Reminiscences and Ramblings of a Novice Wing-Shooter
It was the First of September, 2019 and there I sat, in the pre-dawn twilight, half asleep and fighting the near irresistible temptation, provided by the comfortable blanket of darkness that enveloped me, to “rest my eyes”. I guess that’s what you get for having longtime friends (and, soon-to-be hunting companions) over the night before, staying up entirely too late and then “arising” (if you want to call it that) with a groan at one o’clock in order for us to make the trip and get a choice spot on the burnt wheat field that we were going to hunt. There was no cat-napping to be had, however, for with a sense of anticipation akin to a kid on Christmas morning, I was “wound for sound”! It was Missouri’s Dove Season Opener – “Dovemas”, as I’ve jokingly referred to it among friends.
A little backstory: I come from a long line of devoted bird hunters. Both of my grandfathers raised and trained their own dogs for flushing quail. My Grandpa Archie even managed to head out west and hunt pheasant, a few times. As with so many things, however, those days are gone: in our area “Gentleman Bobwhite” seldom makes his call anymore, much less an appearance. And, the Jordan Creek bottoms where “Popo” (as we affectionately called my maternal grandfather) worked his dogs and, in later years, recalled covey-upon-covey of quail, has been swallowed up by the urban expansion of Springfield. Wiped out by a Walgreens and a couple of self-storage places. Oh, and they also put in a dog park! What is with these urbanites and their inclination to destroy nature, displacing those that enjoyed or benefitted from it, and replacing it with an artificial version of what was once there? Anyway, I digress.
No doubt, there are plenty of places in other regions of these United States where quail are still abundant and provide plenty of opportunities for table fare and sport. But, in Southwest Missouri, due to habitat loss mainly, you’re pretty well limited to game preserves. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se. In fact, I’d love to try it someday but it’s currently very cost prohibitive for me as a perpetually broke father with three growing mouths to feed and a house to pay for. Within that cost aspect lies another quandary for me: The cost of meat per pound. First and foremost, I’m a meat hunter. Don’t get me wrong! Hunting and fishing both have a fun sporting aspect to them. However, for me (and I’d say most), the main source of satisfaction comes with the idea of being able to feed your family off of the bounty that the Good Lord has provided. Whether it’s chili from a deer you harvested, frog legs that you gigged, catfish that you caught or even making your Great Aunt’s “Squirrel ‘n’ Dumplings” recipe, the real “trophy” lies in the partial sense of self-reliance that you gain from what you can gather from the wilderness. I certainly don’t claim to speak for all hunters but I hope I speak for most! Any hunter, that I know, will tell you that the love of the sport does not come from a love of killing. Taking a life is all part of it but there is something much deeper to it. Watching an Autumn sunrise or a Summer sunset, being out under a blanket of stars or under the light of a full moon or silently watching the unsuspecting forest come to life from a tree stand are a few of the other perks of the modern hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In fact, there just might be a small bit of agrarian philosophy rooted in it all.
Dove hunting is steeped in long-held tradition but with some aspects that might seem pretty counterintuitive to other hunting customs. First, with a five-to-seven shot (to bird harvested) ratio (depending on how… uh… honest a hunter is when surveyed), that price-per-pound tends to skyrocket! Those two grandfathers I mentioned, were also children of the Depression Era, who solidly instilled in me the very wise use of ammunition to efficiently maximize my ability to feed myself with the resources that I have available. Before I started dove hunting, I would have boxes of shells that would last me for years in the pursuit of small game such as squirrels and rabbits. And, my penny pinching tendencies had me looking wildly askance at the whole idea of blowing through two-hundred rounds in a weekend. Couple this with the fact that my father, while not too incredibly religious had always stressed that, while he hunted many things (heck, he’s probably killed more deer than Chronic Wasting Disease!), he had never killed doves out of his tendency to see them as a sacred bird that was not to be harmed. It would almost be likened to killing the snow-white bird that brought Noah the olive branch! And, this is not to mention the older ladies in my family who still think I’m slaughtering their feathered backyard friends. All of this seemed to me as though tradition was battling tradition for my very soul as an outdoorsman and I had a few hurdles to overcome mentally.
With the encouragement of a friend, however, I decided to give it a go! I began brushing up on techniques and practicing skeet. Over the course of a summer, that seemed to last an eternity, I read every article that I could find and prepared myself for that first opening morning. And, wouldn’t you know it? No magazine we read or video we watched prepared us for what we experienced that day but we learned a lot by that experience. It all started coming together! I started looking forward to September first like I would the opening day of Firearms Deer Season. I saved some money and bought myself a lower-end over-under shotgun so that I could begin to consider myself some sort of ‘respectable’ wing-shooter. I became rather envious of Texans, who darn near treat opening day as a state holiday, going as far as closing their businesses for the day. I became awestruck by folks from the Deeper South who put on grand gatherings and barbecues where generations of families and friends come together to celebrate the coming of fall, share time with one another and give each other grief over the near misses. In fact, the jokes and teasing tend to fly as much as the lead or steel. Therein lies another seemingly contradictory aspect of the sport: it’s extremely social. Compared with other hunting, there is hardly a need for stealth or silence. In fact, oddly enough, the more shooters in a field tend to actually make the hunting better. Get some camouflage or drab colored clothing, your shotgun and some shells, go sit down on the edge of a cut crop field (preferably, in the shade) and watch for some birds. Okay, it’s not that simple but it’s “pert near” that rudimentary. As I learned more, I began to covet these things for myself, as well. I wanted to reestablish that tradition for me and mine. I wanted (and, still do) to make it a big deal as others had been doing for decades. I wanted my boys to eventually use Dove Season as a sort of homecoming no matter how far they roam in life. Here I was, per usual, trying to resurrect something that I’d never even experienced or been a part of.
By that third season (2019), things were coming together rather handsomely. I had two more dear friends that were willing to brave that incredibly early wake up to see what all of the fuss (that I was rather obnoxiously making) was about. I distinctly remember being incredibly anxious to impress them in the hopes that they would enjoy the hunt as much as I did. A couple of us had scouted our field, the afternoon before, and we must’ve seen eighty birds flying around the edges of the field! Our hearts were fluttering more than those spooked birds were. Like staring at the gifts under the tree, the night before that aforementioned Christmas Morning, you could cut the excitement with a knife.
Well, the sun eventually came up on that day-of-days and what a day it was! That burnt wheat field in Western Lawrence County, Missouri might as well have been the Wheat Field at Gettysburg as far as the noise was concerned. The birds, coming in for their morning feeding, came in huge waves and the hunters, gathered around that dimly lit field, responded appropriately. I don’t know if it was the fact that I had practiced more than usual in the preceding weeks or that I had my grandpa’s 1965 Migratory Bird Stamp in my back pocket, in remembrance of him, but the Lord blessed me very richly that morning. I got my fifteen bird limit in forty-five minutes and with forty-six shells which is something that I hadn’t accomplished before or, with opening day of 2020 behind us, since. And, mind you, with a top speed approaching sixty miles per hour, the ability to turn on a dime and an “arsenal” of barrel rolls and other moves they can actually dodge shot with, this is no small feat! Many seasoned shooters have looked the fool after being tricked by their elusive, winged quarry. I have personally witnessed an entire field of hunters open up on one, single bird and the bird come out the victor! So, I certainly envy the folks that can harvest a limit year in and year out.
Most important to me, however, was that my two companions seemed to have a good time. They didn’t limit out, that morning, but they both did far-and-away better than I did my first time out. It was almost everything I had dreamt of. I was the gentleman bird hunter. Sure, our hunt wasn’t as “classy” or as refined as those of the past. My fancy hunting jacket turned out to be a faded woodland camouflage t-shirt that smelled like bug spray and sweat. And, no, we didn’t have a dog to work with in flushing or retrieving birds. For that morning, though, I felt that kinship with those that had went before. I don’t know that either of my grandpas ever hunted doves but for that briefest of moments they were standing beside me.
And, the best part was that the day was still young and being in the rare position of being done for the day, I got to be the ‘manager’, the ‘coach’, if you will. We went out again, that afternoon, and the boys got a few more. We got home with about two limits between the three of us and after a cleaning party that went a lot easier with multiple helpers and a few ice-cold adult beverages, to wash it down with, it was time to cook. The late, great Jerry Clower provides one heckuva recipe in one of his stand-up comedy sketches entitled simply “Dove Huntin’” and the breasts, being ninety percent of the meat on a dove, were thickly wrapped in bacon and thrown over glowing charcoal. It was the culmination of a wonderful day and the delicacies served brought us full-circle back to why folks hunt in the very first place: putting meat on the table. A good time was had by all.
I have no intentions of stopping and I’m inspired by the hope that, as my boys get older, they will also partake in this tradition. I sincerely hope that this is just the beginning. As with everything traditional, these days, the sport is under attack and there are obstacles. Animal rights groups have greatly influenced legislation albeit in Northern states. They’re convinced, or trying to convince others, that dove hunters are maniacs driven by bloodlust, that doves have no dietary value and, therefore, shouldn’t be hunted and that hunters do not search for lost, wounded birds. These claims have absolutely no merit, of course. Everything deserves a sporting chance and ethics are certainly involved. The sport does not consist of taking every shot presented and it’s very unethical and, in some states, illegal to shoot birds out of trees, power lines or off of the ground. They have to be in flight in order to have a fighting chance. And, the Missouri Department of Conservation heavily emphasizes retrieval of birds and, as the old saying goes, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the sunflower field”! Or, something along those lines. These troubling, fallacious claims go a long way in illustrating the world in which we live and the lengths that enemies of traditions are willing to go to destroy those traditions. Tradition seems to be defiance, these days, and the further the divide between rural and urban lifestyles, the more defiant it tends to become. And, defiant we shall be because, in the end, that tradition is all we have. Hopefully, this one will last about as long (or, longer!) as that 1965 Migratory Bird Stamp in my wallet!