Every Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend for most of the 21st century, and a few years before, my hunting buddy Bill Booth and I have joined Mike Haire and his son Tom for the opening day of dove hunting at various fields they own around Rutherford County. The Haires are known for their close ties to the land, avid hunting and fishing, generations of farming and Mike’s wizardry with preparing fields to dove hunt. The catch is the land has to be seeded and tilled with sufficient grain to attract the flying doves, without running afoul of the game laws that forbid having too much fresh bait on the ground.
The day starts mid-morning with Mike and Tom hooking their trailer to Mike’s tractor and hauling the grill and food supplies to a shaded area under some large oaks of an old home place near the chosen dove field. Then commences the gathering of pickup trucks from around western NC. One of the regular clans of shooters is from Morganton; their family of avid hunters are great shots, harvest many deer each fall and run their own rabbit beagles each winter. Other guys include a highway patrol officer, an optometrist, several electrical engineers, a high school teacher (Bill) and a lawyer (me).
Mike and Tom always prepare and serve a high tone gourmet lunch of grilled hotdogs, chili, chopped onions, baked beans, Chek cola and Little Debbie cakes. A couple times I brought the machinery and fixings for homemade ice cream. After a heartfelt blessing (Mike is a part-time preacher, despite the occasional slip of a cuss word or two…) we all chow down on the fresh grilled dogs. At the stroke of noon, it becomes legal, and we disburse to the field to commence shooting the gray rockets.
The theory is that the best strategy is for all the hunters to take up stands scattered around the perimeter of a field and shoot towards the center. To avoid hitting another hunter, we never aim below the level of the tree tops, but the fields are so wide that it would be unlikely to hit anybody on the other side, anyway. Then, if one hunter misses his shot, the doves keep flying in a big circle around the field, so other hunters get a second or third shot at the same birds.
The reality is that certain tall trees, telephone poles, power lines and the terrain outside the field create avenues where the flow of doves concentrate, like currents in a lake. Hunters naturally gravitate to the spots in the field the influx of doves is the strongest. So, the “perimeter plan” gets whoppy-jawed and the hunters in the hot spots often get more doves.
Doves are notoriously hard to hit. To start with, they are small - just a few inches wide and maybe 5 inches long in the vital area of head and chest. Then, they are far away (like 50 yards) when you line them up to take a shot. They fly fast (up to 60 m.p.h.). And finally, they juke and jive in the air, dodging every which way when they hear a shot. Fortunately, they don’t seem to hear human voices. When a bird is spotted approaching hundreds of yards away, everybody on the opposite side of the field will yell “bird” to alert their compatriots of incoming game from behind.
Most guys do far more shooting that hitting. The national average is something like one dove killed for every 7 shells fired. Some of the guys in this group, especially the clan from Morganton, far exceed that average. They may hit a bird for every 2 or 3 shells. I hate like the devil to have to say this, because his ego is already the size of Nebraska, so his head will swell even larger when he reads this. But my buddy Bill Booth is a crack shot. I have seen him hit a bird for every 1 or 2 shells over several stretches of time. And to make it worse, he is not even using the standard 12 gauge shotgun like everyone else. Go down four sizes smaller, through a 16 gauge, 20 gauge, and 28 gauge, to a .410 gauge. Bill can take his pea shooter size .410 pump and hit about every other bird. For an ugly guy wearing such wussy shoes, go figure.
The birds come, and the birds go. They sometimes fill the air in overwhelming, wheeling bunches. Those fast paced shooting times are mixed with lazy stretches when no birds are in sight, with us sitting and jawing among ourselves during the long, hot afternoon. Ever the solicitous host, Mike will drive by several times during the day with the food trailer behind the tractor and bring us all snacks – cold hotdogs, cans of soda and more Little Debbie cakes.
As the sun slants low in the western sky we get tired – of either shooting and reloading (on a fast day), or of waiting for more birds (on a slow day). We pocket our doves in our camouflage field jackets and gather at the trailer for a fast cleaning session. The breasts are pinched from the rib cage and the front feathers stripped off. Most guys don’t keep the dove meat, but donate it to Mike, who put the breasts in a garbage bag to take home. Mike’s mother used to cook them up and hostess a dove dinner a month or so later.
All days in the field are good days. The camaraderie, food, banter, shooting and thick skinned ribbing after frequent misses make for a wonderful time. Thanks, Mike and Tom.