GREGORY, S.D. -- To George Johnson's regret, it is indisputable. Judge Billy Roy Wilson killed a pheasant.
It happened Oct. 3, the last day of a three-day hunt, at the very end of the very last field, with the very last shot fired. The group of 26 hunters was minutes away from casing its shotguns and leaving for home.
As usual, Wilson stood as a blocker to intercept pheasants trying to fly out the end of of the field. It was a very wide field, and the action had been furious. Few, if any birds, had escaped the gauntlet.
The walkers were in the last few yards of milo when the very last bird to get up flew right at Wilson. He downed it with one shot.
"Yay, Judge!" several people yelled.
"Way to go, Judge!" yelled another.
"Great shot, Judge," yelled another.
"Billy ROY!" yelled another.
It is a long-running gag at Wild Wings that Wilson never hits a pheasant. If anybody is near a pheasant in Wilson's vicinity, the other hunter is always given credit. If a lot of hunters are near, all of them are credited.
This time, even Johnson, Wilson's chief antagonist and owner of Wild Wings, had to concede the point.
"There's too many witnesses," Johnson said with mock disdain. "There's no way to cover this one up, but I'm not going to give him any credit for it."
It was the most incredible pheasant hunt I've ever attended, not only for the hunting, but for the fellowship and for the sportsmanship. This was the largest group to ever made the early autumn trip. Most of us have known each other for a long time. We trust each other's ability to handle firearms and to conduct themselves safely and properly in the field, but we always regard newcomers warily until they prove themselves.
With that many people walking a milo strip and with that many pheasants flying like a Fourth of July bomb burst, things happen quickly. A lot of guns are swinging, and shooting zones are narrow. Nevertheless, nobody shot at a low-flying bird, and nobody's shotgun muzzle crossed another hunter.
The first day's drive offers the greatest potential for a mistake. The hunters are excited. They've come a long way and spent a fair amount of money. They are eager to shoot. The dogs are excited. The guides are excited.
My advice for first-timers is, be patient. You will get plenty of opportunities to shoot, and if you shoot well, you will get your limit. It might happen late in the day in the last drive, but you will get your chance.
Pay attention to how the birds fly. Generally, the guides organize the drive by pushing pheasants into the wind. When they get up, note the direction they fly. Do they tend to fly uphill or downhill? Do they flush straight out or try to bank behind the walkers? When you get a handle on their flight tendencies, you can put yourself in a better position at the next field.
Also, notice how the dogs work. If dogs cluster on one side of a field, that side of the field will see more action. If you're not getting to shoot, position yourself near one of the dog handlers at the next field.
One of my pheasants on the last day made me grateful for the No. 8 station on a skeet range. At the 8 station, you stand equidistant between the high and low houses. The first target comes out of the high house. It's a snap shot right over your head.
Shooting was slow on our side of the field. I was flanking, but the walkers knocked down the few birds that flushed. I was a little distracted when a pheasant launched out of the milo like a Polaris missile and came straight at me. I didn't have time to think. I just snapped my gun up and fired. A perfect head shot landed the bird at my feet. Dogs usually don't acknowledge hunters, but I swear the Labs smiled at me.
Jeff Johnson, co-owner of Wild Wings, watched it from his truck 200 yards away.
"You were doubled over backwards," Johnson said. "I thought you were going to fall over!"
Ed Harshman of Osceola, 82, didn't get to shoot much the previous day, but he made up for it on that field. Joe Volpe and I were talking as Harshman walked back to the truck. Everybody congratulated him on the fine shooting he did with his Benelli Ethos 28-gauge.
"He racked up," I said. "He's got the swagger going on."
"Ed always has the swagger going on," Volpe said, laughing.
"Yes, he does, but he's got a little extra in it right now. Check him out. Uh, huh. That's right! I'm bad!"
For three days, Volpe and I rode with Harshman, John Logan and former state senator David Burnett. Burnett did all the driving, skillfully navigating the muddy fields we encountered throughout the hunt. A different driver came within inches of putting his truck in a ditch while trying to power out of a bog. The entire caravan was stuck behind, helplessly watching the truck's rear crab toward the ditch as its tires slung mud high in the air. The driver got traction and recovered just in time, but he was harassed for it the rest of the trip.
One of the newcomers said his goals were to not get yelled at, to not get made fun of for missing easy shots, and to shoot a limit of pheasants each day.
He accomplished one and three. Everybody misses easy shots, and the guy that missed the last one usually jeers the loudest.