SUBLETTE, KAN. -- So it goes, too, in the rich pheasant fields of southwestern Kansas, except that here the field rows go on forever.
"We'll just walk this one out and see what happens," Jeff White said last week as he climbed down from his pickup into the autumn sunshine.
Around us, sky and land stretched endlessly, not a cloud, hill or hummock disturbing the vista in all directions. Miles away, grain elevators stood tall, temples to the wheat gods, and clumps of trees marking homesteads were islands on a grassy sea.
But where, oh where, was the end of the row?
"Only about a half-mile down here," said White, gesturing at the horizon. Off he went, herding his golden retrievers, Duke and Lance, ahead to sniff out game.
"Birds in here, hunt 'em up," he told the dogs, which scurried off, tails wagging, cutting across the rows, rustling dry stalks of milo wheat.
This was classic pheasant country, full of food and cover, but nothing happened right away -- just the whistling of the wind and the tromping of our boots on lumpy ground.
"Duke, back in here!" White yelled if the dog got too far ahead. Once, Duke wandered off in pheasant cover and came home 3 1/2 days later, nearly dead. Big country.
At last the end of the row loomed. "Lance, Duke, back in here!" White called, this being where the action occurs.
Whoosh! The rooster came up first, exploding from knee-high milo with a metallic cackle that set my adrenaline off. The hen followed, clattering from the cover, trailing long tailfeathers.
"Boom!" went White's shotgun as he neatly dropped the hen. "Boom! Boom! Boom!" went mine as I missed the rooster, which let out a derisive last cackle. Pheasants!
If you check the ads in the outdoors magazines, the section marked "Midwest" will have a half-dozen or more touting pheasant hunting in these parts.
For this is ringneck country, rich with the leavings of a huge yearly grain harvest and humbling in its size.
How huge? Well, White takes it easy on his clients until he sees what they can handle. A guide at a nearby camp recently had a customer collapse while stomping the flatlands for ringnecks.
"I try to judge how much a person can take before I push him," said White, who farms 2,000 acres and is used to the traipsing. "A lot of our customers spend quite a bit of time behind a desk."
We'd been scouting various fields by truck and I guessed he was sizing me up. "Wear me out," I dared him. "I need the work."
Which he did. Up and down the relentless rows we traveled all afternoon, stomping the clods, forging through the milo until I had aches in places I'd forgotten about.
But who's complaining? Pheasants kept coming up, flying fast and hard, not like the weaklings we often see back east at game preserves, where pheasants that live in pens are put out for sports the morning of a hunt.
In Kansas, the birds fly, hallelujah, sometimes too willingly.
Yes, White admitted, he, too, stocks pen-reared birds, as many as 4,000 or 5,000 a year to accommodate the hunters who come from as far as Europe to ply his fields. But he gives the birds time to adapt, putting them out regularly over the season, so by the time a gunner stumbles on one it's likely to act more wild than tame.
If he didn't stock, White said hunters would spend frustrating days chasing wily native birds that jumped up out of range, and he would soon be out of business.
"To me, the object is to get a customer good shooting and send him home with his limit," said White. "If they want to go somewhere and walk all day for a few shots at wild birds, I tell 'em fine, but that's not what we do here."
By the end of the afternoon, two or three dozen birds had jumped up within shooting range, and after some adjusting I'd calmed down enough to claim a limit of six, two more than permitted in surrounding fields not licensed like White's as "controlled hunting areas." Next day, we hit the fields again on an Indian summer morning and the result was much the same.
With rainfall just 12 inches a year, this is dry land. When White drove by the Cimarron River, where he hunts deer, I kept looking for the water until he explained that the Cimarron has run just twice in the last 10 years. A river here, he said, is a place where water would run if there were any.
But if it sounds lifeless, take up the binoculars. See those ankle-high dirt hills? Prairie-dog perches, by the hundreds. And that lump of feathers? Golden eagle, with prairie-dog dinner on his mind.
On the edge of this field sits a pond, the only standing water around. At dusk, when the sun shoots shafts of golden light along the horizon, the ducks come cascading in, and overhead the sandhill cranes sound their plaintive cries.
"This can be a hard place," White said as we headed wearily back in a fading sunset, surrounded by a million acres of featureless plains and a sky that stretched from horizon to horizon. "But on days like this, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."