Kansas Ringneck Turnaround

Given the resurgence in pheasant populations around the Sunflower State, you might want to expand your list of preferred hunting venues to include some of these hotspots.

Craig Athon found the hunting to be good in north-central Kansas last fall. Here he poses with a four-bird limit and his best hunting partner, Spuds.
Photo by Marc Murrell

It was just a few short years ago that upland bird hunters in the Sunflower State were singing the blues. Several years of poor habitat conditions and subsequent low reproductive success for pheasants had hunters considering those years as some of the worst in history.

"The 2001 and 2002 seasons were our poorest years ever recorded," reported Randy Rodgers, upland game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

Both resident and non-resident hunters were disappointed at what they encountered -- or perhaps didn't encounter -- during those times. Hunters with new bird dog pups feared that the "good ol' days" were long gone, and that their new companions wouldn't get much bird action. Others surmised that the only way the populations could go from there was up, and they were right.

Fortunately, pheasants are resilient, and it didn't take long for them to bounce back, possibly even earlier than some had hoped after such incredibly poor hunting.

"Given the right weather conditions, they can come back quite quickly, so that wasn't really a surprise," said Rodgers.

The 2004 season produced lots of pheasants and had hunters smiling once again. Bird dogs got plenty of workouts in many parts of Kansas last year, with hunters talking about one of their better years, particularly in light of the lowest years on record occurring just a short time ago.

"It turned out a little bit better," Rodgers said of last season's pheasant harvest. "I think that the hunting success was perhaps a bit below our expectations, but it was still a good season overall."

The general sentiment among upland bird hunters in the state echoed Rodgers' thoughts -- and the proof was in the harvest figures. "The preliminary estimate is that we harvested 681,000 birds," he stated, "which was up from 646,000 for 2003. If you consider the last 15 years or so, last year's harvest was probably a bit better than average.

"There were really good spots in southwest and south-central. The northwest was still kind of lagging a little bit, due to continued drought." The most-improved areas include north-central Kansas, which really shone, according to Rodgers.

Craig Athon, a pheasant hunting veteran of nearly three decades, has hunted north-central Kansas for much of that time. He agreed with that assessment. "Last year was very good," he said of his season. "Three years ago it was down all over the state and then in 2003 it started to get better."

But the 2003 season found many hunters scratching their heads when the season opened on the second Saturday in November. "All the crops were still in," Athon said. Where he hunts, that means mostly milo. "You just couldn't hunt anything opening weekend that year. But we came back later in the season after the crops were cut and did really well in nearly all the locations we'd tried during the opener."

While some landowners don't mind a hunting party walking standing milo, others would just as soon hunters stay out of it. It's always a good idea to clear things with a landowner before walking any standing crops, just to avoid any hard feelings later on. In many cases, walking standing crops doesn't yield good results.

"I was bowhunting deer the day before (the pheasant opener) near one milo field we hunt and I heard 12 to 15 different roosters," Athon recalled. "We walked it and the adjacent draws opening morning and never got up a single bird.

"The birds can run forever, and if the weather is mild they're roosting in it, too. And even if you do get them up and manage to kill some, it's extremely difficult to locate downed birds, because everything looks the same."

So Athon and his hunting partners were pleased to see that most of the crops had been harvested when they took to the fields to start their 2004 pheasant season. "It's just so much easier to hunt with all the crops out," he admitted. "It pushes the birds into the surrounding cover, and they're easier to get to. And we also hunt a lot of the standing milo stubble, and do real well in that, too, especially if it's real weedy."

Athon and his group also like to key on brushy or grassy draws between agricultural fields. He realizes that the Walk-In Hunting Area properties in north-central Kansas receive a good bit of opening weekend pressure, so his hunts typically take place on private land. Those Walk-In lands have grown to nearly 1 million acres statewide, most of that located in the western half of the state. The properties provide excellent pheasant hunting opportunity for thousands of hunters.

Athon's plan of attack is to hit the really thick areas -- like draws that haven't been mowed or hayed, or areas with dense growth such as wet areas with thick stands of cattails -- first thing in the morning as the birds are just starting their day. "Those can be incredible roost patches, especially if it's been cold," he observed.

And it's anyone's guess as far as what the weather will be like for mid-November in Kansas. "I've hunted opening days where we were in T-shirts the entire weekend," Athon noted with a laugh. "And we've hunted in 6 inches of snow with bitter-cold temperatures. So you just never know what you're going to get. You'd better plan for the extremes."

During midmorning, Athon switches gears to hunt areas in which pheasants are likely to feed, such as weedy cut milo fields or sparse draws near grain fields. "If the birds are in the cut milo fields you can work them toward an end or corners -- into the wind, if possible -- and get close enough for shots, especially with bigger groups," he said. "We typically hunt with four or five guys, however, so we'll try to split the field into manageable-sized chunks and work it accordingly. We may not walk the entire field at once, but after several passes we will likely cover it all to avoid missing anything."

According to Athon, who has hunted nearly exclusively with a Brittany or two in all the years he's been chasing Kansas pheasants, a good bird dog is a definite asset. "It's really enjoyable to watch a dog work," he remarked. "They can cover a lot more ground than we can, and they're usually pretty good at finding birds."

Finding th

e live birds that a dog points is one benefit, says Athon. And the other, bigger factor that recommends having a good dog with a keen nose reveals itself after a successful shot or two. "The thing about November is that the cover tends to be really thick, in many cases, where we hunt," he said, "and a dog that can hunt dead is going to save you a lot of time and effort, not to mention recovering more birds, than hunting without one. If you happen to knock a bird down that isn't dead, and it takes off running, a good dog can often come up with a bird that would otherwise be lost."


With the successes of last year, both Athon and Rodgers are optimistic that the 2005 season will be a good one over much of the state.
 

November hunting is tops on Athon's list for much the same reasons expressed by other hunters who cherish the second Saturday in November. The coupling of pheasant hunting with a college football game that often pits his favorite Nebraska Cornhuskers against the Kansas State Wildcats is a tradition Athon enjoys.

Said Athon of November hunting, "It's a lot easier. The birds haven't been educated, and they sit a lot better. And there are a lot more of them." But he admits, too, that there's a bit of a downside with early-season hunting and the typical rush of hunters.

"There's a trade-off," he said. "The thing about early in the season is you've got a lot more pressure and a lot more hunters out there so there's more competition for hunting places."

With the successes of last year, both Athon and Rodgers are optimistic that the 2005 season will be a good one over much of the state. Some historical pheasant hotspots may get a chance to make a comeback, if the weather cooperates.

"I think we stand a decent chance of the northwest rebounding nicely," Rodgers concluded. "We had a good breeding population this spring and we should be in good shape."

Athon knows that no matter what the prediction, he'll be found in north-central Kansas once again come opening day of the pheasant season.

"I've hunted the opener for a lot of years and really enjoy the chance to get out," he concluded. "Even in a bad year we manage to do OK. And we have fun regardless."

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