RUSSELL — For a moment, there was excitement in the Kansas pheasant-hunting world.
As a line of hunters moved across a field on Warren Gfeller’s ranch in the central part of the state, dogs slammed on point, cackling roosters burst into flight and shotguns boomed.
That’s the way it is supposed to be, especially on the thousands of acres Gfeller owns. He farms for pheasants, and can’t remember the last time the hunting season was a total bust.
But even he met his challenge this year. After two consecutive years of crippling droughts, the Kansas pheasant population is the lowest it has been in a decade. And hunters across the state are seeing the consequences.
Reports of parties of hunters going out and seeing only a couple of birds aren’t unusual. But through it all, the Gfeller ranch has been an oasis of hope.
“We’ve own this land since 1992 and we’ve never come out of here empty-handed on a pheasant hunt,” said Gfeller, 60. “This is the worst I’ve seen it. We normally hold a lot of pheasants.
“But we still have birds. I don’t care how bad it gets, we’ll always have birds.”
Gfeller watched the proof materialize as he played host to a group from the Outdoors Writers of Kansas on a recent hunt. On a day when a bright sun made the golden grasses glow, Gfeller led a group through knee-high vegetation that bordered a crop field.
It didn’t take long for the hunters to start flushing birds.
“Hen, hen,” one hunter shouted as an off-limits bird flushed. Seconds later, another shout carried across the field. “Rooster,” a hunter yelled.
Two shots rang out and the bright-colored bird fell. Then Pete, a yellow Lab owned by Charlie Black, raced out to make the retrieve.
As the hunters made their way through the grass, many other pheasants flushed and birds were added to the game pouches. By the time the eight men had reached the end of the field, where three blockers stood, they had downed four pheasants. But just as impressive, they had seen other roosters that flushed out of range and a good number of hens.
“There were a lot of pheasants in that field,” said Gfeller, one of the hunters who took a bird. “That looked like something out of the past.”
By the time they were done, the eight hunters has taken seven pheasants and were complaining about letting other birds get away.
For Gfeller, that was a welcome sight. He is a die-hard pheasant hunter, one who has established deep roots in Russell County.
His family moved to the area when he was 6, and it quickly took to bird hunting.
“The pheasant hunting back then was tremendous,” Gfeller said. “It gave this area a name.
“When I was young, I was the bird dog. I would go out and get the birds everyone shot. And that kept me busy.”
A career in the business world eventually led Gfeller away from the Russell area. He lived in Johnson County from 1983 until July. But he bought two ranches near Russell in 1992 and established a cattle operation. At the same time, he began farming for pheasants.
“We put in narrow fields bordered by cover, and the pheasants really took off,” said Gfeller, a member of the board of directors for the Kansas Wildscape Foundation, an organization that funds Kansas outdoors projects. “The birds love those fencerows.”
He and his wife, Angie, built a beautiful home high atop a hill overlooking the ranch and moved in this summer. Now, Gfeller can look out and see the land he is so attached to.
He can take you to his computer and pull up photos of what the cattle operation looked like decades ago. He can also show you present-day images of happy pheasant hunters and their take for the day.
With the bird population being down, he hasn’t hunted the ranch hard this fall — only on special occasions and holidays such as Thanksgiving and a planned Christmas hunt. But even then, he delights in his time afield.
“I could pheasant hunt every day if I had the chance,” he said. “I just can’t get enough of it.”