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It's not about shooting birds; it's about a day spent with your buddies

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Staff Writer
Austin 360

At dawn, they swoop in from the north, whooshing over the massive hackberry where I am hiding, then low out over the shredded grain field. About 100 yards out, the flight of eight turns in the dim light and heads back toward of a pair of spinning wing decoys.

I slide my right hand under the stock of the little Beretta 686 shotgun, fingers wrap the well oiled pistol grip, thumb under the safety. Slow now. Patience. Doves are skittish, small, fast and agile. Shoulder the gun too quickly, and the flock rockets up and away like a fireworks display.

The aroma of gun oil and Hoppe's #9 cleaning solvent wafts in the warm humid air, evocative and familiar like old men in canvas jackets, saddle soap, dark, heady wine and pipe tobacco.

I travel through time, 50 years and a couple hundred miles to a monstrous white oak near Deadwood in Panola County; across the Sabine River from Carthage. Every Sept. 1, I would stuff my jeans with whatever 12 gauge shells I could find, wade through the knee-high goat weed, ticks and red bugs, and plop down in the dust under that old tree.

Sometimes I was joined by Killis and Mickey LaGrone. It was their family farm; had been in the family for 150 years. Sometimes I was alone.

Not today.

Today, I'm opening the new dove season in an excellent field south of Austin with a longtime friend, Bobby Schmidt, and some of his friends. Bobby is an electrical contractor who leases land around Creedmoor each season for his friends and employees. I'm lucky enough to be invited each opening day, and I've never been disappointed in the company or the shooting.

This first flight is all mourning doves, and as they swing in over my decoys, my eye settles on a single bird, like a lion choosing the one animal in a herd he thinks he can take down. I swing with him, low across the grain stubble and pull the trigger. A single dove drops and rolls to a stop in a little cloud of dust.

One shot, one bird. The national average is seven shots per dove. Why? It's like using a BB gun to try to hit a bottle cap thrown 10 feet away.

From the corner of my eye, I can see Marvin "Shorty" Vaught creep out into the field to pick up a bird of his own. This is a good sign, since his shotgun skills are sometimes suspect, an opinion I shout out as he slinks back to his hiding spot.

It's a running joke with us. I'll point out that he missed — again — and he'll retort, "You don't have to tell the whole world."

It's part of our relationship. It's part of what binds us as hunters and friends. I'm not sure what Shorty does for a living, although it has something to do with heavy equipment, but what links us is the smile on his face and the hunting. Always the hunting.

For the simplicity of the challenge, the friendships and the tradition, I put dove hunting with a fine shotgun and a perfect partner as No. 9 on my list of 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies.

At first, I listed quail hunting, but that's a gentleman's sport, all fancy bird dogs, high-end hunting jackets and oil paintings. I love it, and it may be the upland hunter's highest calling, but dove hunting is more, well, more everyman. A few shells, a shotgun, a public hunting permit, and you're in business.

You don't even have to be good at it to enjoy it. Ask any hunter. Missing is more a part of the experience than killing.

We all fail. But failure in dove hunting is nothing more than having to buy another box of shells, of getting to shoot your shotgun more than everyone else in the field, of having a bruised shoulder to show off if you're 15 and playing high school football.

Failure in dove hunting is the contrast between the years when you "did it" and the years when you couldn't. If the worst thing that happens is a box of empty hulls and a trip to the store for more shells, that's a pretty small price to pay. And there's always the payoff at the end of the day.

I can think of nothing more pleasant or rewarding than sitting around a small fire at the end of a shoot, grilling doves and sharing very cold beers with friends. The smell of the mesquite fire and the crackling of bacon fat vaporizing on orange coals go nicely with the sounds of friends saying nothing.

Nobody has to say anything.

I'm a few weeks short of 62 and approaching 50 consecutive Sept. 1 opening days spent somewhere with a shotgun in my hands. That's 50 years of snapshots and memories — the faces of my friends forever young and hunting sacks always full.

Oddly enough, there aren't any that involve my father or my grandfather. Neither of them dove hunted, though my dad kept pointers for quail hunting when I was small and loved to follow them around a field on a Saturday afternoon. I don't even know whether Dad ever went dove hunting, and I never thought to ask him before he died.

Too often there were very few doves flying when I was a kid, either because it was East Texas and the demise of the family farm had moved the mourning doves elsewhere, or because I had only a couple of hours between twice-a-day football practices and only a few stupid doves were flying between noon and 2 p.m.

It didn't make any difference. Fall in the field. Sliding a load of eight shot down the gullet of a shotgun. Searching. Watchful. Even when we never pulled the trigger, hunting was as much a part of life to us as breathing.

I still see Killis and Mickey all these years later. We still hunt together from time to time, and it's the hunting that is the mortar in the bricks of our relationship.

Lives go on. Parents die. We get married, divorced, remarried. Kids are born and grandkids after them. Running constant through all is the hunting. It was a staple of the dream part of our existence, the unfulfilled potential that often remained unfulfilled but never felt better than when we were sitting under that ancient tree in Panola County.

Generations of hunters sat under that tree. And I hoped generations more would get the chance, but sadly that tree, like many of the hunters it shaded, has died. The next wave will have to find a new Goliath for protection, a mesquite or white oak or hackberry where they can plop down in the dust and cow manure — or on a tank dam or next to a windmill or in a sunflower field — to swat away the flies and gnats with one hand and hold the worn grip of a shotgun with the other. That would be a perfect day.

mleggett@statesman.com