By Chris Batha
Growing up in the Welsh Marshes on the border of Wales and England, my exposure to country pursuits planted the seeds for a career that has allowed me to pursue my passion for wingshooting on three continents and in 14 countries . . . so far.
And of all of my experiences, one of the most memorable was my first dove shoot in the US.
At the time I was working for English gunmaker E.J. Churchill and traveling to events like the Safari Club International Convention and the Vintage Cup. While attending the Southeastern Wildlife Expo, in Charleston, South Carolina, I shared a booth with a gunshop owner from Bluffton who suggested that on my next visit he host a gathering where Churchill would show some guns to his regular patrons.
Sure enough, later that year he put on an event that was attended by many of the local plantation owners. One evening I was asked if I had ever been to a “proper” dove shoot, and when I said I hadn’t, the gentleman generously invited me to join him and his friends the following weekend.
I soon learned that in addition to a gun and shells I would need a Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp and a key piece of “proper” equipment: a bucket with a revolving top to carry cartridges, sit on while waiting for the doves and (hopefully) fill with birds. Of course, I then learned that the daily limit on doves was 14—a bit different from the driven shooting I was used to in the UK and the dove shooting I had enjoyed in Argentina.
The next Saturday I arrived at the plantation around noon, and it was then that I learned that it was the opening day of the season. The excitement of my fellow Guns was palpable, making me even more anxious to get into the field.
One of the first differences I noticed between this dove shoot and my previous experiences was the number of people participating. In the UK a line of Guns is usually six to eight individuals, so I was a bit surprised to see 30-plus shooters of all ages and an equal number of dogs. Another difference was the attire. There were no tweeds and ties but rather comfortable jeans, brush pants and 50 shades of camo! Luckily I had dressed in my usual Argentina garb of olive-green shooting shirt and pants and fit right in with my companions.
I was introduced by my host and warmly greeted by the group—which, judging from the banter, consisted mostly of friends. After a brief safety talk we drew numbered tickets from a bowl to determine our shooting positions. This seemed more familiar, as it reminded me of drawing for pegs on a driven shoot. We then took our places on hay bales set on flatbed trailers and were pulled into the fields by tractors.
We arrived at a large field of sunflowers that had six-foot swathes cut through it, and at certain spots canes with split tops held cards with numbers on them. The trailers emptied as the Guns were dropped off at their predetermined positions, and when it was my turn, I grabbed my bucket, my shotgun and two bottles of water and took my position.
The bucket’s revolving lid allowed me to turn from side to side to scan for doves, and then stand and make my shot. I opened a box of cartridges, placed two in the chambers and sat still in anticipation of this new experience. My watch read 12:30.
Looking down the cut row of tall, bending sunflowers, I could see fellow Guns on their pegs—some with children and dogs, all poised with eager anticipation. The first salutation of gunfire drew all heads in its direction, as everyone was eager to see the first flight of doves.
And there the birds were—like a squadron of jet fighters—taking fire from several directions. The doves reacted instantly, swerving, jinking and dodging in evasive action that would have made a Top Gun pilot envious.
After the initial flight there was a pause, during which the Guns regrouped while dogs and individuals picked up downed birds. Then the stillness was shattered again by the crack of gunfire as another wave of doves entered the field.
In the UK the closest thing to this type of sport is wood-pigeon shooting. European wood pigeons are much larger than mourning doves, but they have the same flock and flight characteristics. Wood pigeons usually are decoyed, and it was interesting to see that several of the Guns had placed whirligig dove decoys in front of their pegs in a similar manner.
All migratory birds are wary, and sudden movements result in them taking evasive action. Having learned at an early age to sit still until birds come into range and offer the chance to shoot both barrels, I used the bucket’s swivel seat to slowly turn into position before rising, mounting the gun and shooting in one smooth motion before the chosen bird had time to react.
I witnessed several fellow shooters jump up too early, resulting in the doves jinking and dropping a gear and flying away untouched.
Thanks to the large number of doves and my patient approach to each shot, I was able to take my limit within an hour. I placed the birds and spent cartridges in the bucket, and during a lull in the action I walked back to the plantation house.
I was greeted by the host’s wife, who was carrying what looked like a large bowl of flowers. The “flowers” turned out to be hand cloths of different colors rolled and placed in ice water. Taking one and wiping my hands and face of the sweat and dust made me appreciate the day even more.
While we had been in the field, a barbecue, wet bar and band had been set up. As the shooters returned, they were greeted by cold hand towels, colder beer, delicious Southern barbecue and country music. Those who had been off the flight lines or on the fringes of the field took longer to shoot their limits, but by about 4 all of the participants were exchanging stories and enjoying the post-shoot festivities.
To say the least, my first opening-day dove shoot totally spoiled me. I was addicted. I did not shoot the number of birds that I typically do on a British driven day, but each bird was challenging and satisfying, and the overall experience was one to savor.
At home that evening I plucked and cleaned the birds, dusted them in seasoning and placed them on the barbecue. Eating them along with red potatoes, corn, green beans and hot sauce made for a supper—and a day—I will long remember.