To me, September 1st means the beginning of the end of summer. It’s the opening day of dove season, and the beginning of the hunting season more broadly construed. It marks the time when I begin to focus less on rod and more on gun. This year on September 1st, I was in a sunflower field in south Georgia. It was obscenely hot, a south Georgia kind of hot, where you’re teased by passing clouds and momentary breezes, but you mostly sit and swelter. I was posted up next to a hay bale, and kept adjusting myself to take advantage of the few inches of shade it afforded at midday.
I was desperately attempting to insert the lower part of my left leg into the shadow under the curve of the hay bale’s fat middle, adjusting and readjusting my stool with that end in view, when the hunter immediately to my left, about thirty yards away, shouted ‘Bird!’ to the hunter about thirty yards to the left of him. I squinted just in time to see the dove diving toward a mojo decoy hanging from a mock power line. I saw a burst of feathers as the bird crumpled, and just as the sound of two shots reached my ears: ‘BOOM! BOOM!‘
And so it was on. Birds came in by two’s and three’s pretty steadily from the surrounding pine forests for the next hour or so – and thank God for that, since it was harder to focus on the blistering sun when all my psychic energy was absorbed in missing shots. With dove, the ratio of shots-taken to birds-in-the-bag is generally considered to be a more important and revealing metric than simply how many birds you kill. In a field such as the one we were shooting, any fair-to-middling shooter can take a limit, and all twenty or so of the hunters present did in fact shoot limits. The question is: how many shells did you fire to take that limit? The answer, in my case, is more than I care to disclose. I will offer as an excuse the fact that I was getting used to a new shotgun – and the fact that said shotgun is a 20 gauge over-under, i.e. and not a three-shot, 12 gauge meat collector. But the afternoon also vindicated Nash Buckingham‘s observation in 1947 that dove shooting ‘offers more challenges to the finer phases of field gunning than any other sporting species.’ Quite.
That first dove was followed pretty quickly by a steady trickle of his friends during the ensuing half hour or so. Then two things happened simultaneously. First, it started to drizzle. It was one of those late-summer drizzles in which the sun is still shining in a partly cloudy sky, but the little shower was enough to take the edge off the blistering heat. Seemingly at the same moment, the sunflower field exploded with doves. The birds were corkscrewing this way and that as the report of shotguns erupted from all sides. The birds looked almost like bees swarming over the tops of the sunflowers, arching and buzzing all over the place in twos and threes, fours and fives, groups that bisected and trisected each other, joined together and separated, a chaotic scene with so many targets that I had to remind myself to aim at individual birds. My natural instinct in such situations is to aim at groups rather than picking out an individual bird, and this leads only to misses or at best accidental hits.
I focused my attention and did manage to aim this time around, and my aim improved sufficiently for me to finish my limit of fifteen birds in the next twenty minutes or so, cooled by the light rain and energized by this very fine phase of field gunning.
That kind of dove hunt is rare in my experience. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of dove shoots I’ve been on when the birds were as plentiful and the shooting as fast-paced as it was on September 1st of this year. All of the guns had collected their limits and were out of the field in a little over an hour and a half, nursing cold beers by the tailgates of trucks once the shooting stopped, and by turns complimenting or ribbing each other on the day’s marksmanship, comparing shotguns, laughing and lying and declaiming, comparing this hunt to other opening days in years or decades past, remembering long-gone companions from those other hunts: brothers, friends, dads, and dogs.
It was the kind of dove hunt I love. Good shooting and bag limits all around are merely the catalyst for what’s much more important: the conviviality, the friendships made or renewed. But the abundance of birds plays its part too, and we can’t take them for granted. In the early part of the 20th century, the future of wingshooting didn’t look so bright. Year-round shooting of doves and other species, the lack of bag limits, and the inability of natural resource managers to enforce regulations in any event, led to sharp and noticeable declines in bird numbers. The lack of a federal regulatory framework had made these problems possible. And it was forward-thinking sportsmen who understood the dynamics of the issues at play, and what was at stake. Hunters like Nash Buckingham, Ding Darling, George Bird Grinnell, and many others, saw what was happening and were willing to get their hands dirty advocating with their elected representatives, and crafting the conservation policies that would lead to the recovery of morning doves and many other game birds. It is thanks to those men and their work that experiences like this year’s opening day are still possible.
A similar revolution has been ongoing in the arena of fisheries policy and management. Thanks to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and its two reauthorizations in 1996 and 2006, a large number of depleted fisheries have recovered or are on their way to recovery. And what’s good for fish is also good for those who like to catch fish. But the future of the Magnuson-Stevens Act is uncertain. Legislation like H.R. 200 – and even the more benign Senate version of the so-called ‘Modern Fish Act’ (S. 1520), assuming it would be reconciled with the House version – could erode the very management provisions that have led to the recovery of our fisheries in the first place, a recovery that anglers around the country, and certainly in my part of the South, have noticed. This year’s was one of the longest red snapper seasons in a long time. I refer to things like science-based annual catch limits, legal accountability for people or sectors that take more than their share of fish, and the legal requirement that managers rebuild depleted fisheries as quickly as is feasible.
I want my children and my grandchildren to be able to have the same kinds of experiences I have had in the field and on the water. I want them to be able to stand around docks and the tailgates of trucks long after I’m gone, to be able to crack open a cold beer with their friends, and not just remember how it used to be, but give thanks for how it has remained. And for that to happen, America needs conscientious hunters and anglers now. We need hunters and anglers willing to get their hands dirty, to call their elected representatives and insist that the future of hunting and fishing not be sold out for the short-term economic interests of a few, to insist on resilient and intelligent laws that will ensure that our fish and game populations remain abundant for us and for future generations.