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Dove Hunting: Have the Perfect Opening Day This Fall


Photo by Dusan Smetana

They come so fast I can’t keep track. Birds to left and right, birds overhead, birds from behind, all at once, from everywhere, going and coming and crossing both ways. It isn’t always like this, but there is nothing quite like it when doves find the field.

I shoulder the shotgun and pull the trigger twice. The bird streaks across blue sky like a gray meteor plummeting to earth, falling deep into the standing corn. That one’s down hard. Draw a line from my 5-gallon bucket to that tall pine sticking up from the oaks on the field edge and it’s right there, maybe 60 yards out. I let my eyes linger on the landmark, burning it into my brain. I have a second dove down to the left—another straight line to a dead snag over the pond dam where the bird should be just inside the tall grass, right by the fence post. The third bird, I see it on the ground, still and gray, a single feather caught in a cornstalk to mark its fall.

That makes three doves down. I have to stop. I can’t shoot again until they’re gathered up. I will not shoot. I will not shoot. I will not shoot. I promise this to myself. But the doves are coming and going and coming again. This is as good as it gets.

You’ve been there. You and your buddies, your brothers, and your kids. Khaki shorts and camo T-shirts. Half-trained retrievers and someone’s house Lab running around the field.

Those are the shared elements of just about any good opening-day dove hunt, but from there, it’s all over the map. Your field of September dreams might be a 5-acre hilltop patch or a rolling plain of cut grain with hardly a tree in sight. What doesn’t change is the magic that happens when the doves find the field and the opening bell rings. Shotgun blasts, dog whistles, and buddies crying out: Over your head! Coming from behind! Low bird! Low bird!

A Field Day

Man, there was a time I couldn’t sleep the week before the dove opener. All through college and for years afterward, my opening-day hunts took place on the old Burke Farm. We showed up hours early for the noon opener to claim our spots. (Doves don’t just pour willy-nilly into a field. They follow well-established flyways, cueing in to landmarks that can be pretty easy to figure out—gaps in a treeline, tall pines by a pond. Posting up along these flyways can make the difference between a ho-hum, half-box hunt and a barrel-melting, 60-minute-limit dove shoot.) Claiming a spot was as simple as stamping down a few tall weeds and tossing your dove stool into the brush, but show up much past 10 a.m. and all the good spots were taken.

What happened next happens every September. The midday hours were slow, and we’d mosey around the fields to check in with high school buddies and old family friends we hadn’t seen since who knows when. By late afternoon, most years, the birds would kick into high gear. As they careened into the field, it was like watching footage from old wars, the skies blotted out with bursts of flak smoke where you could hardly believe a plane could make it through all of that shrapnel. Doves slipped through the defenses, dodging a dozen shots from half a dozen shotguns, and exited the field missing a tail feather or three. But not all made it through. Some years the limits came too easily, and it was over before anyone wanted it to be. Other years we were still scratching birds down in a red sunset sky. Always different. But always the same.


Photo by Tosh Brown

Afterward the younger boys—meaning anyone under 40—cleaned birds in a giant, communal wad of feathers, cut wings, and breasts red as berries. We filed into R.B. Smith’s cabin kitchen and dumped the birds into vats of simmering “dip,” the vinegar-pepper sauce that makes North Carolina barbecue famous. We’d go through hundreds of doves. There were steaks if you’d rather, baked potatoes, and then the crowning glory—banana pudding on platters that seemed to measure by the acre.

It wasn’t a hunt. It was a pageant, choreographed by years of tradition. That’s why we were there, despite sweltering heat. To be honest, we’ve all had better dove shoots than many opening-day hunts. But none are seasoned with so much anticipation and full of so much promise—not just of that day’s shooting but of the many hunts to follow.

That’s because opening day of dove season is opening day of everything. From here on out it’s one big parade of late-night packing, Technicolor sunrises, and biscuits in a dark truck. After doves come deer and duck and quail and elk and moose and squirrel and goose. Every one a new chapter. Every one its own magical world. And best of all, every one is coming up fast.

From here on out. But right now, here come the doves. Birds to the left and right. Birds overhead. Birds from behind. They’re everywhere. A farmfield and a September day. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

From the September 2013 issue of Field & Stream magazine.

 

Comments (8)

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from Rinaldo wrote 32 weeks 15 hours ago

I honestly cannot wait. Never in one's life does someone have the opportunity to shoot as often and have so much fun missing as one does at a dove hunt. To be able to do it with man's best friend is just icing on the cake!

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from mkorpal wrote 32 weeks 42 min ago

Great article. You did an outstanding job of capturing the pure enjoyment out in the dove field with friends. I was also happy to read that me and my friends aren't the only ones missing these fast, shifty little dive bombers. The hunting season is upon us. Rejoice!

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Caleb Morris wrote 31 weeks 6 days ago

Excellent read! Excited for tomorrow. Unfortunately I won't be taking my lab this year. Last year's sun was a bit too much and he's getting up there in age. The line about "half-trained retrievers" rings true for me. The first time I took him with me to a dove hunt, I had visions of past experiences I witnessed becoming a reality for me - some guy 200 yards from you whistling until his faced turned blue, yelling "Gunner! Gunner!" as his lab bounced around the field chewing up birds someone else dropped. Thankfully he slept the majority of the time his first time afield (it was a slow hunt).
Since then we've been privileged to be invited to a field a short drive away that has yet to give us anything less than a limit. We draw for spots so there's no running each other over and there's hardly ever a "bad" blind at this farm. The birds start flying around 4 so we'll be enjoying the shade and listening to the Dawgs go to work as we wait for the sun to relent a little. I hope everyone has a good opening day tomorrow and stays safe.

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from TeamAsgrow wrote 31 weeks 6 days ago

In Iowa with our third dove season beginning, it has slowly caught on. I have been lucky enough to take out half a dozen new dove hunters this year and successfully put down quite a few birds. We are all learning as we go, but having a blast in the fields together. Headed out again this evening and tomorrow morning. I have only eaten dove meat all week, but it is worth it to be able to hunt them some more!

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from swoolley wrote 31 weeks 5 days ago

Another glorious Texas season has begun, 4 guys who have known one another for 45+ years hunting together again. In our sixties, the fences are harder to cross. We tell the same jokes every year because we don't remember all the punchlines, and the doves are usually the best the cook ever did. It is a field of dreams.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from FSU70 wrote 31 weeks 5 days ago

My favorite time of the year, Fooball and Dove season....... and not necessarily in that order. I'm in the Carolina Dove Club in South Carolina and we plant our own fields and work at having dove's all three seasons. Opening Day was hot and humid with a heat index of 102 and my Lab and I loved every minute of it. We had 63 members and guests spread out overe 100 acres and there was plenty of birds for everyone. We started the day with a BBQ luncehon under the tractor shed while we talked and got reaquainted with old friends we hadn't seen since last season. We then moved to the Club house which is an old Peach sorting shack from years ago. Here we held our club raffle that raised money for the club and helped pay for the BBQ. Then we drew stands to determine which field we would hunt and where we would be positioned on the field. This is the only place in all my years of dove hunting where you draw for a pre-positioned stand on the field. We then rotate up 5 stands each hour till you get your limit or the horn blows to end the hunt. This insures everyone gets a good location for birds at least once durning the hunt and most times that is enough to get your limit. Great time and great day and we get to do it again this Saturday.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mark-1 wrote 31 weeks 4 days ago

Love the story. Unfortunately for me Dove Hunting is foreign. Here in NY doves are classified as a song bird. SO, I feed mourning doves all year so they can fly across to Pa. and get blasted. ~~~~~

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Del in KS wrote 31 weeks 19 hours ago

Had a good shoot with some kids on Sep 1 in Kansas. Then had to rush down here to Houston and here I sit. Wish there was a place around here to shoot some doves.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

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from mkorpal wrote 32 weeks 42 min ago

Great article. You did an outstanding job of capturing the pure enjoyment out in the dove field with friends. I was also happy to read that me and my friends aren't the only ones missing these fast, shifty little dive bombers. The hunting season is upon us. Rejoice!

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Rinaldo wrote 32 weeks 15 hours ago

I honestly cannot wait. Never in one's life does someone have the opportunity to shoot as often and have so much fun missing as one does at a dove hunt. To be able to do it with man's best friend is just icing on the cake!

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Caleb Morris wrote 31 weeks 6 days ago

Excellent read! Excited for tomorrow. Unfortunately I won't be taking my lab this year. Last year's sun was a bit too much and he's getting up there in age. The line about "half-trained retrievers" rings true for me. The first time I took him with me to a dove hunt, I had visions of past experiences I witnessed becoming a reality for me - some guy 200 yards from you whistling until his faced turned blue, yelling "Gunner! Gunner!" as his lab bounced around the field chewing up birds someone else dropped. Thankfully he slept the majority of the time his first time afield (it was a slow hunt).
Since then we've been privileged to be invited to a field a short drive away that has yet to give us anything less than a limit. We draw for spots so there's no running each other over and there's hardly ever a "bad" blind at this farm. The birds start flying around 4 so we'll be enjoying the shade and listening to the Dawgs go to work as we wait for the sun to relent a little. I hope everyone has a good opening day tomorrow and stays safe.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from TeamAsgrow wrote 31 weeks 6 days ago

In Iowa with our third dove season beginning, it has slowly caught on. I have been lucky enough to take out half a dozen new dove hunters this year and successfully put down quite a few birds. We are all learning as we go, but having a blast in the fields together. Headed out again this evening and tomorrow morning. I have only eaten dove meat all week, but it is worth it to be able to hunt them some more!

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from swoolley wrote 31 weeks 5 days ago

Another glorious Texas season has begun, 4 guys who have known one another for 45+ years hunting together again. In our sixties, the fences are harder to cross. We tell the same jokes every year because we don't remember all the punchlines, and the doves are usually the best the cook ever did. It is a field of dreams.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from FSU70 wrote 31 weeks 5 days ago

My favorite time of the year, Fooball and Dove season....... and not necessarily in that order. I'm in the Carolina Dove Club in South Carolina and we plant our own fields and work at having dove's all three seasons. Opening Day was hot and humid with a heat index of 102 and my Lab and I loved every minute of it. We had 63 members and guests spread out overe 100 acres and there was plenty of birds for everyone. We started the day with a BBQ luncehon under the tractor shed while we talked and got reaquainted with old friends we hadn't seen since last season. We then moved to the Club house which is an old Peach sorting shack from years ago. Here we held our club raffle that raised money for the club and helped pay for the BBQ. Then we drew stands to determine which field we would hunt and where we would be positioned on the field. This is the only place in all my years of dove hunting where you draw for a pre-positioned stand on the field. We then rotate up 5 stands each hour till you get your limit or the horn blows to end the hunt. This insures everyone gets a good location for birds at least once durning the hunt and most times that is enough to get your limit. Great time and great day and we get to do it again this Saturday.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mark-1 wrote 31 weeks 4 days ago

Love the story. Unfortunately for me Dove Hunting is foreign. Here in NY doves are classified as a song bird. SO, I feed mourning doves all year so they can fly across to Pa. and get blasted. ~~~~~

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Del in KS wrote 31 weeks 19 hours ago

Had a good shoot with some kids on Sep 1 in Kansas. Then had to rush down here to Houston and here I sit. Wish there was a place around here to shoot some doves.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

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