The best part of pheasant hunting may not be getting the birds, according to Brad Leiker, Hays.

“It’s probably getting together with everybody,” said Leiker, who said on Friday he planned to go out with friends around dawn Saturday to Ness County for opening day of pheasant season. “A lot of times, it’s the only time you get to see some of your friends all year — is opening day.”

Leiker on Friday afternoon was at the Hays City Sportsmen’s Club north of town for the Smoky Hill Pheasants Forever pheasant season kickoff, a chance to get in some practice, support a good cause, maybe win a shotgun and have all-you-can-eat burgers, brats and chili.

It’s the 23rd year for the event, with tickets $15 for adults and $12 for youth, to help the Smoky Hill Chapter raise money for ground bird habitat, youth programs and scholarships.

Leiker was a newcomer Friday afternoon.

“This is the first time I’ve made it,” he said, sipping a beer on the porch at the club. “My boss is letting me off early today.”

That’s Bill Klaus, president of Perf-Tech Wireline Services Inc. For Klaus, also on the porch, the kickoff is an annual event. With Dean Fischer, Ellis, Klaus and Leiker talked about their hunting plans.

Klaus on Saturday morning was planning to go out with a group of 35 to 40 guys.

“We’ll spread out across a quarter of ground and walk it,” he said. “Sometimes that’s the only way to get those sneaky roosters to fly for you.”

Fischer said he’ll take his dogs out to hunt quail, then with an ornery look he referenced Klaus’s plans, drawing groans and laughter.

“I’ll be going with a little group,” he said, “We don’t need that many people, we can actually hit what we shoot at.”

Klaus, a hunter for about four decades, expects a good season this year.

“It should be probably better than the last few years, with the moisture and the weeds and the bugs,” he said. “It’s been a good year for birds.”

Used to be, in the western part of the state, quail season opened a week later than pheasant, Klaus explained. That’s changed as pheasant populations have declined.

Inside, Dick Klaus, president of the Smoky Hill chapter, held a 12-gauge Weatherby pump shotgun being raffled on Friday. He rubbed a soft cloth over the stock, while treasurer Shayne Wilson noted tickets were one for $10 or three for $20. Last year the chapter had nearly 100 people come for the pheasant kickoff, which is billed as a chance to “sharpen your shooting eye.” Trap and skeet shooting are furnished, while hunters bring their own guns and ammo.

Smoky Hill Pheasants Forever No. 424 has more than 300 members from Ellis, Trego and Rush counties, said Wilson. But a lot of the people who show up for the kickoff are hunters from out of town getting ready for Saturday, said Dennis Pfannenstiel, also with the chapter.

Through the years, Wilson has seen hunters come from Texas, New Mexico and Colorado for the kickoff. Dick Klaus has friends who have been coming for 20 years from Oklahoma and Topeka.

Pheasant season always opens the second Saturday in November, he said, explaining it runs a half-hour before sunrise until a half-hour after sunset, through Jan. 31.

He and Pfannenstiel will head out west and south of Schoenchen early Saturday morning.

“We’ll be out at 5:30 or so at our field, and wait until sunup, so somebody else doesn’t get the spot we want,” he said. “It’s getting harder all the time to find ground to hunt, you got all these people coming in to lease ground. I can see why farmers have to do that now, it’s extra income, with the low grain prices we have.”

Klaus and Pfannenstiel agreed that while there might be a lot of quail this year, they expect the pheasant population to be spotty.

“All that rain, we lost some hatches because it spoiled the eggs, getting wet in the spring of the year,” Klaus said. “Usually by the 15th of June you would have a lot of little birds running around.”

Out on the shooting range, the sounds of shotguns firing came from Fort Hays students in the university’s shooting club who were testing the skeet and trap equipment and getting batteries in place. They help every year with the kickoff.

Michael Saint, a second-year FHSU graduate student working on his MBA in business administration, said the 10 students on hand Friday expected to be there until around midnight when the hunters finish up. They like to help the chapter.

“They donate some money to us, so we like to give back,” said Saint, a Jewell native. “Today we’ll be making sure everyone is being safe, with ear protection, eye protection, keeping their guns down range, and we’ll be helping with entry fees and raffle tickets.”

Indoors, Wilson was organizing chips, buns and condiments for the food line.

“We’re very lucky we have the Fort Hays college shooting team out here to help,” she said.

The kickoff isn’t the chapter’s biggest fundraiser. That would be the annual Pheasants Forever banquet at the Ellis County Fairgrounds the last Saturday in February every year. But with folks starting to trickle in Friday, Wilson and the others were anticipating a good turnout.

Meanwhile, the hunters were aware of Saturday’s forecast for afternoon temperatures in the mid-70s, good news for football fans headed to the FHSU Tigers home game, but not so much for opening day of pheasant season when cold weather is the preference.

“They’re saying 74 degrees tomorrow,” said Dick Klaus, and others in the clubhouse nodded and agreed, “that’s not good.”

“The pheasants will just run on you,” Pfannenstiel explained.

The hunters on the porch also commented on the forecast, expecting Saturday’s morning chill to wear off by noon. Bill Klaus offered the solution.

“We’ll just drink beer after lunch.”