Forget Christmas. Forget my birthday. Forget any other event. Growing up, this was my happiest week of the year. Still is, actually.
Dove season opens Tuesday, and from the first time I ever got to go there was something special about the opener. It just got better when I was able to carry my own shotgun into the field and became great when I got old enough to drive myself and hunt any time I wanted.
My dad introduced me to hunting. In my mind he was a great shot. Back then we did not have the opportunity to hunt anything else, but my dad had grown up in the country south of Dallas, and between landowners he still knew and my aunt and uncle’s farm we had access to thousands of acres to hunt doves.
My earliest recollections are of my dad and his brothers hunting together. I am sure the landscape in the area has changed considerably since the 1950s, but I remember the exact spot on the gravel road where they would park and walk into the field.
I also remember the first time I was given a gun to be one of the hunters. It was a double barrel, 16-gauge that kicked like the proverbial mule. Despite the beating my shoulder took, I still have a soft spot for double-barreled shotguns and 16 gauges. I do have a side by side, but 16-gauge ammo is too difficult to find to mess with.
Maybe more than doing anything else, the September opener is where I learned what hunting was all about. Bringing home the meat is one thing, an important thing, but it was also the annual gathering of family and friends, new acquaintances who became friends, and familiar locations. At times over the years I have hunted alone and in groups upwards of 50.
The stories began as soon as the truck doors opened and became more exaggerated as the years went along. We caught up on family, recalled previous hunts and told stories of other adventures.
It was not until I was in college that I really learned dove season was not the end all of hunting, but just the beginning of a hunting year that could last into the spring if you worked hard at it. Dove season led to duck and goose hunting, deer season, working dogs in search of quail, pheasants and finally spring turkey.
As I got older, I considered it a good year if I never unpacked my hunting bag. Just wash clothes, swapped out guns to match the next hunt and off you go again.
I also learned that no matter what type of hunting was your base, it was all the same. When I was younger it seemed like the emphasis was how many times you shot or if you limited. Then as the seasons went by I realized the actual amount of time hunting was minuscule compared to the time spent planning and traveling to the hunt, and visiting with the hunters around you.
In fact a few years ago I was asked to help cull deer on a friend’s ranch. We were killing upwards of 100 deer a year, which sounds like fun until you start doing it. At some point in the process I learned I enjoyed watching them and the other animals I would see during the day just as much as that second it took to pull the trigger. I also enjoyed talking to the others who came out to hunt.
My dad died in September 1983, still a young man. There is not a dove season opener I don’t think about him and remember hunts we took together. Of course no one could exactly take his place, but others have filled in. None have been more important than my sons, Tristan and Thomas. That is another important part of hunting. Passing down the tradition from one generation to the next, and there is still no better way to do that than small game like dove.
But the boys are not the end of the list of hunters I have shared the field with through the years. I may not talk to all of the hunting friends on a regular basis, but if and when we meet again there is that common ground of hunts past. I am sure there are new friends to come.
A part of the hunts are the small Texas towns you pass through on the way, the farms and ranches, the great lodges and the wonderful old houses where you spend the night. I have to admit I always preferred the little farm house to the shiny lodge if for no other reason than everyone was forced into one room to share a conversation.
Hunting from one end of Texas to the other, I have not missed many dove season openers since that introduction. Unfortunately I see the number of dove hunters have decreased in recent years, and I would guess this wacky year is not going to help that at all.
But for me Sept. 1 is New Year’s, and the party won’t end until spring.