Dec. 25, 2002

Pratt Sandhills hunting offers different hunting experience

By BILL GRAHAM, The Kansas City Star

PRATT, Kan. - There are no big towns and few houses close to this isolated piece of public hunting land on farming's fringe.

At the Pratt Sandhills Wildlife Area, soft sand and lines of steep hills and ridges make the walking tough, as at times do the prairie grasses, yucca plants and plum thickets. Hunting dogs must contend with prickly sand burrs that stick in their paws, and on many days, arid conditions that make scenting game birds difficult.

Quail, pheasants and prairie chickens can fly a long way over open country once flushed. They have plenty of thick cover to hide in or run through when they land.

Difficult, yes.

But that's why Bob Mathews likes to make the 20-mile drive from his home in Pratt to hunt birds and deer in the sand hills.

"It's a chance to get away from the daily routine," Mathews said. "Even though it's not wilderness, it's still a pretty appealing wild area."

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks owns the 4,800-acre Sandhills area. Mathews is the agency's information and education chief.

Sandhills is an apt name because the soil is almost pure sand with rolling hills and sloped fields. Some land is unplowed shortgrass prairie. Other parts are fallow fields reverting to prairie with sandlove grass and yucca.

Mathews and I hunted for quail and pheasants on the area in November.

Our walk started down an old farm lane near private land with irrigated crop fields. After we shifted course and walked in tall grass away from the field, brown birds began flushing wild ahead of my German shorthair pointer, Rex.

"Quail," Mathews shouted.

They flushed out of range and only one bird swung our way, moving full speed as it whizzed by. He shot and missed.

A few quail settled into an old, brushy shelterbelt nearby. After Rex made a few points, we moved on with one bird bagged.

Then the walking was in more open country, up and down sandy hills. A large flock of sandhill cranes circled overhead.

On a downhill slope, Rex went on point and then trailed a bird into an large wild plum thicket. A rooster pheasant flushed out of gun range.

"Too bad," Mathews said. "That would have made it a perfect walk."

The walk is what much of sand hills hunting is about.

It's not a place to easily fill gamebag limits.

The area does get hunting pressure, Mathews said. Locals use it. But also large hunting parties come to the Pratt area from states like Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, often staying for a week and hitting public areas like Sandhills. It's a well-known quail hunting destination.

But in mid- to late-season the hunting pressure is moderate to light and the area is large enough, and the cover thick enough, for hunters have plenty of room to roam with a decent chance of finding some birds.

Mathews and I saw hunters' pickups in a few parking lots but no other hunters where we parked or in the large area we walked. Some remote areas require a two-mile walk to reach. Atop some ridges hunters find the same habitat pioneers saw on the Santa Fe Trail.

"It's kind of classic quail habitat with the prairie grasses and plum thickets," Mathews said. "I think that's what it feels like to the guys who enjoy hunting it."

Although farming plays a part, old fields and shelter belts offer some of the best walking and habitat.

Several windmills for cattle operations are running and rigged to provide watering holes for wildlife. They're a place for thirsty dogs to drink and an excellent place to check for game.

Ongoing farming on adjacent private land, especially fields with irrigated crop circles, attracts birds. Hunting on the public land near them is effective, Mathews said.

We found two more pheasants, one a rooster, on land not far from crop fields.

But Mathews likes the area best when conditions are worst, like a cold, snowy day.

"There's a lot of wildlife moving then," he said. "But sometimes I like to get way out in the middle and just sit down, because it's so peaceful."