Dove Tactics for the Ethically Bankrupt
and Morally Depraved
(for Big Hart and Henry)
"And oft I heard the tender dove
In firry woodlands making moan."--Tennyson
"That's a pretty good retriever you've got there," says Mark Slappey, a fellow guest on an F&W dove shoot near Cobb, Ga. "She's picked up six of my birds and five of Lee's."
"Well, let me give you a couple of doves then," I say. "I about got my mess."
Looks like I'm high man on the field again, without firing a shot. This is a pay hunt George McIntosh and his son Jarrett invited me on because I lied, telling them I was an outdoor sportswriter for a popular magazine.
"That's the busiest dog I believe I ever saw," says George, lumping his cheek with his tongue. "How many birds you got?"
"Oh, I don't know. Close to a dozen." Actually, I know exactly how many doves are in my game bag. I've learned to count carefully, since game warden Jeff Swift gave me a ticket last year for having 13, one bird over the bag limit. Swift said he believed me when I told him I hadn't killed any of the birds, that my dog retrieved other peoples', miscounting in her enthusiasm the supernumary dove. As a matter of fact, I confessed, I'd gone into the field without any shotgun shells, having forgotten to buy any.
Jeff said: "I'm not giving you this ticket for killing 13 birds. I'm giving it to you for having 13 birds in your possession."
In court Judge John Salter said he believed me too, but that he was going to fine me as an incentive to teach Geechee, my Boykin spaniel, to count better. "For the time being," he said, gathering his brow and hammering his gavel, "at least until Geechee gets more mathematically precise, I want you to get down there and help your dog count birds."
Training Geechee to retrieve other peoples' downed quarry occurred quite naturally, resulting from an accidental combination of my Boykin's blooded hyperactivity and my poor marksmanship. When she was a pup, she dutifully sat by my side while I blasted holes in the troposphere. Finally disgusted, she began snapping at my ankles and barking, compounding my ballistic inaccuracy. It's hard enough to lead and follow through a moving target without having to worry about tooth-tracks in your ankles and ass, which is how I happened upon my dove tactics. As soon as I discovered Geechee's willingness to retrieve other hunters' birds, I trained her to ignore my whistle and my arm-flapping as I ostensibly called her back. It's easier than you think to train your dog to pay absolutely no attention to command.
In the old days, my shell per bird ratio sounded like women's church league batting averages, but I changed all that, and since I've just about retired from dove hunting altogether, I'm willing to pass on a few Machiavellian secrets. Since training my dog to go after every bird on the field and observing a few common sense hunting tactics, I've increased my bird to shot ratio dramatically. Often I bag three or more birds per shot, and I don't have to resort to shooting them from power lines either or wait for them to puddle up on the ground. Most days I get my limit without popping a cap.
Having a dog gives me a visible excuse for encroaching on the best stand on the field. Geechee can usually get to my neighbors' downed bird before my neighbor can. This gives me reason to invade his territory--I'm returning his bird. "That damn dog," I'll say. Sometimes I even pluck the bird for him.
If my neighbor's birds don't fall in range of my retriever, I can still usurp his position under the guise of searching out a cripple. Before approaching a fellow hunter, I unload my shotgun and reload with empty casings, for safety sake and for reasons I'll soon divulge.
"Dead bird! Dead bird!" I call as I wander into a fellow hunter's field of fire, making elaborate hand signals. I politely offer to hunt any of his lost birds while I'm finding mine. There is always, by the way, a snaky area near a good dove stand because poisonous reptiles know the best places to gather for heavenly windfalls, but Geechee is immune to hemotoxin, having been snakebit on numerous occasions.
At this point I usually give my neighbor one of his own birds, a good investment if his spot is good enough to hang around for a while. I ask him, "You see where my cripple fell, friend?"
"I must've been facing the other way," he'll say.
I hang around and chit-chat until a bird flies over. "Your bird," I'll say, and he'll say, "Naw, go ahead."
We bicker amicably until the dove is directly overhead. Then we both throw up. It's easy to watch your neighbor out the corner of your eye and to synchronize. After he shoots, I eject an empty casing. "Dead bird," I yell to Geechee, who brings me the dove, of course. "Did you shoot too?" I ask my host as he reloads. "How about that! We must've shot at the exact same time. I didn't hear your gun go off. Gosh, this could be your bird. I'll bet it is!"
"Naw, keep the bird."
If my neighbor downs a double, I'm careful not to claim both birds, but I'll remove two empty shells from my double barrel, protesting that I couldn't have killed both birds, no way.
"Well, if you knock any down you can't find, just holler and I'll come back over."
Sometimes surveillance is necessary, sometimes not.
With my binoculars I carefully tally the number of doves downed by surrounding hunters, noting cripples and lost birds.
If I can find a bird that puts him over the limit, he'll insist I keep it. It's an easy thing for a dove hunter to give up a bird he's already counted lost, especially if the recovered bird mandates that he stop shooting and zip his shotgun case. One reason I like to see the Department of Natural Resources attending.
Well, you may interject, my problem isn't so much bagging dove as it is getting on a decent hunt to begin with--the ones with barbecue, pretty girls, and flocks that darken the sky.
So sometimes I just ride around the countryside until I happen upon a hunt that looks good enough to crash. I like to see a DNR truck, indicating that the field isn't baited. Also dove hunters are less likely to shoot you and your dog if the law is there. Using my methods, I can fill my limit quickly and quit the field before potentially embarrassing post hunt socializing begins, but sometimes I stay for the barbecue, where I try to charm my way into next Saturday's hunt.
My tactics work best with people who don't know me, so lunchtime Saturday on opening day of dove season finds me cruising around in my pick-up looking for a gathering of dove shooters preparing to convoy to the country. I walk around introducing myself and offering soft drinks until I find out who the host is, gleaning simultaneously a half dozen names I can drop in order to establish legitimacy. I sometimes thank the host for allowing Sam (a guy I just met) to let me tag along, but more often than not I just join the procession. The cooler of iced down drinks also allows me to orbit the field offering refreshments while casing the best stands. The cost of the drinks is nominal when you consider I no longer buy shotgun shells.
If anybody calls me on the legitimacy of my attendance, I slap my forehead, claiming I've joined the wrong hunt. "Damn my thick skull," I'll say, "you mean this ain't Bubba an' 'em's hunt?" If caught irrefutably red-handed, I'll wait for the December season and claim I've been born again, worthy once more of restoration into the society of men.
Thus, it follows that another way to establish legitimacy among strangers is to claim you're new in the area and the preacher invited you. There's always a preacher with a different notion of fellowship than cliquish dove hunters have. Nobody's likely to raise an eyebrow against a preacher using a dove shoot to recruit the fallen.
"Preacher? What preacher?" an unpolished countryman once challenged.
"The Baptist preacher, of course," I replied, figuring that's as safe a bet as there is in Dixie.
"What?" snarled the roughneck, who turned out to be the Methodist clergyman. "He here too?"
But one Sunday morning a fateful misadventure occurred that made me stop dove hunting altogether. Which is why I'm willing to publish my tactics.
I should've sensed trouble when I saw the hunters wore Nikes instead of snake boots and had removed their dogs' collars. The hunters looked a little rough but, what the hell, the hunting brotherhood is a democratic tribe, transcending socio-economic stratification. There were plenty of doves feeding in the field. I'd verified it with a phone call to a good old boy who could see the field from the deck of his doublewide. "They's so many doves on the power lines," he said, "it's dimming the lights."
Sure enough, when I get there before daylight guns are already blasting away. In the first light I see vortexes reel flurry like dust devils. Boy oh boy. The doves swarm the field angrily, falling like feathered manna beneath the blazing gunfire, which sounds like a brushfire through bamboo.
Geechee vibrates with anticipation. I unleash her and she bounces around like a jackrabbit, amassing birds quickly. Then I see a glint of a patent leather holster belt and a speeding four-wheeler trailing a plume of dust against the crimson horizon.
Hunters quit the field, vanishing into peripheral fringe and planted pines. It's as though Officer Swift speeds toward the central pivot of a spinning turntable that centrifugally slings hunters off the field.
He skids to a stop, obscured for a moment in his own dust. "You!" he says, dismounting and producing a pad from his hip pocket.
"Hey, I wasn't shooting. Why, I didn't even bring any shotgun shells. My shotgun's plugged and I'm two birds under the limit."
"This ticket's for hunting over bait."
"How d'you think these peanut hearts got in this corn field?"
I glance between my feet. The ground is covered with a variety of extraneous silage, including a fodder that looks like granola party mix.
Meanwhile Geechee realizes the windfall of an abandoned field. She begins sniffing out discarded evidence, trotting it over, dropping birds at our feet and wagging her stubby tail.
"Stay, Geechee!" I command. "Sit!"
Geechee trots off again, obediently ignorant, panting happily and winking over her shoulder.
"Those aren't my birds," I insist.
"That's your dog, ain't it? The same one you told Judge Salter you'd teach arithmetic. And it looks like these birds are in your possession since you're the only one hunting."
Geechee trots up, grinning around the fluttering bird in her mouth. "That makes fifteen, don't it?" says Swift.
"Look Jeff, I didn't know this field was baited. I don't even know whose land this is." I run Geechee down and snap a leash on her collar. She bares her canines and growls like an idling weed-whacker. It's hard to restrain a conscientious dog once she gets started, but I finally collar her and bring her back to the four-wheeler, tangling up in a tumbleweed of peanut vines.
Officer Swift lifts his black cap with his thumb and index finger, scratching his bald spot with his pinkie. He watches the sky for an angel or a UFO. Then he licks the point of his pencil. "You say you're trespassing too?"