"Behind you! Look behind you!"
The muffled shout came from our hunting companion Lewis Peeler. My son Zach and I looked around just in time to see a low-flying mourning dove streaking into the field of cut sunflowers.
"Get him, Zach!" I said.
Zach swung his single-shot 20 gauge behind the bird, pulled the trigger and grinned a big grin when the dove tumbled in a puff of feathers.
"Nice shot, Zach," Lew called out.
Seconds later, we found three more doves nearly on top of us, dodging and dipping like bantam kamikazes. As they passed us, we shouldered our shotguns and fired. Zach bagged his bird, but by some strange quirk, I missed mine.
It was my turn to play retriever, but before I could reach the bird, Zach called "Here come some more, Dad." I dropped to a squat as a tight group of five or six doves winged by out of range. Lewis was ready and downed two as the cluster broke up. Gray streaks skedaddled for safer air space in all directions.
Two of the streaks veered my way. I shot twice and missed. Zach lowered the boom on one dove; the other hugged the ground as it rocketed across the field.
When I returned to our hiding spot at the edge of the field, I realized I was down to my last three shotshells. I had started with three boxes.
"How many shells you got left, Zach?" I asked.
"I still have a whole box," he replied.
"How many doves have you killed?" I asked.
"Eleven," he shot back. "How many have you killed?"
"That's not important, son," I replied. "What's important is, we're having fun."
Chances are, I'll never live down the fact that 13-year-old Zach, on his first dove hunt, managed to bag almost three times as many doves as his dad using half as many shells. When I tell my friends that this clearly illustrates the fact that I am such a good shooting instructor, they cover their mouths and make funny chuckling sounds.
Zach and I certainly did have fun on that opening day hunt last month, however, and I'm here to tell you this is one youngster who's now thoroughly hooked on hunting. We've hunted many types of game since Zach was big enough to safely carry a gun, but he's never shown the enthusiasm I saw that day when our hunt was over.
"When can we go again, Dad?" he asked.
"This is FUN!"
I started hunting doves when I was about Zach's age, and I suppose in many ways, the fine wingshooting I enjoyed back then is responsible for my lifelong love of hunting. Dove hunting was then, and still is, my favorite type of hunting. Here's why.
Reason 1 Lots of shooting going on: What I like most about dove hunting is the shooting. An exceptional wingshot might pop off no more than 15 rounds and have a limit of doves. As you've already discovered, however, I'm below average in the marksmanship department, totally missing 90 percent of the doves that fly by. As a consequence, I shoot more than most folks an average of 75-100 shells per outing. I love shooting, and a good dove hunt lets me bang away until my shoulder's totally black and blue.
Reason 2 Hunting season begins: In my home state, Arkansas, dove season begins earlier than other hunting seasons. The same is true in many states. By the time opening day arrives, several "huntless" months have passed and I'm eager to go afield. Dove hunting is a way to celebrate the end of the long hunting drought.
Reason 3 Camaraderie abounds: Some hunting sports are, in their execution, solo sports. Not so dove hunting. It's not unusual for 20 or more hunters to gather for a shoot in a sunflower or milo field, and often as not, before and after the hunt everyone has a chance to visit and enjoy a good meal. Dove hunts are social events, and being the socialite I am, I thoroughly enjoy these get-togethers.
Reason 4 Silence is not a prerequisite for success: Folks who know me will tell you I never was much good at being quiet. A bull in a china shop exhibits more stealth than Senor Catfish. When I'm dove hunting, however, I don't have to worry about sneaking up on the game or waiting quietly for an animal to appear. I can talk incessantly if my partners will put up with it, and there's even occasion to do a little shouting when my buddies don't see birds winging their way. A blabbermouth like me feels right at home.
Reason 5 Dove hunting is a sedentary sport: In other words, I don't have to climb mountains or trees, trek through swamps or walk miles into the backcountry to enjoy good hunting. I drive right up beside the field, walk a short distance, sit my fat, lazy butt on a bucket and enjoy all the shooting I can stand.
Reason 6 No need to be an early bird: Yes, dove hunting probably is a bit better at dawn. But experience shows an 8 a.m. start time can be almost as productive, and afternoon shooting can be pretty good, too. I can get some much-needed beauty rest and still not miss the action.
Reason 7 Even cheapskates can be dove hunters: You don't need a boat, 4x4 pickup, decoys, dogs, expensive firearms or fancy accessories for dove hunting. Even the shotshells are cheap. For a low-income hack like me, this is good news.
Reason 8 It's warm outside: Dove season gets started long before winter weather turns sour. This means the mosquitoes may be bad at times, but I won't be suffering from frozen toes or frostbitten ears. Wimps, rejoice!
Reason 9 Dove breasts are gourmet fixings: Granted, they're small. But dove breasts wrapped in bacon and slow-cooked over charcoal are to die for.
Reason 10 Family fun is guaranteed: There's no better way to enjoy a day with a beginning hunter than sitting in a dove field together, laughing, talking and shooting for hours on end. Take your kids. Take your wife. Take your friends and relatives. There's no better way to get someone hooked on hunting.
So there you have it some of the "pros" of dove hunting.
And the cons? Well, for the moment, I can only think of one. My 13-year-old son has been out-shooting me by a substantial margin, and I'll never hear the end of it.
Come to think of it, though, that's one of the pros. A well-earned smile on Zach's face makes every dove hunt unforgettable, and that, too, gives me reason to love this sport.
To contact Keith Sutton, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.