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South Dakota Wingshooting

Fine dog work, great company and challenging birds make for a ­memorable hunt

Dennis Doyle, Jim Zimmerman, Kevin Klasing, Mike Wilkerson and Steve Roth on the hunt in South Dakota.

A double layer of warm technical clothing, heavy brush chaps and a stout hunting coat were barely holding the elements at bay.
    Out front a wild pheasant had just broken from cover, speeding low over dense treetops and right at me. Backlit by the sun, I couldn’t tell if it was a rooster or a protected hen, so I held my fire, waiting for the bird to display its colors. Fingering the safety, I tried to warn my partner of its approach but doubted that he heard me over the roar of the wind across the thrashing prairie grasses.
    I was standing at the end of a South Dakota shelter belt, a quarter-mile line of closely planted trees outside an inner row of thicker evergreens, bordered by smaller bushes and then more evergreens. It was the only cover that could withstand the relentless gale ripping since dawn across the flat agrarian Huron County countryside.
    The belt offered weather protection to the farmhouse and barns some 200 yards distant. As the trees also bordered an enormous harvested cornfield, it also offered ring-neck pheasants an ideal laying up spot on a 30-degree morning.
    Gusting at 50 mph, the wind was at my back and I had to guard against being pushed off balance. Off to my right about 25 yards distant stood my partner, the ramrod of the hunt, Tom Schneider. We were blocking at the far end of a drive that hoped to break some wild, tough Dakota ring-necks out of cover and into range.
    The rest of our party from the Maryland-Virginia area — Jim Zimmerman, Kevin Klasing, Mike Wilkerson and Steve Roth — were pushing from the other end of the shelter belt behind their trained springer and cocker spaniels, in a hammer and anvil movement.
    Then the bird out front lifted from the trees, turned, opened its wings and caught the wind. Its long, graceful tail and iridescent green head — set off by a brilliant white collar — announced that it was a rooster. I threw my gun to my shoulder. The bird’s air speed was boosted by the gale, blowing from a leisurely 30 mph to about 70 in an instant. I fired twice but never came close as the bird zoomed toward the horizon.
    Stuffing two more shells into my gun’s magazine, I peered under the trees and saw a half dozen more roosters running toward us in front of the spaniels. As they neared, pandemonium broke out. Birds were flushing everywhere through the trees and into the wind. Shooting and reloading, then shooting again was as exciting as it gets hunting ring-neck pheasants in South Dakota.
    Wind-burned and exhausted, we all agreed it was one of the best hunts we’d ever had. We seldom came close to downing the legal limit on most days, but we had shared the finest aspects of the wingshooting sport: fine dog work, great company and challenging birds.