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Lonesome dove?

Enjoy wingshooting when the flocks are thin or thick alike

Some decades ago, you didn’t hear much about dove hunting. That is not to say folks did not hunt doves; they most certainly did. But when wingshooters pursued birds, they went to a “dove shoot.” Upon first thought, the distinction might seem trivial, but the two terms do have different meanings.

When you got invited on a dove shoot, the farmer knew he had birds. He decided to have a dove shoot and he called last minute to ensure a sufficient number of shotguns would be on hand to work the field.

A dove shoot suggests a confidence, if not an arrogance, that your barrel would get hot and that you were one of The Elect to have such an opportunity. Likewise, the activity connotes a spontaneity reminiscent of a time when people weren’t inclined to over-plan — and few events were important enough not to be cancelled when hunting called.

Though usually not as spontaneous, a “dove hunt” is a trip to a field without any prior scouting reports. You get outdoors and hope for the best. In some ways, a sky full of birds on a dove hunt is especially rewarding, for it includes the element of chance.

This year, I have been in the dove field a couple of times. You might call the first outing a dove hunt and the other more of an old-time dove shoot.

On opening day this year, my wife English, our son Ned, and I all headed to Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve/Wildlife Management Area (WMA) on Edisto Island. Several years ago, we took part in hunts on Botany Bay that were not well attended enough for such well cared-for fields. Back then, only youth hunters (accompanied by adults) were allowed to shoot. We had a good time, but the rules did require something of a sacrifice on the part of the grown-ups.

More recently, adults who accompany youth hunters are permitted to shoot too. Hunters

who are 16 or 17 may sit with or without an adult. The sensible rule change seems to have increased the popularity of dove hunting in this majestic setting.

Opening day at Botany Bay was hot, a reality of which you can be assured in the Lowcountry and indeed, across the state. Botany Bay’s expansive fields afforded us many opportunities but, in her widsom, English sought a shady spot while Ned and a friend hunted nearby. During slow and particularly warm moments in the field, the irony of our close proximity to the beach did not go unnoticed.

As the day wore on, the shooting picked up. Our corner remained a bit slow, but Ned managed to get off a few shots and he did bag a dove. So as not to be wasteful, he cleaned the lone bird. His mother wrapped the dove in bacon and baked it with brown sugar and spices.

On the third weekend of the first dove season of the year, Ned and I went on a dove shoot. For a number of years, my old friend John Smoak has been planting and maintaining dove fields for clients; this year, he also planted fields for his own recreation. The first-year field is protected by a high, deer-proof fence.

Meeting other sportsmen is a perk of attending a public dove hunt, but a private, father-son-uncle dove shoot with old friends is always sure to be a particularly special time.

This shoot took place on a cool, breezy afternoon. The birds were flying, but low and at times just intermittently enough to catch you by surprise. The wind had the doves moving faster than normal, increasing the level of sport.

The eight-foot-high fence actually had us at a disadvantage as it serves as a perch for the birds and encourages them to fly lower than we would have liked. (This matter will be rectified during the offseason when a faux power line will be installed down the center of the field.)

Boys and fathers blasted the sky throughout the afternoon. Bo Brown and John’s brother, Sam, drew a lucky corner and had the most success of the group. May, John’s well-fed yellow lab, exuberantly paced the field, glaring confusedly and intending to shame those shooters who peppered the sky with lead all for naught and failed to bring a bird to the ground for the eager dog to retrieve.

It was a perfect afternoon with all the right folks. The post-hunting banter was more forthright and relentless than the pre-hunt warmup.

Humans can create the ideal conditions for doves, but dove hunting is a lot like life; nothing is guaranteed. John Smoak has learned to think like the fowl he attracts with well-planned agricultural practices.

“Doves are very cautious birds. And doves like to land in a clean field. They like a good, clean water source near their food. They like to roost near their food. They would rather not have to work to find their food on the ground. The perfect scenario is a field next to pines or other trees for roosting,” Smoak tells us.

He points out that dove hunting has gotten more challenging in recent years as once-prevalent farms have disappeared from the Lowcountry, providing less habitat and food for birds.

In the past, few farmers built high fences around dove fields. But in recent years, “the deer pressure has gotten so intense, we have been forced to install high fences. Without the fence, we can’t have a successful crop for the birds because the deer would wipe out the crops before they could mature.”

Before planting, John puts down “a selective pre-emergent, which is a herbicide that kills the weeds. Then, you come back later and plant herbicide-tolerant field corn and sunflowers.

“You’ve got to work your fields. You can’t just plant them and let them sit. Throughout the field, we disk strips to turn over the ground and create clean ground. Then, we come back and bush hog to scatter food over this new, clean ground,” he says.

The time, money and effort put into a dove field is worth it all once the season opens. “Nothing makes me happier than to see doves show up with their bibs on!” Smoak laughs.

For success all season and beyond, John notes wise practices of sustainability-driven dove hunters. “Even though the limit is 15 birds, some landowners like to set a limit of twelve. And even though it is legal to shoot until sunset, it’s a good practice to quit shooting at 5:00, so the birds can go in the field and feed.”

It really doesn’t matter whether you go on a dove hunt or a dove shoot. And regardless of whether your fellow sportsmen are old friends or folks yet unknown to you, sitting in a field of dried corn and sunflowers during late summer or early fall is a fine way to spend an afternoon —whether the birds are flying high, low or somewhere else altogether.

Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at fordwalpole@gmail.com.

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