By Will Kelly
For those of us with children, the last days of summer are marked with spirited anxiousness. Anticipation of school juxtaposes to the lingering dog days of August heat. We are haunted with the thickening of responsibility as the last moments of freedom afforded by summer are interrupted. Like the commencing academic year, the celebration of Labor Day is a proclamation that summer is ending. It is widely observed, but unlike so many patriotic and religious holidays- it is arguable that no one has a damn clue what Labor Day actually observes. For some, Labor Day is a last hurrah honoring long, sunny days. It brings the chance to grill a burger with a cooler at foot. The holiday is one more opportunity to pack up for the beach or drive down to the lake. For generations of Southerners, Labor Day weekend means one thing: A good Dove Shoot.
The Labor Day Dove Shoot is a revered hunting tradition. It brings us together on hot, grasshopper covered fields to enjoy fellowship and the opening of the sporting season. This year I Lament the Dove Shoot. As long as memory serves, I’ve woken up every Saturday of Labor Day Weekend eager jump in the truck with my dad and brother. Excepting the well-acquainted family errantly choosing to marry away their daughter on this day, the opening dove shoot has been an annual affair. A good dove hunt is steeped with just as much tradition as Christmas Morning and Easter Sunday. There is something purely magical about gathering to fill a field with multiple generations of friends to sit on upside-down buckets and shoot birds.
This year, I woke up in Jackson Hole on a fifteenth-or-so annual fishing trip that was moved from July to the Labor Day Weekend. Frankly, to say I Lament the Dove Shoot sounds a bit spoiled. It is indulgent considering the circumstances of penning this “lament” over coffee as the Tetons slowly illuminate before me in the eastern light of the sunrise. As my fishing comrades are slowly awakening in the cabin, I’m sure the first shots have long been fired back in North Carolina.
Circumstantially, many outdoor pursuits can fall into patterns that become tradition. Hunting and fishing magnetically draws folks back to places and people. Traditions and customs develop from the big parts that are deliberate and organized down to the little idiosyncrasies that become ritual. I’m blessed to have opportunities throughout the year to pursue the outdoors. Certainly, the events that repeat themselves are the most cherished: A Labor Day Dove Shoot with a five generation heritage. The Plantation Deer Hunts after Thanksgiving in the Carolina Lowcountry. Awaiting opening the Pheasant Season in South Dakota, a trip perfected in the early years and practically run with institutional habits now that we are veterans— And here now in my version of the “American Valhalla” to fish and muse around Jackson Hole.
As we dropped through the violent spiraling decent into the valley yesterday, I put my forehead onto the window as I always find myself doing. With jaw agape, I casted a lascivious stare through the window at the Tetons. Touching down, the patterns and traditions established on this trip spun into motion. The suburban is loaded down at the airport and we drive directly to the cabin, just miles away, to drop off gear. After a few pale ales and Moose Drools we mosey on to the package store, the grocery, and make a “fast” stop in the flyshop for leaders and such. Inevitably, someone will start fingering a shiny rod or get eyes on new waders in the flyshop- but it’s a sundries run- fast and efficient only. The table in the cabin fills up with our crew poking through flyboxes and relining reels. We’ve been making charcuterie trays before knowing what the word meant- for a bunch of dudes on a fishing trip this constitutes dumping a jar of pickles on a platter with sausage, crackers, and a chunk of cheddar impaled with a paring knife. Whisky drinks get hard to count and the stereo knob rolls clockwise. Year after year, we make our way to the yard on that first evening. We assemble there mostly to be in awe of the ever present Tetons. On the lawn, charcoal is readying for steak. Inevitability, someone will start dry-casting to the little spring puddle in the corner. There is a pecking order to lawncasting. This progresses from: “man it’s been a year”, into, “let me check out the action on this rod”, into a penultimate, “I bet you twenty dollars I can hook your sock across the yard”, ending in an encore of, “who can cast the farthest without a rod”. The dusk paints the summer-sky late over Wyoming. In the early years, that signaled setting out for a late first night at the cowboy bar. First nights have grown into fellowship and old stories around the porch until the sky is cluttered with stars. Bedtime is usually a restless red-wine and steak-belly dream of casting to fish. The traditions are deep throughout the whole of the week that awaits us.
Around an hour or so, we’ll set out on our morning’s adventure with rods, quivered against the suburban’s headliner, flexing to the rhythm of the road. Ron will drive, because he always does. Charles will ride shotgun curating music through his MP3 player, because he always does. I’m in the second row with whoever else is sneaking a Bloody Mary, because it happens. Jim will be in the back row snoring alone until we arrive, because he always does. I’m sure by the time the cold water first hits our feet, friends will be coming off the field back East covered in dust, feathers, and sweat.
I came along experiencing three different dove shoots. The most organized and prestigious was the annual opener put on by Dr. Jarman. He was a Davidson Basketball legend, orthopedic surgeon, and lifelong conservationist. His fields were planted primarily with sunflower that was ethically, yet auspiciously harvested. To boot, fake power lines were festooned over the center of the main field. The best seats were posted with venerable friends and a herd of guests hustled into his fields for a favorable position over spots where birds might best fly. The shoot had such a reputation that the game warden had to patrol the farm’s borders to ticket road hunters. As guns limited out and bags were full, the Senior Minister of First Presbyterian would bless a hog that was smoldering in a spit. Revelry was then had over cold Budweiser.
As a young adult, experimenting against both “at daddy’s knee hunting” and playing second chair to the old guys, a few friends agreed that it would be more rewarding to play host rather than be a guests. We spent several hot summers and our young adult salaries making sure that a field was primed for a group of our choosing. The spot on the farm was a thirty acre bowl enveloped with hardwoods. A pond was in its center with a dead oak on the bank and a gravel road to it where a dove might fill its crop before lighting. We sowed millet and sunflowers drawn out in a great elliptical pattern around corn-clump blinds. We didn’t have much hospitality at these hunts by way of food and refreshment- but had incredible thoughtfulness in our effort to move guests around on ATVs to ensure we didn’t have folks stuck in cold spots, while others were limiting.
Those shoots were memorable, but the ones I first hunted beside my father and now with my sons are the most cherished. Dad grew up hunting on a dairy at the edge of town with my grandfather and his veteran friends. When I was a kid, my granddad was already gone, but some WWII vets would still come down to the dairy. The hunters around mentoring me were their sons- Dad’s best childhood friends- the kids he learned to shoot birds with. I grew up hunting with them and their children.
Hunting at a dairy farm for doves is less romantic that the classic field day portrayal. First and foremost, as a child you have to accept the immediate possibility that your boot will be in a cow pie and you will smell of shit all day. To a boy from in-town, this bucolic reality had a lasting impression. The dairy farmers didn’t plant to attract birds. Aside from doves perching over weed-seed fence lines, occasionally the scant remains of a long-past corn harvest might be worth sitting over. The deficiency of food source could be made up for in a few coveted places near grain silos and the fed lot. Without fail, the same hunters seemed to get on certain fence posts year after year in this productive spot. The narrow bay out from the structures funneled between a line of unkempt cedars across from hardwoods. You could count on Ernie and Roy Lockett to be on a pine piling in its middle. Great shooters are remembered. The aged-father and his grown-son would stand back-to-back knocking down birds faster that they could be seen coming in. The Locketts would fill a bag limit faster than we could set up anywhere else, so we got in the habit of hanging back until they moved from this hot-spot.
My adolescent hunts were cherished. The guns were still my dad’s. He bought and rationed the shells- but we shot together like peers. Occasionally, I could get ahead of my dad or brother (who God endowed with superior shooting skills) and it would turn into a contest. I am most fond of the earliest days when Dad took me hunting as an elementary schooler. The first few years started with traditions never forgotten. He would take me to the old Army-Navy Store downtown to be outfitted in surplus camo. The shirts were usually too big and still had the nametape of a Vietnam soldier on the chest, which I thought was incredibly macho. A morning visit to Stroupe’s Gun Store came with stories about their fathers in the good old days, buying shells, and confirming that licenses were current. At a stop by the Texaco we’d fill a sitting-bucket with orange nabs, a few bottles of Coke, and a couple of Hersey bars. In those first years, I mostly remember being hot, bugs biting at my neck, and having a general feeling of discomfort. Despite being soaked in sweat in those musty fatigues, I was extremely grateful to be there. Dad never kept a birddog- my presence retrieving for him was imagined imperative. At eight years old, I Dad put me beside him with a shortened-stock pellet gun. Being “armed”, I felt that I had arrived in the universe. Empty Coke cans were filled with holes while he waited for doves to taxi above. My comfort with the Daisy led to further discussion about gun safety. The Labor Day when I was entering third grade, Dad brandished an old .410 Ithaca single shot from a canvas case as we were setting out to the field. This very gun he handed me was passed to him at this age by my grandfather. When the bird activity picked up, Dad put down his 20 gauge and kneeled behind me awaiting my first shot. We sat patiently and still as a few distant birds flew to other hunters. He directed me as we waited. “Don’t forget to take the safety off AFTER you bring the gun up, don’t forget to lead the bird, don’t forget to follow through.” I recall that first shot well. Not a memory of the bang, or kick, or whether I hit or missed- I remember curling smoke coming of the barrel. I remember blowing that gun-smoke off the muzzle like a western outlaw. I was disciplined and that gun went back in its case. I grew a good bit that year and the Ithaca didn’t fit me the next time my father allowed me to hold a gun again. (But it fit my son quite well.)
I can smell bacon now, coming through the windows and it won’t be long before we’re packing a few sandwiches and jumping in the suburban to find that trailhead towards our favorite hidden stream. I fondly missed hunting with my father and his friends down at the dairy this year. I can’t wait to touch base this evening with Dad to compare fishing tales with a report of a good dove shoot.
Written and first published in August 2019 for Red Clay Soul
Check out Will's other musings on Big Haint Blue