From Chesnee to Charleston and points between, Labor Day weekend ushers in a special time for many South Carolina hunters - namely, the opening of dove season.

More than any other hunting season, the first day of the state's dove hunt is a veritable social event for a vast majority of Palmetto State hunters, a time-honored tradition known as much for cookouts and gatherings as for birds and bag limits.

"It's large-scale participation - a premier social and group hunting activity," said Billy Dukes. "Celebrating the opening day of dove season is just something that's firmly entrenched in the tradition of South Carolina."

Dukes should know. As small-game project leader for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, he's charged with knowing about doves and the people who pursue them. This much is obvious: the pastime is immensely popular.

Dukes estimates there are more than 50,000 dove hunters in the state, making it the second-most popular form of hunting behind only deer hunting. And with an estimated population of more than 5 million doves darting above S.C. fields and perching on power lines, it's easy to see why so many hunters make a concerted effort to claim their share of the 1 million doves that are harvested each fall.

Near the small town of Chesnee in northernmost Spartanburg County, Easley's Rick Wilkerson annually invites an eclectic group of hunters for an opening day of fun at 20 acres of rolling hillsides covered with sunflowers and dilapidated corn stalks. But long before the first shot of the day is squeezed off - generally by Wilkerson himself at 12:01 p.m. - the barbeque grills are lit and primed for a variety of pre-hunt "delicacies," including hot dogs, hamburgers, bratwursts and chili.

Young hunters are common at Wilkerson's opening-day funfest, which is precisely what Dukes and other DNR officials like to see.

"Dove hunting has been a gateway opportunity for a lot of young hunters over the years, and it's easy to see why," Dukes said. "The game is abundant, guns are going off and the excitement level is certainly there."

Wilkerson particularly delights in bringing "first-timers" into the fold. He's fond of sitting back and casting watchful glances as spent shotgun shells pile up at the feet of newcomers, then jokingly consoles them when they trudge in with one or two birds to their credit.

Invariably, Wilkerson's infectious love of the hunt goads him into sharing some advice or a coveted location, with the result typically being a sudden handful of birds and a new convert to the fun of opening day.

About 90 minutes south of Chesnee, near Pendleton, Tom Garrison and Rod Koch annually welcome more than 100 people to their season-opening Labor Day dove hunt. Again, the hunters hail from all walks of life - doctors, lawyers and college professors shooting alongside brick-layers, builders and farmers.

And, of course, there's Chester Johnson.

Johnson, in his 80s has hunted at the property "since we started," Garrison said, and always returns with at least half-dozen doves.

"With all the development in the area and things growing up so much, it's getting harder and harder to find a good place to hunt these days," Garrison said. "It's our goal to provide that place."

Food and festivities start the day. Following a lunch of barbeque, grilled chicken, beans and cole slaw, the hunters gather around to learn of their lot for the day. As is common practice among large groups on opening-day hunts, numbers are drawn from a hat, randomly assigning each of the hunters to a corresponding "stand" in the adjacent field.

The assemblage is then free to break up and disperse, if so desired, with many of the hunters eager to locate their place in the field, even under a typically blazing August sun.

"It's an excitement thing - kind of like the first football game of the season," Garrison said. "People are chomping at the bit and want to get out there, so if they want to sit out there in the hot sun, we let 'em. Personally, I'm not going to go out there until around 4 or so, after it has cooled off a bit, and the birds are starting to come back into the field to feed."

As with any well-conducted dove hunt, safety is a foremost concern. Garrison reminds hunters repeatedly of this requirement before the hunt, then takes no prisoners if someone fails to abide by the rules once shooting begins.

"If you shoot a low bird, you're out of there - no questions asked," Garrison said. "We don't put up with any of that trash.

"We want the hunt to be something special, and we want everyone to have a terrific time, and that can't happen if you're out there endangering the safety of others."

During the hunt, it's also common for several stands to emerge as more productive than others. That's when Garrison urges his hunters to share the wealth.

"Certain places are better than others, and we tell them before the hunt that if they end up in a crackerjack place and get their limit (12 birds) in a hurry, please get out and let somebody else get in there," Garrison said. "It's simple etiquette - be fair about it and treat somebody the way you'd like for them to treat you."

After the hunt, the socializing continues, often picking up plenty of steam.

"I think the best part is just hanging out with everybody," said Will Garrison, Tom's cousin and an annual devotee to the hunt. "I like to help cook, then chew the fat. It's not all about shooting doves, it's a social event - catching up with people you haven't seen since last season."

Regardless of what transpires during the hunt, the participants unfailingly return with a healthy supply of fresh ammunition to unload upon their cohorts.

"We get a real kick out of giving each other a hard time," Tom Garrison said. "You'll hear people saying things like 'didn't you see that dove coming in over your head?'

"Reminiscing and joking - that's all part of the day."

In almost all cases, hunting success during dove season is overwhelmingly dependent upon what type of preparations the land-owner has made during the months prior to the hunt. Garrison's fields contain a small amount of millet, some wheat, and plenty of corn and sunflowers.

By all accounts, nothing attracts doves like sunflowers.

"Sunflowers and corn are the big-ticket items," said Tom Garrison, a farmer by trade. "All the wheat does is draw them in there early. You want them in there feeding by the first of August, and wheat can accomplish that. But sunflowers are the ticket; they're what hold the birds at your field."

Based on that assumption, Tom Garrison and his fellow hunters can expect another productive dove season over the next several weeks.

"I'm really amazed at our sunflowers this year," Garrison said. "I'm 48 and have been farming all my life, and these are the best sunflowers I've ever seen - we have sunflowers as big as basketballs out there. It's surprising they're as nice as they are with as little rain as we've had."

Indeed, Ron Fleming, a DNR wildlife technician who specializes in planning and managing productive dove fields, refers to sunflowers as the "silver bullet" for doves. But while sunflowers may be a primary attractant, other factors can influence the number of birds that frequent a field.

Fleming recommends dove fields be a minimum of 5 acres in size.

"You like to have at least one acre per hunter," he said.

Hillsides often prove to be better hunting locations than bottoms, and having power lines and water sources at or adjacent to a property are added bonuses.

"Power lines are favorite spots for doves to perch and rest, before and after feeding," Fleming said. "And a pond will also go a long way toward bringing in a lot of birds."

Having clear ground also can pay dividends since doves have weak feet and tend to avoid areas with heavy ground litter.

Weather conditions also play a role. If Garrison could place an order for what he deems perfect hunting conditions, he'd have several hot days leading up to opening day, then delight in seeing a front move in and bring cloudy, overcast conditions and cooler air the day of the hunt.

"If that happens, the birds will be flying at 2 o'clock," Garrison said. "They'll be coming in to feed earlier than they normally would."

But when the air is still and the temperature high - as is the case during many Labor Days at South Carolina - Garrison simply preaches patience.

"It's like playing a round of golf, and it's 95 degrees and you've got a bunch of slow people playing in front of you - you've just got to wait it out," Garrison said. "When you're out there in the dove field, you keep thinking they're coming at any minute. Then all of a sudden the sun starts going down and the birds start showing up. Then it's all worthwhile."

Billy Dukes and his fellow wildlife biologists and technicians with the DNR have for years preached the benefits of not "over-shooting" dove fields too quickly. Too much shooting too soon will result in doves packing up and heading for less-stressful feeding areas, effectively rendering even the best-prepared fields worthy of little more than an occasional fly-down.

The DNR went a step farther a couple of years ago, instituting a 6 p.m. shooting stoppage on the all of the state's public Wildlife Management Areas during the first portion of the three-part season.

Many private land-owners have followed suit, realizing the benefits of such a conservative approach.

"At first glance, some people might say we're limiting their hunting opportunity," Dukes said. "But what we're really doing is expanding opportunity by extending the life of the hunt on those fields. We want hunting to be good four or five weeks into the season, not just for one week."

Garrison is among many who subscribe to the philosophy.

"We try to manage the birds and allow them to feed," Garrison said. "That's why we stop shooting promptly at 6 o'clock. It's just good management - that's all there is to it. If you shoot too much too early, they won't come back."

Tom Garrison's father, T. Ed Garrison, served in the state legislature for 30 years, and although political obligations curtailed his own hunting efforts, he encouraged his sons at every opportunity.

"He didn't have a lot of time for hunting, but he gave me and my brother the chance to participate in it," Garrison said.

Garrison's introduction to dove hunting came 40 years ago, when his father gave him a single-barrel .410 shotgun that his daughters still use to this day.

And although he has long-since graduated to a Remington 870, he's still a kid at heart, particularly when the Labor Day dove hunt rolls around.

"That first dove hunt of the season is just something you always look forward to," Tom Garrison said. "How many things in this day and time do you really look forward to? Well, this is one of them."