Clay Johnston spent most of his boyhood afield and since then has never looked back. He says, “I’m in enough dove clubs that I can hunt four to six days a week, from Orangeburg to Elloree.”
Clay involved his daughter, Hollis, in dove hunting at an early age. “She’s become a very good hunter and wingshooter. It’s a passion both of us share,” Clay proudly states.
Dove hunting is generally a social affair, with an opening day occasionally featuring a large feast of pulled pork and potluck side dishes. “I love being around people and love being outdoors, so dove hunting is definitely my thing,” says Clay. Conversation and camaraderie are de rigueur, unlike still hunting where silence and stealth are generally keys to success.
Some level of aptitude in the sport of wingshooting, in particular pass-shooting in which birds are harvested with a shotgun as they fly from one destination to another, is required in the sport of dove hunting. Doves fly fast and hard, and they quickly change direction. Shooters must learn to ascertain the distance and speed of the dove, which then determines how much they lead the bird with their gun so that the shot connects. All of these calculations happen in seconds, and an accomplished shooter in a dove field is a sight to behold.
When it comes to the type of shotguns used for dove hunting, just about anything can be seen on the field. However, semi-automatics are probably the most prevalent types of shotguns employed in dove hunting, followed closely by over-and-unders. The most common gauges, a measurement referring to the diameter of the barrel bore, are 12 and 20 gauge. For younger shooters or those wanting to challenge themselves, some of the smaller sub-gauges in 28 gauge or .410 might be used.
“I mostly use a sub-gauge over-and-under for dove hunting. You become a better shot when using a sub-gauge,” Clay says. Aside from the bore size and action, the fit and feel of a shotgun to a shooter also contributes to performance in the field. “Once you get a gun, you’re comfortable with that fit, then stick with it. I’ll choose a gun from my collection and stick with it the entire season, then maybe change the following season.”
Though not completely necessary, the use of a gun dog to retrieve downed game in the field adds another dimension to the sport of dove hunting and can greatly enhance the experience. Dogs provide a valuable service by ensuring the harvested bird gets to the game bag. Seeing a competent gun dog in action rivals the awesome spectacle of a shooter who effortlessly plucks doves from the sky with every shot. “For many years, I ran a black Labrador named Dixie, and she was so good I don’t believe I could ever replace her. Once she became accustomed to field work, she was absolutely unbeatable,” Clay says.
Popular breeds seen in a dove field are Labrador retrievers, English cocker spaniels, and the official state dog of South Carolina — the Boykin spaniel. Though having a dog in the field provides a special dynamic to the sport of wingshooting, dogs must be well-trained and well-heeled for their own safety and for the safety of other hunters.
round age 10 with his stepfather, Barry Lucas. However, Jason took a hiatus from sporting life to pursue higher education and eventually a family. Nevertheless, when time finally allowed, he contacted Barry and picked up where he left off. “When I decided to get back into wingshooting, he was the first guy I talked to. Now, we’re in a club together and things couldn’t be better. Many of my fondest memories are with him in the field,” says Jason, who joined a hunting lease in North, South Carolina. Currently, sporting life reigns supreme as one of his favorite pastimes.
Jason teaches earth and environmental science at Heathwood Hall and also serves as the coach for the school’s shooting team, thus integrating his vocation with his passion for being afield. “We’ve had a team on and off over the past several years. One of my recent students became interested, so we reconstituted the organization,” Jason says.
Similarly to Clay, Jason has made dove hunting an activity for the entire family by including his wife and children. “It’s great to go out and harvest birds, but it’s really just about spending time out there as a family.”
Fortunately, for individuals bringing their family afield, dove hunting requires very little specialized equipment, making it easy to arm and outfit everyone. Camouflage hats and T-shirts paired with earthtone jeans or shorts will usually suit for the occasion. And a comfortable pair of broken-in boots serves well as footgear. A rotating dove stool or small chair is not necessary but is handy to have since water, sunscreen, and extra shotgun cartridges can be stored in it. Stools can also store any doves harvested from the hunt in the absence of a game vest.
A shotgun is typically the most expensive investment made in a dove hunting kit, and the prices can range from zero dollars, if it is an heirloom or hand-me-down, up into the six-figure range. “We’re all Browning in my family, but if money were no object, a Krieghoff K-80 over-and-under would be my ‘grail’ gun. But in all honesty, I hope to one day inherit my stepfather’s Belgian Browning A-5. That gun is priceless to me,” Jason says.
John O’Cain remembers accompanying his father and brother to the field when he was 10 years old. Armed with a single-shot .410 shotgun, he began learning the values and traditions of sporting life. “When I graduated to a Remington 870, my dad would charge us a dollar every time he saw that the safety on our guns wasn’t engaged. To a 10 year old on an allowance, that was a lot of money,” John says.
With two sons of his own, John relishes teaching them about the outdoors. “Now that I’m older, I mostly enjoy seeing my dog work and watching my boys savor their time in the field. It’s great to see my sons finding such pleasure in the same things my brother and I did,” John explains.
He usually begins preparing his fields the second week of April to produce a healthy crop of sunflowers for migrating doves, which begin flying down from Canada to the southeastern United States during mid-August. “I’ve noticed we get a lot of rain during the April to June period, but we may not get enough rain in the later months of summer. So in my experience, it’s better to plant in the middle of spring,” he says.
Many of the doves seen diving into South Carolina fields will wind up scouring the agricultural fields of South America by mid-January — a remarkable range for such tiny creatures. Thus, a timely planting weighs heavily on the outcome of a season.
Other than sowing the fields at the best possible time, you can do little else to affect the success of a dove field. “You spend a lot of time and money doing all this cultivation, then you keep your fingers crossed that the weather holds,” John says. Hurricanes, flooding, drought, and a myriad of other weather events could indiscriminately wreak havoc on a crop field. Still, John sees the larger good in spending quality time outdoors with his boys, come what may. “When my boys harvested their first doves at our place in Bishopville, the look on their faces was priceless.”
Whether through field work, dog work, or quality time with friends and family, dove hunting in South Carolina and other southeastern states is uniquely a celebratory and social affair — the perfect occasion for etching eternal memories into the souls of sporting life enthusiasts.