Duckin and Dovin at the 74 Ranch

Best I remember, it was a cold, dreary day a few Januarys ago at the 74 Ranch in South Texas. Winter dove season had begun, and my son Brian was coming down to hunt with me for a few days. I had been checking the lakes for ducks and driving all over the ranch looking for a concentration of doves, but no luck. 

Dean Olson, one of our students, had called and asked if he could come down and get a lesson while I was at the ranch. While driving around the sporting clays course planning my lesson with Dean, I stumbled into a flight of mourning doves. I watched as they flew across stations 12, 13, and 14 on the sporting clays course. I checked my watch; it was 2:30. The birds were flying north to south, landing in a corn field that had recently been plowed. I decided to sit there and watch the birds for a while to see how many there were and to pattern them, so when Brian arrived, we could come back and hunt them.

Brian arrived that afternoon in time for dinner. I told him about the doves I had found and that there were plenty of ducks for us to chase. We had not had many ducks earlier in the year, but the weather had finally gotten cold and rainy enough to push some down. In fact, Dean had asked if he could sneak in a duck hunt while he was at the ranch for his lesson. I told him I would try to hook him up with the head duck guide at the ranch, Gary Lamell. I mentioned to Brian that we might tag along with Dean and Gary if the duck hunt panned out. We finished dinner and went to bed, after making a plan to get up early and see if the doves flew in the morning like I had seen them that afternoon.

Morning came, and it was a cold, misty, foggy, drizzly day. I went outside to start the Polaris to let it warm up and went back in for another cup of coffee. When Brian and I came back out, the ranch manager’s black Lab, Drake, was sitting in the back of the ATV, ready to go anywhere we were going.

The three of us arrived at station 14 on the clays course, not knowing exactly where to set up because I had not seen the morning flight. We chose a spot, got set up, and waited, and waited, and waited. It got to be 8:00 a.m., and still no birds. During the wait, Brian came over, and we were talking and messing around with Drake when suddenly the dog froze, looking up into the sky. You guessed it – doves. Only God knows why they didn’t start flying until 8:15, but none of us cared. It took about 45 minutes for us to each get a limit, and with Drake’s help, we never lost a bird. As a father, it was a great pleasure to share something that I love to do with someone I love so much, my son Brian. I took great pride in watching doves fall out of the sky as he shot. He finished his limit with a double, and we headed back to the lodge for some hot coffee and breakfast.

We knew Dean would be coming down at noon the next day, so we decided to go duck hunting the next morning and see if Dean would like to shoot doves with us in the afternoon. Somehow, I didn’t think we would have to twist his arm too hard to get him to go. It would also be a lot warmer tomorrow afternoon, and I liked that.

The next morning came, and Drake, Brian, and I put out some decoys in a small pond to the east of the lodge. Daylight was late because of the fog, but at least it was warmer than the previous two mornings. Gadwalls and teal began falling into the decoys about five minutes before shooting time, and that next five minutes seemed like 30. Brian looked at me. I looked at my watch. Drake quivered. The big hand finally got to where it needed to be, and the shooting began. We had a very short but great hunt. It was one of those mornings when everything just clicked. The birds came in, the shot was called, we stood up, and the birds fell. In about 10 minutes, we had our limit. We picked up as quickly as we could and got out of there. The birds were still flying as we drove off, heading for the lodge for coffee and breakfast.

Dean arrived, and after lunch, we headed to the clays range to have a lesson and begin his competition year. Brian had mentioned while eating lunch that we had found some doves and asked Dean if he would like to join us for an evening hunt. I guess that’s why he didn’t have dessert. We had to get the lesson in before 2:30 so we could go dove hunting.

But our afternoon hunt was delayed an hour, because people were shooting sporting clays where we wanted to hunt. No big deal; we just shot some clays until they got out of the way. Needless to say, most of the birds had already gotten into the field before we could begin hunting. We killed a few birds going into the field, and then they started coming out. They were headed north on a 10 to 15 mile per hour tailwind.

Man, the birds were flying high, and with that tailwind, they were moving on. We all changed our chokes to Modified and Full and grabbed some 7½s out of the vehicle. Drake had a busy afternoon keeping up with all three of us. I had to stop shooting a couple of times to take him over to the lake for a water break. The birds were flying so high and fast, every retrieve was a long one for Drake. When you hit one, it fell about 75 to 100 yards away. Challenging shooting and a warm afternoon made it a pleasure to share a hunt with Brian and Dean.

Dean is one of our students who have made the commitment to take his shooting to the next level. He is a competitive sporting clays shooter who has put in a lot of hard work and practice to get where he is. He was coming off a three-month layoff and getting ready to start his competitive season. Each year Vicki and I tell all of our competitive shooters to take some time off. Go hunting or fishing or do something else, but take a break. Your brain needs a rest. Without a break, the stress that occurs when practicing and competing at anything turns it into a job. It stops being fun. The same can be said about missing birds in the field. It happens to everybody. Instead of shooting more times at every bird that comes by, stop. Take a break. Watch a few fly by. Get your focus back on the bird and off the mechanics of the shot or the lead. It is supposed to be fun. I’ll bet the last time you were having fun, you didn’t say the things you were saying about yourself when you started missing birds or targets with a shotgun.

I was fortunate to have gotten a limit first, so I put my gun up, counted my birds again to make sure, and just watched. I saw Brian lock onto a high bird and begin his move. It was so slow and smooth, I could tell he was focused on that bird’s head. As he finished his mount and the gun touched his face, he pulled the trigger. The bird folded, falling 100 yards behind him. Drake was with Dean, so I offered to retrieve while he continued shooting.

Brian was shooting a new Browning 525, 20 gauge over/under with 32-inch barrels. Yes, I said 32-inch barrels. The longer barrels seem to move and point so easily and smoothly. He had just started shooting that gun at clays around Christmas, and it already looked like a part of him. That is what happens when you when you make the commitment and take the time to learn to shoot a shotgun. Once you have trained your hands to point that gun where your eyes tell them, it almost doesn’t matter what you’re shooting.

Learning to shoot a shotgun is more about learning to move and mount the gun than just about anything else. In fact, if you were to ask either of us the most common problem we see in hunters that we observe or coach, we would have to say a poor gun mount. Rather than mounting the gun smoothly into the lead, we see people mounting the gun first and then chasing the lead. It ain’t pretty. It’s no wonder they are behind when they miss, because you have to be behind something to chase it!

Now that the weather isn’t hot, this is a great time of year to put some effort into becoming a better wingshooter. Learning to shoot a shotgun is not easy, and like anything else, if you will just put some time and effort into learning how, you will never forget it. It is just like learning to ride a bike or to cast a bait-casting reel or a fly rod; once you have done it enough to really learn how it feels, you will always remember it.

Dean and Brian finished out their limits, and we left the birds flying. During dinner we made our plans to fit in both a duck hunt and a dove hunt the next morning. Legal time was 6:50 a.m. for the ducks, and the doves wouldn’t start flying until after 8:00. We would have to start picking up at 7:35 a.m., and that would give us enough time to document the ducks, drop them off at the cooler in the processing plant, and get out to station 13 to catch the morning flight of doves. We all agreed to go for it. I knew we didn’t have to ask Drake; he’d be in for sure.

The morning came, and I decided to call and work the dog, while watching Dean and Brian shoot. The ducks cooperated, and we were out of there by 7:35, with Brian and Dean both having killed a limit of gadwalls and teal. We made it to station 13 at about 8:15, and the birds were already flying. It took us a little longer to get our limits that morning. Brian and I had finished, and Dean was walking to the vehicle with one bird to go to fill his limit. I saw a single coming and motioned to Dean. As he turned, the bird flared, but he was focused. As he finished his mount, the gun went off, and the bird folded 50 yards out. Brian and I looked at each other in awe. Drake was on that bird when it hit the ground, and as he was bringing it back, Brian remarked about what a great shot that was. Dean just smiled and said, “I just did what your mom and dad taught me.”

All hunts don’t turn out this way. When they do, savor them, remember them, and share them. Isn’t that what it’s about anyway?