Story and photo by Chad Love
It’s the last day of August in this, my 49th year shuffling along on this mortal coil, and I am doing what I have done every year on this day since I was old enough to both drive and skip school: loading up the truck to go hunting (note to any kids who may be reading this: I do not condone truancy. Stay in school. Trust me on this one...)
This is a day that I, and I suspect many of you, have circled on the calendar and been waiting for. For most bird hunters, August 31st is the penultimate day of that part of the year which is mere prologue to what arrives on Sept. 1st.
And what arrives on Sept. 1st is – for me, anyway – redemption, regeneration, recalibration, and most of all affirmation, especially in this most disjointed of times.
It’s been a helluva year, and I suspect it will remain so right up until that midnight ball finally drops on 2020 and we all wake up on January 1st to face whatever comes after, but right now none of that matters.
Right now, all that matters is earth and sky and birds and dogs and grass and morning light, because bird season is here, the beginning of it, anyway, and short of an asteroid, there’s not a damn thing 2020 can throw at us to change that.
For most southern hunters (and due to geography and history I have one foot firmly planted in that world) Sept. 1st means dove hunting. And for me, the mourning dove is and will always be my genesis bird.
I guess I'm partial to dove because I had zero bird-hunting tradition growing up, so I pretty much had to make up my own as I went along.
As a child, I had no dog, no dad (my parents divorced when I was ten) and no clue, but I did have a shotgun, a bike, a duffel bag in which to break down and hide the shotgun so the cops wouldn't see me packing heat while pedaling down the street, and a lot of open fields and river bottom to hunt.
So I hunted dove, the occasional kicked-up quail (dogs of the pointy persuasion were still a few years in my future) and pond-jumped ducks.
But local dove were my main bird-hunting species until well into my teens and my friends and I finally had access to cars and distant destinations.
Three friends in that time between childhood and manhood, waiting anxiously for opening day, no real plan beyond getting the hell out of town, away from school and getting lost in that part of Oklahoma that seems to stretch out forever toward the sun. The best kind of adventure, the kind reserved for boys interested not in the future, but only the now.
We would pool our money, stuff guns and gear into a ramshackle old Datsun, and drive west into the endless fields, wandering aimlessly down lonely two-lane highways and county roads with a destination of nowhere, and damn eager to get there. Just drive west. We’ll find birds, somewhere.
And we always did, hunkered in a sorghum field or next to a stock tank, heat rising from our gun barrels, heat rising from the earth in undulations. Always the heat; stifling, sopping our brows, stinging our eyes, eventually making us flee the fields for the refuge of a cool, dark place in the nearest town.
There, with the dove from the morning icing down in the cooler, we would wait out the mid-day heat, shooting pool, laughing, anticipating, before going back into the fields to finish our limits.
And as the sun sank and the sky softened from white-hot to cool pink, the dove came in waves. Shooting, missing, shooting, hitting, shooting, cursing, laughing, insulting each other’s misses. Death and excitement and precious little reflection, as it has always been and always will be for the young living in the moment.
That was dove hunting for me.
And here we are again, on the eve of what will be, as close as I can recall, my 37th straight September opener.
Seen from that perspective, it's a bit hard to reconcile the memory of the 13-year-old me furiously pedaling my bike down to the South Canadian river – hidden shotgun strapped to the handlebars, or the awkward late-teen me roaming western Oklahoma in a rusted-out car with three wheels in the scrapyard, with the now-pushing-50 me loading up the truck and the dogs to go chase prairie grouse.
Because if one foot remains rooted in the southern dove hunting tradition, my other foot is now firmly planted in the lonesome, wide-open forever of the high plains and the native grouse that call it home.
There is something about these prairie birds; sharptails, sage grouse, prairie chickens, that even to a die-hard quail hunter evokes something special, something primal about the wild loneliness of the Great Plains and Interior West. When you hunt prairie grouse, you are hunting eons of what once was. You are hunting the living ghosts of the distant, long-ago before time.
Every sweat-soaked mile walked, every ancient Cretaceous hill climbed, every bur pulled from a dog’s pad, every horizon-spanning sea of grass crossed, every bone-jarring, dust-choked county section road driven, every desiccating blast-furnace wind faced, every wild, out-of-range flush, every heartbreaking miss, every stupid mistake, every bit of bad judgement and every stroke of bad luck.
There’s not a damn thing you can do about any of it, and there’s not a damn thing you’d change about any of it even if you could. Every bird is earned. No exceptions.
That’s prairie grouse hunting for me.
So I straddle these two worlds; the world of my past and the world of my present. I have learned to combine the two when I can, running dogs across the prairie in the cool of the morning, then finding a water hole or stock tank on which to finish out the evening, just sitting and thinking and watching the day slowly fade, and perhaps shooting a few dove along the way.
I think it’s a good compromise.
So here I am. Tomorrow will bring another waypoint, another rollover of the seasonal odometer and I will dutifully note it in the only way I know, really the only way I've ever known how to track my life's progression, or lack thereof.
Hopefully the dogs will find a few sharptails or chickens. Hopefully a few dove will be flying. And if I'm lucky I might shoot a few. Or I might not. Either way is fine by me. I can certainly think of worse ways to dwell on one's life.
Good luck this season, however, wherever, and whenever you choose to kick it off. It’s been a long time coming. Let’s enjoy it.
Chad Love is editor of Quail Forever Journal