GREGORY, S.D. -- I awoke to the cackling of a ringneck pheasant Sept. 16, a sound that presaged three glorious days of picture-book quality hunting.
I have longed to hunt pheasants in South Dakota, so I eagerly accepted an invitation from Judge Bill Wilson to join a group that hunts in the southeastern part of that state at a place called Wild Wings. It is a pheasant preserve that was established decades ago by the late Rick Johnson, an attorney and close friend of Wilson by way of their profession and their mutual love of hunting, horses and mules.
Johnson devoted considerable resources to creating and enhancing pheasant habitat, and he later converted an old home into a lodge to accommodate the friends that came from around the country to hunt pheasants with him.
Johnson died in 2004, but his brother, Jeff Johnson, continues the tradition as the principal owner of Wild Wings. Rick Johnson's sons, George and Charlie, have known Wilson since they were toddlers. They were tots shadowing their father when the Wild Wings saga began, but Charlie now organizes and runs the hunts that almost always produce limits of ringneck roosters. It's high success rate makes a Wild Wings hunt a highly coveted ticket.
"We don't advertise," Charlie Johnson said. "It's all by word of mouth, and we're always booked the entire season."
For that reason, traditional groups such as Wilson's never miss a season.
"If you give up your spot, you probably won't get it back," Wilson said.
The statewide pheasant season in South Dakota begins Oct. 15, but a special season for hunting preserves runs Sept. 1-March 31. Preserves are required to release 600 birds per year, and all roosters that are killed must be tagged.
Our group was an eclectic lot of 20 from all over Arkansas that included Monty Davenport of Yellville, Robert "Skip" Henry of Little Rock, Bill Henry of Little Rock, James Riddle of Little Rock, Joe Johnson of Little Rock, Jim Rice of Little Rock, Jim Smith of Little Rock, David Knight of Little Rock, Bill Arnold of Newark, John Logan of Blytheville, Ed Harshman of Osceola, Joe Thomas of Osceola, Tom Thompson of Batesville, Joe Brown of Nashville, Tenn., and Coleson Bruce of Austin, Texas.
My travel companions were Wilson, Davenport and Brown, a U.S. magistrate judge. We left Wilson's Rasputin Mule Farm early on Sept, 13, and we reached Wild Wings a day later. We paid our respects to Sgt. Charles Floyd at his monument at Floyd's Bluff, near Sioux City, Iowa. Floyd was the only member of Lewis & Clark's party to die during the Corps of Discovery Expedition from 1804-06. We also visited Mulberry Bend on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River near Vermillion, S.D.
Our three-day hunt started Sept. 16, which gave us a day off. Wilson and Davenport spent the day riding mules while Brown and I toured the Badlands, Mount Rushmore and the splendid Crazy Horse Memorial in the famous Black Hills.
The cackling rooster woke me early the day of the hunt, but there was no rush to meet him. A Wild Wings hunt starts about 10 a.m., preceded by a leisurely but hearty breakfast that ends with a one-time safety lecture from Charlie Johnson. The inviolable rule is to not shoot at low-flying birds. Don't shoot unless you see a clear blue background, and don't be a hog. There will be plenty of birds, Johnson assured, so respect other hunters' fields of fire and give everyone a chance to shoot.
After that, we piled into a caravan of creaky trucks and sortied to the pheasant fields.
One vehicle towed a large trailer that contained about 18 dogs. Most were Labrador retrievers, but there was also a German Wirehaired Pointer named Helga, in honor of Hagar's wife in the Hagar the Horrible comic strip. Wilson owned her originally, but he gave her to Charlie Johnson so she could live the sporting life she deserved.
Charlie also brought his two dachshunds. Originally bred to hunt badger, the dogs were comical to watch burrowing through tall grass and milo with their stubby little legs, but they earned their keep. They are relentless pursuers, and they flush birds that elude the faster, harder-driving Labs.
Hunting with a group that large is like a small military exercise. Most of the hunters form a line of "drivers" that walk abreast the length of a field. Gunners and dog handlers walk in staggered succession so that two gunners are seldom side by side.
Outside the field, on the edges, are two hunters per side that walk ahead of the drivers. These "flankers" intercept birds that try to escape from the sides, and it's a good place to do a lot of fast shooting.
Four or five hunters stand at the end of the field as "blockers." These are usually older gentlemen that don't want to tread the broken ground and thick cover of a corn or milo field. Without the blockers, many pheasants simply run out the ends of the fields ahead of the drivers and are never seen. When they encounter the blockers, they flush.
The convergence of the drivers and blockers is where safety is paramount because you have two squads of shooters facing each other. That's why Charlie Johnson insists that drivers and blockers only shoot at birds that fly behind them.
The warm weather taxed the dogs that were out of shape from the summer, but the quality of the sunlight resembled that of Arkansas in late October and early November. It was soft and richly saturated, which made the grain fields glow with yellow, gold and mauve in the clear Midwestern air.
I hunted the first day beside Skip Henry, who put on a shotgunning clinic, as did Bill Arnold of Newark, a young attorney who was highly efficient with his well-worn Remington 870 pump.
There were all styles and makes of shotguns among this group, but the Browning BPS was the most ubiquitous. Wilson used a pair of Browning BPS in 20- and 28-gauge. Joe Thomas of Osceola used a gorgeous Benelli 28-gauge autoloader. One fellow had a stunning Merkel side-by-side, and Coleson Bruce had a cut-down Winchester Model 12 16-gauge with a Poly-Choke.
It was shortened, Bruce said, because it's previous owner fired it with an obstruction in the barrel. The peeled part of the barrel was removed, which eliminated the constriction, which necessitated the Poly-Choke.
Another fellow had a 1920 Model 12 in 16-gauge that was in pristine condition.
All were very proficient shooters.
There were, however, an uncommon amount of malfunctions that pressed a certain writer to employ his field gunsmithing skills. The worst was a 20-gauge Charles Daly semi-automatic that required it to be totally disassembled, including removing the trigger group to remove a traffic jam of shells that refused to stay in the magazine.
Fixing guns in the heat of a bird shoot is a great way to make friends and relieve tension.
Some of the Browning pumps were unusually troublesome. They so vexed their owner that he sold them both on site after the last hunt Sunday.
Three days of great hunting, fine dining and fellowship made the long ride back to Arkansas very satisfying. The trip was everything I thought it would be and more.