Better Late than Early

The first split gets all the attention, but the second and third splits of the dove season are when the fireworks really fly.

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. — Proverbs 11:2

If the above is true, then I am an extremely intelligent man.

For I have been humbled.

Greatly.

It wasn’t a trial of physical infirmity that brought me to this place.

Nor was it a test of mental acumen.

It was a three-hour stint in a dove field. That’s it.

But I am a changed man, and I have Mark Atwell to thank.

He invited me to one of his Calcasieu Parish dove fields last December to prove a point. Atwell had told me earlier in the year that the best dove hunting of the season — by far — is the late season.

Hunters always get jacked up about the opening day of dove season — and with good reason. The shots fired at doves on the first Saturday in September are the first shots fired in anger after a long, brutal, seemingly interminable summer.

Hunters love fall and winter, and the first day of dove hunting is like a commencement exercise for the cool-weather seasons. The very reports from their gun barrels are like fireworks announcing the dawn of a new year.

For many, it is the most highly anticipated event of the hunting season.

But, Atwell had told me, it isn’t the best hunting of the season. Not by a long shot.

Opening day is good, and on Atwell’s fields, limits are the rule rather than the exception, but if I really wanted to see good hunting, I should return later in the year.

So I did, and my opinion of myself has been knocked down a few pegs ever since.

In the interest of posterity (and because I didn’t want to have to retrieve all the birds I’d kill), I brought my then 7-year-old son Joel along for the ride. We followed carefully Atwell’s directions, and arrived at the field at the 1 p.m. meeting time. The veteran guide and admitted dove nut gave a short safety briefing, and spread out the hunters in the 24-acre field.

Joel and I were in a corner near the intersection of two overgrown fence rows, and Atwell placed himself and his daughter Payton along one of the fence rows about 30 yards north of us.

While walking to our positions, Atwell had expressed concern to me about the low cloud deck that hadn’t been forecast for the area, but was there nonetheless.

“If it’s raining or threatening rain, a lot of times the birds will get in the field early, fill up and go to the roost early to beat the weather,” he said.

That wasn’t exactly comforting, but the air was crisp and cool, and Joel and I were just happy to be in a field with so much dove food while holding a shotgun and a bag full of shells.

“The birds probably won’t start flying until around 3:00,” was the last thing Atwell told us as we headed to our position.

For the next hour, as Joel and I took turns sitting in a camo canvas chair, we both worried Atwell’s concern about the birds abandoning the field early had come to pass. We picked weeds, told stories and ate snacks while we scanned the empty gray skies for the tell-tale flight pattern of a dove — any dove.

Anticipation slowly began to lose the tug-of-war with disappointment, and Joel and I started to wonder if any No. 8 shot at all would pass from our chamber through the end of our barrel.

But then, in a flash, like Mother Nature had opened a giant birdcage to our south, the doves arrived. It wasn’t like anything out of a Hitchcock movie, but a bird showed up, and then another, and then a triple, then a pair, then a flock of about a dozen.

It was a steady stream, and reports began to ring out like a celebratory refrain throughout the field. Some were coming from my gun, as well as Atwell’s. We could easily see him aiming and shooting in the weeds in front of us.

There was a big difference between him and us, however: Atwell’s shots were hitting their targets.

I would pick out a bird flying in a straight line parallel to the fence row — well within shotgun range. I’d swing through it, pull the trigger once, twice, three times, and the bird would mysteriously keep flying.

Within nanoseconds after my third shot, it would be in Atwell’s range; he’d pull the trigger once, and the bird would fold like a KMart T-shirt.

I’m an experienced waterfowler, and have always considered myself handy with a scattergun. But these birds were making a fool out of me — relentlessly.

The more I’d miss, the more frustrated I’d get, and the more I’d press.

And, of course, Joel wasn’t helping matters.

“Aww, Dad, you missed again.

“Look at that, Mr. Mark got another one.

“Dad, when are you going to hit one?”

He wanted desperately to do his best imitation of a Labrador, and all I was letting him be was a lapdog.

But the good news was that the opportunities were nearly endless. With as much lead as I was throwing in the sky, a bird was bound die — if by no other means than a heart attack.

Finally, mercifully, I fired, and a bird helicoptered to the earth. By this point, Atwell was just a few short of a limit.

No joke.

He quickly finished that limit, and returned to a staging area near the road to back-slap a growing group of clients who had also limited.

Meanwhile, I continued scaring the living hell out of bird after bird.

My aim improved marginally as the hunt continued, but my shell supply dwindled. With seven birds left in my limit, I loaded the final shell, and picked out a bird that was rocketing in from the west. I tracked it, raised the barrel, swung through it and fired. The dove did exactly what it was supposed to, and fell nearly at Joel’s feet.

Our hunt was over, but the birds continued to zoom over our heads. It was a wondrous sight that Joel still talks about to this day. He’s been practicing all year with his .410, and he’s eager to have crack at those birds this year.

He figures he can’t do any worse than his old man.

Late-season dove hunting is ridiculously underrated, in Atwell’s view. He likes the tradition surrounding the Labor Day Weekend hunt, and he enjoys the camaraderie and the feasts and foolishness that are always attendant.

But when it comes to pure hunting, the opening weekend isn’t even in the same league as the second and third splits.

“The first season is feast or famine,” he said. “Too many things can go wrong. You have to worry about cool fronts and rain. If you get any type of weather change at all, the birds might leave. Those resident birds are always looking for a reason to move.”

That’s not true later in the year when the resident birds have already flown the coop, and have been replaced by migratory doves.

“In the second and third seasons, if you have a crop, you will have the birds,” Atwell said.

The weather systems that can wreck an early season hunt do nothing but reinforce late-season action, according to Atwell.

“During the second and third seasons, cool fronts don’t hurt you at all,” he said. “You actually want them; the more, the better.”

Once migratory birds find food in a field, they don’t ever want to leave. They’ll skedaddle only if the food resource gets all eaten up or if hunting pressure forces them to look for someplace safer.

Atwell has installed safeguards to ensure neither happens on his fields.

First off, he plants his 300 total acres like he’s a farmer growing a literal dove crop. It starts the last week of May when he sows browntop millet and white proso, and it stretches into the first week of July when he plants sunflowers.

The white proso and browntop millet are timed to begin attracting birds before and during the first season, and the sunflowers are sowed with the second and third seasons in mind.

Atwell knocks down his grain in strips, and only enough to keep the birds in his fields.

“I watch these fields twice every day so I can keep track of what these birds are doing and what they need,” he said.

To keep the doves from being pushed from his fields, Atwell allows only one hunt per week, typically on Saturday, and only in the afternoon.

Doves, he said, will flock to a field after leaving the roost in the morning. They’ll fill their gullets, and then go to grit before returning to the roost for the mid-day hours. Then, around 2 or 3 p.m., they’ll get hungry again and return to the fields for a feast. After stuffing themselves again, they’ll get a sip of water before heading to the roost for the night.

“If you shoot those birds in the morning and in the afternoon, you’re going to push them out of that field,” Atwell said.

He doesn’t ever want to risk that happening because doves are such creatures of habit. For the most part, they’re going to return tomorrow where they found food today.

After a Saturday afternoon hunt, Atwell will return to the field on Sunday or Monday to knock down another strip of grain. Even though the birds had been shot at the previous afternoon, some will return, and those doves will bring some friends.

“Birds attract birds,” he said.

The only time Atwell refuses to knock down a strip of his crop is when it’s raining or threatening rain.

“If you knock it down and it rains, all that seed’s going to do is sprout,” he said.

But during dry conditions, that seeds going to sit on the ground and practically scream at every dove in the area.

And this time of year, there will be plenty around to hear it.

Because of the quality of the action available later in the year, Atwell and other hard-core dove hunters pushed the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission to extend the second split. Last year, the second split was 37 days long; this year in the newly established South Zone, it’s been extended to 44 days.

Of course, since federal guidelines permit the state to have only a 70-day season at a 12-bird limit, those extra days had to come from somewhere.

Atwell wanted the state to take the days away from the first split, but that didn’t prove very popular with some other hunters.

“When I proposed that at the commission meeting, if everyone else there had stones, I would have gotten stoned,” Atwell said. “There’s a great tradition to that first season, and I understand that.”

So instead, the commissioners took the extra days from the third split. Last year, the final split was 24 days; this year, it’s only 17.

The first split is still nine days.

The longer second split will give Atwell and other wing-shooters more days to hunt during the nearly perfect conditions of October and November.

And it will give others of us more opportunities to grow in wisdom.

To schedule a dove hunt with Mark Atwell, call (337) 479-2101.

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About Todd Masson 606 Articles
Todd Masson has covered outdoors in Louisiana for a quarter century, and is host of the Marsh Man Masson channel on YouTube.

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