The fanciest dove hunt I ever attended was at an enclave called Brays Island, S.C., where an old hog farm was being transformed into a destination for folks who like the outdoors, with places to fish, ride horses, hike, bike and hunt.
It was a celebration of the changing seasons, with shooting sandwiched between brunch and an elegant evening barbecue. Everyone seemed to know everyone else except us--three Yankees allowed in by some awful mistake. The hum of chatter and the clink of plates and glasses went on until 11 a.m. or so, when all the other guests put down their brunch plates en masse and raced to cars and trucks.
"Who spooked the herd?" I wondered as we followed. We were among the last to arrive at the hunting fields, which put us at a disadvantage because the crowd was huge but the fields were not. Everywhere you looked someone stood with a shotgun guarding a spot.
I found a patch of weeds in the middle of a field, set up my stool and sat down to wait till shooting time at noon. At 12 there was a fusillade to wake the dead, which continued for hours. The handful of doves that had been buzzing around multiplied into hundreds that blackened the sky, swooping and diving and circling while all of Brays Island, it seemed, sought to bring them down.
Except me. As usual, I was in the wrong place.
I had time to reflect on that memorable, frustrating experience Saturday when I tagged along for another futile attempt to bag a limit of 12 wily, fast-flying mourning doves at Neil Selby's Shady Grove Kennel in Remington, Va., where the southern tradition of a feast to mark the arrival of the new hunting year also is observed.
Selby's operation is less formal--plastic foam plates and a bluegrass band instead of china and linens--but no less ambitious. Gunners arrive in the morning and most don't leave till after dark. There's lots to eat, much to do and plenty of time in the middle to watch cirrus clouds streak the sky and ponder the passing of another summer, all while waiting for fast-flying specks to streak across the sky dodging No. 8 lead shots.
Some gunners have more time to ruminate than others. It depends on where you sit and I, as usual, was in the wrong place and had plenty of time.
Selby's dove hunts are $90 a person and include all the sporting clays you can shoot in the morning to sharpen your eye, followed by hamburgers, hot dogs and sodas under a big tin shed, the race to claim a good shooting spot around noon, then five or six hours of watching the sun march across a pale blue autumn sky.
Hired hands cruise the fields in wagons, checking your welfare, bringing cool drinks and offering to search with retrieving dogs for any birds you may have downed but were unable to find. Around 6, they haul you back to the shed where whole pigs have been basted on spits for 24 hours and are finally ready to serve with barbecue trimmings and all the beer or soda you can drink.
Selby's wife Margaret assembles her string band and strains of mountain harmony echo: "I love those hills of old Virginia," they sing, "from those Blue Ridge hills I did roam; when I die won't you bury me on the mountain, far away near my Blue Ridge mountain home."
Selby, who trains hunting dogs for a living, has organized September dove hunts on his 400-acre farm for about a decade. It always sounded like a bargain at the price and I wondered how he did it. The answer is--no birds!
No, no, no, that's unfair. But it was a sobering moment when Bob Poole and I, both first-timers, stepped off the hay wagon that ferried us to the hunting grounds and set out to pick a place to sit. I took a quick tour of the field, where sorghum and sunflower plants had been bushhogged in strips to attract birds, and asked some folks already ensconced what to expect.
"Oh," said the first, "you won't get your limit here. Last year I got one bird. If you can't enjoy yourself sitting in a field experiencing nature, you came to the wrong place."
"You don't come here for the action," said the next in line. "You come for the food and the music and sporting clays. It's a nice way to start the season but don't expect to take many birds home."
They weren't joking. After an hour and a half, neither Poole nor I had fired a shot. Meantime, the fellows on the far side of the big tin shed a half-mile away were pounding out a steady drumbeat of gunfire. So we gathered our gear and went for a hike, muttering to ourselves about bringing 100 rounds of shells apiece, a heavy load in the midday heat.
You never know what to expect when you invade someone else's turf but the fellows on the far side of the big tin shed couldn't have been kinder. They pointed to a weeping willow in the middle of the bushhogged sunflowers, an empty place in the grid of gunners.
There I sat till a few doves came whizzing past, and after a fashion I even managed to down some. There was no abundance but the birds rolled in steadily enough to keep it interesting, and by the time the sun dipped low toward the trees in the west, Poole and I had enough for a decent dinner for two, if you stretched it with side dishes.
"You take them," said I.
"No, you!" said he.
So begins another autumn gunning season and all the surprises, frustrations and triumphs that are sure to follow. Whether with champagne and fine linens or banjos and cold beer, it's an event worth celebrating.
Shady Grove Kennel's annual opening-day dove hunt extravaganza is a one-day affair, over and done for this year, but Selby offers dog training, guided upland bird hunts and duck and goose hunts through the fall and winter. Call 540-439-2683.