If there’s anything more sacred to me than hunting prairie chickens in the fall I don’t know what it is. It’s like biscuits and gravy, steak and French fries or a hot cup of coffee and a cigarette. One just seems to follow the other and to those who love the thrill of the chase then the ultimate game bird has to be the elusive prairie chicken. There are a few areas of the prairie that have populations one can hunt. For most of my adult life, I’ve always headed to Kansas for these elusive birds.
They are unlike their cousins, the grouse, which are found in woody areas of the upper Midwest. This bird loves the tall prairie grass ecosystems. The prairie chicken was almost extinct in the 1930s due to hunting pressure and habitat loss. They now only live on small parcels of managed prairie land. It is thought that their current population is about 459,000.
Kansas ranks first in terms of numbers of prairie chickens. Two species occupy the state - lesser and greater. Some states, where perhaps as few as one 1,000 lesser are found, have the lesser on their state threatened lists. Greater prairie chickens are the more common species, found in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. Although nearly all good habitats are under private ownership, permission is often available.
Where I hunt there are small bands of chicks - at least that’s what we call them. I was out this past season, near Liberal, and I took my young son Todd with me. It’s funny how he tries to emulate everything I do. My friends love to have him along because they say he’s a little me and mixes in well with the older guys on the trip. I didn’t know just how much he wanted to be like me until this hunt.
We had just made a big push across a sagebrush flat with Todd right behind me. We didn’t get any shooting since the band flew out way ahead all in one group, but the other guys had managed to pick out two. It seems the chicks rise like quail, or at least that’s been my experience. There’s a lot of commotion, you see all of them, and if you’re like me you shoot at the flock instead of picking out one target. I usually get one shot off before I shoulder my shotgun; I guess it’s from the excitement of it all.
When we arrived at the end of the flat we all stopped to admire the pair. Todd looked them over and made a comment about the orange on their neck as we glossed over why it’s there. I didn’t feel the need to talk about the function of it and what birds and bees do in the spring.
I reached for a cigarette and lit up while two of my other buddies did the same. We took in the beauty of the landscape and realized there was an old homestead up the valley, so we decided to check it out. Questions raced through my mind as we approached the remnants of the foundation of the house, noticing what was once a fire pit. I wondered how many and what kind of meals were cooked there and thought it must have been a place where, like us, conversations must have revolved around hunting deer, elk, and of course the opposite sex.
As we neared the corral or what was left of it I wondered how long it must have taken to build it. Many of the fence posts had rotted away since that’s what the ground does to them over the years. From the looks of the fence posts that were still standing I noticed that the ones that were done in very rocky soil were still there with an occasional strand of barbed wire adorning them like some lace curtain.
That trip remains etched in my mind because it was then that I decided to quit smoking; even though I loved the taste and smell of that first smoke in the morning, after some strenuous activity like hunting or fly fishing my favorite stream and having caught even a small trout. There was always a sense of completion. I had heard the Surgeon General’s warnings about the dangers of smoking but I figured it was my life and I’d do as I pleased. Besides I didn’t smoke that much anyway, so what’s the real problem?
Todd had been checking out a pile of old metal, typically found around old homesteads. I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye; in his mouth was the filter of one of my old cigarette butts. He had watched me throw it into the old blacken fire ring and had picked it up. Those rocks stained by years of wood fires told a modern story I had a major part in.
Todd wanted so much to be like me that he was willing to pick up a spent cigarette butt and pretend to smoke it. I didn’t realize I was planting seeds in his head about smoking until that moment. He wasn’t old enough to understand all the pitfalls of smoking and he didn’t even know there was a warning on the pack itself of its dangers. He just knew that I did it and that was good enough for him. For the first time in my life it got me thinking about my life and what message I was sending. I’ve always gone my own way and the more that people told me I shouldn’t do this or that, the more I thought, “It’s a free country, I’ll do as I wish.”
From the moment I saw Todd with that cigarette butt in his mouth I realized the impact I was having on his life just by sheer example. You may not think what you do or how you do it makes much of a difference, but it does. Todd and I are both smoke-free, and have been now for two years.
That day we didn’t get into any other bands of chicks, but I will tell you that night around the campfire we got down to the important things in life.