Introduction

The outdoors has special meaning to me. I caught my first fish at age 4 and shot my first duck at age 9. Nearly four decades later I still get excited when I get to spend any time outdoors. A lot has changed during that time but the anticipation and experiences are still similar and just as exciting. It’s a great place to be....Read More

Friday, December 20, 2013

WINNER-WINNER, CHICKEN DINNER!


The prairie chicken is an iconic symbol of the Great Plains’ prairies.  To me, it’s the paddlefish of the upland bird world as it represents something historical, unique and marvelous.  It’s the only game bird with feathered feet and a prized trophy among upland bird hunters. 

Kansas has two species of prairie chickens.  The lesser prairie chicken is found in the shortgrass prairie of southwest Kansas and the greater prairie chicken is found in the tallgrass prairie of the central part of the state.  Their range is somewhat specific and good prairie chicken populations often remain year after year in the same pastures and fields.  Overall numbers have declined in recent years, due in large part to changes in land use with intensive grazing practices and increased burning frequency.   

I grew up chasing prairie chickens in northeast Kansas.  I had permission from a few dairy farmers with corn fields bordering big, open pastures.  A buddy or two and I would position ourselves at likely ambush spots around the fields and shoot at flocks of chickens coming to the field or leaving after feeding.  The rest of the day would be spent chasing pheasants and quail and limits of all three were had on occasion.  Those hunts are still vividly etched in my memory and some of the best ones ever.

I haven’t prairie chicken hunted much in the last couple decades.  But a recent opportunity a few weeks ago had me anxious to head afield.  The Outdoor Writers of Kansas had a fall meeting near Tipton and Keith Houghton arranged a chicken hunt for nearly a dozen-and-a-half members one evening.  Keith and his wife, Deb, own Ringneck Ranch, a first-class controlled shooting area that caters to hunters from all corners of the map.  Keith had been watching a huge, harvested cornfield bordering big pastures and he “guaranteed” we’d see a prairie chicken.

A fellow coworker, Nadia Marji, and I took up our vigil on opposite sides of a big round bale.  Nadia was on her first prairie chicken hunt and anxious to see her first prairie chicken.  We weren’t disappointed.  Keith had strategically placed us all along a fence row late in the afternoon with less than 2 hours of daylight remaining.  The night was brisk, with little wind and my field-side seat  provided a beautiful setting to enjoy a Kansas sunset.  It wasn’t long and we saw the first flock of greater prairie chickens fly from one end of the field to the other.  Their constant chatter kept us entertained and on alert as at any time they could get up to leave and we wanted to be ready.

Keith’s plan worked like a charm.  About 30 minutes prior to the end of legal shooting time Keith and several others would walk towards the middle of the field and push the chickens up and out.  Several huge flocks made their escape towards waiting guns.  Prairie chickens are deceptively fast, with slow wing beats and often prove tough targets.

One flock that passed just outside my seated position had a straggler that was on the edge of what I perceived as my effective shotgun range.  I decided to try it and folded it cleanly, somewhat to my surprise, with one shot.  Nadia was nearly more excited than I was to get to see one of these unique birds up close and personal. 

We had time for a few photos before another group of chickens headed our way.  Unfortunately, Nadia’s gun jammed after one shot but I was able to fold another chicken and rounded out a two-bird limit.  Several other hunters had the same fortunes and we ended up shooting nine prairie chickens among the group.  All told, we probably saw at least 150 chickens. 

There are few states that offer “the big three” when it comes to upland game birds and the Sunflower State has bragging rights in that regard.   We’ve got one of the best prairie chicken populations in the Midwest.  My two prairie chickens were the icing on the cake capping a beautiful evening.  They were also a pleasant reminder about the good ol’ days growing up in Kansas and the opportunity to hunt a unique inhabitant of the Great Plains.

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