The tradition started in 1976, when four college buddies decided they wanted to see what the excitement created by the Kansas pheasant opener was all about.
The friends, fresh out of KU, had been introduced to hunting by their dads. But they wanted to set out on their own, so they headed to Smith Center, Kan., to land owned by one of the young men’s family.
Little did they know at the time that they were laying the groundwork for a tradition that has lasted 40 years.
“We were total rookies; we didn’t really know what we were doing,” said Dennis Hays, now 60, who lives in Kansas City, Kan. “I remember we used my dad’s pointer, Tad, and he found birds.
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“It was a cold, rainy day, and there was even a little sleet. But we stayed with it.
“We just loved it.”
Much has changed in the 39 years since that day. Hays and his good friend, Phil Winegardner of Overland Park, have watched the size of their hunting group grow to more than 20 in some years.
They have hunted alongside landowners who have become good friends, they have watched young boys grow into fathers and even grandfathers, and they have introduced many to the sport they love.
“We value our friends and just being outdoors in rural Kansas more than the bird count,” said Winegardner, 63. “Taking a few roosters every years in just icing on the cake.”
But they aren’t the only ones who have time-honored hunting traditions. In Missouri, many look forward to setting up deer camp with old friends for the opener. Duck hunters carry on family tradition by hunting with several generations of their family. And quail hunters reminisce about days when they followed old bird dogs through frosty fields they hunted for years.
Yes, hunting is more than just pulling the trigger. It’s about tradition.
A lifetime of pheasant openers
Want to get an idea of how passionate Hays, Winegardner and the rest of their buddies are about the pheasant opener? They have even set up a website (pheasantweb.com) with a ticking timer at the top, counting down the days, minutes and even seconds left until the pheasant season opens.
“For us, the pheasant opener is like Christmas,” Winegardner said. “ We have met so many great people up there who have become close friends.
“We have picked up a lot of new places to hunt just by meeting people. And we have hosted them to some fun times in the city, like going to Royals games, NASCAR races, Wyandotte County Lake and Kansas City barbeque.
“Unfortunately, we have also returned to Smith Center for the funerals of some of our friends.”
At first, it was the hunting that drew the Kansas City-area men to Smith Center. North-central Kansas has long been a mainstay for Kansas pheasants. The group has taken many limits over the years. But there have been lean years, too.
“We had one of our highest harvest totals in 2007, when we took 84 birds for the weekend,” Winegardner said. “But just a few years later, after a drought hit, we shot a record-low four pheasants.
“So, you never know.”
The group is proud of its safety record. Thirty-nine years and not a single gun-related injury.
“We have a lot of great memories,” Winegardner said. “And we plan to add a lot more.”
A family of duck hunters
Duck hunting runs in the Dan Guyer’s blood.
“Our family bleeds mallard green,” he joked.
When he takes his nine-year-old grandson Gavin duck hunting this fall, the boy will represent the fifth generation of the family that has waded into Missouri’s marshes.
That’s a source of pride for Guyer, 58, who runs the Iron Duck Guide Service. He has been duck hunting most of his life and he learned from the best.
His grandfathers, Clarence Guyer and Ted Triggs, were both avid waterfowlers. And his dad, David Guyer, was widely known for his calling ability. Dan remembers sitting in a blind with his dad and getting a music lesson.
“My dad would say, ‘Let’s do a little ‘duck-toven’ let’s do some mallard magic,’ ” Dan said.
When David died, Guyer and other family members scattered his ashes on one his favorite hunting spots, the mouth of the Platte River. Today, Guyer often honors his dad’s memory by hunting out of a pontoon boat at the same exact spot.
Dan also takes customers to private marshes near the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge and field hunting in Kansas. He is carrying on the family tradition, and he is proud to do it.
“I’ve always had a passion for duck hunting,” he said. “Just watching the ducks respond to your calling, seeing the dogs work, seeing that smile on a kid who shot his first duck — those are priceless memories.”
Building memories at deer camp
When Jason Brown was a Missouri state legislator from 2002 to 2010, his office always was decorated with deer mounts.
There’s a story behind that.
“My wife told me she didn’t want them in the house,” Brown said with a laugh. “She said, ‘Either hang them in the garage or down at your office.’
“In fairness, they take up a lot of wall space and I had four deer mounts, a pheasant mount and a black-bear rug. So, they became a conversation piece at the office.”
Those mounts moved to a new office when Brown served as presiding commissioner in Platte County from 2011 to 2014. Now that he’s out of office, the mounts still reside in that office for whomever wants to take credit for shooting them.
For Brown, 45, who lives in Platte City, they are a reminder of a lifetime of deer hunting. He got started when he was in junior high school and he hasn’t stopped.
“When I was in college, we ate deer steaks at the fraternity house and the guys loved it,” he said.
Today, Brown follows tradition when he joins 12 friends and often times his children— his son Caleb, 14, and his daughter Alayna, 17 — at deer camp.
They have been getting together for 12 years at land they leased in northern Missouri, staying in campers and tents. They plan elaborate meals, sit around campfires and celebrate the arrival of another deer season.
Brown and others often arrive early, getting in a few days of bow hunting, then partake in the firearms opener.
After years of hunting, Brown is selective in what he will shoot. It has to be a buck with big antlers. But even if he doesn’t shoot one, he has a good time.
“A lot of it is getting together with family and friends at deer camp, reminiscing about past seasons, planning the meals,” he said. “Deer opener is something we won’t miss.”
Remembering quail hunting’s good old days
For decades, Bill Bryan had a simple keepsake that he cherished as a reminder of the days when he became a quail hunter.
“I think I harvested my first quail when I was 11,” said Bryan, 50, who is director of Missouri State Parks. “I had the old yellow .20-gauge shell I used (to shoot that bird) for decades.”
Byan lost that shell in the process of a move. But he hasn’t lost the memories of the golden days of Missouri quail hunting.
His family established a tradition of hunting quail along both sides of the Missouri-Kansas line south of Kansas City before Bryan was born, and he fit in nicely when he was old enough to handle a gun. He hunted with his dad, uncles, cousins and close family friends — and at least three bird dogs each time out.
Quail and points were plentiful, and so were limits of birds.
“I feel very privileged to have hunted with three Brittanies that I raised and trained and will never forget,” he said.
They hunted to same land for decades, and established a long-standing tradition. But that tradition started to die off in the 1990s, when the quail population dropped and many of the hunters died or become too old to hunt.
“When my dad quit hunting, he explained it was because my Uncle Barney had passed away and it wasn’t as much fun anymore,” Bryan said. “I didn’t understand at the time, but I do now.”
Brent Frazee: 816-234-4319.