Question: What do you get when you cross the Kansas Governor, a shoot house at Gunsite Academy, canine athletes, shotguns, SHWAT™ and pheasants? A five star hunting experience that any action adventure hunter can get excited about. So yeah, prepare yourself, we’re talking tactical pheasant hunting for maybe the first time in the history of man.
A little backstory here. Historically, I’m much more of a rifle shooter. Give me a black rifle and a group of wild hogs to chase down and we’re good. But while a Remington 1100 was my first gun acquisition as a teen, the truth is shotguns have always been a bit of a mystery to me. Case in point, my duck hunt last year (the ducks were much happier than me about the outcome).
Last summer get invited to Gunsite Academy where I run some clearing drills in a shoot house. Fortunately, the trainers accommodate my (cough) expertise. I run a Remington Tac-14 12 gauge and it goes surprisingly well. There are shoot and no-shoot targets. I have to determine which is which and engage accordingly. I make it through error free. I even manage to take out the hostage taker without harming the hostage – using buckshot! But those are all stationary targets and I’m not exactly the fastest to complete the exercise.
Not long after that I receive an invitation to be guest of the Governor at the Kansas Ringneck Classic pheasant hunt. I think that’s kind of a big deal and am excited about the opportunity, but it’s going to involve shotguns. And someone told me I’d need a tweed jacket, which I don’t own. At least the second point proved false.
At this point the picture of possible sheer embarrassment motivates me to reach out to Colorado shotgun instructor Dean Blanchard. Dean not only is an expert in trap, skeet and sporting clays, he’s a hunter and understands exactly where I need to be proficient. His teaching style and skills are a model for anyone teaching any skill set. He quickly identifies analogies and intersecting points of my current skills. Case in point: Rifle and pistol shooters are constantly trained to focus on the front site. I couldn’t disconnect that in my head when mounting a shotgun. But I’m pretty good at driving car. “Do you stare at the hood of your Jeep when navigating on road or off? Or is it just a reference point you’re constantly aware of?” asks Dean. With that and a couple of hours spent on some super cool sporting clay stations Dean set up, I think I’m ready. I hope I’m ready. I figure if I shoot well hunting I’ll credit him. If not, I’ll accept that I’m slow learner when it comes to swinging on flying targets.
It’s now November and time for the Kansas pheasant hunt. I self identify as a gear geek, so choosing a shotgun for the Kansas Governor’s Ringneck Classic is purposeful. I still have my original Remington 1100, and it turns there were many of those well loved and well worn on the Kansas hunt. But mine is still beautiful, the checkered wood almost perfectly intact. It’s not well used, and I just don’t think I want to drag it through a hunt. Sentimentalism aside, the tactical hunter in me says get a black gun with a decent magazine capacity and get busy. Kansas doesn’t restrict magazine capacity on pheasants! If you’re like me and think pulling triggers is fun, that little factoid alone could send you there for pheasants!
I shoot a Versa Max, but end up training with Dean using a Remington V3 12 gauge. So that’s what I took for pheasants. At 7.25 pounds it’s relatively light weight. At that weight, it’s right at the average weight of a typical AR-15. The V3 receiver is shorter than most other semi-auto shotguns making it more compact than others. For me that translates into a quicker handling gun. And while my new V3 isn’t labeled “Tactical,” it IS black polymer and metal so it feels familiar, it just seem to fit my idea of hunting.
Now you have the backstory, let me tell you about the hunt. This event is much bigger than the actual hunt component. The Ringneck Classic aims to support habitat improvement and wildlife conservation. To describe what they do and how they do it using the word “multifaceted” would be an understatement.
Proceeds benefit a number of worthy causes. Each year they bring youth hunters out who are awarded lifetime memberships in the Pheasants Forever conservation group. Active duty military members are guests. The Ringneck Classic focuses on Northwest Kansas pheasant hunting so the overall economic benefit of bringing hundreds of people to small towns like Colby, Kansas is a big deal. Proceeds from the hunt have been shared with local Scouting, hospitals, clinics and parks. They’ve contributed to many scholarships.
Needless to say, as I hit the road to Colby, Kansas, I am excited about the hunt and eager to see for myself what all this event entails. Until I crossed the Colorado/Kansas state line, I don’t think I’ve ever been in Northwest Kansas before. Having spent the majority of my life in West Texas, I feel like I’m an authority on what flat terrain actually is. This part of Kansas isn’t quite as flat as I expected. I’d describe it as very gently rolling plains. The land rises and falls and water can even accumulate in places. It appears to me that all the corn has been harvested, but I bet when things are green they really pop against the blue sky on the treeless horizon.
On Thursday night I pull up to the hotel in my not-so-tactical rental car since my Ultimate Hunting Vehicle Jeep project is in the shop getting a long arm suspension welded on. I step inside and meet Jim Millensifer, organizer of this event since it started in 2011. I thought for a moment he was Hollywood’s Ed Harris. Jim has organized a reception with wild game appetizers that proves pretty amazing. The “appetizers” bit was an undersell. I try fried pheasant for the first time. It’s fantastic, along with venison chili, quail, wild turkey tacos, elk, and I can’t remember what else.
Friday morning for me starts low key. It’s supposed to be relaxed, so I sleep in after working on a project until 2:00 a.m. While still asleep I receive a text from my friend Barbara Baird of Women’s Outdoor News. She and her husband are hunting with Jim and his dogs and I’m invited. Talk about a bad day to sleep in!
I load up. For hunting, it’s warm. Temps are in the low sixties. By the time I arrive at the scene they already have a half dozen pheasants in hand. The dogs are working hard to locate birds, probably taking 500 steps to my one. Seriously. A few roosters fly mostly out of range. One rockets into the air and is quickly dropped, but not by me. And then we’re done. I never pulled the trigger, but I did see first hand how this works and feel quite fortunate to have been invited. I am now less clueless, more excited and more confident about the prospects for Saturday.
But first there’s Friday night. Picture a stage, a couple hundred people gathered at round tables for dinner and auction/raffle items from a pizza oven to guns are spread around the room. There’s even a microscopic SHWAT™ banner in the back of the room! We hear from Governor Sam Brownback and others, there’s a live auction, and entertainment from Nashville stars Nick Hoffman, Natalie Murphy and Philip Myers, “The Story Tellers.” Awards from the clay shoot earlier in the day are announced. Honestly, I’m impressed, and a little intimidated. Conversations about Safari Club International doing this or that, the worldwide escapades of Girls with Guns at whose table I’m dining and more leave me wondering just a little bit – how does a guy who got started hunting late and in the tactical hog hunting world connect here? Actually, it’s going to be easy!
Saturday morning arrives. It’s colder now, with winds starting around 25 miles per hour and forecast to hit 40 miles per hour by mid afternoon. Fortunately for me, I’m wearing new wind pants and jacket from Slumberjack. No, that’s not tweed, and no one else is wearing anything resembling tactical hunting gear. But no one is wearing tweed either, so game on!
I hope in Jeff Kennedy’s truck. We’ll log a few miles together as part of a three vehicle convoy patrolling fields a half hour south of Colby. Jeff is active duty Army, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot and accomplished photographer (who graciously provided all of the best pictures here!). He’s an avid pheasant and duck hunter who was a guest here in 2015. This year he is guiding and brought along his German Short Hair Pointer, “Doc.” That Jeff originally came as an active duty guest and now returns as a volunteer is a testament to the fact that this Ringneck Classic is a far bigger deal that I can convey here.
Blake Arnberger is GIC (Guide in Charge) for our group. He and his father are volunteers, along with pretty much everyone else who works tirelessly to make this event possible. Blake’s dogs Axel and June are eager to go to work.
Our convoy rolls up on the first field. I’m one of six shooters in our group. “Blockers” are dropped at the north of the field while the rest of us start a march with the dogs at the opposite end. The blockers are there to encourage any hesitant pheasants who’ve been avoiding us by running on the ground deep in cover to take flight when they encounter the blockers. Strategy. Tactics. Teamwork. This is fun!
In this and other fields, “cover” is Kochia weed, also known as Fire Weed. When it dries up, it breaks free from its roots and tumbles across the prairie. Yes, you guessed it, a Tumble Weed. Combined with other dry fodder, this stuff is thick. Really thick, and taller than me in places. Marching through this I think I know how a flea must feel when it tries to get through a matted mass of tangled dog hair.
Still, we press on. Picture shooters 15 yards to my left and 20 yards to my right. The dogs are running left and right just ahead of us. They are amazing! These canine athletes are bounding like bunnies! Sometimes we can see them as the cover thins, sometimes they are visible only at the top of their bounding arches. They are super alert, focused and clearly loving their moment. Sometimes they point on a pheasant, sometimes they flush one, on occasion they might catch one.
Our first push is a quarter mile. It’s work, but it’s fun. A couple of birds are taken, but not yet by me. This is a team sport. You might down a pheasant rooster yourself, but you might share that contact with a hunter to your left or right. As the day progresses we sweep a field or draw, load up the convoy to hit another field and repeat. Remember what I mentioned about a shoot house? To me, these fields are like enormous shoot houses. We’re not stacked up like law enforcement, but there are plenty of surprise moving targets, shoot and no-shoot alike. We flushed up deer, bobcat, hawks, quail and a few of the off limits pheasant hens. Our team ended the day with fourteen roosters and I’ll take credit for two or three on my own and shared credit on a couple more. Thank you Dean Blanchard, I couldn’t have done it without your lessons!
Saturday night is another banquet, complete with silent and live auctions, gun raffles and entertainment. Some hunters stay for round two on Sunday, but I have to head home. I wish I could have stayed. This was unlike anything I’ve ever done before, yet included the elements I love most when hunting – action, conversation, plenty of shooting, camaraderie. And the dogs! A remarkable group of volunteers and cash sponsors make it all possible.
If you’ve never considered Kansas a hunting destination or if you thought pheasant hunting was a tweed and tobacco pipe affair, I’d encourage you to think again. The Kansas Governor’s Ringneck Classic pheasant hunt can introduce you to a new kind of hunting fun framed in a meaningful event for everyone involved. November 2018 will be here before we know it so you might want start making plans now. If you can’t make that, Northwest Kansas has more than 600,000 acres of walk in hunting you can take advantage of. Grab some buddies and get after it.
I’m incredibly grateful to have been a guest hunter on the 2017 Ringneck Classic. I have a new appreciation for the area, its people (and their dogs!) and pheasant hunting! I hope you’re able to do the same.
More on the Web:
The Kansas Governor’s Ringneck Classic
Jeff’s military Photography
Dean Blanchard, Shotgun Instructor
Great article Jonathan, it was a pleasure hunting with you. Blake
Jonathan! What a great story! Congrats on dropping some birds. Sounds like an incredible experience!