October 2009
Happy Hunting Ground

Happy Hunting Ground

As fall approaches, the calendar (certainly not the temperature) tells us dove hunting season is on the way. Being from South Baldwin County, as a kid, dove hunting was about all we had. There was squirrel hunting of course, but there was nothing like a cool crisp fall Saturday afternoon in the dove fields around home.

A bunch of us boys would get together, scrounge up some camo, go to the local discount store and buy some shells, and head out to the freshly-picked soybean fields and start "busting caps." We would go out at about noon, but the birds never really started flying good until around three o’clock. All those years it was stressed on us to try our best to recover a downed bird, no matter where it went. An afternoon of dove hunting usually consisted of a total of about 30 minutes of shooting and hours of looking in the bushes for birds. All that time I was wishing for a good retriever that would not only catch a wounded bird, but could go into the brush and find them. My friends and I were all lucky enough to be able to attend Auburn University together and so when we were all home on holidays, we managed to continue our dove hunting together.

Upon graduation, I went and did the very things my father said most young people do when they are first out on their own, I bought a new truck and a dog. Dad always said we bought the very things we didn’t need.

My dog was a black lab and his name was "Cole." This was possibly the finest animal I have ever owned. I got him in the spring and intended to have him ready for dove season when it arrived in the fall. All summer long, we trained.

I would like to say I trained him, but he had such natural talent, thanks to his genes, I don’t think I had much to do with it. We trained with tennis balls, plastic discs, training dummies and sticks. I read as much as I could about training a retriever. I always quit while he wanted to do more, never letting them get tired of retrieving, the book said. He loved to swim, so he trained some in the Magnolia River.

As summer drew to a close, I decided it was time to introduce him to gunfire. We started with a twenty two and worked up to a shotgun. He did fine.

Finally, opening day of dove season rolled around and it was time to take him to the field. I was able to take him with me on his first trip because, now we all had graduated from college, everyone had jobs, but me. If you forget about that new truck I had to pay for and a few student loans, it was a pretty good life, dove hunting to my heart’s content. I was never able to get my parents to understand.

Cole and I went out that afternoon to see what would happen. To my innocent mind, I thought he would automatically know what was going on, he didn’t. The first birds that flew over in range drew my fire and my dog ran around confused. You could tell, he knew he was supposed to do something but didn’t know what. I would knock one down and then he and I would go and find it. Finally, one bird flew over and he noticed it. He was in a spot where he could see me raise and shoot, and then saw the dove get hit and go down. I saw the light bulb go off in his head. He was a retriever.

That particular bird was one that went down but was crippled. If I had been on-foot after him, I’d have never got him. This was the type all dove hunters will recognize— as you draw near the bird, it manages to take flight and fly about a hundred yards and then land, you approach a second time and he does it again. When I introduced my 11-month-old puppy into the mix, we got the dove. He chased that bird for a good 300 yards and got him. I was worried about what shape the bird would be in when he got back. When I took the bird from him, it was in excellent shape. From that point on, he never missed a bird.

Now this dog was about as goofy as they come, he was always into trouble and I watched him do some really dumb things. There was one time he would get very serious and that was when he started seeing me getting together my hunting gear. He would follow me around and wouldn’t leave. He had a way of looking at you that we called "the pitiful dog look" and with that look he could talk you out of part of your sandwich, part of your candy bar or anything else you had he wanted. Every time I stopped, he would come and give me the look. When I took out my shotgun and worked the action to be sure it wasn’t loaded, ‘ol Cole was headed for the door. When he heard that sound he knew it was time to go hunting and he was ready.

We’d get to the field and he’d stick with me until we got to our stand. The whole time this normally goofy dog was a model of concentration and focus. His eyes had a very serious look as he scanned the horizon for incoming birds. I finally decided he could tell the difference between doves and non-game birds. He never perked up at a hawk, a killdeer, a mockingbird or anything else but doves. As we sat in our blind, he’d watch one direction and I’d watch the other, when I saw some I’d whisper, "Cole, birds." And he would shift to watching them and me.

The only down side to hunting with him was when I’d miss one, I’d get a dirty look from him.

Finally, at the age of ten, Cole went to where all good retrievers go. He had several hundred birds to his credit and some great memories. After I lost him, the fun kind of went out of dove hunting and I almost think I haven’t gone but once since then.

This time of year when dove season is closing in, I sometimes think I’d like to get another dog and try it again, but I’d be expecting him to be just like that last one. I know that’s nearly impossible and I’m not so sure anymore.

On those cool, fall afternoons when Auburn football is on the radio and doves are flying in droves, I sure do miss my black dog. That’ll do Cole, good boy.

Ralph Ricks is the manager of Quality Cooperative, Inc. in Greenville.