Sept/Oct 2011Opening Daytext and photos by Kelly Marie Brown
With pen and camera, Kelly Marie Brown captures the scenes and conversations of a cherished Labor Day weekend ritual - opening day of dove season.
"I got seven!" announces eight-year-old Bryson, looking up at Alex, towering above him against a bright blue sky.
"Wow, buddy, seven you say? That's darn good," replies Alex, with authentic enthusiasm.
"Yes sir, but one got away."
And, as is the custom with dove shoots, laughter commences.
It's the first dove hunt of the season - an annual gathering of family, friends, kids and dogs - and one can tell immediately that this is no ordinary hunt. It's more like a Fourth of July party, except, instead of fireworks, the afternoon stillness is punctuated by the steady sound of shotguns firing as participants pit their wing-shooting skills against the lightning fast streaks of brown feathers known as mourning doves. For this most-anticipated event in our household barring Christmas, the excitement of our youngest son can barely be contained. Even though the fields are dusty and the first hunt of the year is typically the hottest, it's the most enjoyable because as Bryson says, "It's Finally Here!"
Just about the time school teachers have memorized their new pupils' names, the questions begin - "Are we hunting birds soon? Is it this weekend? Do I have shells?" - on and on it goes. And then we're there, standing outside the truck, gathering packs, coolers, bucket seats, pup and kids. There are many people gathered at this opening day dove hunt - usually ten to twenty hunters, plus kids, the hunters' better halves and best friends (usually of the furry sort; the best friends, that is, not the spouses). What it really is, is an annual coming together; an opportunity to reconnect with the things, people and traditions that matter most to us down here in the South Carolina Lowcountry. And should you arrive without a child, friend, relative, spouse or pooch in tow, don't worry, you're bound to gain a friend or even figure out you're kin to one of the folks standing around before the day is over. I've seen it happen, not once, but twice. Granted it was a distant relation, but two people who didn't even know each other left the shoot with a new cousin.
But the hunt is what brings us together, and when the call is made to "kennel up" you can breathe in the excitement. Even my heart pounds at the thought of what lies ahead. For most of our group, it's the challenge of getting a limit of the fast-moving birds, but for me it's the photo opportunities. Regardless of the motivation, we all load up without hesitation. Normally, an eighty-year-old man might decline the request to hop on the back of an ATV, but not today. Everyone is ready and willing for their chance to climb aboard and get to their designated spot.
Some hop off with a bucket and gun. Some carry a bucket and a gun with a dog following. Some carry two buckets and two guns. The two-bucket folks are generally the ones with a young son or daughter. Our Bryson has to carry his own equipment. "If you can't tote it, then you're not big enough to use it," says my husband, Angus. Nonetheless, I have seen him carry all of the above, including sleeping child, rambunctious dog and cooler all at the same time.
For a while, it was only us three - Angus, Bryson and me - but now we have Jill, a great bird dog and beloved member of the family. Before Jill, first me, and then Bryson, were the designated retrievers. Bryson loved to tell people this and even got into the habit of lifting his leg on trees like a pup. It took us a while to break him of that habit.
Most dove dogs are very well-socialized. They have to be, because they run free in the field and must have good manners. "Dead bird" lets your retriever locate a fallen bird. The shooter calls out "dead bird, dead bird," as this sort of cheers on the hound (or the Mrs. in some cases) to keep searching until the bird is found. (At least this is my interpretation; it may not be completely accurate.) I always felt like I'd found gold when I located the downed bird.
All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, but that's not the case with opening day hunts. If the pre-hunt gathering is like a festival, then the post-hunt must be Mardi Gras. When the last bird is bagged, the fun is really just beginning. Being "First Man Out" lends bragging rights to the gentleman or gentle woman who limits before anyone else. The funny thing is, the first man out doesn't usually brag at all. It's the men (not the women - factual information here) who burn through two or more boxes of shells that talk the most trash. That's the fun of it though.
Back at the shed, a host of grills are fired up to cook everything from salmon to skewered duck. Coolers, having been unloaded and added to the host's provisions, provide an abundance of beverages for all. Some folks make a casual walk out to their vehicles about every thirty minutes and seem to peer into a secret treasure chest. I don't quite know what they do out there, but they always return with a full cup - probably Gatorade or some other hydrating juice. Dips, desserts and divine specialties are spread out for all to enjoy. No one goes home hungry. There's an abundance of great food provided by host and guests alike. We've taken many different dishes over the years, but I will never forget the time we took liver pudding to a shoot.
We were running short on time, so Angus asked our older son, Saul, to fetch the puddin' in the office refrigerator and bring it to the field.
"You do know what I mean by puddin' don't you son? It's in the fridge on the shelf." Angus swears he asked him this question, but anyone who's raised a teenager knows we're lucky he heard a word. Instead of grabbing the liver pudding that his daddy had purchased solely for this hunt, he quickly gave up the search when he didn't see pudding in a cup with a peel-off lid and opened the freezer. There he found chocolate sundae ice cream cups. "Voila, this must be what Dad meant," I can hear his brain saying. And chocolate sundae ice cream cups are what he delivered to us. They were half melted when he arrived, but the kids ate them, and so did Rusty Purdy, who is a child at heart. While Angus was not pleased at the thought of disappointing our host - on the ready with crackers and capers to go with the liver pudding - we did laugh quite a bit at the confusion. To avoid mix-ups like this in the future, we now say "puddin' " and "pudding" with so much emphasis on the "g" we sound like foreigners.
Hunting and half-thawed pudding cups may not go together, but dove hunts and people do. These hunts allow people from all over to gather and catch up on what everyone has been doing. Over the years, the late Dr. Harrison Peeples invited so many physicians from MUSC here to hunt in the Lowcountry that, even now, most of them remember "the back way" to his various hunting spots. Dr. Lee Arnett comes down from Spartanburg to visit his beautiful daughter Liz and his grandchildren, and to hunt with his son-in-law. Dr. Lowrey King drives down to hunt with friends and with his father, who retired from the practice of law in Jackson, Mississippi, at the age of eighty and now lives here. During one hunt this past year, I was able to photograph three brothers hunting with their father, an event that had not occurred for many years.
By the end of the day, the young boys and girls who shyly greeted each other in the morning have become fast friends. Just like the older folks, they're making those "remember that time" kinds of memories that will bind them to each other in years to come. It's these kinds of memories, the ones that live on in your mind and make you smile the moment you recall them, that embed in a person's heart the desire to care for the land. It's these memories that give us the desire to preserve our right to hunt and the joy we get from serving what the land provides to our loved ones for supper. It's why we bring along our own children and grandchildren so that they, too, can make these good memories for themselves.
But it isn't just fond memories that are being created, it's also a conservation ethic that will sustain future generations.
"Hunting and conservation go hand in hand," says Dr. Skeet Burris of Cypress Bay Plantation.
Dr. Burris believes what he says and has practiced it by placing acres of his property under conservation protection. The good doctor holds hunts at Cypress Bay that benefit various charities. He has won numerous forestry and conservation awards for his hard work. He gives tours of the property showing what his hard labor has produced and educating the young and old on proper land management. He has fond memories of hunting as a child, and has made many lasting memories while hunting with his four sons and now our sons, too. And for us, this is what it really comes down to: the belief that bringing our children up in an environment that values the outdoors fosters concern for the fields and the birds and animals we find there, and the desire to preserve that legacy for future generations. It is a part of us, and we look forward to the yearly celebration of our chosen way of life.