shot 12 roosters from that one field of ideal cover, though hunters taking long shots hit several roosters so poorly even good dogs couldn’t find them after the birds hit the ground and ran.
“A lot of that is the distance and the wind,” Seirer said. “If you’re not on a bird about two seconds after it flushes, you might was well not shoot and just hunt it another day.”
Speaking of another day, Scott Elder left the field enthused as he headed to lunch.
“A couple of guys, just following their dogs, could probably have a pretty good hunt just in that one field,” he said. He said a little snow and cold would make it even better.
Opening weekend hunts, with the small crowds of friends and family are fun, but Scott Elder knows the best hunting for this season is probably yet to come.