John Hill felt like he was hunting on the edge of a war zone.
Combat helicopters hovered overhead, the distant percussion of bombs exploding could be heard, and tank tracks from past maneuvers filled the fields.
Welcome to Fort Riley, a 101,000-acre Army base in northeast Kansas. It is one of the nation’s top war-fighting training centers … and one heck of a place for hunters such as Hill to pursue quail.
What’s good for the Army is also good for upland bird hunters.
The thick brush, rugged terrain and overgrown fields used to train soldiers for combat also provide outstanding wildlife habitat for quail, pheasants, deer, turkeys and even elk.
And because the Army permits hunting on large chunks of acreage on the base where training is not taking place, hunters who are up to going through some grueling maneuvers of their own can find outstanding opportunities.
That’s what Hill had in mind as he and two other hunters —Jon Blumb and Gary Mellard — followed Hill’s Vizsla bird dog, Dodger, through the thick cover.
“There are quail in here,” said Hill, 68, of Lawrence. “But sometimes, finding them can be like looking for a cork in an ocean.
“There is so much cover, that the birds have all kinds of options. You don’t know where they’re going to be. You just have to cover ground and hope you bump into them.”
At the end of a cane thicket that butted up against a cove on Milford Lake, Hill, Blumb and Mellard did bump into them. Two pheasants rose, shots rang out and one of the colorful roosters fell.
But there would be no easy retrieves on this day. The pheasant was shot simultaneously by Hill and Blumb, but it sailed into the water, just out of reach of the hunters.
So they devised a plan to get the dead bird. They found a long stick, then Mellard crawled to the edge of the steep bank and reached out to rake in the fallen bird as Hill and Blumb held onto his legs.
Just another day in the life of a Fort Riley hunter.
Meanwhile, a group of Hill’s friends were finding success on another part of the Army base. Dave Zumbaugh, and his German wirehair pointer, Mota, and Bob Lewis and his chocolate Lab, Gracie, plowed through the thick cover along with Benton Boyd and Nick Neff, and found several coveys of quail and eight pheasants.
By the end of the day, the two groups of hunters had combined to take four quail and three pheasants — not a bad day on the rough-and-tumble land of Fort Riley.
“We should have had more,” said Zumbaugh, who lives in Shawnee. “But we missed some shots we should have hit.
“Then again, you don’t get a lot of easy shots out here.”
That’s Fort Riley. Hunters often can sympathize with what soldiers go through on maneuvers by the end of the day. They have to push through thick cover that is often head-high and seemingly endless.
“That rooster we just shot came out of the thickest cover you can imagine,” Hill said.
Hill is well-aware of what Fort Riley can produce in the way of quail and pheasant hunting. He is president of the Jayhawk Chapter of the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, a conservation group dedicated to promoting upland game-bird hunting and habitat improvement for the birds. He also is an avid quail hunter, and has been hunting at the fort off and on for more than 25 years.
“We will always come here when the statewide population of quail and pheasants is way down, because we know there will always be birds here,” Hill said.
Hill has a longtime passion for quail hunting. He grew up on a cattle ranch at the edge of the Flint Hills, where in his words, “there were quail everywhere.”
“We even had one covey right out our back door, but my mom wouldn’t let us shoot those,” Hill said. “Those were her pets. She fed those birds and she was protective of them.”
By the time Hill was a teenager, he got his first bird dog in an unusual trade.
“A friend of our family from Oklahoma really wanted a mount of a prairie chicken,” Hill said. “So he asked if I would shoot one for him.
“I did and we shipped it to him. Pretty soon, we got something shipped to us. It was a fully trained pointer.”
Hill started hunting regularly with that dog and later one of its offspring. And that lit the fire. Hill has a long list of bird dogs he has followed through Kansas fields since then.
The Kansas quail population has dropped sharply over the years, but Hill knows he can still return to Fort Riley and stand a chance of flushing quail.
“There are a lot of birds here,” Hill said. “But it can be a challenge to find them.”
To reach outdoors editor Brent Frazee, call 816-234-4319 or send email to email@example.com.