A dove hunter’s sampler

In the previous post, it was noted that the Labor Day weekend dove hunt is an important tradition, not only in my family but across the South.

Here a sampling of some interesting writing on the subject.

Jonathan Miles writing in Field & Stream: “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 ole-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 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. … 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.”

R. Michael DiLullo writing at www.gundogsonline.com: “Throughout much of the Southern United States, Labor Day weekend is the opener for mourning doves. Dove hunting in the South represents the beginning of fall and another hunting season, the start of the harvest, a chance to be afield again and to renew old acquaintances. The return of the migratory mourning doves each fall draws hunters of all ages to the crop fields.

“The dove fields of the South are special places, where the stories and the learning process are as important as the hunting itself. For many Southern youngsters, the dove field will be their formal introduction into hunting and the shooting sports. It is also the beginning of their kinship with the outdoors, the reverence of nature that lives in all true outdoorsmen. These lessons will be the foundations of lifelong ethics, values and traditions. The handing down of vast knowledge passed on from fathers’ fathers is ensured and will continue into the next generation.

“The dove fields of the South also bring together a rich diversity of cultures and social status. Men (and increasingly more women) of all walks of life gather each September to renew their bonds with nature and test their skills against the aerobatic doves. Their shotguns are as diverse as the sportsmen themselves for nowhere in the shooting sports will you see such a varied selection of scatter guns used for downing a game bird. Fine English doubles, vintage American classics by such legendary gun makers as Parker, Smith, Fox, Browning and Winchester are stationed next to modern auto-loaders and pump guns.”

Tom Bryant writing in The Pilot in North Carolina: “The little Confederate gray mourning dove does more to kick off the fall hunting social season for us good old boys than a new shotgun, pit-cooked barbecue, hushpuppies and a longneck Budweiser could. Although the aforementioned help immensely and, most of the time, are included. Dove hunting season has become a major event in the South. I should rephrase that to say the opening few days of the season usher in the real stuff, and then everyone settles into their specialty. Quail hunters concentrate on where the coveys are. Deer hunters start putting up their tree stands, scouting for rubs and limbering up the bows or sighting in black-powder guns. Duck hunters begin cleaning up decoys and getting duck boats ready in preparation for the main event. … But all of that comes later.

“First of all, we’ve got to go dove hunting. Dove hunts take place in different ways, from the fine-linen, top-of-the-line, sophisticated event to the out-behind-the-barn, down-close-to-the-creek, next-to-the-freshly-cut-cornfield hunts that were my early introduction to the fine art of dove shooting. No two opening days are the same. And yet, if you’ve been to one, you’ve almost been to them all. … Like untold thousands of dove hunters across the South, we will join the noble pursuit of an amazing little Southern bird that means so much to us.”

Finally, back to Jonathan Miles: “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 jalapeno tucked inside — as the hunters tell and retell stories 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 Labrays’ (a farm near Alligator, Miss., owned by Edward Labry of Memphis), 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.”

Autumn officially arrives next week. But I welcomed it on the unseasonably cool morning of Saturday, Sept. 4, in a field along the Monroe County-Lee County line.

Long live the tradition of Labor Day weekend dove hunts.

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