Around August, the phone calls start, the voices on the line friendly and familiar, the conversation predictable.
“Hey, Billy,” it begins. “You got any birds?”
The 59-year-old Billy Passmore has been at it long enough to anticipate the calls — and the question. It’s become a part of his year, a marker of time, like full moons or the Fourth of July. In April, he prepares the fields. In May, he plants the seeds. In August, the men call.
An old shooting pal and late friend of Passmore’s had a nickname for these phoning hunters, eager for the September opening of dove season.
“He called them the ‘boys of fall,’” Passmore says, cruising down a county road near Silverhill. “I always thought that was funny.”
Where Passmore differs from most Baldwin County farmers is that he doesn’t simply put up with the trigger-happy “boys of fall.” He actually grows for them. On this particular day, he is checking in on five of the 14 fields he leases from farmers in Foley, Summerdale, Marlow and Silverhill. The corn and sunflowers he planted in May have come along as expected, evidenced by the doves slicing the air above the food-plenty fields.
But like any good farmer, Passmore keeps his optimism in check. After more than a decade running the Sunflower Wing & Shot Club, he knows all too well the threats facing his crop, from worms and fungi to weeds and hurricanes. And even if everything goes right, Passmore can’t guarantee that, come September, when the airhorn blows, any birds will be around to hear it.
“I’ve set the table,” he says, “but I can’t make the doves come.”
If Billy Passmore can’t, I’m not sure who can.
The Flowers and the Birds
Beneath low, gray skies, Passmore pulls his truck off the highway and rolls right to the edge of a field of sunflowers.
“You can see where people have come and snipped the heads off a bunch of them,” he says good-naturedly. Sure enough, it’s easy to spot several decapitated stems, victims of passing motorists who couldn’t help but pull over to take a piece of the field home with them. Passmore says he’s stumbled upon senior portraits, family photos, even a guy taking pictures of a horse in front of his sunflower fields.
He pulls up photos he took on his phone in July, when the fields were an endless burst of flowers stretching to the horizon. The pictures hardly resemble the field we visit today, whose sunflowers stand black and disfigured, heads bowed to the dirt. Someone who didn’t know any better might take one look at the flowers, in somber rows like tombstones, and think something has gone terribly wrong. But of course, it’s by design. Left alone, the sunflowers have gone to seed, drawing in finches, cardinals, indigo buntings, blackbirds, grosbeaks and the coveted doves. State law prohibits hunters from “baiting” fields, that is, tossing out seeds that weren’t naturally raised on the plot. Hence, the sunflower fields.
Passmore says he also grows corn and wheat alongside the sunflowers as a kind of insurance policy. Last year brought over 100 inches of rain, and while the weather didn’t topple the sunflowers, it left standing water in the cup-like depression on the back of the flowers’ heads, causing the plants to rot and disintegrate.
“It just about ruined us,” he says, “but I had a lot of corn planted, so that really helped. And everybody was happy last year with the season.”
Passmore also likes to lease fields roughly 5 miles apart from one another, ensuring a large spread across the county and thereby increasing his odds of finding birds. He uses peanuts as an example.
“When peanut farmers start digging up their crop, it scatters birds all over the county,” he says, “which kinda makes our lives difficult hunting-wise.” A dove can live on just a couple peanuts a day, he explains, so when they’re available, birds are less likely to visit Passmore’s sunflower fields. He’s learned, therefore, that by spreading fields across the county, some located adjacent to peanut farms, he can lessen the impact of peanut harvesting.
Such lessons weren’t learned overnight. “I’ve been preparing dove fields all my life,” Passmore says. He grew up on Baldwin County farmland, helping his grandfather and uncles raise corn and soybeans. His mother was born on the property adjacent to his home off County Road 48 in Silverhill, where he lives with his wife Rhoda. Passmore was introduced to dove hunting at 10 years old, back when the sport was “a byproduct of farming.” Farmers, transitioning crops, would invite 50 or so people for an afternoon hunt. “Now you plant specifically for it,” he says.
A former middle school math and science teacher in Robertsdale, Passmore inherited the hunting club about 10 years ago when its former owner stepped down. With his farming and dove hunting experience, he says there wasn’t much of a learning curve. He pauses. “Although I have learned a lot about sunflowers.”
The Sunflower Wing & Shot Club
While it’s not uncommon for farmers to set aside land for their own dove hunting purposes, the reliability of the hunting club method is what brings the members of the Sunflower Wing & Shot Club back year after year. With about 45 dues-paying members, and an equally long waiting list, the club is divided into three groups based on the days they hunt: Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. The Monday group, for example, will meet for a shoot every Monday during the hunting season, which stretches from September to January.
During the two weeks leading up to the first hunt, Passmore will drive to all 14 fields every day, a 65-mile roundtrip. Then he’ll sit and wait and watch. He visits regularly enough that, when we arrive at one sunflower patch, a horse in the neighboring pasture fearlessly trots in Passmore’s direction.
“She recognizes the truck,” he says. “I sometimes bring an apple out to her when I’m over this way.”
Having scoped out the fields and decided where the birds will be, Passmore will meet the day’s hunting group in the early afternoon at the old flea market on Highway 59 and lead the procession toward the field of his choosing.
“We’ll have anywhere from 15 to 20 cars,” he says. “A couple times, we’ve had other cars pull over thinking we were a funeral procession.”
Upon reaching the location of the afternoon’s shoot, Passmore positions the men roughly 80 paces apart along the field’s perimeter and, once all are in place, a single blast from his airhorn signifies the hunt is on. Camo-clad and patiently perched on swivel chairs, many of these men have hunted together for decades. Some are childhood chums, some are father and son, some are the kind of friends that can spin tales about the hunting dog you had two dogs ago.
“The club has very little turnover,” Passmore says. “You either have to move or pass away to leave the group.”
The camaraderie is a major factor; the daily hunting groups remain largely unchanged year after year for the obvious reason that it’s more fun to dove hunt with your closest friends. “Safety is a big part of it, too,” one hunter tells me. An errant shot high into the sky might “pepper” a neighboring hunter with falling lead shot. “What goes up, got to come down,” explains the hunter. “But when that trajectory is low, it’s gonna sting a little,” he says, with the understatement of the afternoon.
Shooting low (anything less than about a 45-degree angle) is a cardinal sin of dove hunting. Shouts of “low bird!” often roll across the field during shoots to prevent an overzealous hunter from attempting a dangerous shot. “Billy doesn’t let unsafe people into the group. He’ll put someone in timeout if he sees them shooting low, and if they transgress again, they’re out. He doesn’t tolerate it.”
Club members range in age from about 40 to 80. Some of the men are working professionals, some are retirees, and just about all of them hunt something or other year-round. When the conversation strays from white wing and mourning doves, it simply shifts to redfish and gators, bucks and turkeys. And, like in any group of boys, ribbing occurs. The group accuses Bill Thompson of “slant drilling,” the practice of “shooting a buddy’s dove out from under him when he think’s he gonna get it,” they explain.
“Sometimes it’s unintentional, sometimes it’s not,” says John Gray, an 83-year-old club member, retired after 40 years working as a bar pilot.
“One in five shots probably hit a dove,” Passmore estimates. “Of course, some are better and some are worse,” he says, with amusement in his voice. “They’ll rib you, too, now if you miss a bird. Sometimes the whole field’ll be laughing.”
“Fred Roe and his dogs provide most of the comedy,” somebody tells me. Roe, a longtime club member retired from a career in natural gas marketing, doesn’t even argue, explaining that he used to bring his two dogs along for the hunt because he didn’t have the heart to leave the older one at home. For Roe’s friends, the resulting pandemonium was often worth the price of admission.
A little less than half of the men bring dogs, posted at their owner’s elbow and waiting for a dove to fall from the sky. Without a dog, it becomes imperative to mark the resting place of a fallen bird and to enter the field as quickly as possible to locate it. When all else fails, borrow a dog.
“Billy’s dog, Pearl, has found a lot of birds for everybody,” Gray says. Like owner, like dog.
Though the hunts are lighthearted and enjoyable, there’s a predictable, yet seldom acknowledged, competitive edge to the entire proceeding. One hunter tells me it’s not fun to “hear about a guy who’s reached his limit [of 15 doves] when you’ve got five in the bucket. But a lot of it has to do with where you are. What was a hotspot one week might be the coldest spot in the field the next week. You just never know. It’s kind of the luck of the draw.”
“There’s usually a hotspot in a field, a certain flyaway,” Passmore explains. “But that can change with the wind or with the time of day.”
Aside from the many variables that make a dove’s behavior unpredictable, such as temperature, cloud cover and storm fronts, doves also get “educated” as the season progresses.
“At the end of the year, they actually start dodging,” Roe says. Even Bill Thompson, who owns a sporting clay facility in Pace, Florida, and is regarded as one of the best shots in the club, says he has to resort to the more effective 12-gauge shotgun by the end of the season, once the doves have attained what he calls a “Ph.D. in staying alive.”
After more than 10 years of growing and maintaining 14 dove fields, who knows what degree to bestow upon Billy Passmore. The end of dove season on January 12 will bring him a short respite. That is, until April, when he’ll begin preparing his fields once again. His work is just about year-round, and the famously humble Passmore seems torn between being truthful and being modest.
“A lot of people don’t realize that it’s a lot of work,” he says. “We have certain types of weeds that we can’t control, so this year I had a crew of four guys that came in for 3 weeks to pull weeds out of the fields, and I helped them. And man, it was hot. Most of the hunters don’t see a lot of that.”
The work is not only demanding but can be dangerous as well. Five years ago, a vehicle struck the tractor Passmore was driving across the county. Though the incident required surgery to repair a torn biceps muscle in his left arm, Passmore acknowledges he was lucky to escape with his life.
“Billy works hard,” Roe says. “He’s the difference. Last year we had a good season, and very few people did. He constantly worries about how many birds there are gonna be — he worries about every single hunt.”
“And Billy shoots, too,” Roe later tells me. “Not as much as we try to get him to. He’s a great shot, though — probably the best of the whole group.”
After an hour-long tour of his nearby fields, Passmore turns his truck down the long, oak-canopied driveway leading home. I ask him why he puts up with it all: the heat, the worms, the dangers of driving a tractor cross-county.
“I love to hunt just like these guys do,” he says. “And I enjoy all the people. That’s a big part of it, just being with them.”
And when he’s not with them? Passmore knows — all too well — they’re just a phone call away.