4:30 a.m. Maybe it was jet lag from D.C. to Pierre, but more likely it was waking at 4 a.m. the day before, breaking ice for the decoys and then walking several miles for a bag of pheasants. Surely the double nightcap to celebrate a glorious day afield among companions didn't have anything to do with it, but nonetheless you'd bet your life the clock is wrong and you haven't actually slept more than a moment. You roust your sore legs into gear. You've been thinking about this trip for a solid year, and you're not about to sleep in on this, day two of your three-day South Dakota combo hunt. Besides, today you're better prepared.
You slept in your long underwear, coffee stains and all, mainly because you were too tired to take them off. Plus it saves time. The guys won't be calling you names from the idling truck as you change out of your high-dollar waterfowl gear and into your brush pants. This time your shooting vest is pre-loaded with 28-gauge shells—two boxes should do it—so you can swap your parka and the 31/2-inch Franchi for the Filson and your new 28-gauge quickly. This move will enable you to get a spot in the cab of the truck, rather than in the bed, which will allow you to feel your fingers when the pheasants fly.
This morning you will wear your waders in the vehicle because yesterday a whitetail darted in front of the truck on the way to the marsh, causing you to dump your precious coffee in your lap. It was obvious you chose the wrong choke tube yesterday, so you install the improved mod, and that should make all the difference. On your way out the door, you stash a couple cigars in your breast pocket to soften the blow to your buddies when you bag the most birds and win the wager. You bet them because it's like betting against a pitcher who just threw a no-hitter; odds are low they'll outshoot you again.
5:01 a.m. You grab your coffee mug and your shotgun and bump into your buddy Joe as he walks zombie-like to the vehicle, waders on, carrying his shotgun and coffee mug. It dawns on you that you look exactly like he does, and whoa, he looks rougher than a character from a bad horror film.
"Mornin' Joe," you quip.
"Grrrrrr hrrr rrrrrrrr," he growls, obviously as "jet-lagged" as you. "Mind driving?" he musters. "My contact lens is acting up."
"I would but I'm not authorized for the rental," you fire back. Really you just want to snooze during the drive to the marsh.
"I listed you as a driver," he says as he melts into the passenger seat of the small SUV. Meanwhile, two other buddies pile in, along with a stinking black Lab that's had zero training in etiquette—or retrieving. Moments later everyone else is asleep as you try to keep up with the guide in his 4x4 pickup that's much better suited to the treacherous South Dakota back roads. Miraculously, you manage to make it without sliding into a ditch or falling asleep at the wheel, but no one gives you credit. They never do.
5:42 a.m. The gray sky is a whirlwind of waterfowl as you pull up and survey the marsh. You're ready to go, but of course the other guys are wrestling their waders—and losing—and arguing about chokes. You wonder why you even bother to prepare. You notice Joe went top-shelf with the expensive Black Cloud ammo, so you begin some gamesmanship of your own.
"Dang it," you say. "Forgot my shells. Can I borrow a box? I'll reimburse you back at the lodge."
"Aren't you shooting that cheap foreign trash?" You nod yes. "Consider it Christmas," he says, wholly disgusted.
5:45 a.m. The guide begins dividing you up into two groups. You wish to hunt with your buddy Jens from Alabama, rather than Skip from Seattle, because Jens shoots birds well, and Skip just claims them. There's no room for two claimers in a duck blind.
"Me and Jens want to shoot together today," you offer, while unveiling a corner of your cigar pouch to Jens.
"Yeah, that sounds good," says Jens.
6:01 a.m. The two of you follow your guide through the muck to the blind. Jogging ahead, you toss your bag on the left side of the bench because you know Jens shoots best to his left. Not today. You really like the guy—you'd be the best man at his wedding if he asked—but this is duck hunting. You load up and wait for daylight.
6:20 a.m. Two ducks bomb the decoys like Kamikazes. They're on your side, and the guide yells, "Take 'em!" so you stand and swing your Italian-made shotgun beautifully as they regain altitude. You ring three shots into the crisp Dakota air. Nothing falls.
"Why didn't you shoot?" you ask Jens.
"Because they were standing on your barrel," he replies. Just then two shots ring out from the blind across the marsh. You see two ducks fall in the distance.
6:24 a.m. A moment later a flock of gadwalls hooks in and Jens shoots. You bang off a couple rounds yourself, and several ducks crater the ice with dull thuds. The Lab fetches them, and you high-five your buddy and mumble something to him about teamwork.
6:27 a.m. A lone duck comes in and you stand and shoulder your new shotgun, eager to find out just what the mighty 31/2-incher can do in trained hands.
"Don't shoot!" yells the guide, but it's too late. Your first shot wings the duck, and your second and third miss, but the bird careens down in the field across the lake. The dog makes a miraculous retrieve and brings a northern shoveler to hand.
"Knew it when I shot it," you say, face as straight as an icicle. "Always wanted a South Dakota smiley for the collection," you add as you carefully tuck the bloody bird into your backpack. The guide raises an eyebrow, and Jens knows you're lying. "Heck of a shot, eh?" you gasp.
7:30 a.m. You unseal the coffee and offer it around, then tell your best joke. Soon you're sure you offended the guide, because he's no longer talking. You're two birds shy of your limit, and you want to hold out for pintails, mallards or canvasbacks. You watch as flight after flight of ringnecks buzz the blind.
8:06 a.m. Three mallards and a drake pintail glide high overhead and the guide hails. You try not to look. They circle. The guide chuckles. You peek just as they cup their wings. You fire twice at the lead bird, but the third bird falls. Jens shoots and the others drop.
"Bingo!" you brag. "What a way to end!"
8:30 a.m. With a strap full of ducks (carried by the guide), you trudge back to the vehicles. The Lab drenches the entire rental and your gear with mud and is asleep before you hit the highway.
10:49 a.m. You'd have arrived at the lodge earlier, but Joe had to stop twice on the way back for Slim Jims and bathrooms. In your room, where it looks like an L.L. Bean bomb has exploded, you shuck your waders like a husk of Dakota corn and voilà, you're standing in your brush pants, first in line for biscuits and gravy.
11:35 a.m. You lace your boots and hope no one notices they're brand new. You trade your Stormy Kromer for an orange cap and grab your vest.
11:42 a.m. First in the truck, you turn the heater's vents your way and try not to look too comfortable while the rest of the men, including several seniors from another group and a couple young boys, clamber into the back of the bird wagon like orange-clad convicts. Most are holding 12-gauges, but you plan to wow them with your little round-action 28. You've read plenty of pheasant articles from those fools at Field & Stream who say you can't down a rooster with anything less than a howitzer, but you know it's all marketing hype.
12:20 p.m. You volunteer to block the right edge of cover. Only one bird squirts out on your side, and Skip dumps it before you can say "game hog!" Back at the truck, the boys pile a half-dozen birds on the dog boxes and Joe holds them up for pictures as if they're his. Recognizing a good idea, you do the same.
1:22 p.m. You kick up a rooster and pull the bead down on its tail and slap the trigger. Blam! The bird doesn't flinch, so you summon the second barrel. Blam. The bird flies away unscathed. "These roosters are tougher than dollar steaks!" you holler. Blam, goes another gun. "But not that tough," hollers someone else.
1:40 p.m. You're the pivot man, and as soon as you stop, three roosters cackle and fly. You shoot and fold one, then swing to the other and fold it. Skip yells, "Boom Boom Mancini, boys! A double-o'-rooski for the Skipster!" or some other nonsense, and before you can protest, the dog brings both of them back to him.
2 p.m. The group breaks for lunch in an old barn and sucks down hot soup like it's New York City, circa 1931. You trade stories, warm your hands and offer some shooting tips, just to get in their heads.
2:45 p.m. "Rooster!" yells Jens, and you fire instinctively. But just after you do, the line yells, "Hen!" and you become very confused. The bird, unharmed but frightened by your shooting, glides down naturally, but your buddies claim you've shot it, which is against the law. They think it's funny, especially considering the lodge's $100 fine in addition to South Dakota's fine. You stand by the truth that you didn't shoot a hen. No one believes you.
3 p.m. Still, no one believes you.
3:30 p.m. "Hey, Henrietta!" yells Skip, across the field, at you. "Shoot that rooster!" You look up and shoot, and a rooster falls. A cheer echoes throughout the line.
3:52 p.m. You take the beautiful male pheasant out of your game bag and carefully place it on the dashboard of the truck to keep it pristine for the taxidermist, and to subtly remind your friends of its magnificence and your prowess as a hunter.
4:12 p.m. After several more drives, everyone is limited out. With shotguns broken over shoulders, you produce a cigar. Of course it's not really a Cuban cigar, but your buddies aren't savvy enough to know it. Suddenly, Joe acts as though he's your best friend.
"Can you handle one more day?" you ask while lighting a smoke in the waning South Dakota sun, trying your best not to sound like an Old Milwaukee commercial.
"You better believe it," says Joe.
"But what about the bet?" asks Skip. "I think I won."
"Double or nothing?" you beg.
"Again?" asks Jens.
"You're on, Henrietta!" says Skip.
5:30 p.m. You gather for drinks and exaggerate the day's aforementioned events. Everyone still thinks you shot a hen.
6:30 p.m. You swear the pheasant dinner, with duck au jus, is the best you've ever tasted. You also swear to take your 12-gauge, rather than the 28, for tomorrow's pheasants.
10:16 p.m. You wake yourself up with your own contented snores, and transfer yourself from the leather couch to your bunk. You're still wearing your stained long underwear, and you smile knowing you've got one more glorious day in them, beginning at 5 a.m. … or approximately one brief moment from now.