Our intrepid guide to the outdoors Mr. David Bagwell, late of Fairhope, Alabama is todays narrator. Photos provided by the author.
The Old Timey Southern Dove Shoot
In the deep South there’s one thing that says “early fall” even when it’s really still summer: the Southern dove shoot. In what to a Gulf Coast Southerner is “the upper South”– oh, places like South Carolina, Tennessee and North Mississippi and North Alabama [ok, ok; so that’s not “the upper South” to just everybody]– Southern-style dove shoots start about Labor Day. As we all know, Labor Day is also when you put away your white linen suit and seersuckers and white bucks and stuff, even if not yet your Borsalino Panama. And get out your shotgun, if you are so inclined, as I am.
The Southern dove shoot. Not everybody likes it or even gets it, but I do.
Not long ago I bought a wonderful English book called “The Best Shoots”, about bird shoots in England and all that. Some really great stuff, about shoots, driven grouse and pheasants, in Edwardian times and now. I recommend it highly. Among other things you’ll be amazed by Prince Duleep Singh, who was Queen Victoria’s pet Maharajah and Godson, last Asian owner of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, now in Victoria’s Empire Crown, who loved the Victorian shoot. A great book with some great stories [uncompensated endorsement].
The surprising thing about that book, which took a little while to grow on me, is how much the great shoots of England are like the old-time Southern dove shoots. Maybe it’s this way in the rest of the country; I don’t know, maybe I just THINK it’s a Southern thing. Maybe it is a hunter thing rather than a Southern thing.
Speaking of which, this isn’t the essay in which to explain or debate the killing of birds by hunters. If you don’t want to do it, that’s fine with me. But I do. Unlike some of the great outdoorsmen such as Aldo Leopold and Ortega y Gasset, and Guy de la Valdene, I don’t offer a public explanation for why I hunt. It isn’t Celtic bloodlust; I don’t get a semi-sexual thrill from the kill or anything, but it is a lot of fun and it is satisfying, and it produces good birds for the table. I think it’s actually something traditionally within humans, maybe mostly within men. I cannot even explain it or understand it, but on the other side of the coin I have reverence for the birds I kill and eat, and I support conservation efforts for them.
And the older I get, the more I like bird hunting, and when I go bird hunting, I just feel very traditionally Southern. In my own case, which isn’t universal by any means, it’s also a literary kinship with the past. I’m the guy in your English class who read Faulkner’s The Bear not for the academic symbolism that the geek professor professed to see in it, but to learn how they hunted in the old Delta. Each autumn I re-read some of the great literature of bird shooting, by people like Nash Buckingham of Memphis, Vereen Bell of South Georgia, Havilah Babcock of South Carolina, and some Yankees too, like the great old-shoe Gene Hill. And especially “Dog and Gun” from 1856, that entirely serious work by the humorist of the old South Johnson Jones Hooper, Alabama lawyer and editor and Indian historian and hunter, which I discovered forty-four years ago in the rare book room of the Vanderbilt library, writing a paper on Hooper. I love all this on multiple levels, partly literary. But I don’t mention that on Southern dove shoots.
It’s also a lot of fun to be around the other people. In the old days these would have all been men, but in my newest dove club there is a husband-and-wife who joined to take their son out; the wife is a fellow lawyer whose father the judge, now sadly deceased, was one of the best dove shots I ever saw.
First you have to dress for the occasion, same as any occasion. And with some dove shoots there is fashion almost as strict as any in England, if not so stodgy. In some dove shoots people wear camouflage clothes, and in some they don’t. This doesn’t seem to be so much a geographical difference as maybe what I would never consent to call a class difference [but like Byron’s Julia, whilst saying “I shall ne’er consent”– I consented]. In my crowd almost nobody wears camouflage. We wear mostly dark khaki-colored or brown clothes; nothing too fancy, just understated. Nobody ever mentions the dress differences, but at my shoots they mostly show up in non-camouflage.
And you have to have your shotgun of course. In the old days of the twenties and thirties most everybody would have had a side-by-side double-barrel shotgun, mostly of American make; a Winchester 21 maybe, or an L.C. Smith field grade, or a Parker or a LeFever. In the late twenties and early thirties automatics came in, often in sixteen gauge, like the Belgian Browning humpback “Sweet Sixteen”, a beautiful gun. There always were some slick-shooting pumps, like the classic Winchester Model 12. And later came European over-and-unders like the Beretta Silver Pigeon, and European automatics like Benelli and others, maybe in twenty gauge. A decade or so ago there was a big move back to side-by-side doubles, usually in twenty gauge or maybe 28 gauge, and rarely– depending on the wealth of the shooters– maybe an English or Spanish best double game gun. There might be some quiet and modest talk and comparison about the guns, but very little or no bragging.
At an old-timey dove shoot you normally meet your friends near the field in the early mid-day. If you are lucky a good lunch will be there, especially on opening day. Some of my memorable opening day dove shoot lunches have included fried mullet and greens, gumbo with crab bodies in it, and grilled Mexican dove breasts with cream cheese and jalepeno, wrapped in bacon. Another was in a cottage on Mobile Bay, with white-coated service and fried chicken and sandwiches. There might be a Bloody Mary or a cold beer, but drinking is not a major part of this deal. There is the safety issue with drinking, of course, as in any endeavor, but good hunters know that alcohol affects shooting skills, and dove shooting is a game almost entirely based on skill.
You might go into the dove field about two o’clock, carrying your gun unloaded with an open breech. Usually you go too early. Old Captain Jackson– a retired towboat owner who pulled “rafts of timber” [log rafts] down the river in the old days– taught me memorably that “doves don’t fly ‘til the school bus runs”, at three p.m. to be precise. Good advice, generally, with some exceptions.
When everybody is safely in the field a truck horn is blown and shooting can start.
“The dove field”– what is that? Well, it has changed some over the years, but basically it is a large farm field, usually at the edge of town, with shooters stationed around the trees and fences on the perimeter, and some shooters in “dove blinds” in the middle of the field. A “dove blind” is camouflage cloth wrapped around some four-foot stakes in the ground, in my own case the stakes being flounder gigs which I also use to gig flounder in the shores during Jubilees on Mobile Bay.
The doves? They are Mourning Doves, near town with a few non-native [and non-counted] tough big Eurasian Collared Doves in the mix, the lighter gray ones which sound high and hoarse like a New Year’s Eve blown roll-out whistle. Don’t dare shoot the small ground doves; they are protected. Or the small hawks that look like doves.
The reason the doves are there is simple: they came for dinner. Just what the doves are coming to eat depends on a variety of factors. Early in the year they may be coming to glean the remains of the harvest, of corn or peanuts, which fell on the ground during “the normal agricultural activity” of harvest. A little later they may be coming in for “the normal agricultural activity” of sewing of seed, in a permitted way the date and manner of which is set out by the local state agricultural college. Whatever it is, it must be followed precisely on pain of arrest because ever since the Migratory Bird Treaty between the U.S. and Canada came into effect just after The Great War to End All Wars, “baiting” of doves has been illegal. A “normal agricultural practice” is fine, but not baiting, and the line can be fine indeed. Since thirty years ago I was a judge who tried a lot of dove baiting criminal cases at the Federal Court in South Alabama, a lot of my friends ask me very detailed questions about the narrow line at the interface between “a normal agricultural practice”, which is legal, and baiting, which is a federal and state crime. Questions like “how many times can you re-sow wheat if your crop fails?”, asked not by a Kansas farmer, but by the lawyer or the car dealer or somebody with no dirt under his fingernails. The mere asking of the question usually answers it.
A crop planted and manipulated purely for the doves to eat is not “bait”, but there are some ragged edges to that rule as usual. Around these parts a sunflower crop is great, or a millet field left there and run over.
But bait sure works, and so there is real and illegal “baiting” going on in some places. In the olden days cracked corn was typical. When I was a judge they tried a baiting case before me but nobody ever said exactly what the bait was– the defendant didn’t want to know, and the prosecutors wanted to lure me into it like as the bait lured the doves. I asked innocently enough, “well, what WAS the bait?” The game warden on the witness stand smiled, thought “well, finally!” and said “Judge, the bait was ‘Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice’!” “Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice” on the dove field was not a “normal agricultural use”: GUILTY!
Ideally the birds do fly and the shooters can hit them. The limit may be twelve or fifteen birds, but not everybody gets the limit. Those who get the limit early, walk back to the staging area, with the act of walking back in quiet modesty maybe almost bragging a little on their shooting skill. Finally about 4:30 or so, or five, somebody blows another truck horn and everybody unloads and opens the gun’s breech and walks in or waits on a ride.
Afterward, standing around the trucks or cars, the shooters may share a cold beer or a taste of whiskey, water the dogs, talk quietly, try to avoid bragging, and give somebody a little grief about something that happened that day. Usually the doves are still flying over and people point and smile. Birds may be shared around among those who didn’t get quite enough, almost always oblivious to the complexities of the legal requirements for doing that.
That’s about it. “The Old Timey Southern Dove Shoot”. And what a lot of fun it can be, in the early fall.
David A. Bagwell