By Ford Walpole

The Saturday before Labor Day, my son Ned and I forfeited watching the Clemson opener for a unique, youth-only dove hunt at Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area (WMA) on Edisto Island. It was a good decision, as the family shoot we were invited to the following week was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma.

Botany Bay is a beautiful treasure. We have been here many times — fishing Jason’s Lake, touring and walking and fishing on the beach — but this was our first time hunting the property. Bess Kellett, a friendly volunteer with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR), greeted us at the gate with Southern hospitality.    For safety reasons, the plantation is closed to visitors on hunting days. Besides designated archery and gun deer hunts, this year’s youth dove hunts were scheduled for Sept. 2, Sept. 9, Oct. 14 and Nov. 11. (The final hunt is currently cancelled, but check back for updates: https://www2.dnr.sc.gov/ManagedLands/ManagedLand/ManagedLand/131.) Unfortunately, for the second consecutive year, Botany Bay was negatively impacted by hurricane winds and tides.

Bruce Rawl has been the caretaker of the property and has been farming its fields since long before the state owned the place. Wildlife biologist Daniel Barrineau signed in hunters and helped distribute souvenir camouflaged hunting caps. Bruce — silver-haired and burly bearded — gave the pre-hunt talk, which to the sportsman is an amalgam of a liturgical reading and homily. He provided directions, reviewed safety and low-bird awareness and reminded the young folks not to shoot ground doves, fair game in years past.

Rawl, a fellow John’s Island boy, wished us luck with the tempered optimism of a farmer. “We’ve got some birds, but we lost a lot of sunflowers this year. This is about the worst crop I’ve had. No excuses — that’s just how it is. I just hope this hunt doesn’t go like I think it’s gonna go.”

We walked out in a field near the beach, a hedgerow of pines separating us and the Atlantic. An occasional breeze blew on what had begun as a cool morning. Hunting without a gun was actually something of a relief, as I didn’t need to worry with balancing my reporter’s notebook and additional gear.

“I guess writers have to take advantage of opportunities,” the boy realized.

“Yep, and so do hunters,” I reminded.

“You need to talk about just being out here,” Ned advised. “There’s no other feeling than being in a cornfield with a shotgun in your hands,” he continued. “Dove hunting can sometimes be more fun than deer hunting because you can talk!”

Lovebugs swarmed and butterflies fluttered amid the dry stalks. It started slow, but eventually, Ned got off some shots from the Browning 20-gauge pump. The field behind us was spraying plenty of lead, but the success of those boys and girls remains a mystery, better fodder for hunting tales — theirs and ours.

We carried along two familiar backpacks: a camouflaged igloo cooler with water and drinks and another camouflaged gear pack with earmuffs, bug spray, a Thermacell, flashlights and snacks. Stuffed in an inner pocket of the latter bag were some Pokemon cards from some years ago.

“Destroy those,” Ned instructed humorously, but firmly.

The cards reminded me of bygone days in dove fields and deer stands, so of course, I secretly kept a few in the pack. My children’s introduction to hunting was as akin to playing in a treehouse as pursuing game. I wanted them to accompany me and have plenty of fun, so I sweetened the experience with snacks, coloring books and games.

Since we were part of a youth hunt, I let Ned decide when to call it a day. He had persevered through his respectable share of the heat. We signed out at the check station, recording the goose-egg harvest but appreciating the rewarding time together in the outdoors. As we bounced down the washboard avenue, I stopped my pickup to watch a fox squirrel scamper up a massive live oak, blooming with resurrection fern after the recent rains. We approached the kiosk to a serendipity also befitting Mother Nature’s keen sense of humor. Several mourning doves greeted us from the ground before leisurely fluttering off.

On the way home from dove hunting, we stopped off at our friends’ property where we deer hunt. The season had caught us before we were able to sight in our rifles. We duct-taped targets cut from paper sacks of shelled corn to an old, five-gallon bucket placed upside down. We set the target directly in front of a dirt pile.

As we fired shots from the .270 and .243 rifles, we drove the pickup to the target to examine our marksmanship. As my son proudly examined his near-bullseye and he dug through the dirt looking for lead, his youthful imagination shifted gears: “I wish my friends were here, so we could play King of the Hill on this dirt pile!”

Something struck me about the coexistence of safe, successful marksmanship of high-powered rifles and a sincere desire to play in the dirt. I then fully appreciated the significance of a youth-only hunt. I wonder: Is the whole point of the sporting life to tote guns afield and rods in boats as something of a marvelous ruse — a secret objective of seeking spiritual reentry into a prelapsarian Eden, to play and become a child again?

 

Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

 

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