Learn how to hunt the greater prairie chicken in the legendary Flint Hills and Smoky Hills of central Kansas.
Orange and purple colors streaked low across the Kansas sky. Shadows of grass and fence posts grew long, and the air had a hint of the north attached to it. I walked over the leeward side of the ridge, catching up to Staley on point. The rust-colored Vizsla was motionless. She was pointing to a patch of red sumac. I strained my eyes for any sign of movement. The red leaves stood out against the ever-changing brown landscape. Summer had officially ended and autumn was well on its way.
I moved in quickly. Suddenly over a dozen birds rocketed from the ground. Their departure included them flashing their fanned tail feathers at me. Both barrels fired. One motionless brown bird fell from the sky. Staley was quick to retrieve the prairie chicken dressed in neat brown tweed attire. The prairie hills had delivered. There had been an unspoken agreement between me and the hills. I endured walking. The hills had provided their vastness.
I had been hunting in the northern portion of the “Flints.” For “chikin” hunters looking to experience the iconic bird, walking the Flint Hills of east-central Kansas and the Smoky Hills of north-central and northwest Kansas offers the best opportunity.
Once numbering in the millions across several states, prairie chickens have seen both their range and their population diminish drastically due to human changes in the landscape, which translates into the loss of habitat and land fragmentation. However, the King of the Prairie still commands the spirit of the American West like no other. To most wingshooters, the allure of hunting prairie chickens includes the breathtaking landscapes and wide, open spaces. A prairie chicken taken on the wing is nothing short of an upland trophy.
Prairie chicken habitat and range
Kansas is home to both the greater and lesser prairie chickens. There is no hunting season for lesser prairie chickens, which are found in the southwest part of Kansas. The hunting of lesser prairie chickens was closed in 2014 due to the birds’ status as a threatened species. Both species of prairie chickens require a landscape of predominately native grasses interspersed with grain fields. Greater prairie chickens are primarily found in the tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies that are in the eastern and north-central regions of Kansas.
Hunting season for prairie chickens in Kansas
The mixed-grass prairies that are still intact within Kansas provide bird hunters the opportunity to hunt greater prairie chickens during two separate seasons: the early season of September 15 until October 15 and the late season, typically the third Saturday in November until January 31.
The daily bag limit is two and the possession limit is eight. Hunters going after greater prairie chickens must have a Greater Prairie Chicken Permit in addition to a hunting license. The permit allows Kansas officials to better track hunter activity and harvest information. Prairie chickens may only be hunted in the Greater Prairie Chicken Unit (see map below), which prevents the accidental hunting of the threatened lesser prairie chickens.
Hunters should err on the side of caution when hunting the edges of the Southwest Unit, which is closed to all prairie chicken hunting. Kansas provides hunters with both a paper and online version of the Walk-In Hunting Access booklet. However, neither can determine a hunter’s exact location in the field.
I have hunted a publicly-accessible field split in half by the imaginary line of the closed Southwest Unit. For this hunt, we used OnX Hunt to determine our exact location and to prevent us from illegally shooting prairie chickens across the boundary line. Knowing where you stand in the uplands is important in staying within the legal confines of hunting regulations.
Where to hunt prairie chickens in Kansas
The beautiful Flint Hills area is typically considered to be the traditional stronghold for greater prairie chickens in Kansas. The Flint Hills are the largest intact tallgrass prairie in North America. They are located in the eastern third of the state, consisting of a roughly 50-mile-wide band of tallgrass prairie which extends from the Oklahoma border northward nearly to the Nebraska state line.
Prairie chickens have been able to persist in the Flint Hills because this region has been a core habitat for the Kansas prairie grouse. Prairie chickens require open prairie and tall grass to nest. Unfortunately, prairie chicken numbers in the Flint Hills have declined in recent years due to annual prairie burning, close grazing, invasive trees, and the encroachment of civilization.
The problem with hunting chickens in the Flint Hills is access, especially in the southern half. Much of the Flint Hills is held under private ownership by very large ranches. There is relatively little public land in the form of Wildlife Management Areas in the Flint Hills region. There are some Walk-In Hunting Areas, which are private lands available for public hunting access. Hunters will have to research, scout, walk, and knock on doors in order to obtain information to determine if prairie chickens are in the area and if private land access can be granted.
Public Land: 128,371 acres
WIHA: 67,629 acres (This number fluctuates every year)
Also known as the Blue Hills, the Smoky Hills are located in the north-central portion of Kansas. The tall mixed-grass prairies of the Smoky Hills, which run from Salina westward and mostly north of highway I-70, hold Kansas’s largest populations of prairie chickens.
Population numbers of greater prairie chicken have increased throughout the Smoky Hills, mainly where large areas of native rangeland are intermixed with cropland with the addition of mixed grasslands seeded through the Federal Conservation Reserve Program.
Hunters who are willing to put in some walking can find prairie chickens in the grassland breaks that parallel streams. The best hunting will be found in the central portion of the Smoky Hills, but several other areas with suitable habitat support huntable densities of prairie chickens. Hunters should use caution because lesser prairie chickens can occur in the southwest portion of the region that is closed to prairie chicken hunting (see map for boundaries).
The Smoky Hills include some of the most accessible public lands in the state, far more than the Flint Hills.
Public Land: 88,070 acres
WIHA: 327,535 acres (This number fluctuates every year)
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.