A Doofus Goes Dove Hunting: an Alabama Love Letter
I mentioned last week that I went on a dove hunt to write a piece for the Oxford American. When I wrote this thing, I was trying to get across what it was like to be a northern carpet bagger coming to accept and enjoy the south, even the parts I thought I’d never care for. It was also a PR piece for the real estate company as I was shepherded around all day by their awesome PR rep. Now I’ve been living in the south for near a decade. I still have a complicated relationship with it. But this piece made me realize how much I miss Alabama, my friends there, the barbecue, football Saturdays in Tuscaloosa, my students and everything else about the best decision I ever made.
So, here this thing is, in all its glory.
I’ve been standing by a wooden stake with my hunting partner Matt, a 29-year-old real estate lawyer from Birmingham, sweating for about 40 minutes when a camouflaged golf cart with studded tires and a gun rack pulls up behind us. “How y’all doin’? It’s like a war zone down on the south field.” The man in what I’m told is an all-terrain vehicle is wearing a moisture wicking shirt bearing the logo of our hosts, the BlackRidge Land Company, and he looks more comfortable than either of us. The ATV pulls off. The tilled earth in front of us seems to amplify the sun and the thin pines to our rear shade only the grass cart path. There are two hunters around the corner, two across the field, rookies like me, and at least four, that I can see, sitting in the strip of corn to our north.
I resituate the 12-gauge Benelli Monte Feltro shotgun to my shoulder and my shadow takes on the look of a confused minuteman. Even though I’m sweating, could use a drink and we’ve only seen one bird, we’re doin’ just fine because I haven’t shot anyone in the face yet; which is the only metric for success I’m willing to apply to my first dove hunt.
Tom Jernigan, the CEO of BlackRidge, invited about 200 hundred of his closest friends, current clients and prospective clients, out to his 400-acre Sugar Foot farm in Marengo County for the first day of dove season in Alabama. This first wave of dove season, lasting from September 7 to October 6, is the most popular as hunters typically use it as a way to hone their skills before moving on to deer, turkey and ducks. Some 61,000 hunters will harvest 1 million doves across the entire season. Among these hunters will be the youngest to handle a shotgun. Jernigan calls dove hunting a gateway drug and fondly remembers his own childhood hunting doves. “When I hear Alabama football, because the games back then were on the radio, I can smell gunpowder.” Jernigan, who grew up hunting on Bear Bryant Jr.’s farm, talks about tradition, a lot, when we meet up a few days after the hunt in his Birmingham office.
BlackRidge is the only real estate company in the state that will sell you a piece of rural farm or hunting land and help you maintain it once you’ve plunked down anywhere between $500,000 and a million dollars. If Sugar Foot is evidence of their work, with manicured cart paths, wooden signs to the deer and dove fields and a deer stand that could house a small family, they are very good at what they do.
While it would be easy to dismiss their dove hunt as something of a timeshare trip for wealthy Alabamians looking to reconnect with the land, the vibe is more family reunion than sales pitch when we arrive. “Have you seen Chance?” “When was the last time you saw Trey?” These are the unreasonably attractive wives of the men who came to hunt introducing their embarrassed children. The women, wives and daughters, are dressed in a fashion that could best be called country casual: cutoff jean shorts, cowboy boots and western shirts for the younger set; sensible jeans with bedazzled pockets and diaphanous blouses for the older women. The men are uniformly dressed in camouflage head to toe, boots and the occasional sport utility fishing shirt. I’m jealous of the few men I see in shorts, immediately regretting my decision to wear form fitting French jeans, a thrifted flannel and a University of Alabama cap; the last addition a subtle nod to my own insecurities about sticking out like the effete Yankee transplant that I am.
I’ve handled a gun exactly once. In gym class we spent a few days shooting .22 caliber rifles in the basement of my central Pennsylvania junior high. At 12-years-old I was keenly aware of the fact that certain 12-year-olds in my class were the last people you would want handling firearms, which is why the site of so many kids walking around with shotguns as long as them does little to settle my nerves about my second gun experience. I feel a little better about my prospects once I’ve eaten an entire plate of sugar bacon, which is exactly what it sounds like, from Buttmasters Barbecue based out of Demopolis and I receive a brief dove hunting lesson from one of the state’s preeminent hunters and conservators.
Tom Clark, Director Emeritus at the Alabama Wildlife Foundation, gives us a brief primer on dove hunting. Clark makes the kind of jokes about his wife’s displeasure with his hunting obsession that a man who has been married five decades can make. His hunting gear is weathered, a color closer to an empty pool faded in the sun than the highly stylized camouflage favored by younger hunters. It bears the wear of some of his hunts across 17 countries and six continents. His speech is punctuated by a soft Parkinson’s tick that seems to melt when he swings an unloaded shotgun to his shoulder and traces an imaginary dove over our heads. I duck out of instinct. “You need to follow through, like in tennis. Swing the gun after the bird,” he says. I’m more concerned about peppering someone’s face with bird shot than technique at this point.
After our lesson, Jernigan gathers everyone for a prayer and safety lesson. He announces a wine tasting for the wives who aren’t going out in the field. “I’ve seen some of you shoot and the way you shoot you may want to stay for the wine tasting.” I want to stay for the wine tasting, but I am here to shoot. Thomas Morrison, the hunt leader, runs down the safety rules: no loaded guns until you’re in the field, don’t shoot until you hear the air horn and don’t shoot at low birds. It’s that last rule that makes me seriously consider staying back to sip wine with the ladies.
Shooters aren’t waiting for the airhorn. We can hear shotgun pops coming from the north as we’re driven out into the field and deposited by the wooden stake. There’s a patch of corn in front of us and a stand of thin loblloly pines behind us. I curse the trees for not being tall enough to blot out the sun. Matt screws the lid off his dove can. The dove can looks like a spackle bucket painted brown with a swiveling, padded seat for a lid. He shows me how to load the gun, how to operate the spring loaded lever that opens the chamber and how to slide two more shells into the bottom. Most importantly, he shows me where the safety is. We sit, waiting for the airhorn; listening to far off hunters break rule two while I worry about breaking rule three. The airhorn finally blasts and our field erupts into anticipatory silence.
Shotguns sound louder the farther off they are. The shots we hear coming from the north sound thunderous dopplering across the field. When Matt finally pulls the trigger after half an hour, it sounds more like a soft pop; it’s the smell of sulfur and wisp of smoke leaving the chamber that remind me the stick in his hand is dangerous. He misses the first bird that flits over the pines behind us emptying the gun of all three rounds. He loads the gun and hands it to me.
I spend the first few minutes figuring out how to hold the thing. I point it at the ground. I rest it on my shoulder. I point it at the ground again. I look north at the closest experienced hunters. They have their guns casually resting in their palm, barrels pointed to the sky. I try to ape their comfort and feel as natural as a nutcracker statue. “Over, over, over.” I don’t know what this means, but it makes me look behind us for some reason and indeed there are three doves, small, dark golf balls skittering about in the sky, pitching and yawing, somehow getting thinner when they spread their wings and dive.
The gun comes up to my shoulder. I aim in their general direction. I close my eyes and
pull. No pop. No kick. No sulfur. I forgot to take off the safety. The birds fly north toward the hunters across the field who have snapped to attention. They fly over the field and run a gauntlet of flak from hunters unseen. There are so many more hunters hidden in the corn. I almost feel bad for them, but now that I’ve actually pulled the trigger I want to shoot at them. It takes about twenty minutes for another group of birds. I’m ready this time. I click off the safety with my index finger as I’m raising the gun. I try to swing it along with their erratic flight patterns. I focus on one. I close my eyes. I pull the trigger once. The bird dips. It might still be above head level, but I’m not willing to take the risk.
Matt and I trade off missing shots. Another ATV comes by with drinks, Gatorade and soda. We sweat while the sun gets mercifully closer to the crest of the pines. Our shadows lengthen and as the day drags on mine looks more comfortable. I stop closing my eyes. I click the safety off and on like second nature. I start to load the gun myself. I forget what I’m holding. I consciously have to remind myself that the six pound stick of satin walnut and steel in my hands is a deadly weapon. I really want to kill a bird.
“Over, over, over,” comes from behind us again. I know now that this means a bird is flying over and behind us. I’ve learned that birds moving laterally are harder to hit. You have to swing the gun along the bird’s flight path and follow through, just like in tennis. This bird makes the mistake of flying south in a straight line. I don’t have to swing the gun. My eyes stay open as I sight it down the barrel. I pull the trigger and watch as it drops into the pines about 100 yards away.
“I got that. Did I get that?” Matt confirms that I did indeed just kill a bird. I click the safety on and hand the gun to Matt. I do a little shimmy, a little shake, and execute a half turn.
We’re in the field for another hour before a pick up hauling a trailer loaded with hay bales comes by to take us in. We trade war stories with some other hunters and sip beers as we are jostled back to the party. The success of the wine tasting is confirmed by the clutch of women sipping on white wine gathered outside the house when we arrive. I tell anyone who will listen about the bird I probably killed. I even, at some point, discuss a shotgun purchase of my own. Someone lights the sternos in the mason jar chandeliers that hang from three towering pecan trees on the property’s main lawn. I eat the best brisket I’ve ever tasted from Buttmasters. A cover band featuring a lead singer wearing a fedora and a t-shirt with a white tiger on it starts up a rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama” while I eat my brisket and drink my beer before I try to find someone else who will listen to my story about the dove I probably killed.