by Anthony Harrison
My two male cousins — Madison and Ted — and I got up at 6 a.m. to get ready for the hunt. We slipped into our camo, threw back some Nescafé, set our shotguns in the back bed of the Gator — Madison’s affectionate name for his ATV — and chugged down the road to a family friend’s farm in Gold Hill, NC, which could be described as the middle of the middle of nowhere.
A quilt of dreary clouds spread across the sky, and the air hung mildly, slightly humid from the morning rain. Madison slowed the Gator as we drove past the farmhouse and the pair of greenhouses composing the front of the Gold Hill property and headed towards a soybean field to the right of a pond splitting the farm. On the other side of the pond, corn grew tall and more soybeans were planted in vast swaths for hundreds of yards until the woods halted them.
A line of red cedars stood along the shore of the pond, a boundary between the beans and the water. Madison parked the cruiser in the middle of the cedars near where a powerline bisected the field. We loaded our guns, spread along the line of trees and readied ourselves for mourning doves.
Dove season, traditionally beginning the Saturday before Labor Day, opens hunting season, which dominates the minds of country boys like Madison until early May when the spring turkey season closes.
However, for a city slicker like me, hunting season means occasional weekend forays into a world atavistic, foreign yet familiar.
So, unlike Madison and his friends, I fall into complacency in the months leading up to hunting season.
Doves thrive on complacency.
If the field you hunt isn’t cut, doves won’t fly in. If you don’t keep up with your wing shot, any doves flying in blow right by you.
And though dove hunting can be something of a crapshoot, you can’t ever let down your guard. That always seems to be when the doves decide to show up.
All three potential pitfalls plagued us that day.
The soybeans hadn’t been cut. There was one strike against us. Also, we figured the doves wouldn’t be flying in the dreary morning.
Yet within five minutes of our arrival, I heard Madison shout, “Birds!”
A pair of doves jetted over the field. Madison got a shot off. So did Ted. Neither dove fell. I was last in line. I pumped a shell into the chamber. I fired.
Both birds whistled over the pond and beyond.
Robert Ruark, North Carolina’s Hemingway, wrote in his short-story collection The Old Man and the Boy, “In all the ballistic computations of mankind, ain’t nobody ever figured a way to lead a dove too far.… My blanket suggestion is just to point the gun about 20 feet ahead of him, pull the trigger, sweep the gun around and pray.”
I clearly forgot that maxim, because I shot at both those birds way behind.
As Ruark also wrote, doves are the easiest hard shooting in the world, or the toughest easy shooting.
The last time I’d gone for a dove hunt — something I did every year from ages 10 until 16 — was a few years ago, and I went through my only box of 20-gauge shells and had only six doves to show for those 25 shots. But I’d needed to warm up; if my memory serves me well, I dropped most of them with the last 12 shells.
I recovered, and told myself I’d be ready next time.
But no other doves came through.
There was one false alarm: A flock of about a dozen pigeons flew in from the pond. I’d managed to croak out, “Birds, birds over the water,” barely loud enough for my cousins to hear before realizing they were flying rats. I clicked my gun’s safety back on.
With two unexpected booms, Madison took out two of them anyway.
“They ain’t doves, but f*** it,” he said. “Might as well shoot somethin’.”
After an hour and a half, we packed it in for the morning, seeing one more dove fly out from the corn as we were hitting the road.
Following the traditional barbecue lunch by our hosts, we went back out to the other soy fields to have another go. Madison didn’t even bring his gun.
More cedars provided cover at this field. We again fanned out, hoping for doves, but also taking the chance that Canada geese might fly in. Geese eat soybeans the same way cows graze.
I decided to scout around. I did rouse one dove from a sandy patch, but it lighted into a tree before I could take a shot, then flew off with a whistle as I stalked it.
I got back and told my cousins, and as I was recounting my uneventful story, seven doves flew in over the cedars.
I cut myself off in mid-sentence, shouting, “Birds, hey, birds!” Ted grabbed his gun. I had mine already in my hands, so as the birds crossed the field, quartering away from us, I emptied my shotgun. Again, nothing fell.
We didn’t see another bird the whole day.
But one thing’s for certain: I’m going to work on my wing shot before November’s duck season.