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- Story Listed as: True Life For Adults
- Theme: Adventure stories
- Subject: Sports / Recreation
- Published: 04/26/2020
Texas Dove HuntBorn 1954, M, from Cocoa Beach/FL, United States
A TEXAS DOVE SHOOT
In most parts of the world, there were four primary seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Where I grew up in Texas, the most important seasons aren't associated with the weather. Instead, they revolve around hunting and football, both of which start the first week of September. Hunting seasons start with dove in September, then continue with deer, turkey, quail, and ducks through the winter.
I had passions for dove hunting and football in the fall, as well as duck hunting in the winter. The timing kept me in a season at least five months of the year. The other seven months, I prepared for the opening of dove and football seasons in September. Living in Central Texas, I naturally became a rabid Texas Longhorn fan. I attended most of their home games. If I had to make a choice, Longhorn football would be my number one obsession, with dove hunting a close second. What caused me much angst between these passions was that college football games occurred on Saturday afternoons or evenings. At the same time, dove season ran from September through October, with the best hunting from afternoon to dark. While I occasionally hunted on Fridays and Sundays, I favored Saturdays for hunting, cooking and eating dove, drinking beer, and celebrating our hunt.
What made football and dove hunting even more special for me was that my mother's ranch was located thirty minutes from Austin, where the Texas Longhorns played home football games. On weekends of out-of-town games, I hunted in the ranch’s grain fields while listening to Longhorn games on a radio.
Home games with a noon start ended by 4:00, which allowed us time to rush back to the ranch for a few hours of hunting at dusk as birds came in to drink after eating dry grain all afternoon.
When the Horns played night games, we started the day early by driving trucks through a sunflower or grain field to push feeding birds toward hunters that hid at the far side of the field. We stopped in midafternoon to clean, cook, and eat fresh dove. Then we dressed up in orange costumes and headed to Austin to watch our beloved Longhorns whoop up on other Southwest Conference Teams. You can see the overlap of these two events required caused careful planning to indulge in the maximum amount of adrenaline-packed fun one could experience in a day.
On one special October Saturday of 1977, the stars aligned when the Longhorns played Texas Tech at 2:00. At the same time, the first cold front of the season blew millions of big, northern doves into our area of Texas on their annual migration to Mexico. Our ranch lay on their main migration route, providing food, water, and trees for the dove to roost in. A hot Texas summer had dried up all but one small pond on the side of a brown, brush-covered hill in the middle of our ranch. Earlier that week, I had scouted bird movements. I concluded this would be an excellent weekend for both football and dove.
Though Texas ranked No. 1 in the nation and Texas Tech No. 14, these inter-conference games turned into bitter battles until time ran out. To our delight, Texas skunked the Raiders 26 to 0. I could have partied after the game but chose to race out to the ranch for some shooting to top off the day.
I met seven friends at the ranch two hours before sunset. Tom and Dorothy were an older couple from my neighborhood. He had a bad back that kept him from getting around very well. Ronny and Lee were my classmates in business school and long time hunting buddies. Ronny’s wife, Prissy, though not hunting, spotted and retrieved his birds very well. Lee boarded my English Springer Spaniel retriever, Pistol Pete, and brought him along to retrieve our birds. Rounding out the crew that day was my lifelong friend, Herman, and my landlord, John.
Mom’s ranch lay in rolling green countryside where the Texas Hill Country gradually flattened into fertile farmland. The Plum Creek wove through our bottomlands thick with oak trees. Outside the tree line, the vegetation turned into a mix of cactus and short mesquite trees covered with long thorns strong enough to puncture tires and boots. Like most Texas ranches, we had a deep stock pond to provide water for cattle during dry summers. Cows weren’t the only animal that survived on water in these scattered ponds. All manner of birds, turkeys, rabbits, and critters also depended on these watering holes for existence. Cunning predators lay in wait for a chance to stalk smaller animals coming in to drink.
A nearby farmer called me earlier that week to report he had finished harvesting a maize field. Dove now swarmed in on the scattered seeds and roosted somewhere along Plum Creek. I knew where they roosted. Close to our pond.
A north wind blew hard. We wore dark baseball hats to cover our white faces. Camouflaged long sleeve shirts offered a bit of protection from prickly cactus and mesquite, as well as to hide our body shapes.
This close to the end of hunting season, the surviving dove had wizened up. They waited until dusk before flying in for a drink, then settled into nearby trees for the night. We had purposely avoided hunting on this pond earlier in the season, leaving it as a safe sanctuary until late in October.
Knowing your prey goes a long way toward a successful hunt of any animal. Doves fly high and fast, at speeds up to 55 miles an hour as they studied landscape below for danger. Upon finding a safe landing area, they dropped low, braking at the last second with wings flared, somehow landing in trees or small patches of dirt at water’s edge.
When hunting deer or turkey, blinds prevent the detection of human smell or shape. However, doves did not spook as much as other animals. They depended on sharp eyesight to detect movement, which caused immediate darting and weaving of their rapid flights. The key to successful dove hunting was blending into the surrounding terrain and not move a muscle until the last possible second to raise your shotgun and fire.
We parked our trucks under trees several hundred yards away from the pond. Though eager to begin the fun, a lifetime of hunting had taught us patience. We calmly donned camouflaged hunting vests and loaded shotguns with light No. 7 ½ shot shells adequate for dropping small dove, when you could hit them. Most hunters typically shot five times for every kill, though on my good days, I averaged one bird per three shots. My roommate, John, shot on a competitive team. He used with an engraved Beretta Over Under shotgun from Italy. Nobody wanted to hunt close to John. He consistently downed a dove on every other shot or less. Sometimes I just stopped to watch him dust bird after bird, leaving none for other hunters around him. Herman the German also shot very well. He brought one box of 25 shells for the hunt. Though greying and hard of hearing, he still didn’t need more than a box to shoot his limit.
My buddies sported 12-gauge shotguns with shells containing more BBs than smaller gauges; the common presumption being more is better. However, a 12-gauge shotgun's large shells packed more powder, which delivered a harder kick than smaller gauges. I didn’t worry about kick when duck hunting because I shot only a few rounds a morning while wearing a heavy jacket in freezing weather. But when hunting in hot weather, I wore a light shirt offering no cushion against recoil. After firing many times at fast flying dove, the kick took a toll on my shoulder. Therefore, I sported a 20 gauge Remington 1100 semi-automatic, highly favored by hunters far and wide for dependability and accuracy. The spring action of a semi-automatic delivered a softer jolt than a single shot, double barrel, or pump shotguns. For additional comfort, I added a rubber kick-pad on the butt, allowing me to go through many boxes of shells before earning a shotgun-bruised shoulder.
When I released Pistol Pete from his cage on Lee’s truck, he ran around me whining with excitement, waiting for his favorite game - fetch the dove.
“Hey Pistol, are you ready to get some birds?” I asked. He knew what that meant and barked with anticipation.
“Thanks for bringing him out today,” I told Lee. “How did you like that ball game?”
With a big smile, he said, “Hookem horns. We really put it to those Raiders today.”
An animated discussion began, recreating the game’s highlights.
After a few moments, I said, "I'll take Tom and Dorothy down to the pond, then bring their car back. See you down at the creek in a while. Birds should start flying soon."
I drove them to the pond, and told Tom, “Put your chair next to the pier and keep your head below the top of the bank. They’ll be whipping fast down that ravine across the way, wanting to land at the water’s edge if you let them. Those you miss will flare away and settle in trees along the creek. They’ll be real reluctant to find a new roosting area this close to dark. I hope you brought enough shells.”
“I’m fine,” he responded. "The limit is fifteen birds per person. I won’t need two whole boxes.”
“That’s big talk. When’s the last time you shot?”
“It’s been a few years, but I shoot straight.”
“Is that your dad’s gun?”
Tom gave his weapon to me with pride. “Hey, this old 12 gauge double barrel knocks them down.”
“Let me see that antique.”
I inspected the well used double banger, “No kick pad,” I noted.
“I don’t need a kick pad,” he smirked.
I added, “First time I’ve seen a two banger with one trigger. How does that work?”
“ Just pull it a little way for the first shot, then all the way for the second. New guns now have separate triggers.”
“What happens if you forget and pull hard?”
With a twinkle in his eye, he replied, “I only did that once, when dad first gave me the gun. Both barrels went off and slammed me like a sledgehammer.”
I laughed. “I bet. You’re going to be reloading fast when birds start flying.”
“Your seeing and shooting ain’t what they used to be,” Dorothy snorted. “I’m gonna be helping you.”
“You can help by fetching my doves,” he growled. “Gotta get them fast before a turtle does,”
“I’m not swimming after your birds. I want to shoot my own.”
“When I get my limit, you can use my gun.”
I replied, "Yell, when you need me. I'll send Pistol over to fetch your birds. Good luck, and we'll see how many you get with two boxes."
I returned my car to its hiding place under large oak trees and headed toward the wooded creek, keeping my eyes on the sky for doves while Pistol explored brush ahead of me. After I located my buddies hiding among trees and brush between the pond and creek bed, I set up a stool between two cactus bushes out of range of their weapons. At the hilltop, doves with full bellies and dry mouths rose in circles, preparing to fly for a drink at the pond. My head swiveled back and forth, noting far away dove flying high with distinctive streamlined bodies. Evenly paced wing beats kept them on fast, level paths. Pistol sat beside me, watching my face to know which direction the birds were coming from. I had a bum knee from a motorcycle wreck, so I needed Pistol to retrieve for me.
A flock of six doves rose from the field, racing in low toward the pond fifty yards to my left.
“Tom, coming at you,” I yelled. I raised my hand vertical, the silent command for Pistol to sit.
The birds grouped together, moving as one, making a line for refreshing water. Smoothly they flew just above treetops, entering the gully where Tom lay in ambush. When their wings set to land, I heard Tom’s first shot. The birds rose quickly, gaining altitude and speed. On his next shot, one collapsed, plummeting to the ground. The others swirled, flying back to the field.
"How close do you want them to be?" I yelled at Tom.
“One out of two,” Ronnie shouted. “I don’t think you’ll have enough shells.”
“I shot the first dove of the day. I’m just getting warmed up,” retorted Tom. “Dorothy, can you find the bird behind the bush over there?”
“Okay, okay. Give me a minute.” She walked to the other side of the pond, searching for the downed bird.
I glanced back at the field to see a flock of twenty birds rise, moving in our direction.
"Get ready, boys," I shouted. I hunched low behind the cactus bush, waving my hand slightly for Pistol to stay. He scanned the horizon expectantly as his stubby tail wagged in the dirt. Fast grey bundles of feathers barreled down the hillside, zeroing in on the water. A shot rang out, dropping the lead bird. Tom’s second shot drew feathers from another dove, but it flew on with its companions as they lifted over the pond, then scattered toward our second ambush in the tree line.
Shots rang out around me as I drew a bead on the wounded bird. Boom. Down it tumbled. Pistol sprang into action for an automatic retrieval with no direction from me. I swung left and raised my gun toward a bird speeding directly at me. I raised the barrel and shot at ten yards. Feathers exploded, wings folded, and the bird sailed over my head into trees behind me. I marked the second bird’s landing spot and turned back to see Pistol return with a bird in his mouth.
When I reached out and commanded, “Give,” he put the bird in my hand. If he dropped a wounded bird before reaching my hand, it might fly away. We were a well-tuned hunting machine. Pistol looked at me, waiting for directions toward my second bird.
I pointed and said, “Fetch.” Off he went, following a straight line from my arm. After twenty yards, I shouted, “Hup.” He stopped and looked at me. I motioned for him to go right. Nose to the ground, he slowly explored tall grass, then sped up with a rapidly whipping tail when he smelled the dove. Pistol stopped at the base of a tree, looking up where feathers drifted down from a bird trapped in branches. He jumped a couple of times but couldn’t reach high enough.
He looked at me and whined in dog talk, "What do I do, Dad? I found him for you."
When I reached up with my gun barrel to prod it free, the bird fell, bouncing along the ground. Pistol pounced on it, his head held high and tail wagging, proudly bring the live bird back to me. His soft mouth left it still alive, so I killed it and put it in a bird pouch attached to the back of my vest.
I sat down to watch my buddies also retrieving birds. This had the makings of a great hunt. Back at my cactus spot, Pistol and I watched more birds leave the field. He quickly learned that today’s birds were coming from that direction, so he watched that horizon intently. Another group of fast flyers zoomed in for a drink. Tom waited until they slowed above the water. Boom. Boom. Two splashed into the water, while survivors rose, swerving toward Herman. From his spot under a tree, two shots dropped a pair. The remaining doves circled wide to approach their roosting spot from a different direction. Right over my head. They really wanted to sleep in those trees tonight. I brought down one that ventured into range and watched another drop from Ronnie’s shot. Prissy sprang into action, running to a clump of cactus where the bird had fallen. As she reached down, a covey of bobwhite quail exploded from the cactus with noisy wing beats, scattering in all directions. She screamed and jumped backward. Cheers and hoots erupted from our group as she moaned about almost having a heart attack.
"There are rattlesnakes in there too," Lee taunted. "Better watch what you grab."
More laughter followed.
"Be quiet, guys. I know what I'm doing," responded Prissy.
She found the dove after a short search, then returned to Ronnie’s mesquite tree, where they sat on stools while waiting for more flights.
After another retrieval by Pistol, I took him to the pond and asked Tom, “Need some help?”
Dorothy smirked, pointing to dead doves in the water. “I don’t swim.”
“She needs more training.” Tom laughed.
“Not to worry,” I replied.
“Pistol.” He looked at me. I motioned to the water and commanded, “Fetch.” Into the stagnant pond he splashed, happily retrieving both birds while enjoying a cool refresher. He would stay in the water all day long if I let him.
“If Pistol brings me any birds, they’re mine,” I told Tom.
“No way,” replied Tom with a mock glare. “Give me my birds.”
I threw him his doves, returned to the creek to sit beneath a mesquite tree. Shots rang out as more birds in groups of ten to twenty descended to trees out of my range. The other hunters were busy reloading, shooting, and chasing dropped dove in the brush. When I knocked down a bird, I concentrated on finding it, or at least sent Pistol after it, before I shot at another. I hated killing game and not finding it. My cardinal rule was no animal left behind. With Pistol along, I spent more time shooting and less time searching.
I saw Ronnie draw feathers on a single that, though wounded, continued to flutter toward me.
I pointed and told Pistol, “Bird.”
He bounded toward the low approaching target that struggled to rise higher as Pistol leaped for it.
I raised my gun and ended its flight.
When Pistol retrieved the dove, Ronnie called out, “That’s my bird.”
"That's my dog," I replied. "Besides, you just slowed it down. I killed it."
As the golden sun reached the horizon, we slowly became grey shadows hidden in the trees. Large groups of birds now lifted from field, swarming in our direction. Some came looking for water in the pond, drawing fire from Tom, while others attempted to settle into trees around us. Soon volleys of two and three shots occurred repeatedly as birds approached low and slow from every direction, trying to reach their roost before dark. Wind gusts scattered feathers from hit birds and wafted the acrid smell of gunpowder through the trees. I loved that smell.
I heard Ronnie fire and turned his direction. Two doves slipped past him, dead set on landing in a tree behind me. I raised my gun. They set their wings to glide into the tree above me when I fired. Both birds collapsed, their momentum carrying them in a downward arch ending at my feet. I had no problem finding those. With this many birds around, I only took short shots. Short retrieves hurt my knee less. I rapidly reloaded in time to drop another one that landed beneath a tree between Herman and me. I beat him to the tree and picked up the bird.
"Thanks for finding it." Herman stuck his hand out.
“I shot him,” I replied with mock seriousness.
“So did I, and I don’t miss at this range,” he said sternly.
“There’s enough to go around.” I laughed and threw him the bird. “Watch out behind you.”
He spun and dropped two more.
“Good shooting, Herman,” I said with admiration.
I went back to my hideout to find Pistol waiting for me with a bird, not mine, in his mouth.
“Drop it,” I told him.
The pile of dead birds under my chair received another.
“Good boy,” I added as his tail wagged.
Looking at the pond, I saw Dorothy crouched on the six-foot-high dam with Tom's shotgun. He must have killed his limit. A flock of birds swerved from Lee’s shots, turning toward the water. In her excitement, she rose and pulled the trigger too hard. Boom-boom, two shots rang out, sounding like one long shot. Too much trigger pressure ignited both barrels, kicking her like a mule. Backward she fell screaming, head over heels. I heard the splash when she landed in the lake. Fortunately, the shotgun landed on dry land.
Tom roared with laughter as she staggered out, covered with moss and dripping stale pond water that had recently been full of cows.
“What’s wrong with this gun?” Dorothy yelled furiously.
“Nothing but your finger,” he taunted. “You just have to pull a little bit, not all the way.”
“Are you cooled off now?” I laughed.
“That’s not funny.”
"At least you had the sense to let go of my father's gun before you went in the water," Tom said.
Dorothy cleaned the mud from her face, washed her hands, and picked up his gun defiantly.
“By the way, you knocked one down,” I told her. “It’s over there by that cactus patch. Better go get him before he crawls in. You won’t get him out.”
Off she ran, soon returning with a big smile, showing us her first dove of this year.
I went back to the creek, joining my friends in frantic, non-stop shooting, until darkness moved in. We spent another thirty minutes sending Pistol to find downed doves in deep shadows. Nobody lost birds, thanks to his phenomenal nose that could pick up a blood scent at ten yards. Gathering our gear, we walked back to our cars and unloaded our bird bags under headlights. My knee protested, and my ears rang load from many shots. Prissy passed beer around to cool us off. We reveled on the downside of an intense adrenaline rush, exchanging stories and laughter.
Ronnie chided Lee, “I saw you miss one that landed in your tree.”
“The branches were thick, so I couldn’t see him very well.”
“Why didn’t you hit him with your barrel. Or throw a rock at him,” I kidded.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Lee replied. “I got plenty of birds.”
“Did you run out of shells?” I asked Herman.
“Nope. Got two left,” he retorted with a smile.
“You sure can shoot. I went through three boxes to get my limit. I had enough shooting for one hour. I’ll be sore tomorrow. John, give us a tally.”
When he finished counting doves, he said, “I know I killed 15 and stopped shooting. There are ninety birds between seven hunters, so we’re legal. But I’m not sure everyone shot their own limits.”
“I shot birds,” Dorothy said, her head held high.
“You did a lot more shooting than killing,” Tom countered, drawing laughter from all. “You swam pretty good too.” More chuckles.
“Tom, you better take it easy. You’re going to have a long ride home,” I cautioned.
"Yes, Dorothy made some good shots, and she fetches good too,” he replied.
“That’s it. I fetched your birds, but you gotta clean them. Mine too. I’ve done enough of your work for one day,” she said with a glower.
“That’ll teach you,” John said, bringing laughter from all but Dorothy.
Half an hour later, we finished cleaning and bagging our kill.
As we loaded the gear, Ronnie said, “It doesn’t get any better than this. Thanks a lot, Gordon.”
I raised my beer, “What a great day, guys. To football, hunting, and great friends.”