"I wouldn't take another one of you, but I wouldn't take nothing for you," Knaub later told his dogs, acknowledging the pair's ranging occasionally costs him a bird.
Standing in a field west of Huntley in Harlan County, Knaub said, "I've got one every time I've been here." He could have had a quail or two that morning when a covey rose farther up the draw or when singles flushed from a brushy fencerow. But his shotgun carried heavy loads that would give him the extra range often needed to bring down a wild-flushing, late-season rooster. Because he did not like what those loads can do to small bobwhites, he passed.
Knaub would pass up more chances for quail during that Saturday hunt last January during his search for a rooster. The Lincoln businessman knows where to find pheasants in the eastern half of Harlan County. He's hunted there more than 20 years and had access to more than 20,000 acres of private land at his disposal. He did not have to go door to door to ask for access. Nor did he pay a small fortune to lease the land. Along with 150 to 200 other hunters each fall, Knaub simply writes the Huntley Lions Club a check for $30. For that fee, they receive permission to hunt upland game birds for the entire season.
"I don't know of any other place in the state where you can do such a thing as this," Knaub said. "There is no other place. They've got the best bargain in the world."
The Huntley Lions Club started its hunting access program as a fundraiser a few years after the club formed in 1969. The neighboring Wilcox Lions Club came up with the idea and had its own hunt. The Huntley club borrowed the idea and the late Loren "Bo" Wagner, the owner of a local garage, got the ball rolling.
"Wilcox had a hunting deal just like this," said Bob Dodds, a charter member of the club. "We said, 'Well, they make good money at it.' So we started doing it."
Because Wagner also sold center-pivot irrigation systems, he knew most of the area's farmers. That made him the logical choice to make the first contacts. "He was good at it when we got started and we haven't gotten smart enough to quit yet," Dodds said with a laugh.
The program operates the same today as it did when it began. "It's really not that complicated," said Dale Skiles, a long-time club member and past-president who also has land enrolled in the program.
Each fall the club's 17 active members contact landowners and ask them to enroll their land. "We go back to the same people year after year so it's usually just a phone call and they say go right ahead." In the weeks leading up to opening day of pheasant season, club members post the land with signs that read, "Regulated Hunting Access Privileges By Huntley Lions Club."
Hunters can sign up for the program at the town hall for a few hours the day before the Saturday opener or on the first two mornings of the season, when the Lions sponsor a hunter's breakfast. Memberships, which must be purchased in person, are also available at Huntley Service, the garage once owned by Wagner, the week before the season opener and throughout the season.
Hunters receive a numbered name badge to wear in the field and a placard to leave on the dash of their vehicle while they are hunting. Both items tell participating landowners the individual has permission to hunt. Hunters also receive a copy of a plat map shaded to denote the land that is enrolled in the hunting program.
On opening morning of the 2003 pheasant season, about 30 hunters gathered for breakfast in Huntley's town hall, a city building that the club helped remodel and furnish. All who show up for the free-will offering breakfast, served by club members, earn a chance for door prizes donated by area businesses.
The diners included a party of four out-of-state hunters - three from Illinois and one from Arkansas - and others from Lincoln, Grand Island, Republican City, Alma and Holdrege. Skiles rattled off a list of
"They come back year after year and some will say 'We would come back if there weren't any birds just to talk to you guys,' " Skiles said.
That's one of the reasons Knaub returns. "The hospitality from the people at the breakfast up here opening weekend is fantastic. They couldn't be nicer. It's nice talking to the guys about what [birds] they've seen. I like to do that and swap a few stories before you go out. And you run into the guys during the day and visit with them.
We don't spend a lot of time visiting then because we're hunting."
Harlan County is largely an area of dissected plains. A myriad of draws, carved by rain and snowmelt making its way to the Republican River, which crosses the southern third of the county, lace the countryside. On the flatlands between the draws and in bottomlands wide enough to turn tractors around, farmers raise a mixture of irrigated and dryland corn, wheat, soybeans and milo.
Most of the land enrolled in the Huntley Lions Club's program is farmed. But Maynard Dunse of Huntley, also a charter member of the club, said that every farm has waste draws - areas that are too narrow, rough or steep to farm. These are the areas where hunters most often find pheasants and quail, but pastures, creek bottoms, grassy waterways, center-pivot corners, fencerows, crop stubble and a few small patches of CRP also hold birds.
Knaub had hunted in the area for a few years before he found out about the Lions Club program. "I kept running into the controlled hunting signs, and finally I was driving through Huntley and I stopped at the little cafe and asked them what a person had to do to hunt the land," he said. "They told me and I've been doing it ever since. It's been a lot of years."
He has learned his way around the county and knows where he can usually find a rooster. "It's funny how you remember where you get the birds," he said.
Those places include small pockets of cover hidden away in the middle of a section. "You've got to pick the spots the other guys haven't really hammered," he said. "I like to walk in a ways. I don't like hunting right on the side of the road just because everybody else does it."
Knaub said he finds another honey hole every year, primarily because he keeps looking for new ones. "And there are parts [of the county] I don't even get to," he said.
The group of hunters from Arkansas and Illinois took little time to realize what Knaub already knew. After lunch on a drizzly opening day, they traipsed a quarter-mile across crop stubble to reach a draw where corn grew that summer, but had steep banks covered with brome and plum thickets. There, they found a covey of quail and chased singles across the draw and down a fencerow.
"Me and Kevin [Schmidt of Viola, Illinois], we saw quite a few birds this morning the first place we went, but they were getting up kind of wild. These old guys, they're so slow, they can't get around to them anymore," said Phil Thornburg of Lynn Center, Illinois, sending a jab at his brother, Gary Thornburg of Cotter, Arkansas, and Richard Schmidt of Aledo, Illinois.
"I'm the oldest one here - I'm 64 years old - so I've got a reason to be a little slow," Schmidt countered.
The second field the quartet hunted that afternoon produced three quail. The third produced a quail from cover near an abandoned farmstead. After a long walk up a draw that contained two small ponds, void of water but full of weedy cover, the Schmidts found a pair of roosters.
They called it a day after that, finishing with five pheasants and seven quail between them. "That ain't bad for opening day," said Gary Thornburg. "We're having fun. Tomorrow we'll have more fun and the next day we'll have more fun."
The party travels regularly to hunt pheasants and in the past has paid anywhere from $50 to $200 per gun per day to hunt in North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa.
Gary Thornburg found out about the Huntley Lions Club program from a relative who owns a motel in Alma and he brought the others along. The Schmidts had hunted pheasants years ago near St. Paul, Nebraska, with family that lives there. But this was the first time the Thornburgs had hunted Nebraska.
"It's a good program, real good," said Gary Thornburg, referring to both the access provided by the program and the price. "As a matter of fact, it's probably one of the better ones I've seen. That's the only way to go, especially for out-of-staters like us who don't know nothing about the area."
In years past, getting permission to hunt private land in Nebraska usually involved finding the nearest farmhouse, knocking on the door and asking. Because many landowners do not live on the farm now, finding the right door to knock on can be a hunt in itself.
"Yesterday afternoon I had some high school kids stop in there at my place who wanted to know if they could hunt ducks on a pond about two miles west of my place," said Dunse. "I said, 'Well, you'll have to go hunt up the landowner over there.' They asked, 'Where's he live?' and I said, 'He lives in Alma.' This way the guys don't have to run four or five miles to find permission to hunt."
While hunters certainly benefit from the program, they are not its primary beneficiaries. Skiles said some of the proceeds buy eyeglasses for local people in need. They also support the Nebraska Lions Foundation, which operates a mobile screening unit that travels the state offering free hearing, vision, glaucoma, blood sugar and blood pressure exams. "We can do lots of things," said Skiles. "That money comes in real handy to help people out."
A portion of the proceeds supports Lions Clubs International and its many programs. According to the Lions' web site, its SightFirst program hopes to eliminate preventable and reversible blindness. It has provided more than 3.4 million cataract surgeries, treatments to prevent river blindness, and built or expanded 154 eye hospitals around the world.
The group's other vision programs include providing glaucoma and vision screenings and corneal transplants, the establishment and support of eye banks, clinics, hospitals and research centers around the world, collecting used eyeglasses and redistributing them to those in need, and providing braille writers and guide dogs.
The organization, which includes 1.4 million men and women in 46,000 clubs located in 193 countries and geographic areas, also provides services for youths, works to improve the environment, builds homes for disabled people, supports diabetes education, conducts hearing programs and, through its foundation, provides disaster relief around the world.
The Huntley Lions' access program also benefits landowners. Skiles enrolled his land several years before he became a member. He remembered being approached by a club member while working outside on a Sunday afternoon. "I guess I probably asked a lot of questions and so forth," he said. One of his concerns was whether he would still be able to let friends hunt. "They said, yes, it's still my land, I still control it, and if I want to let somebody without a permit [from the Lions Club] hunt, that's my business." Satisfied with the answers he got, Skiles signed up.
"We don't have any problems with the people who buy licenses from us," Skiles said. "They want to come back next year and they want to be welcome next year. If we have any problems, it's more likely with local people who think, 'Well, I live here, I can hunt anyplace.' "
Skiles said he was not sure if they would be able to get the program off the ground if they started it today. At its peak, 40,000 acres were enrolled in the program and more than 200 hunters participated. Some of the land has changed hands and was not reenrolled by the new owners. Some is leased for hunting. The habitat value of some ground was consumed by center pivots that are now able to traverse draws smoothed by heavy machinery.
Habitat changes have left fewer pheasants on the land than were there 30 years ago. "We get all the hunters that the birds will accommodate," Skiles said, noting the club doesn't put a cap on the number of permits it sells. "In fact, about five years ago we thought we probably had more hunters than we needed for the population. We raised the price from $20 to $30 and still got just as many people."
Knaub has no qualms with the pheasant population or the number of hunters he sees. He would like to see more hunters so the club could make more money for its programs.
"You can have more people in this country for a couple of weekends and you wouldn't hurt nothing," he said.
On the final weekend of the pheasant season, Knaub apparently had this half of Harlan County to himself. If others were hunting, he did not see them. "You may see a carload or two at the most," said Knaub of a typical weekend in December or January. "There's just nobody out. The first couple of weekends are it.
"This year was better than last year, but four years ago [the hunting] was fantastic. Many of the people had their limits [of pheasants] by noon. We got ours by 9:30 in the morning. When you do that, there's a lot of birds around.
"We see a lot of quail, but we don't hunt them a lot. We usually see three to six coveys when we're hunting in the area, but we primarily are pheasant hunting. As you saw today, they're nice coveys too."
Knaub even takes a grouse or two every year from the lighter cover. "I've always enjoyed it. We haven't killed a lot of birds, but we always have a good time. It's a nice place to hunt and you don't spend all day getting permission. And that's what I like about it."
Knaub is usually accompanied by his wife, Joyce Ann. She drops him and the dogs off, drives to the other side of a field or section and reads a book while she waits, a tactic that can save a considerable amount of boot leather.
It had been a long day and Knaub had not seen a pheasant since the first field. For whatever reason, most likely the unseasonably warm, 60-degree temperatures, the birds were not in their usual haunts. But he had more than enough energy left for one more long trek.
Years ago, Knaub had discovered a draw that held a dry, weed-choked dam in the middle of a section. Last season, while hiking across a half-mile of corn stubble to get to the draw, he found that not every farmer is using Roundup Ready corn. One field edge was choked with weeds. Just like the dry pond, the cover couldn't be seen from the road.
The dogs got birdy as soon as they hit the weedy corn stubble. Soon they flushed a rooster, which Knaub cleanly dispatched with one shot. With only a few previous retrieves, his younger dog did not want to let go of what turned out to be the only pheasant of the day.
"The birds are here," Knaub said as he retraced his steps across the stubble to his vehicle. "You've just got to find them."
The Huntley Lions Club will sell permits for this year's hunting access program at the town hall during the afternoon on November 5, and the mornings of November 6 and 7. Permits also are available at Huntley Service during business hours the week before and during the pheasant season.