More than a quarter of a century ago, a then-young fellow named Roy Turner called me and chatted a bit about some management efforts that he and his father, along with a few other hunters, had undertaken on family property.

It was obvious that Roy was, as my Grandpa Joe would have put it, "as country as cracklin'cornbread," and it was equally manifest that he was a sportsman to the core of his being.

A firm friendship developed from the initial contact, including subsequent time spent together afield in varied pursuits including trapping, fishing, turkey hunting, deer hunting, and more.

Yet the thing I cherish most about our friendship focuses on what Roy calls "Christmas in September" - the cherished and enduring Southern sporting tradition of dove hunting.

Simply put, the Turners do it right when it comes to their annual Opening Day dove shoot. For more than 50 consecutive years, the family has held the shoot, and Roy's two sons mark the fourth generation of Turners who take to September's sere fields to hunt grey-winged speedsters.

The Turner hunt usually involves 50 or so sportsman, some of them paying customers, others family and friends. All across the state there are similar gatherings. For weeks, phone lines bring eager inquiries such as, "Have you got plenty of birds this year?" or "Is there any chance of getting a stand at your shoot?"

Some hunters even go as far as doing some scouting, and they will have selected the spot where they plan to spend opening afternoon (On the first weekend and Labor Day, hunting is afternoons only; afterwards, you can hunt all day).

For most Palmetto State hunters however, the experience is primarily a mix of socialization, relaxation, and celebration.

It's a renewal of a cherished tradition that features the smell of burnt gunpowder wafting through the air.

It's a recently cut millet crop with the hay bales serving as "hides" for hunters.

It's sunflowers drooping their seed-filled heads, bush-hogged watermelons with seeds doves love, or just-harvested corn to draw birds.

Most of all, Opening Day of dove season signals that hunting is once more at hand and that the hunter's moon of October lies not too far in the future. It brings a welcome reprieve after a long, hot summer and promise of cooler days to come.

Before the first hunter takes to the field or the first shot is fired, there are time-honored rituals to be followed. They may vary a bit from one place to another, but the themes are common across the state.

The master of the hunt or the landowner addresses the gathered assembly, reminds them that safety is of paramount importance and points out obvious things such as the need to be sure guns are plugged, that licenses are current, that game wardens will likely be by at some point, and that no one is to shoot at low birds.

There will also be mention of and blessing for a festive meal, which is in many instances as great a source of delight as the actual hunt. In short, with a genuine, properly done, popcorn popper of a dove shoot you get what old-timers refer to as an "occasion."

Feasting like kings

Such shoots involve a wonderful blend of a family reunion, brush-arbor revival, and all-day singing with dinner on the grounds. A common practice is to start or end (or sometimes, both) a dove shoot with a genuine feast. Take the Turner shoot, for example. The previous evening, a whole hog will have been placed on a huge barbecue grill, likely flanked by several hindquarters of venison and possibly some other wild delicacies. Slow cooked and smoked for hours, with secret sauces brushed on from time to time, the meat sees flavors mix and mingle in a perfect culinary marriage. By mealtime, meat falls from the bone and is manna for hungry hunters.

Along with the featured fare will be the finest late summer bounty. Country gardens will provide juicy tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, fried okra and squash, green and hot peppers, and more. Watermelon rind pickles, pickled okra, bread-and-butter pickles, fig preserves, and the like will be side dishes. For the bread lover, cathead biscuits or cornbread made with stone-ground meal sit beside pitchers of ice-cold tea and maybe buttermilk, gold flakes of cholesterol deliciousness floating on top. Fruits will include fresh figs, concord grapes, cantaloupes fresh from the vine, and peaches bursting with juice. Slices of sugar-sweet watermelon so cold the rinds beads with moisture will be available.

For those who love dishes with South Carolina roots, there will be a chicken bog, rich with chicken, pork, flavorful rice, and plenty of black pepper for a bit of kick. Nor is there dismay in the ranks of those sporting a sweet tooth. For dessert, those in attendance will be offered a belt-loosening array of delicacies - chess pies of lemon and chocolate, hand-cranked ice cream and perhaps a cobbler or two to go with the rich, cool lusciousness, half a dozen different kinds of cake, and maybe, if the hunters are truly Dame Fortune's favored sons, a scuppernong pie made from the just-ripened bounty of early muscadines.

Time for business

Never mind the fact that doves do not fly much until late in the afternoon on September's sunny days, rest assured that on the first day of the season, overstuffed hunters will head straight from lunch to their stands. They will sit for three hours or more, sweltering, perhaps getting the occasional shot, and maybe even dozing a bit. Then, about 4:00 o'clock, it seems like some god of the hunt opens avian floodgates.

Suddenly doves are everywhere - singles, pairs, and sometimes a dozen or more together.

Excited cries of "Behind you!" "Mark left!" and "Coming across the field!" ring through the air. The sounds of casual camaraderie connect with missed shots and praise for nifty doubles. Retrievers, both the two-legged variety in the form of young boys and girls and four-legged canine companions, scramble after downed birds. For an hour or more the staccato shooting continues almost non-stop.

Then, gradually things begin to slow, not so much because of a sudden dearth of birds, but thanks to the fact that better shots among the hunters have taken their limit of a dozen birds and left the field. Others require more time, and there are always a few hapless souls who work their way through four or five boxes of shells and have only a half-dozen doves or so to show for their effort.

Eventually, the fields empty and hunters wend their way back to the shady spot where they ate lunch.

Now it is time for the cleaning of birds and telling of tales. Hunts past are relived and compared to the one just completed. Someone brags about the performance of a young Lab or Boykin spaniel, and grizzled veterans make a special point of praising youngsters who have taken their first birds or maybe their first limits.

All the while, doves are being breasted and readied for the grill. They will be wrapped in bacon strips, maybe stuffed with a jalapeno pepper or water chestnut, basted with olive oil or Italian dressing, then grilled to the point where the meat at the bone is pink but still juicy and succulent.

As dusk approaches and the day begins to cool a bit, a second "dove day" feast combines the bounty of the afternoon with the leftovers from lunch. Rest assured that no one leaves hungry. Finally, with a bit of sadness amongst the lingering aura of gladness, hunters young and old load up guns, dogs, stools, and other equipment and head homeward.

A second shoot will likely be held just two days later (Labor Day), and for serious hunters, maybe several more over the course to the three segments of the South Carolina season.

But there's only one Opening Day, and no subsequent shoot, regardless of the abundance of birds, quite matches it in terms of eager anticipation and the launching of another fall filled with fun.

Tips on tactics

Rick Snipes, a veteran wingshooter who lived in Rock Hill for many years before moving to Texas, once told me, "The average dove hunter never gives any thought to things which can make him more effective. That's fine, because ultimately dove hunting is all about fun, but if you put a bit of planning into the process, chances are you'll have more pleasure."

One key to upping your measure of pleasure is scouting. This can range from checking out flight patterns and favored holding trees to talking with the landowner, and it's always a good idea to visit a hunting area before the season opens to see just what the birds are doing.

This will let you know what part of a field seems to be favored, where doves like to light before entering a field, and more. Pay particular attention to power lines and dead trees - both draw birds with seemingly magnetic magic. Also, if a field is surrounded by trees, count on doves using gaps in the tree line or low spots in rolling terrain as favorite entrance points.

Similarly, wind direction, if there is anything more than a hint of a breeze, can make a difference.

A bit of astute observation can pay real dividends, and if you hunt the same field year after year - or perhaps visit the same site several times during a single season - you will understand this.

For example, Roy Turner has stationed his stand at one of two places -under a venerable chinaberry tree or against a mid-field power pole - every Opening Day since I have been privileged to be a part of his family hunt. He invariably shoots a limit of birds early, then spends the rest of the hunt working with his two boys, touring fields to see that guests are enjoying themselves, and simply savoring the joys of the occasion.

Guns, loads, shots

Early in the season - and especially on Opening Day or on the first hunt in a given field - doves can be comparatively "low and slow." Mind you, comparative is the operative word, because there's a sort of wingshooting alchemy involved where the formula for killing birds with regularity seems elusive beyond belief for some and simplicity itself for others.

Really good dove shots tend to be those who have done a lot of it, and no matter how good you are, count on having days when misses will outnumber hits. As the "Old Man" in Robert Ruark's inimitable collection of tales "The Old Man and the Boy" (set in neighboring North Carolina) puts it: "Doves are the easiest hard shootin'in the world. Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe there the toughest easy shootin'in the world.

"I'm telling you right now, you figger to miss more'n you hit, and it wouldn't surprise be none if you didn't hit any for your first box of shells."

When it comes to taking shots, for a real challenge, use a 20 gauge - or even a 28 gauge or .410. Most of the guns you see on dove shoots, however, will be 12 gauges. Double barrels, stack barrels, pumps, and semi-autos all have their fans, and all work perfectly well. The latter two give you an extra shot, but as lifelong dove hunter Bennett Kirkpatrick once remarked to me, "You pick your shots better when you just have two of them to take."

Whether you have two shots or three, one marksmanship tip might be helpful - the hallmark or a fine dove shot and veteran hunter is how they select their shotshells. Early in the year, No. 7 ½ or 8 shot, with an improved cylinder choke, maybe backed up by a modified constriction if you have two barrels, will serve you best. Later, when you get migratory birds, stronger winds, and higher fliers, you might want a bit tighter choke and, for really high birds, maybe No. 6 shot.

Of course, it doesn't have to involve much more than grabbing Old Betsy and some shells for a day of fun. Dove hunting might not match a wingshooting expedition to Argentina for perdiz or Scotland for driven grouse, but it is home-grown adventure of the finest sort.

Simply coming close to hearth and home makes it appealing. Add considerations such as tradition, the fact it is a social affair of note, and the relaxed atmosphere (everyone misses, and when the birds are there everyone gets plenty of action), and the sum of the equation comes to a sporting experience every staunch shooting son of the South Carolina soil has to love.

Maybe sharing a bit of personal insight will tell just how large a fine shoot and all it trimmings looms in the mind of this sportsman. A decade ago, I cut short by one day a trip to far northern Canada after caribou and ptarmigan to be in South Carolina for Opening Day of dove season. More recently, I rushed back from a chamois hunt in Austria for the same reason. When Roy Turner equates anticipation of the opening of dove season with the excitement youngsters feel on Christmas Eve, he captures the true meaning of this day of days for traditionalists.

 

 

Editor's Note: Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who has written or edited more than three dozen books. For information on how to order any of them or for a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter, visit his website at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.