When Rob Peterson waded into a sea of grass Saturday on his land in southwest Kansas, he couldn’t help think about his late father.
Three years ago, Peterson made a pledge to his dad as he lay on his death bed. His inheritance would go toward buying land in southwest Kansas that he could turn into a pheasant paradise.
And in father’s honor, Peterson would donate the land to Pheasant Forever’s legacy program. Under that agreement, Peterson could use the land as long as he was able. When he either became too old to use it or died, it would go to Pheasants Forever, a national conservation group that promotes pheasant hunting and restoring or preserving the habitat the popular gamebird needs to survive.
“When I told him, he was in the end stages,” said Peterson, who lives in Peyton, Colo., but has been hunting Kansas since the 1980s. “He couldn’t talk. But he gave me a big smile and his eyes sparkled.
“The outdoors always meant a lot to him. He loved to hunt and fish, and he passed on that love to me.”
Peterson paused as he looked out at the expanse of grassland on his ground and added, “Dad would have loved this. He would have been proud.”
For Peterson, this represented the culmination of a dream. He has hunted pheasants extensively since 2002 with his longtime friend, Kevin Perry of Gladstone, whom he met at the Air Force Academy. Both went on to become fighter pilots and served in Middle Eastern conflicts.
Once they left the Air Force, they continued their friendship through pheasant hunting. They would meet somewhere in Kansas for the season opener, then spend several days there.
“There are very few counties west of Salina that we haven’t hunted,” Peterson said.
But when Peterson heard of a 640-acre piece land coming for sale in southwest Kansas he jumped at the chance to buy it and put it in a trust in his father’s memory. Later, he and a friend bought another 640-acre tract just two miles away.
The east side wasn’t much when Peterson bought it. In fact, he said it looked like a desert. “It didn’t have much cover at all,” he said. “It just looked liked a sand dune.”
But Peterson put the land in the Conservation Reserve Program (a federal program which compensates farmers for idling marginal land and putting it into conservation practices). And when late summer rains ended a prolonged drought, “the cover just exploded,” Peterson said.
That’s what awaited Peterson and Perry, lifetime members of Pheasants Forever, when they got together Saturday for the Kansas pheasant opener. Native grasses, sorghum, tumbleweeds and abundant brush all covered the landscape.
There was only one thing missing: the pheasants.
After three years of crippling drought, the bird population has crashed. Peterson and Perry held out hope that the good habitat on their land would at least partially offset the drop in pheasant numbers, but it hadn’t.
On the same land in which the longtime friends normally shoot their limit by 1 p.m., pheasants were a rarity. Peterson’s German shorthairs, Lancer and Skadi, raced across the expansive landscape, hoping to pick up the scent of birds, but it was largely an odorless day.
Perry did shoot one rooster, and there were several others spotted. But all in all, it was an opener to forget.
“I can’t remember a time when it’s been this bad,” Perry said. “But you take the good with the bad.
“We’ve already had some great openers on this land. And I’m sure we will again.”