I used to hunt ringneck pheasant with my father when I was young. Long after I moved to Kirkwood, New York, my dad started to raise German Shorthair Pointers and REALLY hunt pheasants, but other than a few times we went out with his pointers in the early 1990’s, it was always with beagles and a black lab, because that’s what we had back when I was a kid. I even hunted ruffled grouse a few times with him, which were all over the woods near my house, and across the border in Pennsylvania, which was only three or four miles from where I grew up. (I have never taken a grouse – we literally couldn’t find them during season, we had to wait until deer season for the little heart-attack-makers to pop out of the any clump of debris in the woods right at our feet.)
But I haven’t hunted birds, or even shot clays, for nearly twenty years.
That all changed this Saturday, but it takes a bit of explaining to understand WHY it changed. I don’t have much of a budget for hunting, we have a lot of rescued pets, and they take up a lot of our budget each month, particularly the allergic-to-the-entire-planet German Shepherd. But, we take care of our pets (all four dogs, three cats, three turtles, two tanks of fish, and the horse) so I make do with what I have in terms of gear and travel for hunting. I always thought dove hunting was a Southern ‘Gentleman’ sport, and I don’t say it that way to exclude women from the sport, but it always conjured images out of Garden & Gun magazine, of the $3,500 over and under shotguns, with the Orvis or better quality shooting vest and clothes, on big dollar hunting plantations.
That image went out the window last year while bow hunting at Joe Kurz WMA. Jimmy* and I, while driving around Lodge road, spotted a truck with two young (think 5-7 years old) boys in it, and the back door open. We stopped to make sure they were OK, and they said ‘We can’t get the radio to turn off!’ I told them to open and close the FRONT door, which would trigger the auto-shutoff on the radio, and then asked where their dad was. The smaller boy pointed across the hood of my truck, and we peered through the misting rain and could just make out somebody walking down the road about seventy five yards away. I pulled the truck over, and to our surprise, it was James, one of the folks we shoot 3D archery with. He was dove hunting, and had his son and nephew with him, the boys had just gone back to the truck to get out of the rain.
So, that got me interested in dove hunting: here was somebody I knew who hunted an area I was now familiar with, and didn’t mind me tagging along for a hunt.
This year, that translated into me spending a fairly wild (to me) eight hours at Joe Kurz this opening day, slinging shot and having the time of my life.
The day started off a bit rough. I got out of bed after several attempts, showered and threw my gear in the truck, then started putting my boots on when suddenly my cell phone rang. Work was calling, they needed me to contact Dell ProSupport and get a server back up. I spent about an hour and a half getting that rolling, then jumped in the truck and headed south. There is no direct route from my place to Joe Kurz, the fastest way the GPS takes me is down I20 to 285, then down I85 past Newnan, altogether taking me about an hour and a half to go 65 miles. The last 23 miles are almost all on two lane, secondary roads, and the last ten miles was spent mostly behind people on bicycles for some kind of event. This meant slowing down to 5-8 MPH until I could get a long enough line of sight to safely pass the cyclists. Over, and over, and over again.
I try very hard to be extra safe around anyone on a bike, motorcycle, on foot, or even in areas where there might be children or pets playing near the road, because I have a very vivid imagination, and I’ve been in a lot of situations over the years that have taught me that its far better to think ahead and be safe just in case. (I think the risk management class in graduate school cemented that into my head, for which I am very grateful.) I don’t know what kind of cycling event this happened to be, because I didn’t just see the stick-insect-skinny cycling fanatics you see in a typical road race, but folks of all shapes, sizes, and on all kinds of bikes, including a tandem, but they were everywhere, for the last ten or twelve miles of the ride. So after getting up late, work calling, and the cyclists, I got to Joe Kurz around 11:20 am. Dove season started at noon, so I signed in, and started looking for James’ son and a buddy of his, since James had said to call him when I found them.
When I pulled up to Lodge Road, the long loop section was marked with ‘road closed’ signs that will be familiar to anyone who has hunted a Georgia Wildlife Management area, and there had to have been thirty or forty trucks parked at the intersection. I was flabbergasted, thinking ‘Oh, crap, I may not be able to hunt here, I might have to just get the camera out and walk with that all day.’
Luckily, dove hunting translates well into being a team sport.
I found Ron and Logan about half a mile down the right side of Lodge road, where the road turns left to continue the loop, and the dead end lodge driveway starts, sitting under a pine tree. I had passed probably fifty hunters by the time I found them, because there were a LOT of people in lawn chairs, sitting on buckets, or just standing around, the entire length of the fields, on either side of the road. One of the hunters HAS to win the ‘genius of the day’ award, because he used a four-wheeled garden cart to bring his cooler and all of his gear down the field, most of the rest of us just hauled our gear in by hand. I did see one hunter using a deer cart, and some other folks who had, like me, a rolling cooler, but I wasn’t smart enough to bring the cooler, or ALL of my ammunition, on the first walk down the field. Oh no, I had 45 shells in a hip bag and my SKB, my camera, and one bottle of water with me, so I had to immediately go BACK up the field and get my rolling cooler. Then, four hours later, go back up the field again and get my other five boxes of ammunition. (We ended up shooting five boxes of ammunition total, and I gave a box to a hunter who ran out.)
I saw a LOT of great ideas for last year, but what really shocked me was just how densely packed the hunters were around and in these fields. The sunflower field we hunted over had hunters lining the pine trees, hunters spaced out in the middle of the field, and hunters along the other edge of the field. What was surprising was the amount of cooperation that generated: hunters would yell ‘over the top!’ or ‘low bird’ as the doves flew, to keep other hunters from decorating each other with #7 shot, or to let people on the other side of some trees know the doves were coming.
Here are just two snapshots of the hunters along the fields:
When noon rolled around, for about half a minute, I was sure it was going to be a let-down. Nothing happened. No birds, no immediate storm of distant booms, not a thing happened. For half a minute.
Then the first flight of three doves crested the trees, and the booms weren’t so distant. Within ten minutes, there was gunfire in every direction, and the rain-like sound of shot hitting leaves after running out of energy started while we could see spent wads from shells spiralling down in the air around us. And then a dove managed to fly up the road, weaving around the shotshells, angling towards the field right in front of us, and I drew a bead on it with my SKB and knocked it out of the air with my first shot. I was ecstatic, probably twenty years after the last time I tried to shoot anything in the air with a shotgun, and my first shot was perfect. “Alright! This is much easier than I thought it would be!” was my first thought. Being in my mid 40’s, my send thought was a very jaded “yup, now I’ve jinxed it, watch me miss all day now…” Well, that didn’t happen, but I did go through about nearly four boxes of shells myself and only managed six more doves of my own. I will say this: some folks will claim every bird they can, regardless of who may or may not have shot it, and other people will go far the other way to be as fair as possible. We had a mix of both types out there, and at times, I don’t think anyone could have said which shot took a bird down, but the shoot was hot and heavy all day. Did I say hot? Close to ninety degrees, with spotty clouds, and probably close to sixty percent humidity, until around five pm, when the thunderstorms hit, and soaked us for three hours straight.
I had a wonderful day, even if I felt twice as old when I got out of bed Sunday morning, creaking like a Spanish galleon in rough seas, but happy nonetheless. My first day of dove hunting over black sunflowers will stay with me for a long, long time.
*Jimmy is the other half of what we’ve been calling ‘Team Bifocals,’ since both of us are into our bifocal years and have vision problems.