In Point Clear, the first sign that waterfront activities are over is the sound of doves cooing and fluttering in the tree limbs. I take more notice of the cool breezes coming over the Bay, and the water is calm and clear like it is resting from the chaos of a long summer. And I begin to accept the impending winter months with mixed feelings of melancholy and excitement. Like something big is over and the next big thing has yet to start.
Dove season always seems to arrive too early. And as a young man, it felt to me like something men did only to pass days until deer season. At the time, I reasoned that it lacked the luster of long road trips up the country and the adventures that came with spending the night at the hunting camp. There were no big woods, and the weather wasn’t harsh. It was just an afternoon thing, a mild warm-up for hunting real, big game.
Dad loaded his sons into the green station wagon and started up County Road 32 and into the farmlands of Baldwin County. We hunted several Summerdale fields that were leased by the same men that were in our deer club.
We met at a farmer’s house around noon, parking under a grove of pecan trees. The men talked casually amongst themselves, leaning against their vehicles and occasionally bending down to pick up pecans and crack them in their fists. I never knew or cared what the grownups talked about. The kids were more interested in exploring the cavernous, dusty barns where the giant tractors loomed over us like sleeping beasts. To us, the highlight of the afternoon was dashing about the farm equipment until being told it was time to hunt.
A few miles up the blacktop, a small grove of pines stood out of an otherwise bare field. Everyone expected a good hunt if we were going to the pine tree field. Anywhere else was a backup plan.
To reach the grove we turned onto a boggy dirt road that took us through a cattle gate and alongside a sinister swamp. The last person was expected to close the gate to keep the cows in. As the oldest of the sons, I rode on the front passenger seat. As Dad was probably the least enthusiastic of the dove hunters, our car was typically last, and it was always left to me to close the gate.
“Watch out for the bull, ” he said.
There was always a bull. An angry bull that I never saw threatened every dove field we hunted. And if I asked any of the other men about this, they never failed to deliver a story to back up Dad’s claim — always along the lines of somebody getting chased by this monster and ultimately running naked across the field after having his clothes torn off by a barbed wire fence. Of course, the pine tree field bull lived in the nearby swamp. All of them lived hidden in the most fearsome places.
The hunters set up their dove stools and mesh blinds around the grove. I was always happy to be on the side away from the swamp. I figured I would hear the bull murder the other men behind me and have time to run and squeeze through the barbed wire without losing my clothes. But sometimes I drew the unfortunate stand with only a small strip of pasture between me and that dark tangle of underbrush. And, if I shot a dove, it would fall in the intervening space. Hurrying to retrieve it, I imagined the bull standing just out of sight, tensed up and watching me, waiting for me to stray too far.
A dove hunt is a lonely thing. There is no one to commiserate with about the bull. Everyone sits quietly alone, just out of speaking distance, watching the sky. Other than the occasional popping of shotguns and the faint sound of someone’s portable radio playing a football game, there are only breezes in the tops of the pines. Occasionally I had visitors — but no one I wanted to see. If another person strolled my way, I knew I was about to get “dumped on.” When the more successful hunters approached their limit of dove, they “dumped” part of their cache amongst the rest of us so they could continue shooting. Not only was it humiliating, but I knew they’d never want those birds back. And Dad, always preaching about eating what we kill, would require us to clean and eat them. I didn’t like the taste of doves. And I didn’t kill those things.
It was usually dark by the time we got back to Point Clear, our dove stools filled mostly with other people’s kills. We plucked the birds on the end of the wharf, an icy north wind trailing feathers over the waves and our hands stiff and trembling. It seemed there were no lights for miles. The waves were rough and black and mean. It went against nature to be out there. Nothing about dove season ever fit. It started too early and ended too late. And left me wondering what exactly I’d gotten out of it except a heightened fear of bulls.
Text by Watt Key