Words & Photography by EDGAR CASTILLO
I quickly shouldered my shotgun as a half-a-dozen grey rockets took to the air. Their wingbeats were making that all too familiar fluttering sound akin to flushing birds. I tracked the closest dove, which presented a left to right crossing shot. The fluorescent green bead at the tip of the barrel tracked the bird, and instinctively I followed through just beyond and pulled the trigger. I followed up with a sharp pumping action to load the next round. The dove fell, returning to the confines of where it had been feeding amongst the standing milo interspersed with remnants of a sunflower crop. I had been walking along a strip anticipating catapulting frightened doves from the dirt ground. I walked over to where I had marked the downed bird, just as a rust-coloured canine gracefully trotted in and retrieved the dove. I, in turn, took the dove from the dog’s mouth and placed it into the game bag compartment of my vest. I glanced down at Staley, the Vizsla who was accompanying me that day, and gave her the command, “Hunt ‘em up!” I looked over the stalks, and we continued to walk-up doves.
It was early October, a good six weeks into dove season. Although everything was still green, there were hints of tans taking over the landscape. The lack of rainfall also didn’t help. By now most dove hunters were gone from the fields. No longer did one see families and friends partaking in probably the most social affairs of hunting. Grandfathers, fathers, and sons had returned to their normalcy. After opening day, the action, excitement, and presence only lasts for a week or two. After, only the diehards venture out into the uplands, and more often it becomes a solo affair between hunter and God's creation.
I had arrived late in the afternoon and found myself alone in the dove field on public land. Not surprising. I found a place with some shade under a group of young trees. A slight breeze was blowing. It was enough to cool me and to keep the mosquitos and other flying pests at bay. I placed a brown bucket with a swivel seat onto an open patch of ground. Right now, the contents of the bucket contained several frozen bottles of that precious clear liquid, bug spray, and a few snacks to reinvigorate me with fuel. I would deplete most of the cargo and with luck replace it with September grey birds. My vintage 1980’s Duxbax bird vest was going to carry ammunition, water bottles, and hopefully some doves for the grill. The vest was indeed a garage sale treasure.
Its near perfect condition and old-school blotched camo reminded me of days afield when I was growing up. Today’s armament consisted of my often-ignored Remington 870 16 gauge. America’s most dependable workhorse in the field. I reached into the front pocket of my vest and grabbed three purple shells and loaded the sixteen. Staley proceeded to sit, almost statuesque at my side. Her head slightly moving, and her eyes with a hint of gold, nearly the same colour as her coat, scanning the blue sky for movement.
Those who know me and hunt with me will know I am not the most patient of hunters. When the action gets slow, I tend to take to making things happen. Several minutes passed before the first flight came whizzing by. No request for a fly-by was granted, but unlike in the movie, I wasn’t going to deny the squadron of small jets. Staley sensed the action as well. I waited until the birds circled around and upon seeing their return, opened fire. Pellets struck the farthest bird away. In an instant, Staley was in motion. A blur of russet tones went running through waist-high stalks and weedy grass. I began to follow the dog, and before I could get a few steps in, Staley was on the way back with the prize in hand, I mean mouth. First bird. Anytime the first of anything is taken, it is always and should be memorable. Respect is given for its sacrifice in its pursuit.
Both man and beast returned to our confines amongst the tree line. After a very brief time, I got impatient and stepped out into the field to walk. This was my plan all along. I knew from experience, just because there were no droves of flying birds the field was not necessarily void of game. Instead of flying amidst the puffy cotton clouds, doves were themselves walking along in patches of open ground gorging on seeds. I was going to walk with them.
No less than fifty yards from our shade roost, doves started casting out of the field. They were feeling the pressure and were scooting so as not to end up wrapped in bacon with a slice of jalapeno and cream cheese. Dove poppers. Mmmm! A quick snap and the sixteen was shouldered and firing. Two doves down. A rare double. Staley had been cruising the aisle of vegetation. Nearby, a bean field had been planted. It was an excellent place to target after a pass or two in the milo. Two more birds added to my vest. The volley of shots signalled for others to take flight. Fumbling for shells, precious seconds were wasted. Twin purple cartridges made their way into the tube. Another shot. This time a miss. Thwack, and another round loaded into the chamber. Its replacement quickly inserted. I was getting trigger time. Field trash detail came with picking up spent hulls.
It was like watching old footage from a black and white war movie. Tufts of smoke and powder drifting. Doves had miraculously slipped through my defences, dodging shots. I could attest to some birds having lost a couple of tail feathers in the short-lived barrage of gunfire. Staley was searching for the scent of downed birds. I had failed her. A series of passes resulted in flushing doves, but they were out of range. Staley turned at the end and headed towards the bean field. We had stepped into a lush dark green sea. Just below the knee, bean plants flourished. Out of my peripheral, a pair of grey birds cruising at top speed just above the trees. A single bird flushed ahead. Then another. Some distance later, and a flock burst from the ground. A stray pellet had connected with its mark. Four birds for a 'slow day'. Staley and I stopped for a well-deserved mid-afternoon water break. The frozen bottles held ice cold water. Ahhh! Refreshing. We made a couple of more passes, each resulting in doves erupting from the soil. Three more added to the vest. I love the feeling of having a little bit of weight back there. Staley and I decided to circumvent the milo field and walk a broad swath of grass with a pond. The plan was to double back and end up walking the milo rows.
With thoughts distracting me, I failed to see the dove streaking across the field. No sound was heard. In one fluid motion, the 870 found its mark. The dove plummeted to earth like a grey meteor. It had fallen deep into the field. The bird had fallen hard. I could see Staley’s short stubby tail energised with happiness. I went over to her and could see that a single lil’ feather lay upon her pinkish hued nose. If dogs could smile with a dove in their mouths, Staley would be grinning from ear to ear. I gathered up of the bird from her mouth and stepped off towards our shaded roost.
We arrived, and I took up the familiar position I had earlier claimed. Standing once again waiting impatiently for passing doves. It wouldn’t be long until I felt the field calling me to take a walk. September dreams for me include a field vacant of hunters. A place for me to hunt at my own pace. The magic that happens when walking up doves. My last visions as the day was ending, were of birds fluttering by, travelling in well-established flyways. I posted up as I could see birds pouring in willy-nilly into the far end of the field. Grounded they were. As the technicolour sun inched towards the horizon, I motioned for Staley, and our hunt began again. Being alone in the dove fields was gratifying. By no means was I lonesome.
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