The Culture and Tradition of Southern Dove Hunting

If you spotted them from a distance, piled onto a flatbed trailer padded with hay bales, a tractor hauling them down a lonesome highway bisecting rice and bean and cotton fields, you might mistake them for old-timey field hands being trucked to work. Look more closely, however, and you'd notice the shotguns leaned beside them, the oiled stocks glinting in the sun, and the dogs and the children jittery with excitement. The tractor turns off the highway and onto a field road, the trailer rocking in the ruts until coming to a stop at a brown patch of dead sunflowers hemmed by green timber. Here the hunters disembark, dispersing themselves into the wilted flowers, children trailing their fathers and dogs their owners, and after the folding stools are unfolded and the shotguns loaded, and the children hushed and the dogs stilled, the hunters sit motionlessly and wait, all eyes aimed at the wide blue sky.

Already they're sweating. It's early September in the Mississippi Delta, and the heat index hovers near triple digits. Yet autumn is on its way, and after just a few silent minutes they can see it coming: three ash-colored specks in the sky, a trio of birds coursing and diving and zigzagging toward the sunflowers. When a hunter leaps from his stool and fires, it's official. Dove season has started, and autumn has arrived.

More than the reappearance of school buses on the roads, it's the dove opener that signals summer's passing in the Deep South, which is perhaps why dove shoots--big, communal events with dozens of hunters scattered throughout a field--have so long been paired with celebrations, barbecues, grand revels. In northern climes, the hunting of mourning doves--which some consider songbirds--is a controversy-scarred topic. (Last year, after much political rancor, Minnesota opened its first dove season since 1946.) In the South, however, dove hunting is a venerable tradition, older than bourbon and as beloved as college football. Dove hunting offers challenging pass-shooting, it's true, but here it's about much more than that: kids, wives, dogs, camaraderie, post-hunt cocktails, grilled dove breasts and pork barbecue, old custom, and the changing of the seasons.

[WILD FLYERS] Consider a Memphis, Tennessee, wingshooter named Edward Labry. For the past five years, Labry and his wife, Elizabeth, have been hosting a dove hunt at Cloverdale, the couple's hunting property near Alligator, Mississippi, an hour or so south of Memphis. When I attend a recent hunt, Labry explains that he plants 35 acres in sunflowers, and then, two weeks before the opener, runs a combine through them, leaving narrow rows for the 40 or more hunters on his guest list to hide in. Come one o'clock, the hunters are loaded onto the trailer and hauled to the dove field to claim their spots. The smarter ones secrete themselves along its natural edges, since doves tend to stick to narrow flyways mirroring the lines of the landscape. By two o'clock, the guns sound like popcorn popping, shots echo off the trees at the farthest margins, and the occasional call of "low bird" punctuates the incessant 20-gauge bangs. Dogs and children comb the earth for downed birds, which they retrieve with giddy pride.

It's often said that doves provide valuable practice for duck season, but this strikes me as upside down. With their tiny profiles, wicked speed, and fighter-plane acrobatics, doves are more difficult to take down. (One estimate says hunters expend five shells for every dove they hit.) They're especially humbling targets for hunters who don't touch their guns all summer, quick to expose any rustiness. Doves demand instinctive shooting. If you lead a dove too long--sometimes, if you try to lead it at all--the bird will veer off suddenly, diving or turning or jetting upward, sending your pellets harmlessly into the sky. Because of that challenge, and that split-second shooting, hunting doves is outlandishly fun. Add to that the joy that comes from finally being in the field after all those hot workaday months spent thinking about it, your pals trash-talking, the hunger-inducing promise of all that tender and fine-grained meat being steadily stuffed into a gamebag, and the sight and smell of barbecue smoke rising in the distance, and the fun tips over into sublime pleasure.

[A DELTA PAHTY] In the South, dove hunts do not draw quietly to a close. Sometimes, at the simplest end, a grill and cooler are hauled to the edge of the field, and the doves' breasts are grilled--usually swaddled in bacon, maybe with a jalapeño tucked inside--as the hunters tell and retell tales of the day's shooting. Other post-hunt celebrations, especially in the Mississippi Delta, veer toward the baroque, with candelabra on the tables and servants buzzing around. At the Labrys', the hunters and I rejoin their families beneath a ring of pecan trees near the stately, white, Depression-era house that serves as the property's "camp." There we feast on the day's dove harvest and a 102-pound hog, black and crispy from 24 hours in a smoker, while children scamper around the trees and a bartender muddles Old Fashioneds. When the sun sets over the fields, and that flat Delta darkens, the air seems cooler, not just from the sun's departure but from a gathering chill that is creeping toward my bones. It's a subtle reminder that autumn is on its way--and I can't help but feel, after a day in a dove field, that it's been properly welcomed.

OPENING DAY DOVE BREASTS

(Serves four, as appetizers)

The classic way to cook doves is to breast them, wrap the breasts with a slice of bacon, and grill over a medium fire. I recommend using pancetta, an unsmoked Italian bacon cured with salt and spices, because it lets the flavor of the dove shine through more than smoky bacon. If you've got doves left over, soaking them in a brine ensures juicy meat and will soften any gamy flavors. Make a brine by combining ½ cup each of salt, black pepper, and brown sugar with 1 gallon of water, and let the breasts soak for at least a few hours but preferably overnight.

• 16 dove breasts • 16 slices pancetta or bacon • 16 leaves fresh sage, roughly chopped • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

[1] Clean the dove breasts, removing any evident shot, and pat them dry.

[2] Salt and pepper the breasts on both sides, then place a few bits of the chopped sage leaves atop each piece. Wrap them in the pancetta and secure it with a toothpick.

[3] Grill over a medium-hot fire until rare or medium-rare, about 5 minutes per side. Depending on the level of your fire and its distance from the meat, this may actually take anywhere from 3 to 6 minutes per side. Experiment with the first one to gauge the timing. When in doubt, err on the side of underdone. Serve immediately. --JONATHAN MILES.

FIRST BIRDS: A tractor pulls dads, kids, and dogs to a sunflower field near Alligator, Mississippi (right). Twelve-year-old William Skudder waits with his finger on the safety. HUNTING PARTY: In the Labry family's pecan grove, guests feast on a barbecued hog (above) and the day's dove harvest.