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Author: Robert I. Egbert
Kansas, while well known for pheasants and quail, is also the home of some fabulous prairie chicken shooting.
When most people think of upland hunting in Kansas, they usually think of cackling pheasants exploding out of vast CRP fields or a covey of bobwhite quail buzzing from a weed-covered fencerow. However, the Sunflower state is home to another interesting upland game bird, the prairie chicken. Both the greater and lesser subspecies of prairie chickens reside in Kansas. The lesser subspecies, which is sort of a miniature version of the greater prairie chicken, resides mainly in the extreme southwest portion of the state. Lesser prairie chicken numbers have declined drastically in recent years and the little birds are struggling. However, the greater prairie chicken subspecies, while down some, still exists in huntable numbers, primarily in the Flint Hills area of eastern Kansas. The prairie chicken season in Kansas is split into two parts and each provides the upland bird hunter with a distinctly different type of upland hunting opportunity.
The Early Season
It was the first week of October and the warm temperatures of September had finally dropped a little in preparation for the colder weather that was sure to come in the next few weeks. My hunting partner, Pete, and I parked the truck at the edge of a vast expanse of Flint Hills pasture as the sun slowly made its way above the horizon. We finished the last of our pre-hunt coffee and then turned the dogs loose for what we anticipated to be a long walk.
The early portion of the prairie chicken season in Kansas runs from roughly mid September to mid October. During this season the birds are not flocked up together but rather scattered widely across the rolling Kansas prairie. The usual hunting tactic for early season chickens, is to hunt behind big, ranging, pointing dogs, as they sweep across the prairie in search of chickens. There is a lot of prairie and relatively few chickens. More often than not the distance between shots is measured in miles, so a good pair of boots and an adequate supply of water for both hunter and dog are key ingredients in early season chicken hunting.
Experience can play a big part as well. During the warm weather of the early season, chickens feed mostly on the abundant insects found on the prairie pastures. After feeding, the birds will often move to the shady side of a hill, where you can find them loafing. Frequently, birds will inhabit the same general spots year after year, so if you found chickens in a specific location last year, it's a good plan to check that spot again this season.
During the early season, you will usually find singles or small groups of chickens. They will frequently, but not always hold for a pointing dog. It is reported that years ago hunters sent their dogs to the prairie states during the summer and early fall to work them on chickens for practice.
For once Pete and I got lucky. We haven't gone too far when I notice one of the dogs getting "birdy." As we move up closer, the lead dog, Kate, locks up on a solid point and the remaining dogs stop to honor her. We step in, and are greeted by the staggered flush of several chickens. The range, for once, is not bad and I pick out the lead bird and pull the trigger. It drops and I swing the gun over to another flusher and repeat the process. With two shots I've taken my two-bird limit and my chicken hunting is done for the day. I turn and see that Pete has managed to down a single that got up on his side.
We stand and watch as the remaining birds fly across the prairie using their strange combination of a series of rapid wing beats following by a long glide. They remain visible across the relatively flat terrain until they bank and go behind a distant hill.
After picking up the downed birds, we head on in the general direction we saw the remaining birds go. However, two more hours of walking produces tired feet and tired dogs, but no more chickens. We decide to head back to the truck, knowing that we've been lucky to find the birds so quickly this morning.
Even in the early season, shots can be long, although the birds are still relatively young and generally not as heavily feathered as they will be later in the year. Chickens are not particularly hard to kill and will usually go down when hit. Unlike their upland cousin, the pheasant, they are not particularly known to run when they go down after being shot. A 12, 16, or 20 gauge shotgun, with a tight improved cylinder or modified choke, shooting at least an ounce of shot in sizes 4 to 6, is pretty good medicine for early season chickens. Give some thought to the gun's weight, though, since it will be carried more than shot.
The Late Season
The later season on prairie chickens in Kansas generally starts on the first weekend in November. By his time, the cold weather has frequently taken its toll on the bugs and insects that provided food for the chickens earlier. Now the birds tend to congregate in flocks of 30 or more and typically fly into cut grain fields to feed both early and late in the day.
The traditional late season chicken hunting strategy in Kansas, is to set up on the edge of such feed fields and pass shoot the birds as they fly into and out of the fields.
The group of us looked more like waterfowlers than upland bird hunters, as we donned our camouflage coats and hats in the pre-dawn darkness and prepared to take up positions in the trees and brush surrounding the cut milo field. Our host, the farmer who owned the field, indicated that he had seen chickens coming into the field regularly for the past several days.
I found a spot behind a small cedar bush on the edge of the field and hunkered down. The cold of early November began to seep through my coat as I sat and watched the sun slowly peek over the horizon. Drowsiness began to creep over me and I began to regret not getting to bed early enough the night before to make up for this morning's early rise time.
Suddenly, shots ring out across the field from my position and I look up in time to see two chickens drop out of a large flock that has just swept into the field from the side opposite mine. The gunshots apparently alter the bird's opinion about the field and they decide to look for a more friendly breakfast stop. Kicking on their afterburners, they speed on across the field and head right toward my position. They are on top of me almost before I can get the gun to my shoulder and I blow two holes harmlessly in the air several feet behind the lead bird as the flock swiftly flies over me and vanishes again in the endless prairie. Chickens are deceptively fast fliers and pass shooting them in the late season is a challenging proposition. They won't generally approach a field where they see hunters waiting, thus the need for camo clothing. However, once they are over a field they don't tend to flare but instead act a lot like diving ducks, rapidly accelerating and flying right through the barrage of gunfire directed at them. As I reload, I remind myself to get further ahead of the birds when they come by. Now fully awake, I scan the skies around the field in hopes of spotting the next flock that chooses to try to head in for breakfast.
Unfortunately I am not equipped with eyes in the back of my head. As I scan the edge of the field in front of me, I am startled to hear the gunner next to be shout, "Behind you!" I look up just in time to see another squadron of chickens that has come in from directly behind me. They have almost passed completely overhead and are moving on out into the field. I desperately try to get the gun up on one of the stragglers at the tail end of the flock. I miss with the first barrel but connect with the second shot and get to watch as my first late season prairie chicken drops into the field. The shooting lasts for another hour or so as other flocks pass over the field, then slowly tapers off as the birds quit flying. Nothing else has passed my way and I regret my first two misses that would have possibly given me another bird. Still I've got a late season chicken to show for my efforts.
Guns and loads for late season chickens can be about the same as those used in the early session. You might want to tighten up on your choke a bit if the shots are becoming longer. Warm camo clothing is the other essential for late season chickens. Dogs can be used, although they are mostly confined to retrieving duties.
Whether you hunt early or late or both, prairie chickens in Kansas present a unique upland opportunity. For more information on prairie chicken hunting in Kansas including the latest regulations and bird population numbers contact the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks at (620)-672-5911 or visit their website at www.kdwp.state.ks.us.