The guns are blazing again near the historic town of Dodge City.
Not far from the Old West city where Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday used their guns to keep law and order, the crackle of gunfire again carries across the southwest Kansas plains.
Lines of orange-clad hunters roll across endless fields, cackling rooster pheasants burst into the blue sky, and shots regularly ring out.
Yes, Dodge City — a place where the colorful history of the Old West and the excitement of pheasant hunting mesh — is alive and well again.
In these parts, that’s big news. With its flat landscape, grassy habitat and endless milo fields, the Dodge City area had always been a center for pheasant hunting.
But a multiyear drought starting in 2011 put a big dent in that reputation. Pheasant populations plummeted, hunter numbers dropped and the area’s economy took a hit.
It’s amazing what some rain can do, though. After a year of good precipitation, the pheasants have made an amazing recovery. And suddenly, things are good in Dodge City again.
“We knew we’d have more birds,” said Dave Foster, the high school’s head football coach and an avid hunter. “But this is better than even we expected.
“This is full-fledged back to what it was four or five years ago.”
Judging by what Foster saw Monday as he led a group of eight hunters through private land he had permission to hunt, it was hard to argue.
As his Weimaraner, Tuffy, coursed through a thick CRP field (land in which farmers are compensated for idling marginal land), pheasants boiled out of the cover.
Shouts of “Hen!” carried across the field, warning other hunters of birds that were off-limits. But plenty of the bright-colored roosters that were fair game took flight, too.
As four bird dogs zig-zagged through the fields in advance of the line of hunters, “a pheasant hunt for the ages,” as one hunter put it, unfolded.
The hunters shot 11 pheasants in one CRP field alone and added another 10 in other fields. Dogs made difficult retrieves, hunters connected on impressive shots and Foster was excited about what the private land he hunts was producing.
Foster, who is president of the Ford County Sportsman’s Club, was leading a group during an Outdoor Writers of Kansas conference.
Through the high school where he works, he actively promotes getting youngsters involved in the outdoors. On this trip, he arranged for three high school journalism students to tag along, taking notes for stories along with photos and videos.
“Some of these kids had never seen a pheasant before,” Foster said. “It’s good to get them out and see what hunting is all about.
“It’s a big part of life in this area.”
Indeed, Mayor Joyce Warshaw said, “hunting is Dodge City’s second tourist season.”
Hunters can get a feel for the area’s past when they visit the Boot Hill Museum, where guns reportedly owned by Earp and Masterson are on display. They also can stroll into saloons and the Boot Hill Casino, which keep the city’s wild, Wild West reputation alive.
Just a short way out of town, they see a landscape dominated by flat fields, big sky and few houses. Ideal pheasant country.
Foster learned about the excitement of hunting the colorful gamebirds when he lived in Beloit, another pheasant-hunting center.
“I remember sitting up in a tree stand, hunting deer, and watching the vehicles just streaming into the area for the pheasant opener,” he said. “It looked like Kansas City traffic.”
When he was named head football coach at Dodge City High School, he moved to what he deemed a perfect setting.
“I remember reading an outdoor magazine that listed the top 200 places in the United States for a hunter and fisherman to live, and Dodge City was listed,” Foster said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to live in one of those places?’
“Well, I am now, and I can’t think of a place where I’d rather live. We have good pheasant hunting, there are some big deer and landowners are telling me this year that they are seeing more quail than they ever have before.”