What Could Go Wrong?

Setting up on a dove field and shooting a few birds seems simple enough. But as the author points out, it can be a minefield out there!

Finally awarded a complimentary seniors hunting license, I'm on a cusp between ornithological espionage at my bird feeder and venturing afield. From the bank of my riverside home of 60 years, I toss tennis balls for my deaf retriever, Bailey White, for whom bird watching lacks closure.

The author's dove shoot in an abandoned quarry with a deaf retriever that favors fetching tennis balls was a challenge. Photo by K.K. Snyder.

Bailey, addicted to tennis balls, is gray around the muzzle like me and full of sleep, but he'll chase sporting clays in spurts and bring back the biggest shard if you don't miss it. He'll retrieve one that lands unbroken with a couple of fang holes punched through the center you can swear to what's left of your cronies that you drilled with birdshot.

Hunting is no longer important to Bailey, but I love to shoot doves and have since, as a pick-up boy for Daddy in 1951, I shot my first one off a corn stalk with his 12-gauge, foxing a purple bruise that won me celebrity status in the fourth grade.

Nowadays, I shoot less and commune more, not so much in transcendental veneration as arthritic sensitivity in the same shoulder I famously discolored 60 years ago. I've downsized to a .410 I used as a kid, finding it and the ammo easier to tote. In cahoots with dimming eyesight and burning joints, the smaller gun discourages shooting at birds out of range, reducing the area high-stepped among rattlesnakes munching cripples.

I'm from a generation who automatically run from the law because our fathers did and because until first light you can't know if a field is baited or not unless you trespass it the night before with a searchlight. Few hunters lucky enough to get invited to morning shoots demand full disclosure like my hunting buddy, a chief of county police, did one night before a shoot.

For a card-carrying conversationalist, I've had a disproportionate number of run-ins with the conservation officers. I've beaten a charge in the last half century for shooting over bait I didn't know about but should've. I also fought a ticket for having one dove over limit and lost.

In this case, when word spread the law was afield, I put down my gun to help my fellows hunt lost birds while my enthusiastic retriever -- a Boykin named Geeche -- stealthily added a bird to the pile I'd arranged for investigating officers.

Don't expect the law to cut you any slack. If there's a ticket in it, they'll write you one. They know outlaw dove hunters will lie to a game warden quicker than to their wives, so your average field cop has heard every alibi that can come out of a human mouth. Judges, too, are apathetic when you blame your dog's accounting. Punctuating with gavel, his honor ordered me to teach Geeche to count and to squat right down there with her to collate the bag -- case dismissed.

The other bust I contested with a gang of indignant politicians, legislators and public officials who demanded a trial by peers. Here's how that one went down: The night before a shoot, my partner, the aforementioned police chief and hunter safety instructor, telephoned the county commissioner who'd invited us to make sure the shoot was legal. No problem, he said.

What he neglected to disclose was that apparently folks invited to the west end of the same 1,000-acre field had been advised to wear tennis shoes and to remove the license tags from their vehicles.

We arrived like vigilantes under the cover of darkness, parking in the commissioner's back yard. From there, he delivered us by flatbed trailer into a six-pivot peanut field already so crowded I had to squat at the fringe as close as the chief would tolerate encroachment. Sunrise revealed the roiling crimson wake of a conservation officer's four-wheeler and a mass exodus from the field to rival the Israelites' flight from Egypt.

I hit the dirt, crawling beneath a low strand of electrified barbed wire into an adjacent pasture, where a gaunt horse grazed. Grabbing a tangle of mane, I was fixing to mount bareback and gallop off into the rosy-fingered dawn when the chief yelled, "Whoa!" He admonished me for conspiring to elude the law, insisting we had nothing to hide. As police chief, he was bound by duty to turn me in anyway.

Meanwhile, the stout corporal in patent leather holster collected a stack of hunting licenses like a canasta deck, deputizing busted public servants to fill out citations until his backup arrived. The chief, seeing he was busted too, was livid, refusing to fill out tickets, even our own. He and other officials were mightily offended. They sought their day in court and I went along for the pageant.

We took lie detector tests to establish intent, and passed. One scapegoat lawyer was tried for our sin of multitudes and found innocent. The offending peanut pile at the other end of the field was called an accidental spill from the combine. Suspects who'd stoically paid fines before the rest of us skated got hot as two-dollar pistols.

I require less policing now than in salad days. Yet, one afternoon last season, hormonally influenced by a sol-lunar zenith, Bailey and I launched my johnboat at a public ramp, visiting a rock quarry I hunted as a kid. As a kid, I climbed the high dunes and eroded cliffs, shooting down on birds swooping into craters for grit or water in a landscape strewn with gaunt machinery like interplanetary insects destroyed in a war of worlds. I pretended I was Flash Gordon hunting on the moon.

A few doves still fly into the quarry to peck among the gravel and sip from standing pools, and they pause on power lines before dropping in. Alone with a deaf dog I was confident of legality for maybe the first time since the invention of pivot irrigation. With birding binoculars, I'd sighted 15 mourning doves beaded along the power line. They looked enough like a necklace of tennis balls to interest Bailey.

We squatted in the narrow shadow of a utility pole where lines joined at right angles. Returning doves lit on perpendicular wires, just out of range. With Bailey sleeping quietly beside me, I cooed seductively until two fluttered over and cuddled up like two sides of the same coin. Sportsmanlike, I considered flushing them, but realized short of infecting them with avian arthritis and giving them the .410, there is no equal contest between man and dove and nothing particularly sporting about maybe crippling one airborne when I can kill two with one shot off a wire.

I propped on the pole and squeezed the trigger, missing them both and waking up Bailey White, who orbited the luna

r landscape looking for tennis balls. I subsequently shot two off the power lines he turned up his nose at. A third he caught on first bounce and ate, gagging it back only after I dropped my scattergun to throttle him with both hands.

By sundown, I'd harvested five -- one I actually hit flying when it flared. We left no cripples.

Back at the ramp, a ranger, having recognized my truck, waited with his clipboard. As smugly legal as any dove hunter ever has been, I was actually glad to see him. My boat registration was current, PFDs buoyant, shotgun plugged. There was even an obsolescent dog whistle in the bilge to satisfy the boat's legal requirement of a noise-producing device to blow with my last breath before submerging to drown.

I know what you're thinking, but some of my best friends really are game wardens, but I wouldn't want my sister marrying one. I'd heap rather see rangers sabotaging bulldozers and central pivot, than pestering a kid and his grandfather on a dove field.

The ranger at the ramp, basically a good man bound into patent leather and a tedious job description, checked my boat for contraband, dope, booze, bait, unregistered handguns and assault weapons -- and asked me if I was still beating my wife. He dutifully reminded me it's unlawful to shoot from a moving johnboat, as if knocking a dove off a power line wasn't challenging enough. He was willing to believe, since I no longer had to pay for it, that in a senior moment I'd left my complimentary license in my other pants. He glanced at the birds in my paper sack without counting them, including the one Bailey minced.

"That the same dog I caught you with that time?" he said, checking out the rabies vaccination.

"Naw, I've had several since then plus a couple of wives I didn't beat."

"We haven't seen much of you lately."

"Ain't that a shame!"

He smiled then, but I was dead serious.

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