Opening Day Dove Hunts Rich With Southern Tradition

A page from the journal of Trey Luckie as he outlines his opening-day dove shoot with family and friends.

Trey Luckie | August 29, 2023

Author Trey Luckie (left) and hunting partner Nate Wilson after a successful opening-day dove hunt in Ben Hill County in 2019.

I watch the green glow of the numbers on the bedside clock and know that I will sleep no more on this morning. I carefully slide out of bed so as not to disturb my bride or the little brown bird dog that sleeps curled up in the crook of her legs. Today is the opening day of dove season, and as I celebrate my 50th year around the sun, I find myself in a nostalgic mood.

As the smell of fresh coffee fills the kitchen, I decide to take my mug and walk out to the patio to watch the sunrise on this fine September morning in south Georgia. There is the slightest scent of fall as a recent unexpected cold front has blessed us this week. For the first time in years, opening day will be cool and crisp instead of unbearably hot. I’m sure it will not last, but on this opening day, it’s a blessing.

I make my way back inside to start preparations for the day. As I open my hunting closet to retrieve one of my many sets of camouflage, I hear a set of paws hit the hardwood floor down the hall. My Boykin spaniel, Zeta, has decided to leave the comforts of her master’s bed to investigate what I am up to. Her little tail starts to wag as she sees me in this closet holding this particular pair of clothes. She knows. That always amazes me! It has been a long seven months since our last hunt, but she is starting to bounce up and down in anticipation of doing what she was born to do. I get dressed and take her outside to enjoy the cool morning.

As Zeta inspects the yard for early morning squirrels, I make my way out to the shop for the second part of today’s preparations. I open the door to find my transportation for the day. The Polaris Ranger sits patiently waiting for me to load it down with everything that I will need for today’s hunt. I gather up my stool, blind and cooler and place them in the back. I make sure my ammo bag is filled properly as I also check the bag for the dog’s water bowl, sunscreen, paper sacks and my shell bag. I fill the cooler with ice, drinks, water for me and the dog, and even a few beers buried at the bottom for what hopefully will be an after-the-hunt celebration with good friends. I attach my gun racks on each side of the Polaris bed and declare myself ready for action. As usual, I’m ready entirely too early.

The plan is a good one. It is dinner on the grounds today to kick off our favorite hunting season. Everyone in our hunting party will meet at the Brown farm for lunch and social time before the actual hunt. We were told to meet at the shop at 12 p.m. I was packed and ready to roll at 8 a.m. I’ve always been a little anxious. Some may call it impatient. I whistle to Zeta as I head back in the house. She looks at me with confused eyes as if to say there are no birds in there. I assure her that we would indeed be hunting today and convince her to follow me with promises of breakfast and a treat.

With my second cup of coffee in front of me and in an effort to make the clock move faster, I take the time to remember some of my opening day memories of the past.

My family has a steep tradition of wing shooting, so it has always been a priority for us. My grandfather was an excellent dove hunter. As a farmer, he would prepare fields for his annual dove hunts. I remember sitting on the stand with my dad and sharing the same field with my uncles and cousins each year. I remember other opening day hunts in my own hometown on farms that belonged to great men by the names of Woody, Johnny, Ray, Jim and Wilkie. I was very fortunate to have hunted on some great properties over the years, and I am a better man for being around the farmers that farmed them.

I recall hosting my own opening day hunt once while I lived and worked in Statesboro. I had access to a small farm and invited my best friend and fraternity brother, Allen, and a few others to join me. Allen made the trip to Statesboro, and we still talk about that hunt to this day. Soon I am at the bottom of my current cup, and my bird dog is napping at my feet under my chair. It is only 8:30.

My wife makes her way to the kitchen, although I’m not sure if she was looking for me or the dog. She sees I am already fully dressed, rolls her eyes and retreats to the bedroom. My daughter dares not to stir this early, as pre-noon sunlight has some sort of adverse effect on teenage girls. I miss my son. Away at college, he had informed me the night before that he would not be making the trip home for opening day. His fraternity was having a function and he really felt like he needed to attend. I understood but tried not to show my disappointment. I am very proud of him and look forward to hunts that we will share over the upcoming holidays.

I decide to call my dad. He has also been fully dressed in camo since daylight and all his gear is packed in his truck. He is an elder statesman in our hunting party and very well respected as stories of his legendary shooting ability always seem to come up when our group gets together. Kacey likes to remind everyone that he once saw my dad shoot a dove from his hip with one hand because his other hand was full of three birds he just picked up. My dad is now 74. I know that we don’t have as many hunts left to share together as we once did, so I’m going to cherish the ones we have left. I can tell that the cooler weather has him excited. I tell him I will meet him there at 12, knowing full well that he will be there by 11.

I somehow make it to 11:15. Zeta follows me into my office once again and realizes that this time may be for real. The electronic collar that has been on charge lays on my desk and flashes green dots at me to let me know that it is ready for action. As I reach for it, Zeta jumps in my chair and waits for me to put it on her. I pull the remote on over my head and then head for the gun cabinet to carefully select my weapon for the day. Will it be my Browning A-5 for old time’s sake? My high school graduation present has served me well over the years, but I have gravitated toward the easier shooting gas models lately. As soon as I make my choice and the Browning Silver is in my hands being brought out of my grandfather’s old gun cabinet, Zeta starts barking, whining and running for the door. Tail wagging is set to 100. I kiss my wife goodbye for the day as she tells me to watch after her puppy dog. I load up my gun in the rack, and that amped-up puppy dog and I begin the 10-mile ride through farm country to meet our friends at the Brown Farm.

The Brown Farm has been farmed by three generations of Browns. Kenny, although he still works every day, has turned over more of the operations to his son, my friend Brent. Brent organizes all the hunts, and over the past few years our hunting party has turned into a gathering of fine friends as we have watched all our boys, and some girls, grow out of one size of camo and into the next.

As I pull into the drive that leads to the main shop, I can already see the smoke from the grill. Another thing I quickly notice is although I’m impatiently early, I’m not the only one. Front and center is my dad’s truck, but scattered all around are several UTV’s loaded to the brim and the kids are already shooting plastic bottles with their BB guns. I catch up with my friends that are there and start the usual conversation. Which field are we shooting? Have y’all watched the birds? How many were in the field yesterday? Got a spot picked out yet? That question always gets a response from Dad and Kenny. Something along the lines of “Y’all can sit anywhere but that shade tree! That belongs to us!”

My buddy and hunting partner Nate arrives with a new hunting partner of his own. Nate is breaking in a new labrador retriever, and this will be his first hunt. Coal is beautiful, black as his name’s sake, and big. Nate and I do a lot of hunting and fishing together, and today will be no different. Although we both want the other to be successful in the field, we are also both competitive. We will sit next to each other and race to the limit as we see who will have bragging rights at the end of the day concerning who shot the best or whose dog deserves to be in the next issue of Gun Dog magazine.

My friend Hal pulls up. Hal has the uncanny ability to arrive exactly 30 seconds before someone yells, “Let’s eat!” The lid to the grill is opened, grace is said, and the line forms at a table full of all the fixings for a good southern Bar-B-Q. The adults get awfully quite as we enjoy the treat, while the kids are still running around ignoring their father’s request to please eat something. I think I saw one of them grab a piece of white bread. A radio is turned on and the search begins for a college football game. Even though the game is playing in the background, we don’t pay much attention to it. Instead, we sit together and talk about previous hunts or hunts we plan on sharing in the future. We also talk about farming, local politics and barber shop gossip. As the conversation is flowing, I take a minute to look around and take inventory of who all I have the pleasure of sharing this day with. A dove hunt has always been my favorite gathering of folks.

Zeta, the author’s Boykin spaniel, is on full alert during a dove shoot in Ben Hill County.

A lone shot is fired. Some of the kids got an early jump on the rest of us and have been patiently waiting for their season to start as they sit on their hand-me-down dove stools at the far corner of the corn field. That shot brings all of us old guys back to reality and I feel the anxiousness start inside me once more. Everyone is now in motion as my anxiety must have been contagious. I ask Dad if he is ready, and he said that he is going to sit right up here next to the barn in these shady pecan trees and kill them as they fly over. It’s a tactic that has worked for him before and one I notice he uses more and more the older he gets. I can’t help but wonder if that skin cancer he had removed last year worries him more than my hero is willing to let on.

It’s a big field with a wooded branch on the north end, peanuts on the west side and pastures and ponds covering the south and east sides. The pivot was positioned in the middle of the field running east and west. Prime spots for sure, but not where I want to be. I want to be on the south end. Years of shooting on this farm have taught me that these birds like to fly from the south across a small pasture and pond. They will also fly over the barn and shops from the southeast, which makes Dad’s choice of stand not only a convenient one, but a smart one. It narrows up on this end of the field, so there is room for three stand locations to be spread along this fence line. Nate and I have two of them. We each unload our gear, disperse Mojo decoys, put up blinds and drive our UTV’s to the southwest corner of the field to be hidden by a pump house.

It won’t be long now as the football game is easing into the fourth quarter, and I can hear birds cooing in the nearby trees. Zeta lets out a little whine to let me know she see them before I do. I follow her gaze to the southeast and see a puff of feathers, and at the same time, I hear the report of the shotgun. Dad eases out of his shady confines next to the barn and retrieves the first kill of the day. The other two birds make their way into the field and are met with guns blazing as they dive and dart only to make it about halfway across before being brought down. The birds are starting to come in groups of twos and threes. They are crossing from east to west following the pivot line just as you would expect.

People are yelling out information like, “Jason, over you”, “Chico, to your left”, “Low bird kids, don’t shoot!” It’s like music to my ears and an old familiar song at that.

Scanning the south, I see a group of four doves heading our way. Will they fly over me, split us on my right or left, or turn the other way all together? Fly over me it is, and my season starts with three quick loud pops from my Browning, the smell of burnt gun powder, and two dead doves hitting the laid over corn stalks. Zeta makes quick work of both retrieves and we are on our way. The birds are coming at a steady pace. It’s not a barrel burner, but it’s exciting enough that you must stay on your toes. Everyone is getting their share of shooting, and I guarantee there will be a fine dove supper one night later this week.

With my bird sack starting to fill up, I look up to see a single coming from the pasture. He decides to try the path directly between Nate and me. We both take aim, and both fire at the same time. It was one of those situations where you really don’t know who killed the bird. Our dogs didn’t know either and they both break full speed to do their job. As 80 pounds and 25 pounds converge on the same target, time stands still for the both of us. Zeta and Coal meet at full speed with Zeta flinching at the last minute to catch Coal in the bottom ribs with her front shoulder as she slides under and past. Coal’s huge puppy paws are taken out from under him, and he hits the dirt. It scared them so bad that they just stand there for a moment before they both high tail it back to our blinds, leaving the bird where it is. Once we figure out that they are both ok, Nate and I share a laugh and then argue about who would pick up the bird because neither dog was interested in making that trip again.

I need one more chance. I have 14 birds in my sack, and I really want to get my limit. Yes, this has already been a special day, but I still have competitive juices that are flowing. Nate is still shooting, although I know he is close to the limit, as well. I want to get there first. I hear Dad shoot from the pecan trees and see two birds headed my way. As they swing by me on the left side, I pick out the rear bird and fire my shot. He tumbles to the ground as his partner continues to swing left as he tries to leave the field from the direction he came. There is only one problem for our feathered friend. That move puts him in Nate’s path, and he doesn’t get a chance to make his exit. As both dogs make retrieves, this time in opposite directions, I look at Nate and know. We both have 15 and our hunt has ended at the exact same time. It is only fitting that it did!

We sit on the back of the UTV’s next to the little pump house and watch the kids and others as they continue to shoot. I remember being one of those kids and thinking that I never wanted a bird shoot to end. My buddies and I would always be the last hunters in the field, only giving up when that pickup truck pulled up to your stand with your dad telling you it was time to go before your mama skins us both alive. We are perfectly content to sit back and watch the rest of the show. Both dogs are tired and are happy to lay in the late afternoon shade provided by the undercarriage of the buggies. Zeta has once again proven that she is better than what her owner deserves, and Coal has shown signs of greatness as he continues to learn the game. It has been one of those great opening days, and I’m glad that two good friends can soak up these moments as we watch the sun getting low on this cool September day. I reach deep into the cooler and fish out two beers. As Nate and I take the time to toast the day’s success, I once again wish it wouldn’t end.

We make our way back to the barn to join all the others coming in from the field for a mandatory recap of all the day’s events. Kids are telling stories about all the birds they killed or missed, while the dads are complaining about how much the shells cost that were shot in that .410. The conversations last until the early evening when everyone had to concede that the perfect opening day has indeed come to an end.

As I helped my dad load everything in his truck, I finally asked him if he had any success sitting up here at the barn. He said that he killed enough for him and mama to have a mess. Then with his big mischievous grin said, “more than once!” I knew then that he had also reached his limit for the day and showed not one little sign of a sunburn. I still have a lot to learn from this man.

Fifty opening days in this lifetime. I wish I could get 50 more. I know that will not happen so I will be content to try and make every opening day as special as this one has been with the time I have left. Hopefully, my dad will continue to be in good health and join me for a few more years. Hopefully, my son will finish college and live close enough to make an annual trip home the first weekend of September and continue this family tradition. Hopefully, Nate and I will continue to sit on those tailgates with two good dogs and share that late afternoon beer reflecting on another successful hunt. Yes, it has been a good day. Opening day always is. Now all I must do is wait until next year!

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  1. buddy burns on August 29, 2023 at 11:37 am

    Truly A Great Article !

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