A comment by an old friend saddened me the other day.
“I haven’t been dovehunting since we were in high school,” he said. Considering that’s pushing 40 years ago, I was aghast. My friend was always a good shot – still is – and it was something we always loved. Many was the Saturday or afternoon we spent together burning powder.
I reckon I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Most of us grow up, or our interests change. If we even still hunt, our tastes turn to deer or bear, hogs or waterfowl (although I have never been a rabid duck-plucker). Small game hunting tends to slip away for many of us, for whatever reason, unless there’s a son or daughter or two to introduce to the woods.
I am still passionate about dove hunting, even when I can find no one to hunt with. Maybe it’s because on my very first hunt, with just my dog Dudley and myself, I scored twice, and was utterly hooked. It took a box of shells, but we scored twice. I had received my first shotgun the year before, but the vast majority of my gun time for that first nine or ten months was spent learning, practicing, and dreaming.
We have two types of doves now, where we had only one when I was a kid. The larger invasive species tastes the same and is just as challenging in the field, so I hold no prejudice. Besides, there’s no real easy way to tell the difference when the sun is setting and the right shape rockets past at about Mach Two and you have to remember to shoot where your target will be in a second or two. Come to think of it, that’s a good life rule – don’t shoot where something is, but plan for where it will be.
It is rare that I have missed opening day of dove season – usually work or family obligations or a pesky hurricane is to blame. I will admit it isn’t quite the same, since I am a very solitary hunter now. I have no family or hunting companions to compete with, or to help clean birds and guns at the end of the day while cats wait for entrails and legs, and the dog sleeps happily at my feet. I have no club or loosely-affiliated group of friends who will carefully take stations around a dusty cut cornfield, providing a 12- or 20-gauge warning that the birds are coming your way, and you best be ready, you lazy rascal.
September dove season always presaged the other seasons with more civilized weather, when we chased rabbits, eyed treetops for squirrels, or waited for houndsong to echo across a field or forest, telling us that that a deer or rabbit had broken cover.
The Thanksgiving dove season became a time of homecoming as we grew up, with some of us gathering to shoot a few on Saturday and catch up.
And the winter season, the last musical score of the last act of the play, is still a favorite time for me, since most of the birds are singles, and the hunter often has the fields to himself. I will never forget the January day, with an ice storm visible on the horizon, when I flushed a covey of quail (and missed), kicked a rabbit from a sad pile of corn stalks (and connected), nailed both a brace of gray squirrels and a big black fox squirrel, then ended the day with two or three doves. It was the last day of winter dove season that year, and my dogs were proud of me, if no one else was, even though the walk back to the truck was long and cold.
But September is the time when we boys were finally unleashed, often hunting in jeans and T-shirts or shirtless, an army canteen hanging off a belt, learning to respect others’ shooting areas and not to drop shot on neighboring homes. If it got too hot, there were cold soft drinks in the back of one truck or the other, and oftentimes some sandwiches. We could lounge in the negligible shade of the truck for a few minutes, then return to do battle with the silver-gray and purple dive bombers roaring across the field. Sometimes we hunted right beside our favorite swimming hole, and a dip in the cool water of the gravel pit was just what one needed to make it through the day.
We had a group of men who unselfishly gave their time and often their money to make sure we stayed safe and out of mischief. Somehow, someway, they managed to teach us a lot of other stuff while we waited by those trucks, drank those drinks or had our shotguns checked. Those fellows were sneaky that way, sliding life lessons in with the gun cleanings and shooting advice. The wisdom shared beside a cornfield likely changed many a young life for the better.
I have been watching the doves cross from the field near our house, over the pasture, down to the next field and thence to a swamp for weeks. This past Saturday, opening day, I grabbed a favorite old shotgun, dropped a bare minimum of shells in my pocket and headed that way. It takes a few minutes to get used to using a walking stick and carrying a shotgun, but I managed.
Dudley and Dixie are long gone, of course, and as I have noted before, none of my current pack of dogs are really hunting material. Still, one does not go anywhere alone on our farm, so the tumbling, curious puppies, Lucy and Jack, along with old Walter and ever-worrying Toni escorted me through the gloom of the pines to the spot I’d picked out at the front pasture.
I was home again.
The mosquitoes were awful, it was a lot harder to stand back up from the spot I’d chosen to sit (even without puppies crawling all over me), and I had a bottle of water, not a soft drink so cold that the can sweat when it was pulled from the ice. In the distance, I heard the telltale three-round salvos marking the path of a bird or two that escaped, or one that tumbled toward its final destiny in gravy and rice or on a grill. Somebody was shooting, even though I never saw a bird.
It didn’t really matter, though. I had a good dog (or four), my own gun, the sun at my back, and a clear blue sky made of the memories of a thousand September afternoons.
You really don’t need much more than that to make for a good opening day, although a few birds would be nice.