Nearly two-dozen pickup trucks, SUVS and passenger cars already lined sand and gravel road. Some that had arrived too late to get a good spot spun around, their headlights turning into taillights as they swapped ends and headed back out toward the gate of the game land to check the status of the other two fields. It was Saturday, Sept. 5, the opening day of dove hunting season. Legal shooting time would arrive about 30 minutes later at exactly one-half-hour before sunrise.
Eventually, all of the hunters spaced themselves out at comfortable distances among the three dove fields at Suggs Mill Pond Game Land. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission hosts permit hunting opportunities for an initial four days of the dove-hunting season at the game land, limiting the number of hunters to 60 in all in order to prevent overcrowding. After those permit-hunting dates, any hunter can hunt the fields on the three-day per week regular game land schedule by purchasing an over-the-counter, small game permit.
“If you get here after sunrise, you will usually be getting here too late,” said Harold Devane, a 61-year-old from Currie who works at dismantling the former Invista plant near Wilmington. “The good spots get taken pretty fast.”
If anyone would know where the good spots are located, it is Devane, who said he had been drawn many times for one of the opening weekend hunts over the past 15 to 20 years that he has been applying for a permit. As the sun grew higher, the day warmed and the shooting grew hotter. Hunters all along the narrow field were taking lots of shots, every five or 10 of which was followed by a hunter walking out into the field to retrieve a dove. However, by 8 a.m. Devane had taken only three mourning doves of his 15-bird bag limit.
“I haven’t seen as many birds as I have in the past seasons,” he said. “But I really came for the fun and to share the day with my friend, who hasn’t hunted with me in a long time. We applied for a party hunt together and got drawn. I twisted his arm and made him do it.”
Devane’s hunting partner was William Rawls, 63, of Ivanhoe, who also works on the Invista plant dismantling project.
“We hunted together for many years when we were younger,” Rawls said. “But, since I hadn’t hunted doves with him in a long time, I thought it would be good to go dove hunting again. I am glad I came.”
Both hunters said they hoped to take home enough to eat. However, the camaraderie was much more important than a meal of dove breasts that weigh a couple of ounces apiece.
“I have only shot three doves, so far,” Devane said. “But I sure have shot plenty of shells.”
Rawls said he had six doves as the result of shooting lots of ammunition. He was shooting a 12-gauge Remington 1100 shotgun loaded with No. 7 ½ shot while Devane was using a Browning A-5 loaded with No. 8 shot.
Staff of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Depot located on the game land near the field where the hunters were hunting had planted and manipulated the crop. Ken Shughart is the crew leader at the depot.
“We planted browntop millet in all of the three fields,” Shughart said. “We mowed strips in the field at the depot a couple of weeks ago. Then, on the Wednesday before the season opened, I burned it.”
Mowing helped to scatter the millet seed and burning exposed the seed even further by separating it from the millet stems and leaves as well as other grasses and weeds. All of the seed spattering the scorched earth made it as easy for doves to find it as it is under a backyard birdfeeder. Manipulation of planted crops in that manner is a legal practice for attracting doves to a hunting area, but not for attracting waterfowl, which are protected with more stringent baiting regulations.
While many hunters had taken enough doves to be satisfied with the morning hunt, including a few who had been good enough shots to have taken their limits of 15, Devane and Rawls decided to take advantage of a space that opened up near the center of the field.
“It looked like they were flying much better over there,” Devane said. “We are going to move to that spot to see if we can shoot a few more.”