“Congratulations,” my wife, Deborah, said to me over the phone early that morning. “You boys have managed to put yourselves in the coldest spot in the whole country, and that includes Alaska.”
I was pulling on a pair of thick woolen socks while outside swirling snow was accumulating in the parking lot of our motel. In De Smet, South Dakota, the outside temperature gauge read five degrees above zero as we prepared to go ring-necked pheasant hunting. A stiff 30-mile-per-hour breeze made the wind chill calculation minus 20 degrees.
A reasonable person would, perhaps, have hesitated, saying to himself, Maybe it would be wise to wait for another day. That kind of good sense is not often found among dedicated bird hunters. Besides, the number of wild pheasants in South Dakota was predicted to be the highest in years.
The pheasants themselves were hardly inconvenienced by the descending frigid mass of arctic winter air. The ring-neck is a century-old immigrant from Northern China, where it was also no stranger to extreme winter conditions.
Introduced to America in 1881 by Judge Owen Denny, the U.S. Consul to China, this superb game bird immediately adapted to our continent, especially the agricultural areas and particularly South Dakota, which long ago proclaimed itself the Pheasant Capital of the World.
As we transferred our dogs into insulated kennels in the beds of two four-wheel-drive vehicles, it was obvious that the pups were not going to be bothered by the cold. Brewster, a four-year-old English cocker spaniel endowed with a delightful personality and boundless energy, was already rolling and frolicking in the parking lot snow drifts as we sorted things out.
Along with Brewster were six field-experienced springer spaniels — Astrid, Buck, Gino, Penny, Sony and Susie — plus Sandy, a big muscular yellow Labrador whose role it would be to bust through any cover too stout or snow drift too deep for our mid-sized spaniels.
The 10-day bird-hunting trip had been meticulously planned and put together by Tom Schneider with Meade Rudasill, both Annapolitans, avid wing shooters and springer spaniel fans. They had been making this pilgrimage for ring-necks for 20 years.
This year they invited me to join the adventure along with their three other companions and gun dog handlers, Kevin Klasing of Mt. Airy and Jim Zimmerman and Tim Wachob, both Pennsylvanians.
Below-freezing weather had one advantage: Ring-necks, particularly the roosters, yard up or gather in flocks under such conditions. They also seek out the densest cover for protection, usually close to an energy-dense food supply such as corn. If South Dakota has anything in large quantity besides ring-necked pheasants, it is cornfields.
This year, especially, it had cold as well. That five-degree morning was just the beginning. Within two days, the temperature had fallen to minus 11 and the wind chill to 40 below. But ring-neck hunters are a hardy lot; with proper clothing and mad determination, we managed an exceptional hunt.
Switching out dogs on a regular basis and selectively hunting only the smaller (about a quarter-mile or less), denser patches of cover kept our energy levels up. We also returned frequently to the trucks for restorative warmth. Almost every day we bagged our limits of roosters (three per gun per day; hens are protected from harvest) though it often took us to closing time (5pm) to get it done.
We did not keep track of the shells we expended. The ring-neck can quickly attain 65 mph in level flight. Add in a 30 mph tail wind, you’ve got a particularly difficult target to bring to bag. By the end of six days in the field, we were just about out of ammunition, exhausted, wind-burned — and ecstatic.