It's a sunny, breezy, beautiful September day and Iím sitting on a five gallon bucket in a sunflower field in west Tennessee with my husband, our two Boykin spaniels and my brother-in-law beside me. All the time I've spent learning to shoot and training my dog is about to come together in that quintessential rite of fall: opening day of dove season.
As we waited for the doves to start flying, I reflected on the course of events that had brought me here today. The first dog in our marriage was Claude, a handsome standard poodle who, despite my best intentions, decided that he preferred my husband's company. Not that my husband was looking for the company of a standard poodle, mind you.
"Sugar, we need to get a 'little dog' for you," my husband, Welch, said - and we began the search. While at the park one day, we met a Vanderbilt student with a 14-week old Boykin spaniel. I was quite taken with the pup and through subsequent research learned that the Boykin spaniel is a multi-purpose hunting dog that easily makes the transition to family pet.
While searching for a puppy, I determined that I wanted to stay true to the breed standard and find one whose parents had been actively hunted or trained. When I finally persuaded Pam Kadlec, owner of Just Ducky Kennel, to sell me a Boykin spaniel puppy, it was with the promise that I would work to enable Just Duckyís First Edition "Edie" to fulfill her potential in the hunt field or in hunt tests.
"You always hear those jokes about a husband giving his wife a shotgun for Christmas, but thatís what really happened in our household."
"Have you ever training a hunting dog?" asked Welch. I had to admit that I had not, but with the blind optimism of the ignorant I ventured forth. What I didnít know was how hard it was going to be to train a gun dog in an urban setting. We persevered, and since that time Edie and I have participated in a number of UKC hunt tests and earned our first hunting retriever title. But as I would quickly find out, a hunt test is a controlled environment meant to simulate hunting conditions... not the real thing.
You always hear those jokes about a husband giving his wife a shotgun for Christmas, but thatís what really happened in our household.
While attending a flushing dog seminar in South Carolina, I learned that our friend, Bill Crites, had won a 20-gauge Citori Grade III Lightning with 26-inch barrels at a Ducks Unlimited fundraiser. After putting a box of shells through it, he decided that it just didnít suit him. Before the seminar ended, he waved me over to the back of his truck and pulled out the prettiest shotgun I'd ever seen. The receiver was engraved with quail and grouse and the walnut stock had a glossy finish.
"Heard you and Welch were looking for a gun," he said.
"Now Bill," I replied hesitantly, "you know Iíd have to talk with him about a major purchase like this. Besides, I really should try it out, too."
"Don't worry, Anne, we'll take it to the field this afternoon after the seminar ends and let you see how it feels. You know that if y'all donít want it you can just bring it back to me the next time youíre in South Carolina."
That afternoon I shouldered the gun and knocked down a couple of slow flying pigeons left over from the seminar. You can see where this was going. As I later told a friend of mine, "Itís pretty and I can hit things with it."
Back in Nashville the next day, Welch was unloading the truck when I heard him call out, "I didnít know you took a shotgun with you." Approaching him, I eagerly recounted the provenance of the shotgun - complete with the tale of my shooting prowess - all the while assuring him that I had brought the gun home on approval.
Later in the week, Welch called Bill to discuss terms of the sale. "Bill, you sent my wife home with a shotgun home to try? Have you ever sold used cars?" Chuckling, Bill confirmed that he had indeed sold a car or two. Ultimately the shotgun went under the Christmas tree with the promise of a bird hunt in my future.
Over the holidays we took my new shotgun home to Brownsville to show my brother-in-law, Jim. He has made a study of shotguns and was quite complimentary of our purchase. "Sis, the Ďstickí is too nice for that gun. Don't get me wrong, a Grade III is a fine gun, but this stock belongs on a gun costing thousands more."
It was some time before I fully grasped his appraisal of the stock. The tiger striped walnut was exquisite, more like a piece of fine furniture than a gun stock. When placed along side other guns, it shone... and it was mine. With a flushing spaniel and no desire to duck hunt, we had surely found my ideal gun.
I grew more and more excited as the opening day of dove season approached. This year we were invited to a dove shoot in west Tennessee and I was taking my retriever and my new shotgun. I just hoped not to embarrass my dog or myself.
The first dove shoot of the season is as much a social event as it is a bird hunt and the cultivation of a dove field is a matter of pride. The rotating schedule of dove shoots and the inviting of participants is akin to lining up a dance card for the prom. Our hosts, Bill and Allen Currie, had spent the summer tending two adjoining sunflower fields of approximately 15 acres each and they were eager to show them off.
On the appointed afternoon, everyone gathered at the headquarters of the West Tennessee Field Trial Association in Haywood County. Our field vehicle is a gas-powered golf cart and with it perched in the back of the pick-up truck our arrival was quite a sight! "Welch, we're hunting, not playing golf!" called Bill Currie. After a barbecue lunch, everyone spent time catching up on the summer's activities, admiring new babies, watching the children ride four wheelers and generally relaxing.
As we all packed up to head for the dove field, the ribbing from the four-wheeler crowd was unrelenting. Then they watched Welch load his wife, two dogs and their dog boxes, two buckets, two shotguns, a shell bag and a cooler on his little golf buggy. One trip to the field and we were all set while they were still ferrying supplies! Of course, I thought we looked like the Clampets, but that was beside the point.
"Finally at around 4:00 PM the doves started flying. Watching them dart about the skies reminded me of seeing the Blue Angels executing practice maneuvers over the Gulf at Pensacola."
Our hunting conditions that day were better than we had seen in weeks: the 95 degree heat wave had broken, the humidity was low and there was even a breeze. According to the regulars, I didnít know how good I had it. Once we unloaded in the field, I turned to Welch to get my pointers on field etiquette. Iíd been to the skeet range and also shot sporting clays, but this was a whole new experience.
There were about a dozen guns in our field and I was glad that there was a gentle rise down the middle. For the first time out it would have been a little disconcerting to be staring across the field at the other hunters.
Finally at around 4:00 PM the doves started flying. Watching them dart about the skies reminded me of seeing the Blue Angels executing practice maneuvers over the Gulf at Pensacola. Many a time I had a dove in my sights only to fire and watch it fly away unscathed. What a humbling experience.
Edie and I were so excited that for awhile we seemed to forget everything we knew. I kept trying to remember my shooting lessons and follow through on my swing while reminding Edie to stay "steady". Edieís first few retrieves were ragged because with all of the gunfire she would forget to watch my gun and we would have to go out in the field together to find and retrieve the bird.
As the afternoon wound down and the doves got scarce, hunters began to ease out of the field. Jim packed up and headed in while Welch and Cocoa went into the brush behind us to look for a lone bird that had gone down. With Edie sitting quietly at my side, I sighted a dove crossing left to right at about 25 yards, took aim and dropped it cleanly. Edie marked it beautifully, released on command and neatly delivered to hand. Wow, what an experience! I realized then that there is no finer, more enjoyable partnership than that between a hunter and a working dog in the field. This hunt won't be our last... I'm hooked!