I stood quietly, waiting for enough light to see and already feeling like it wasn’t going to happen today. I wanted this to be the year that I finally get my first real buck, and with a late rut and a favorable weather pattern, this, the first day of rifle season, was as good an opportunity as I could have hoped for. But at first light I already found myself emotionally throwing in the towel. Maybe I was talking myself out of wanting it so much.
The first time I ever entered the woods with a rifle, after waiting all morning I watched a large buck walk towards me, a hundred yards out but in heavy brush. I lined up the sights on my Dad’s Model 94, but didn’t have a clear path. I waited for a better shot, but a better one never came. The deer either sensed my presence or smelled my fear, and turned and swiftly went back the way he came. Ever since that day I’ve been a little bit haunted by my decision. Should I have taken the shot when I had it? Would I feel better if I had taken the shot and missed? Will I ever look at a buck over a rifle barrel again? I would forget all about it for months at a time, but when deer season rolls around I’m haunted, just a little, all over again. And as the sky brightened I could talk myself out of it no more: I did want it.
From my position I had two areas to watch: A creek bed in a wooded area to my left, and a hillside off to the right where deer may come up from a ravine largely hidden from my view. Before dawn, I heard movement from the creek bed so that area was getting most of my attention. Two friends, Ken and Chris, were hunting with me, set up near an adjacent field. Chris had just taken a shot and we were texting back and forth when I looked up and saw a deer on my hillside. I raised my rifle to get a look through the scope and saw a nice rack, maybe eight points. But he had already passed the first perfect backstop unnoticed and was now too near the crest of the hill for a safe shot. My heart was pounding just having him in my scope.
He approached a lone pear tree at the horizon and I watched him, magnified 7X, as he stood on his hind legs and rattled the low branches with his antlers. He then got to work scraping the ground around the trunk. After a few minutes of buck stuff, he did exactly what I needed him to do. He slowly moved left, down the hill, giving me a good backstop. So, heart pounding, arms shaking from excitement, nerves and fatigue from watching him through the scope for several minutes, I pushed the safety forward and tried to breathe.
A hundred and forty yards, I would later pace off, is ninety yards farther than my Winchester Model 70 was sighted in for. I steadied the rifle, put the crosshairs on his heart, let out a breath I had been holding for an unknown span of time, and squeezed the trigger.
The round left my muzzle traveling at about 2,850 feet per second and reached him in a blink. It first took about a pea-sized nick out of the fleshy part of the back of his front leg, then passed about two inches below his chest and buried harmlessly into the soft earth. I cycled the bolt and heard the metallic ting of the spent round ejecting as the next round found the chamber. When I reacquired my target in the scope, he had run back up to his pear tree. He was looking back at where he was standing when I first shot at him, occasionally picking up his nicked leg and shaking it. He was putting weight on it, and I have no doubt he was perfectly capable of running away. If he had run to freedom, we both would have deserved that outcome.
Again he was too high up the hill for a safe shot, there was nothing I could do but wait. As I waited, I watched him through the scope and thought about him. Probably three and a half years old, most likely born not far from where he now stood. He has avoided hunters and motor vehicles and illness. And now his life hinged on which direction he would step next. Up the hill to freedom, or down.
He stepped down the hill three or four steps, and the second shot hit him in the ribs. A bit farther back than I would have liked, but good enough to hit a lung and put him down. My heart was racing still as I took the scope away from my eye and slung my rifle on my shoulder. The distance between us felt like a mile now. As I walked toward him, I felt a flood of emotions all at once. Grateful for the opportunity, and to live where I live, and for my friends who were now driving up the hill to meet me. While part of me is saddened at the taking of a beautiful animal, I am so thankful for this deer that will not only provide food for the table, but will also put to rest some internal doubt. I will honor and respect him the best way I know how, by remembering him at the meals he provides, and by being careful to continue to take the very best shots I can take whenever I’m hunting. They won’t always hit their mark, but I owe it to these animals to try my hardest.
Speaking of respect, two hundred miles south, my good friend Josh Williams was having a special day in the woods as well. Three weeks ago, Josh was hunting on a friend’s land during archery season when he encountered a spectacular beast of a buck, but he, too, decided not to take the shot. His respect for the animal and care to do the right thing was repaid when he returned for opening day of rifle season. He hunted the early morning with no luck, and was calling it a day when he saw the buck again. Less than an hour after I got mine, Josh brought down this beauty. My sincere congratulations to Josh on this well deserved buck. Read more about his outing here, and while you’re at it, sign up to follow Josh’s great blog.
I was about thirteen years old when I tagged along with my Dad for a few days of fishing down in North Carolina. We ended up at some sort of camp with a bunch of his friends, and it was here he told me we were dove hunting that afternoon. When the time came, he brought me to the perimeter of a huge rectangular field and handed me my Remington 870 20 gauge and a box of shells. He turned a bucket upside down and told me to sit there and if a dove comes my way, shoot it. Some other kids and I were at one end of the field, and my Dad and his friends would be at the other. That was the extent of my dove hunting tutorial. Really? People do this? Is this a thing? Or is this a snipe hunting type trick to keep all the kids sitting quietly on buckets for a few hours while the men pile into a pickup and head out to a bar?
Well, it turns out it really is a thing. And that afternoon there was very little bird activity down at the far end, and even fewer birds at the kid end of the field. But in one spirited volley at the far end, dozens of shots were fired at a cluster of birds. Some went down, some retreated over the treeline behind the hunters, and one lone dove flew straight toward me. The shots silenced as he flew out of range of the adults, and I watched him for a while as he approached. I loved the idea of hitting this dove that my Dad and his buddies all missed. This is called, “counting your chickens before they’re hatched.” But I had an easy, low, straight flying bird coming directly toward me. I put the bead on him, waited until I had a nice short shot, and pulled the trigger.
Let me interrupt this story to begin my list of Helpful Hints for the Beginner Dove Hunter:
1. Be aware of the status of your gun’s safety.
In the time it took me to realize the safety of my gun was on, the bird slipped safely and quietly over the tree line behind me. It was the only bird that came my way that afternoon. I unloaded my Remington, put the three pristine yellow 20 gauge shells back in the now full box and closed it and my dove hunting chapter, not to be opened again until almost four decades later. Yesterday.
My friends Chris and Anna invited me to come out dove hunting with their dogs Wyatt and Luna on a stunningly beautiful, blue sky day in rural Virginia. Considering how my first experience went, I was excited to give it another try. We got to the field early and then Billy, the host who set up the shoot, gave us some ideas on good spots. We chose an area where some power lines intersected with a tree line at the far end of the fields. The terrain was brutally difficult to walk in. Deep, irregular mounds and ridges of firm ground – an artifact of a chisel plow early in the season – made it feel like you were walking on bowling balls. But we navigated the obstacle course the several hundred yards with all our gear and set up for the day. Anna was working the dogs and taking photos, Chris and I would be shooting. Here is the spot I chose, some cover of overhanging limbs and plenty of shade, but with a good view of the fields and open sky. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
The gun I brought, a 1952 16 gauge Winchester Model 12, is one of my very favorites. Light and comfortable, the 16 gauge is built on the 20 gauge frame. I’ve often said of this gun that I could shoot it all day long, but on this day I did exactly that. And the simple, brilliant Model 12 design just makes this gun aim where you’re looking the second you throw it up to your shoulder. However, aiming and hitting are two different matters when it comes to dove.
Chris chose a spot more out in the open, sitting against the base of a phone pole about 75 yards away from me to my right. He immediately started shooting single flyers racing by him from behind. Here is Chris and Wyatt with the first bird of the day.
Wyatt making sure I got a good close up before he gave the bird up.
Watching their flight pattern, it doesn’t take long to identify and recognize these birds. We didn’t get any photos of them in flight, but here is a file photo of a common migratory mourning dove. Note the distinctive shape:
Early on I had opportunities but just couldn’t get a handle on shooting these things. Chris’s success, I determined after observing for about ten minutes, was due to better instincts on where to sit and where to watch, faster reaction time, and better shooting than I exhibited.
2. Have better instincts, react faster, and shoot better.
I brought over 100 shells and within the first hour I had burned through maybe 20 and I’m not sure I even scared a bird. Chris graciously let me sit in his spot for a bit, probably to let his gun cool off and give his shoulder a rest, and before long I had another chance. Three doves whipped around the phone pole I was leaning against, I picked one and quickly took two shots at it. Miss, miss. I took my time on the third and connected, downing my first dove ever. Chris is a truly good friend, and he exhibited this with a genuine, spontaneous celebratory outburst when those feathers flew. I know he would have traded all his birds to that point just to see me hit one. Anna brought Wyatt over to find the downed bird in the thick millet and he made quick work of the task. Here we are sharing the glory.
Breaking the ice with this one helped a lot. I felt like I started to shoot better and react better. But I was still leaving a lot of opportunities in the field. Some lessons learned:
3. If you stare too long at one distant part of the field, birds will appear very near you in the other direction.
4. When #3 happens, and people try to bring it to your attention by yelling, “LOOK UP!!”, you would be surprised how vast an area “up” is and how easy it is to not see something there.
5. If you put your gun down to pee, you will miss birds.
6. If you hit a bird on your second or third shell, reload before you go to find it. Doves are watching you, and if they count three shots and don’t see you reload, they will come and land on your shoulder or roost on your dove stool till you get back.
7. When you watch a huge field for doves, your brain will send you some false alarms. Dragonflies look like doves. Butterflies look like doves. Trust me, it happens. I had the safety off and the bead drawn on a big, beautiful orange butterfly half a dozen times.
8. If you switch places with someone because you haven’t seen action in a while and they’ve almost limited out, birds will stream toward your original location like your cooler is the very place they are migrating to.
Luckily there were enough birds around that despite my missed opportunities and missed shots, I was having some success. And having the dogs there to find downed birds was just key. We spoke to some guys on our way out who were shooting a lot of birds but not finding many. We didn’t lose a bird all day. Here is Luna with our first joint effort together.
Anna tucked into the shade and sent dogs as needed.
9. Bring a dog.
Chris, as predicted, got his limit of fifteen birds, and took just under fifty shells to do it. That, from what I know of dove hunting, is pretty fine shooting. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
These dogs worked their butt off in very difficult terrain for a long, warm day. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
As for me, I ended up with seven, and took about 70 shells to do it. Not too bad, considering I burned an entire box before I even hit one.
But more importantly, I had an absolutely fantastic time. Shotgun shooting is my favorite kind of shooting, and dove hunting is as exciting as shotgun shooting gets. It’s really a blast!
10. Don’t get frustrated, everybody misses these birds. A lot. Just remember how much damn fun it is, hit or miss!
I’m exploring recipes, and will do a follow up post on eating these dove breasts. It’s always rewarding to me when a hunt becomes a meal.
I’ve come a long way from that upside down bucket in a North Carolina field a couple hundred yards across from my Dad, watching that solitary bird over the barrel of my Remington as he slipped above the trees. And I think if you told me that afternoon as I placed those three unused shells back in the box that one day I would be writing that in dove hunting I’ve found perhaps my favorite type of hunting, I would have disagreed strongly.
But it’s true. It’s fun, casual, social, challenging, rewarding and exciting. And I can’t wait to do it again.
My deer season began about a week ago when, while hunting on my property I slipped, fell and slid on my ass down an embankment of jagged shale. The slide, which took place as I was stealthily working my way down to a well traveled deer path behind my house, took long enough for me to go through every curse word in my extensive list and part way through the list a second time. When gravity was done with me, I sat on the ground amid crumbles of shale trickling down the embankment around me, and had two immediate concerns: My rifle, and my ass. The rifle, a Winchester Model 70 I purchased after last season and had brought into the woods for the very first time, was slung over my shoulder behind me when I fell. Miraculously, it was not scratched (although the scope was scuffed pretty badly). My ass, I could tell by the excruciating, take-your-breath-away pain, was not as lucky.
I gingerly limped around the woods until dark, but there were no deer to be found. I’m sure my earlier ‘stealth’ sent any deer in the area into the next county. I tried again the next day, and the next, and was starting to feel like that nice deer wasn’t going to come this season. But I have venison recipes I want to try. I bought two extra trays for my dehydrator and ordered four new flavors of jerky seasoning. I needed a deer.
Every evening this time of year, like clockwork right before dusk, between 7 and 12 small deer enter our front paddock nearest our barn, and work their way down the hill where they graze until dark. I’ve watched them for weeks and rarely have seen a medium sized deer, let alone a large one. But I wanted meat in the freezer, so I decided to take out the biggest of the small ones. Last night I took the Model 70 to the far corner of the paddock, hid behind a pine tree and waited.
Right on schedule, they arrived. A few about the size of my dog, Finn, came first. Then some others followed. Darkness was falling, but there were a few still on the far side of the fence I couldn’t get a good look at, even through the scope. I thought one might be larger than the others, so I put the scope on her and waited till I could get a good look. I had just about decided she was the one, when I heard a truck coming down our driveway. Hay delivery. It was almost dark so I had to either take the shot, or wait for another day. I took the shot.
The hay arrived, the deer left, and after an extensive search for any sign of a hit, I determined I just plain missed. As I put the Model 70 back in the safe I looked at that scuffed scope and wondered if maybe the fall knocked it out of alignment. I would have to sight that in before I brought it out again.
This morning, I reluctantly took a backward glance in the mirror to ass-ess the damage from the other day. A shocking, dark, multi-colored bruise had taken over the entire surface of my butt cheek. And every time I sit down I am reminded of my less than successful attempts to stock my freezer with venison. So when I got home from work this evening and saw a couple good sized doe in the paddock, I went to the safe, reached past the Model 70 with the suspect scope, and grabbed my Winchester Model 94. My father’s rifle. Short and thin and heavy, this rifle feels good in my hands. I fed two 30-30 rounds into the loading gate, eased the hammer down and walked outside to the paddock. Five deer had worked their way down the hill, about 75 yards away. They saw me and heard the dogs in the yard but they see people and hear dogs all the time. They were far enough away they were not concerned with me.
Seventy five yards out, with dusk rapidly thickening, I chose the largest deer at the base of the hill. I pulled the hammer back, leveled the sights on her front shoulder, breathed, and squeezed the trigger. With a flash of orange from the end of the muzzle the shot rang out, echoed and faded. As the smoke cleared, the four non target deer bolted toward the woods beyond the fence, and my doe just stood there.
Have you seen movies where someone gets shot and stands there for a moment, before crumpling to the ground in a delayed heap? Yeah, me too. Anyway, after a few seconds, the doe, unscathed, turned to follow the others. But they don’t call it Winchester Repeating Arms for nothing. Sights still leveled on the doe, I pushed the lever forward and heard the hollow, metallic ting as the spent shell ejected and flipped end over end past my right ear. The second round slipped into the chamber as I brought the lever back and my finger found the trigger again with ease. Swinging right to left, the gun felt light and comfortable in my hands. This is a fun rifle to shoot. I squeezed the trigger again. I felt certain this shot was on target.
I didn’t have to wait for the smoke to clear this time. In the dark shadows of the treeline I saw her healthy, white tail bounding innocently through the dense brush. Three shots at two deer in two days, each bullet whistling by their target by a safe and unknown margin. My freezer remains empty, but as I wiped down the Winchester tonight I had to smile. I’ll be glad to get that scope on the bolt action Model 70 sighted in again, Lord knows my eyes need a scope. But it was fun as hell to shoot that old ’94 tonight.