Sunday afternoon was hot and dry; the dust rolled up in waves from trucks arriving at the field. People began to scatter while heading to their spots for the afternoon shoot. Mourning doves rolled up out of the sunflowers, early birds hungry for seed. It wasn’t long before the first shot echoed across the field at just after 2 p.m. and another season was on. “Low bird!” Heads swiveled quickly at the cry to follow the flight of a pair of birds just skimming the ground. No one fired at them and followed the rules of the hunt.
Without a doubt, the longest stretch of time for a hunter in Mississippi occurs between the end of turkey season in early May until the opening day of dove season in September. You try to fill the time with distractions, backyard cookouts, baseball games, a fishing trip here and there and a golf tournament with good friends; or a vacation to the beach with the family, perhaps. But they are all just things used to kill time until the sweet smell of gunpowder fills the air again and a six-ounce gray rocket brings frustration and excitement all in the same moment.
Mourning doves are the most populous game birds in America and some of the most fun to hunt. The season doesn’t require hunters to freeze half to death the way many mornings in a duck blind require. Sitting alone for hours on end, as the white-tailed deer demands, is not necessary, and friends and family are all welcome. The weather is warm, the camaraderie is second to none, and there is college football to watch after the hunt is over. Most hunts include a cookout either before or after and the beverages are always cold and enjoyed.
The Mississippi Delta is home turf for hundreds of thousands of mourning doves. Ken McGarrh of Merigold in Bolivar County is a trophy deer hunter, turkey fanatic and occasional duck chaser. He has been hunting since childhood and has many trophy animals to his credit, including more than 50 Eastern turkeys with a bow. But when the first day of September rolls around, he can always be found in a dove field. “I invite many friends and family to hunt my place during opening weekend every year,” he says. “I plant sunflowers specifically to attract birds to fields in several locations so we don’t put too much pressure on the birds. I always try to make sure everybody has a good time on the hunt.” Ken makes sure it is a family affair. “I tell everybody that their kids are welcome. I hunt with my son and daughter, as well. My wife comes too; I just make sure I try not to hunt too close to her so she won’t embarrass me by shooting better than I can,” he says with a grin.
Food is also a vital part of Ken’s hunt. He doesn’t do the cooking but he is lucky enough to have some close friends who are more than happy to take on that chore. One of these guys is Craig Verhage, a DeSoto County transplant who attended Delta State and fell in love with the area. Craig is a champion barbeque cook out of Yazoo City but he chooses a different specialty for the dove hunt, frying crappie. “I love to catch crappie as much as I love to cook,” he says. “I and some of the other guys save up fish all year to fry at Ken’s house before the hunt. We throw some fries and hushpuppies in, as well, and everybody has a great time.”
Another of Ken’s chefs is Eddie Vaughn, a lifelong resident of Cleveland. His contribution comes in the form of mouthwatering racks of slow-cooked ribs. “I quit dove hunting years ago — I just can’t hit them,” Eddie says. “But I still want to be a part of the action. I have an old Coke box converted into a smoker that allows me to cook many racks of ribs at one time. I will start cooking ribs early on the morning of the hunt so they will be just right around noon.”
Once everyone has eaten their fill, they start to strategize before the hunt. Like ducks, doves have preferred flight lines they like to follow. One of Ken’s best fields is surrounded by tall trees on three sides. “The doves like to fly into this particular field through gaps in the trees. The only problem is that they are on you very fast and you can’t see them many times until they are past you. I tend to stay out in the open end so I can see them coming,” he says while loading his shotgun into his truck. “Once doves are fired upon though, a lot of their patterns change, so I just tell everybody to go where they want and keep a safe distance between each other. If the doves are there, limits are easy to come by. Easier for some than others,” he says half-jokingly.
There have been some changes over the years to Delta dove hunting, caused by a shift in crop selection from cotton to corn and soybeans. This makes it harder to concentrate doves in an area because of the abundance of waste grain around after harvest. Todd Oglesby is a fourth-generation farmer who lives south of Greenville near Lake Washington. He hosted a hunt for many years but has quit due to work constraints. “I used to plant sunflowers like a lot of other folks and invite a good crowd to come and hunt,” he says. “Now I am usually in the middle of harvesting my corn and just don’t have time to fool with it. We never picked cotton before mid-September in the past, so my dad and I had time to play hosts.” Would he ever entertain holding a hunt again? “Well, I guess you never know. The price may come back strong in cotton and we would plant that again. Then I would have more time to make it happen.”
Soon, the leaves will start to change color and the northern winds will blow them from the trees. Pumpkins will be carved and hunters will shift their focus to deer and waterfowl. But on September 1st, it is all about a quick darting bird and the sound of laughter rolling through the Delta. It’s about the hope that a bird will swing your way and your aim is true. It’s about the beginning of the hunting seasons and the anticipation and wonder of what they will bring.
Opening weekend in the MidSouth
Story and photos by John Gordon