A dove darted above a ragged field, looking for a safe spot to land.
One of the favorite foods of a mourning dove is sunflower seeds and multitudes of them were scattered throughout the checkerboard pattern of pathways mowed through the tangle of sunflowers, morning glory vines and dog fennel.
A shotgun fired. The dove fell, leaving a trail of feathers sifting down from the sky in its wake.
Firing the shot was Allen Rippy Jr., 36, who is president of Rippy Cadillac in Wilmington. Marking the dove’s fall were two small boys who were sitting with him. They were learning gun safety, carrying only their BB guns. The kids set down their air guns and headed through the sunflowers, which towered high above their heads.
At the beginning of their trek through the sunflower jungle, the boys were laughing and giggling, caught up in the excitement of the grownups because it was opening day. However, as they began searching for the fallen dove without success, their mood became more serious and they grew quiet.
“There it is,” said Rippy. “See the dove at the edge of the sunflowers?
“Look for the feathers and you will see it.”
His son, Allen Rippy III, 6, walked over to pick the bird up. Pinching its wingtip in one hand, he carried the dove back to his father. Then he again took up his vigil, sitting beside his friend, Patrick Mills Jr., 5, who is from Raleigh.
Mills is the nephew of Richard Edwards, whose family hosted the hunt. The Edwards family owns the Mill Pond Hunting Club, which is located in Columbus County.
Edwards, 36, of Wilmington, works in sales and distribution of health care products and serves on the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. He was in charge of planting the corn and sunflowers that attracted the doves as well as other game for the hunting seasons. He also bought a lifetime hunting license for Patrick, his nephew.
“We don’t have as many doves this year as we have had in the past couple of years,” Edwards said. “The recent weather changes have moved the birds. I’ve been hearing reports that they have moved into some areas of the Piedmont to get away from all of the wind and rain on the coast.”
That is why the sport is called hunting, not shooting. That is a traditional hunter’s saying that often applies when describing a hunt for a game bird that migrates thousands of miles. Hunters take the majority of annual harvest of the small, gray birds during the first week of the dove season, which opened Sept. 1. The bag limit is 15 birds and shooting hours are from 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset.
“I don’t hunt on opening day,” Edwards said. “I ride around the fields in a golf cart with a cooler in the back, making sure everyone is having a good time. I give out cold water and lemonade to keep the hunters hydrated. It is growing hot fast, now that the sun is coming up over the trees.
“What I like the best about opening day is seeing all the kids in the field, having fun. They are the future of hunting and conservation. One day, they will bring their children along.”
The two young hunters returned to their seats. Rippy Jr. reminded them to keep their BB guns pointing in a safe direction. All around the field, hunters, who had been scattered 50 to 100 yards apart, began moving closer to one another. They collected in pairs and small groups to take advantage of the scant shade offered by a few trees and buildings as the morning flight tapered off.
Rippy Jr. and his young charges stuck it out, hunting most of the morning, until they, too headed for the cool comfort of the shade beneath the cypress and oak trees at the clubhouse to share a brunch of pork barbecue.
“I shot my limit,” Rippy Jr. said. “The boys had a great time and learned a lot about hunting and safety. My father has been taking me hunting with him since about their age and I’ve always loved it, so I’m passing on the tradition.”