Joining the Southern dove hunters

It’s now the middle of September, and I’ve been dove hunting just once.

The year will end, and I still will have been dove hunting just once.

You see, I’m like a lot of dove hunters. I go out into the fields on opening morning, and I don’t go again. College football takes up the rest of my fall Saturdays.

But I look forward to that opening morning and have since I was a child.

The weeks surrounding Labor Day always meant four things at my house when I was growing up — the start of school, the start of football season, the start of dove season and my birthday (Sept. 2).

I don’t do much to celebrate my birthday these days (I’ve grown too old for that), but I cherish the start of football season and, though I now go only once, I enjoy the start of dove season. Though the temperatures are still hot, these events signal that fall is coming. They’re a part of the rhythm of my life.

I almost overdid it in those final days of August and first days of September. Too many events, too little sleep. Anxious to see an actual football game, I went out to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on the evenings of Monday, Aug. 30, and Tuesday, Aug. 31, to watch high school contests. On Wednesday, Sept. 1, I made the trip to Gene Lockwood’s in west Little Rock to buy shotgun shells and my hunting license. Hunting season was approaching.

My birthday fell on a Thursday, and that was the night of Ouachita’s first game of the season. I began my 29th season of doing Ouachita’s football play by play on the radio, signed off the postgame show at 10:35 p.m., left the press box at 11 p.m., had a late dinner while sitting in the parking lot of the McDonald’s in Malvern and got home at 12:30 a.m. But after a long day of work, I was back at War Memorial Stadium that Friday night to watch the Salt Bowl between Benton and Bryant. From there, it was off to KARN-FM to co-host the high school scoreboard show from 10 p.m. until midnight. I was in bed shortly after 12:30 a.m.

The 4 a.m. alarm certainly came quickly. Still, I bounded from the bed, anxious to make the familiar drive to see my friends at the Piney Creek Duck Club in Monroe. Wiley, Steve, Don, Mickey, Rex, Art, Tom and the rest of the dove hunting regulars would be waiting on me.

Yes, there’s another Rex who hunts there. We also duck hunt together on occasion. They call us the Rex Who Cooks (that would be Rex Johnson, a great breakfast cook) and the Rex Who Eats (that would be me).

For the Rex Who Eats, the brunch is as much a part of a trip to Piney Creek as are the duck and dove hunts.

Heading east on Interstate 40 through the darkness, it was easy to spot the pickup trucks of those who were going dove hunting. Some had dog boxes in the back. Others pickups carried four-wheelers.

I exited the interstate at Biscoe, headed east on U.S. Highway 70 across the Cache River, went south for a bit on Arkansas Highway 17, made the straight shot east through the fields on Arkansas Highway 241 (while again wondering who owns that nice duck club on the right) until it intersected with U.S. Highway 49. I then made the short trip south on U.S. 49 until turning onto Arkansas Highway 39 into Monroe. Got it?

The weather could not have been better. Usually on that first Saturday in September, you’re sweating before the sunrise and slapping mosquitoes. On this morning, I was actually chilly prior to daylight in my camouflage T-shirt. We killed some doves (and I retained my title as the world’s worst shot). There have been years when it was better. There have been years when it has been worse.

I would call this hunt average by Piney Creek standards. But (and I know this is trite; all of those who write about hunting say this) it’s about much more than killing birds. It’s about the friendships and the tall tales. It’s about getting outside and watching the sun come up over the flat east Arkansas landscape.

And it’s about brunch.

The older I get, the less I care about how much I shoot.

At least I could make myself useful cleaning the doves. Though I can’t shoot worth a darn, my dad did teach me how to pop a dove breast out quickly. So while the other Rex cooked, I helped Mickey and Tom clean doves.

Brunch consisted of pork chops, scrambled eggs, biscuits, muscadine jelly and fried potatoes. A nap would have been in order, but I fought the urge and made the drive back to Little Rock, listening to college football games on XM along the way.

It had been a great morning, and I had played my part in a Southern tradition.

This is how R. Michael DiLullo described i5 in a story at www.gundogsonline.com: “Men like Nash Buckingham and Robert Ruark penned their impressions and laid down on paper what would become for me the foundation of my hunting experience. These men shared a common love of being afield with their dogs. They hunted a variety of game, some on different continents, but they both shared a fondness for the Southern dove hunt. … Most of Southern hunting, I would find, is more on a social level than of solitude and individualism. The lonely baying of a coon dog across a dark swamp, the excitement of a pack of hounds as they jump deer, the flush of a quail covey and a tom’s early morning gobble were all visceral and shared experiences.

“Southern dove hunting is a cultural social function; it is about camaraderie and, more importantly, tradition. It is a community event, and it is quite common to see three or more generations of family members heading out together to the dove fields. Dove hunting’s history and traditions can be traced far back into the culture — traditions which have been handed down through generations of Southern hunters, some of who’s lineage can be traced to the original settlers of the very land on which they hunt.”

Indeed, we ate our brunch on a piece of land that has been in the Meacham family for almost 100 years.

When I was growing up, I dove hunted more than once each season. If the season opened on the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, we would be out there on Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, Sunday afternoon (Sunday morning was reserved for the First Baptist Church), Monday morning and Monday afternoon. My dad loved to shoot doves, and he was a great shot. He has been raised in Saline County in a poor family during the Great Depression and being able to shoot well at rabbits and squirrels meant the difference between a supper with meat on the table and one with only biscuits and gravy.

The Labor Day morning hunt with my dad’s great friend O.J. “Buddy” Harris and his two sons, Cliff and Tommy, was a family tradition. Cliff and Tommy would go on to be decent football players as you Ouachita, Razorback and Dallas Cowboy fans might remember.

Dad would delight in telling the story of cleaning more than 100 doves one Labor Day and giving them all to a local grocery store owner. Henry loved to eat doves. And he loved to take a drink.

A week later, my dad asked him: “How were those doves?”

Henry answered: “Never give me another dove. I was so sick for two days that I couldn’t even get out of bed. Either I got some bad doves or some bad whiskey. I want to think it was the doves.”

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