I usually really struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, once I am awake, I am wide awake and would class myself as a morning person (after snoozing my alarm about 100 times), but it’s that initial thought of having to get out of bed that I hate. The only time this doesn’t seem to matter is when I’m getting up to go shooting. So when our alarms went off nice and early for Victoria (Owner of The Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club) and I to catch our flights from Dallas to Denver for the Governor of Kansas’ Ringneck Classic (“the Classic”) – we were up and out of bed brimming with half-asleep excitement. We were due to meet Michelle Cerino managing editor for Women’s Outdoor News and also runs her own website Princess Gunslinger downstairs in the hotel reception for onward transmission to the airport.
Our flights were at 7:30am so the last thing any of us needed was for any kind of hiccups or issues. Certainly not to realise, at the check-in desk, that a certain Ms Knowles-Lacks had managed to book the wrong flights (in the complete reverse of what we needed)! I can laugh at it now but it is fair to say, at that time of the morning, I had serious sense of humour failure…although it was nice to drag it out for a bit and get lots of guilt coffee and cake while we waited on stand-by. The airport staff, and Cerino, thankfully, took pity on the Brits! [When I told Vic I was going to publicly name and shame her for this, she said I have to add that the airline let us on the flight we thought we were booked on to anyway – and they upgraded us – so it worked out for the best in the end!].
Luckily, that was our only drama for the day. We landed on time. Collected our car. I had a cracking snooze on the way to our hotel as Cerino drove us across states and we did a bit of sightseeing en route to The Classic.
In 2011, the then Governor of Kansas established the ‘Ringneck Classic’ with the aim of drawing regional and national attention to hunting tourism in Kansas. It has been a huge success with the event growing in visibility and stature and securing Kansas as a great hunting destination. The event itself also helps promote conservation and, throughout the event, Pheasants Forever were on hand to discuss all the brilliant work they have been doing to keep the uplands in full vegetation and the promotion of upland birds. I know I speak for both Vic and I when I say that we both felt incredibly grateful and privileged to be a part of this event, with special thanks to the wonderful Jim Millensifer who, along with his lovely wife Laurie, invited us on this once in a lifetime adventure and made us feel so incredibly welcome! The Classic really wouldn’t be the same without all the people who help make it such a success in the background and we were only able to meet a handful of them, but our thanks goes out to everyone who made this possible. Thank you!
We arrived in Oakley, Kansas, mid-afternoon. We registered with the hunt officials, were handed our participant goodie bags and given one box of cartridges for the entire hunt. Vic and I had both brought cartridge bags and pouches with us expecting to be laden with cartridges UK styley! We were greeted by the lovely Raelene, who has been organising the Governor’s Hunt for some years now. Raelene has to be one of the nicest, most genuine people I have ever met! And as it turned out, she also gives great advice; recommending that we compete in the clay competition that day as the forecast for the next day was very strong wind. Now, coming from the UK (and me from the North) where wind and rain are old weather friends, we didn’t feel that concerned about such a forecast and persuaded Cerino that we would just relax that afternoon and take it as it comes – ‘wind’ and all – the next day. We were looking forward to the game dinner later that evening and finally meeting the rest of the hunters who were travelling in from across the U.S.
The Hunters reception that evening was superb! I tried a bit of everything – as you do – and taught the local barman the art in making a great (if not a bit too strong) G&T with the old faves: Gordon’s gin and tonic that seemed to have been shipped in especially for us – or so we were told. After one too many strong gins, most of us ended up in a local sports bar where I cheated at every game going, showed how rubbish I am at pool and learnt some country & western style dance moves. I am not sure it was appreciated when Vic wanted to ramp up the atmosphere by locating the juke box and rapping along to Beyonce & Jay-Z’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’…
The next day, having ignored Raelene’s guidance about the weather, off we went to shoot the competition, which was situated behind the Classic’s epicentre – the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center. The thing about Kansas is that it is actually relatively flat, so there is nothing to break the wind. Believe me when I say I have NEVER felt wind that strong in my life, it was a struggle walking from the hotel entrance to our car and I wasn’t that optimistic of our scores. But every cloud, on our way to the shoot Vic and I got very over-excited by the amount of tumbleweed we saw just blowing across the road and into the field. Ha I’d like to say everyone else found it quite endearing but I think we just looked a bit easily pleased!
The competition itself was a ‘five-stand’; a 50 bird challenge, made up of a five stands (moving your way along the scaffolding) of ten birds (clays) that flew out from underneath our feet, on report (one immediately after the other so you only call pull once). We would be standing on a form of scaffolding which was assembled around and above a large white van. We were shooting in what felt like 100mph ice cold wind that seemed to cut through to the bone and so, when you were on the top level of the scaffolding, foot positioning was key in order to properly brace yourself from being blown off with each gust. It was also great to see the locals and some of their youngsters out shooting in the competition too, with some of the older kids joining us on our hunt in The Classic.
Later that afternoon all the hunters had to assemble for the safety briefing and obligatory team photos. The briefing was similar to the gamekeepers/ shoot captains briefing at the beginning of a game shoot, except there were no pegs to be drawn here! We would be walking for miles and covering a serious amount of ground to hunt our pheasants. Bright orange is compulsory for safety reasons (visibility) and we were instructed that its roosters only (cock birds for anyone in the UK). Strictly no hens. We were split into teams and were lucky enough to have been placed in a squad with the Governor of Kansas’ son in law, as well as some of the friends Vic, Cerino and I had made the day/ night before – in particular Garrett (check out his business www.battle-rattle.com) Susan and Jacob (from Century Arms).
That evening, full of anticipation, our usual top quality banter and best British accents, we would have the first of our two ‘Hunters Receptions’. The evening would consist of a US style auction (where you could bid on shotguns, handguns and the like), another amazing BBQ style meal and a very entertaining performance from native Kansan Jared “Pete” Giles.
Before our evening started, Vic and I decided to have a bit of quiet in the hotel’s hot tub – which was very well needed. Unfortunately, and rather embarrassingly, we only realised once completely sodden in our bikinis that we had forgotten our towels. Brit Fail no. 1001. The only way back to our room – and our self-respect – was through the main hotel entrance, where ALL the other hunters were staying, to the main lift and back to our rooms. As we crept out to the hallway, we were looking good and on the home run – no one was around! But as our fortune would have it, as soon as we pressed the button and waited for the lift to creep into action…we heard voices down the corridor…then voices from the dining area…then more voices in the main entrance hall. We stood in the alcove of the lift door, looking a bit despairingly at each other, our bikinis dripping onto the hotel floor and mascara blurred under our eyes, praying for the lift to get to us before the voices did. But Brits abroad are never that lucky and as the lift doors opened, the inhabitants of the lift couldn’t hide their surprise at the two white British backsides in skimpy bikini bottoms which greeted them. And then all the voices finally caught up to us before we could push our way in through the doors. There was a roar of laughter and despite the repetitive punching of the close door button, everyone managed to get a good look and laugh! Judging by the amount of comments and banter we got later that evening, it was clear that the story had spread around the other hunters like wildfire. We were making a brilliant impression.
As well as endless teasing, the other hunters were also incredibly interested in hunting in the UK. In fact, the main topic of conversation in our presence was the different hunting styles in the US and the UK. This actually resulted in Vic getting on stage as an impromptu after dinner speak to describe to a room full of guests, in the comical way that only Vic can, your typical pheasant shoot in the UK.
I found the differences between our two approaches very stark but there are also some similarities. For example, US Pheasant hunting is akin to UK walked up shooting. Vic compared it to a day’s walked up grouse shooting in the highlands last season and I can see what she means. Just like with walked up, you have your line of guns and need to hold the line as you progress forward. There are dogs that point, flush and retrieve the birds and you cover a large amount of land as part of your day’s shooting.
But since I have returned from the trip, the differences between our hunting practices is what has spiked the most interest and conversation. In fact, I have received several messages over Instagram alone – let alone conversation in person – over the last few months from hunters in the U.S. asking me to explain hunting in the UK and why we approach things the way that we do. It seems to be something that both sides of the pond would like to know more on and so, I have set out below some of the key differences that really stood out to me:
- Clothing – This is hunting in quite wild terrain. There are no heavy tweeds or best dressed days, this is true hunting clothing encased in bright orange. This bright colouring is necessary from a safety perspective so hunters stand out, but in old Blighty we adopt the muted colours so we blend in with our environment.
- Licensing – in order to hunt in the US you need to apply for a hunting permit for your specific quarry and you are subject to a limit. There are no 200 bird days here! You need to keep your licence on you at all times as you may be stopped by an official to check you are licensed to hunt. No game hunting licenses are required in the UK.
- Hens – it is illegal to shoot hens and you must keep part of the bird intact when you are transporting. This is in case a warden inspects your birds to check that you have only hunted roosters. The most usual way of dealing with this and remaining ‘legal’ is to keep the bird either fully intact and ‘clean the birds’ (get them freezer/ oven ready) when you are back at home or, if you clean them immediately post-hunt, to leave foot or plumage intact which can identify the sex of the bird. When hunting you have to be able to recognise a hen at a split second’s notice as you do not have a long window to take your shot. This is fine when you are on a pheasant only shoot but it was something we were quite conscious of on our prairie chicken hunt as, at a distance and when they are flying away from you, hens can look quite similar to prairie chickens. The hunter guides did help as they would shout “ROOSTER!” as soon as one was flushed out and ‘HEN DON’T SHOOT’ for a hen. In the UK, unless directed otherwise, hens and cock birds (roosters) are fair game in the pheasant season.
- The gun line – In the U.S., the guns (“hunters”) can be split into ‘walkers’ and ‘blockers’. The walkers walk towards the blockers in a line, with the blockers also stood in a line, with the idea that the pheasants are flushed out towards the blockers and the walkers can shoot at anything they flush out en route to the blockers. The view was that ‘blocking’ would be the most similar to ‘European shooting’. As I have already said, this form of shooting is akin to walked up game shooting in the UK. However, on more formal game shooting days in the U.K., the shooting is split up into separate ‘drives’. These are effectively different sets of cover that the pheasants are flushed out of. So for one drive you could be in a field and the next drive in woodland etc. The guns are moved from drive to drive throughout the day and are ‘pegged’ out into positions for each drive. To start the day, as part of the safety briefing, the guns will select peg numbers 1 – 8, or it can be up to 1 – 10, and the number you draw dictates where you stand for the first drive. In the safety briefing you will be told how you move pegs drive on drive, for example, you may be told you will “move up two” for each drive. So if you drew peg 1 for the first drive you would be peg 3 for the second, peg 5 for the third etc
- The pheasants are truly wild – at one point we were stood within touching distance of a live pheasant that refused to move. They live in the wild prairies and have evolved with heightened senses to avoid and outwit predators. They are respected and seen as “Clever little critters”. We were warned that you could stand on them before they moved – and that proved to be no exaggeration. Now, in Blighty, while we love our pheasants and appreciate their meat and beautiful feathers, you would never describe them as ‘clever’. They are reared until a very young age and then released. This means, generally speaking, they do not tend to have that streetwise survival gene that U.S. phessies need to survive. (if you are interested in learning more about this read my Top Gun Blog Post with Girlie Gamekeeper here).
- There are no high birds – in the U.K. we are so used to sky high pheasants soaring out from cover and driven over our heads, but the pheasants in the U.S. fly more like Grouse; skimming the top of the cover/ vegetation and flying for longer than their U.K. cousins. As practiced before our hunt, fast low crossing and going away targets proved key. There are some shoots which describe themselves as ‘European Shoots’ but the birds start from an elevated position rather than being flushed sky-high. The usual rule of “lots of sky round the birds” is impractical here and so safety was even more paramount as shots were rarely with your barrels up, rather barrels were level. The emphasis on safety was spot-on and as part of our licence application, we both had to attest that we had attended recognised safety courses in the UK – which we both had.
- It’s hunting not shooting – In the UK, with the exception of walked up days, there is a level of formality. There is an emphasis on the sloegasms and the hospitality and we have a level of British politeness ingrained within us which is not present in U.S. pheasant hunts; don’t shoot your neighbours bird, only sporting birds, make sure it has fully broken cover, no pillow-casing, plenty of sky around the bird, no low birds etc. However, this is why the hunters we were with viewed our way as ‘pheasant shooting’ and not ‘pheasant hunting’. In the U.S. you cover lots of ground and work hard for your quarry. You may only pick up a small amount of birds for a large amount of effort. There is strictly no alcohol and once a bird breaks cover, anyone within sight of the bird, with a safe shot, is permitted to take that shot – even if that means there are more than one of you shooting.
- Terminology – U.S. v U.K. as follows – hunters:guns, roosters:cock birds, European shooting: game shooting, pheasant hunting: walked up shooting, hunting areas: drives… the list goes on.
- Sunday Laws – Blighty tradition and law means that you cannot shoot game on Christmas Day or Sundays at all. In some states in the U.S. you can hunt year round.
So how did we find our pheasant hunting experience? How did the differences fare in the field?
We were driven out to our hunting territory and got kitted up. It was absolutely freezing so I was glad I had packed my thermal base layers and shooting gloves. We were split into two teams and to begin with, Vic and I were walkers. With my now trusted Franchi shotgun, which was live from the moment we stepped onto the field, I could feel the adrenaline starting to kick in. We could see for miles! The rugged and wild terrain meant that is was very rough underfoot and there was no room for shooting best; practical clothing only. In fact, the land that we were covering is usually riddled with rattlesnakes in the warmer months, but we had been assured that it was far too cold for them at this time of year.
The cover that we hunted through was nothing like I have seen in the UK. At some points it extended well above our heads and was exhausting to navigate. The terrain is wild and so you really have to push through to clear the way. I can see why the bright orange is so necessary now – so you can identify your hunting buddies through the tall and wild growth!
Both Vic and I got our pheasants. Mine came when I was standing as a blocker and Jacob was walking towards me. As he got nearer and nearer and nothing had come up, I got a sense that one was overdue so should be coming my way. The pheasant flushed up quickly and quartered away to my left. It took two barrels, as I was a bit surprised and so behind on the first shot, but the second barrel resulted in a clear fold in some dense cover. It took the dogs quite some time to find him and we were not leaving until he was!
Sometimes, it’s not about the size of the bag or how much lead is in the air, it is about being out in ‘the field’ and experiencing true Mother Nature. I was completely taken back by the flora and fauna we encountered and quite often found myself getting distracted from the hunt just to take everything in. From white tails to coyotes – which sped past like a cloud of dust burning its way across a neighbouring field – to cactus underfoot and the potential for rattlesnakes. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and I have certainly got the U.S. hunting bug BIG TIME. So much so, I have kept my empty cartridge cases from my first pheasant and they sit in pride of place on my desk.
At the end of the shoot, we were within our limit and the birds were taken back by the hunt guides to be ‘cleaned’ (made oven-ready). I did offer to help but due to the strict requirements I’ve already mentioned on how the birds can be cleaned so that their sex is identifiable, it was easier for the guides to take them and to share round the community – which I loved.
If you had to ask me what was the most memorable moment of my pheasant hunt I would struggle to pick just one aspect. Wearing bright orange is a novelty for anyone used to English tweeds but being in a completely different country, with terrain unlike any other I have experienced, with cover so tall it engulfed me at times, was something that made me feel like I had really reconnected with nature. That I was working hard for my quarry. That I was a proper hunter. That sense of pride stands out more to me than anything else.
Next Week -The Hunt for Prairie Chickens