First, my host made me swear a blood oath never to divulge the location of the sacred spot. Then he spun me three times in a circle with the butt of his shotgun. Finally, he removed the blindfold from my eyes to reveal his little piece of hunting heaven.
It was a farm field, covered with rows of rotting corn and thick with mourning doves. They were feasting on a crop so damaged by this summer's drought that it wasn't worth harvesting.
"Now take your time. We don't want to limit out too soon," said my friend, who owns more guns than I own pairs of socks and is expert with every one. "Be selective. Make it challenging."
I shot ahead of the first dove by no more than 20 yards. I shot behind the second by only half as much. I was high on the next shot. Low on the one that followed. I can't tell you what happened on the shot after that because the recoil of the 12-gauge slamming against my shoulder blurred the view.
I did hear what sounded like the distant snickering of doves and, much closer, an exasperated sputter from my host.
"You haven't picked up that gun since last hunting season, have you?" he said, sorrowfully. "Doves are the fastest, trickiest game birds there are. How do you expect to hit one when your shooting form is so rusty it just about squeaks?"
When fall arrives and the forest begins to change color from verdant green to dying shades of yellow, red and brown, a hunter's thoughts turn to ancient rites and modern weaponry. But thinking about hunting, and actually preparing for it, often are separate matters.
There are so many other distractions for an outdoor sportsman in the fall. Fishing improves dramatically. Camping is suddenly bug-free. Add to those temptations the demands of family, weekend chores, Redskins football and the normal adult dose of sloth and you have hunters, even experienced ones, heading into the woods each autumn unprepared.
Some hunting skills are difficult to practice. Remaining relatively still in a deer stand for eight hours in early fall is not the same as maintaining that vigil in late November, when your teeth are chattering a frigid fandango.
On the other hand, before hunters go armed into the wild kingdom they should at least sight in rifles, work the legs into stalking shape and practice shooting at targets. To be successful, as well as safe, a bit of preseason scouting is crucial.
"Without scouting, hunting is just hit or miss," said Riley Puckett, an Alexandria barber, three-time Virginia state archery champion and recent author of a book entitled, "Advanced Bowhunting." Because Puckett is primarily a deer hunter, his hunting season is only a few weeks long each year. But he probably spends 10 hours scouting for every hour he actually hunts.
"A lucky hunter is one who happens to be in the right place at the right time," writes Puckett. "A skillful hunter makes damn sure he's there."
The payoff for being prepared is a freezer filled with meat. And in this area, there is an abundance of game available. The hunting seasons in Maryland and Virginia begin with dove and railbirds in early September. During the next four months, a dedicated hunter can find squirrel, grouse, rabbit, quail, pheasant, turkey, raccoon, deer, ducks and geese.
Deer are the most popular game animal in this area. Last year, an estimated 400,000 deer hunters in Virginia alone bagged more than 75,000 deer with muzzleloaders, bows and modern firearms. Maryland deer hunters killed 15,000. Game officials in both states say this year's deer season could be as good or better.
Few domestic animals are more expensive to hunt than geese. While animals such as deer and rabbits can be found in a variety of terrain, geese are more particular about pit stops during their migratory trip down the Atlantic flyway. Most of the places they are likely to land are either inaccessible or privately owned and leased to commercial guides who charge hunters an average of $75 a day.
If that seems like gouging, remember that the guides must pay land owners from $1,500 to $10,000 for hunting rights to their fields each season. On Maryland's Eastern Shore, which prides itself on being the goose-hunting capital of the world, hunters last year spent more than $7 million in the pursuit of geese, according to Maryland's Office of Tourism Development.
The economic value of goose hunting to the state has led this year to a dispute between goose and duck hunters over a change in hunting-season dates. Duck hunters in the coastal areas of Maryland complain that three of their best hunting days in early October, when wood ducks are plentiful, have been replaced with days in November when most of those ducks are gone. The changes, they argue, are designed to benefit goose hunters.
"Duck hunting is a poor man's sport so they don't care," says Manolo Munoz, who hunts the beaver ponds beside the Potomac River each October where wood ducks congregate by the thousands. "They're not doing this to protect the ducks. The ones we don't shoot will be shot in North Carolina."
"All kinds of people are bent out of shape because of the loss of the October season," conceded Tom Cofield, a spokesman for the Maryland Wildlife Administration. But Cofield says the state sets seasons within guidelines established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We had to look at what benefits the most people statewide."
For complaints, no group can match dove hunters. But their laments are usually directed at a Higher Authority--for providing doves such fast and tricky dispositions.
By late afternoon, I finally began bringing down doves. But that was only because there were so many and I had packed enough ammunition to hold off a cavalry charge.
"A couple more days and you might be half good at this," said my host, pleased that I had not completely wasted my visit to his dove heaven. "But next time, don't wait until you're in the field to practice your shot."