A Southern Thing BELOW THE MASON-DIXON, DOVE SHOOTS TAKE HOLD

At last count, 38 states in the Lower 48 allow dove hunting, but nobody appreciates the little gray birds as much as Southerners. In Texas alone, for example, more than 461,000 hunters reported to the Fish & Wildlife Service hunting survey that they hunted doves last year. In Georgia, there were 75,000 participants; in Alabama, 72,000; and so on.

Sure, doves haven't had high billing in the South long enough for a hunting culture to develop around them, as was the case with bobwhites and ducks. And there's yet to come a Nash Buckingham or Havilah Babcock to extol the pleasures of dove hunting (De Cussinest Gent'Man?). But Southerners have definitely taken a shine to the sport.

TIMES ARE A'CHANGING

It wasn't always that way. I was a grown man and gone from home before I admitted to my father that I hunted doves and had for some time. My father, like a lot of Southerners of his generation, didn't understand dove hunting. A pragmatist whose values were shaped by an upbringing in the Great Depression, he had a built-in price meter that quickly measured cost vs. benefit. If something required a fairly large outlay of cash, it couldn't be fun. Hunting wasn't a sport to Dad so much as a way to put meat on the table. What he knew about doves was that they weren't very large birds and therefore had no intrinsic value as a food source, that they flew very quickly and that, on average, it took three or four misses for every hit to bring one down, which was expensive.

All of which is true, but it isn't really that simple. I was drawn to the sport at an early age because I recognized doves as a challenge that, if mastered, would stamp me as a hunter of accomplishment and skill. Of course, nobody ever really masters dove hunting to the point that he becomes confident that when he shoots a bird will fall, but it is the striving after an almost-lost cause that is important.

ETIQUETTE IN THE FIELD

Southerners are constantly seeking such rites of passage. What better choice could there be than doves? There's no sneaking up on these watchful birds, as occasionally is possible with ducks (not that I ever have), or ground-sluicing them like you sometimes can an unwary covey of feeding quail (or so I've been told). You just flat-out stand there in the open where everybody can see you and, at the chosen moment, empty your shotgun and hope that something besides wads drops from the sky. That admiring "Nice shot!" following the boom of your gun means everything, even if it comes only after three or four other occasions of disdainful silence.

Organized dove hunts in the South generally begin with fish fries or barbecues. Football, not hunting, is the topic of conversation. Friends reunite and bonds that came unbound since the end of the last deer season are reconstructed.

When the participants move to the dove field, however, all is not so light. The doves, in their refusal to fall when they are hit, become irritants that cause a snowball effect of aggravation. Birds fly, shots boom, birds keep flying. Spent shot peppers too close for comfort and arguments ensue. The unwritten trespass laws of hunting are trampled. Hunters who wind up in a hot corner of the field often find themselves crowded like a fisherman who first discovers the only bream bed in a lake. Harsh words are spoken and feelings are hurt.

Still, we crave such experiences. When summer is almost over, usually in September, we ready our shotguns, buy cases of dove loads, start scouting fields and plot our strategies for the opening afternoon. We know our shooting won't be any better this year and the doves won't make it any easier to hit them. But we can hardly wait for the season to begin.

It's a Southern thing.

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