A love letter to a place and its people
A smidge over 15 years is a good long stretch for a bird dog, but our old springer spaniel Roxy is fading. She was whelped in Idaho, spent her prime in New Mexico and hunted all over the West, but you and I both know her glory days were spent on your rolling hills and Walk-In Hunting Access lands.
Yesterday I felt the first hint of cool, dry air on the wind and recalled that bluebird early December day she and I spent with you, alone together at the tail end of a group trip that went a couple of days past its prime. Everyone else had split the night before, heading east and south and west.
The next morning I dusted the frost off the gear and packed quickly in the predawn dark while Roxy whined softly in anticipation. We parked on a section of CRP that had seemed to have slightly taller grass than the surrounding land when I’d driven by the day before.
We slipped out silently a minute after legal shooting light. Collar on, vest on and out of the truck, moving. It was a vast departure from the previous days of coordinating with an unwieldy group. Doors slamming, keys missing, dogs barking, always late, laughter and curses and black coffee and too many late-night beers. But the novelty had worn off, and after a couple of days it was just too damn many people.
Roxy was on a rooster right out of the truck, and we worked him nearly halfway across the CRP before he went up, swinging left, back toward where we'd started. I was carrying my old AyA No. 4 12-bore, and when I made a clean shot out of the first barrel, I knew it would be a good day.
Later, with an audience of a half-dozen Black Angus cattle, I shot a true double on a pair of roosters. The sun was halfway to its apex, and the sky was a shade of blue that only happens over your ground. As you know, a double on roosters is a rare thing, especially for a cautious shooter like me, though I may have been a little less cautious in those days with a hard-charging springer at my side. I killed one more bird that day—an unlikely four-rooster limit without a miss.
The four-rooster limit is something I love about you, Kansas. Doing it successfully on publicly accessible lands, particularly as a visiting hunter, is always a challenge. But even in low-bird years or on days with few opportunities, the optimism of a four-bird limit has a powerful allure.
I recall that trip when I was two days in without a bird, mostly due to some abysmal shooting on my part. On day three you really cut loose, and the winds were howling. I was following the dog into the teeth of your gale, face downward against the dust and chaff that filled the air. Roxy ran right off the CRP onto a parcel with waist-high corn stubble. Those were the early days, before I had adopted an e-collar. I stood at the edge, blowing my whistle into the wind and yelling at a half-trained springer to no avail. I was beginning to consider chasing her down when the first rooster flew overhead. He had the wind at his back and was moving—low and fast like he knew a thing or two about springers and shotguns.
Another followed and another before I got my wits about me and realized my wayward springer was flushing birds toward me. I shot a limit that day, too, though it would be a gross exaggeration to say I did it without a miss. It was like pass-shooting rockets, but I had so many opportunities that it somehow worked out.
That’s not to say you’ve given me piles of birds. Really, thinking back, you’ve given me some of the toughest hunting I’ve ever experienced, especially during the past decade as your cycle of droughts and storms has knocked back bird numbers.
Do you remember that January two years ago when I spent a week trying to shoot a pointed prairie chicken? Everyone I talked to, from farmers to gas station attendants to game wardens, told me to pass-shoot one. I even called up the dog trainers and guides and prairie grouse aficionados I knew. They all said the same thing: “If you want a pointed prairie chicken, come back next year earlier in the season.”
Anyone crazy enough to hunt in this weather could use a little help.
But I was there, and I am stubborn. I had two setters—one steady and one coming up. The old springer was back home in Idaho too fragile for a three-state January jaunt through the ice and snow.
I spent those few days traversing your rolling northeast hills, always surprised by the burn in my legs at the end of the day. Occasionally I saw prairie chickens—most times in the sky, flying low along a fenceline to food or back to roost at dusk. Sometimes I saw them flushing a long rifle shot or more ahead of a birdy setter. I saw them fly out of the field as I was parking. Eventually I saw a staunch point from the steady setter and, as I walked in, a bird flushing into the just-rising sun. I couldn’t see well enough to identify the species and take the shot, but when it flew out of the sun, I saw I had missed a chance. The young setter had her moment of glory, as well, a confident point on a far rise in the middle of the day. I jogged to her, the beeper ringing across the hills, and a dozen birds erupted just as I came into range. Out of breath, raising the gun and swinging on the last chicken to get up, I missed. Twice. And then it was gone.
I was overdue for a meetup with an old friend and some quail 150 miles to the south. You had given me the chances I would get on that trip, but they hadn’t panned out. In a café the morning after those missed opportunities, the locals were lamenting the Kansas City Chief’s overtime loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. I nodded to the regulars and listened in over eggs and bacon while they replayed the game full of “ifs” and “almosts.” You are a state that takes football seriously, and I knew the pain of a missed Super Bowl berth cut just as deeply as my missed prairie chicken chances. There was another emotion in the café that morning, and I felt it as well. It was optimism. The closeness of the thing—the knowledge that victory had been within our grasp—had us all yearning for the next year.
But what really brings me back year after year are the people and the places. I’ll never forget the day I walked into a covey of bobwhite quail on that old homestead near the Colorado line. The birds held tight near the rusted monkey bars. A cedar shelterbelt to the west and the block foundation wall were all that remained of someone’s prairie dreams. At the sound of the second shot, a rooster rolled out of the cedar stand cackling like he knew I was shooting a double and didn’t have a third shot.
I love your abandoned farms and remnants of the Dust Bowl, places where you can see the handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps and imagine men toiling with shovels and pickaxes, grateful for the sweat on their brow and happy to have any sort of job. I love your cafés where people seem genuinely happy to see you and sometimes you meet a farm wife or waitress so pretty and goodhearted that it makes you pine to be a younger man for the first time in a long while.
Maybe it’s the unforgiving landscape or just the nature of your people, but Kansans have their own charm and a deep-seated kindness that sometimes seems disconnected from the larger world. A decade ago in a town with no stoplight, I was fueling my old red jeep. It was alternating snow and sleet, and I hunched my shoulders against the December cold. The New Mexico plate gave us away as out-of-staters. My good buddy was in the passenger seat thumbing through the public hunting atlas while the springer, then in her prime, fogged the back window and waited for another romp through the snow and the switchgrass.
The truck that pulled up on the other side of the pump was a western Kansas standard-issue F-250: a white 4x4 with rust highlights and the bed packed with a diesel tank, posts, straw and farm essentials that most folks wouldn’t be able to identify. “You guys hunting birds?” the driver asked.
“We’re trying,” I replied.
He sized me up for a second, then said, “Come inside when you’re done pumping gas. And bring your WIHA book.”
Inside the gas station, on a card table that doubled as the local coffee shop, watering hole and community center, he wrote notes and drew boxes on the pages of my hunting atlas, pointing us toward his ranch and the most likely spots. We thanked him, and when we asked why he was showing us this kindness, he laughed and said, “Anyone crazy enough to hunt in this weather could use a little help.”
Back in the truck we couldn’t help wondering at the multitude of potential meanings for that remark. But once we were hunting his spots and finding birds, we knew that he had showed us a great kindness. Without even being asked, he had loaned us some of the best of what you have to offer as a state and a people.
The old springer is slumbering now. She is mostly blind and totally deaf. It can be hard to reconcile this sleepy old girl with the barely contained bird-finding machine who was once a queen of the Kansas uplands. Maybe if she makes it to January and the weather seems right, I’ll take her on the long drive to visit. She won’t hunt, but maybe she can smell the earth and feel the vibrations of running birds and recall her glory days. I hope she will know you—and, like me, feel grateful.
Greg McReynolds works in wildlife conservation for Trout Unlimited and spends his free time hunting and fishing across the West. He writes for a variety of magazines and blogs at mouthfuloffeathers.com. He lives in southeast Idaho with his family, a springer spaniel and two English setters.