Athens Review, Athens, Texas

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September 13, 2013

MATT WILLIAMS: Opening day spells good times, hot barrels and flying feathers

BAILEY — I don't know how your opening day dove hunt went, but mine was about as good as it gets. The only thing that might have made it better is if my 12 gauge had found more feathers a little more often.

I spent two boxes of shells to fill out a 15-bird limit, equal to about 3.3 shots per bird. While that's below the national average of seven shots fired for every dove killed, I typically shoot a little bit straighter than that.

There aren't really any good excuses to offer other than I probably took a few shots I shouldn't have. That's pretty easy to do when you haven't cradled an auto-loader in 12 months and fast-flying mourning doves are darting in and out of the line of fire from every possible direction. The itch to pull the trigger once or twice more on a target that is clearly out of range can become even more irresistible when the world around you sounds like a war zone.

Such was the case last Sunday morning as the 2013 Texas mourning dove season got underway just after daylight on the outskirts of this sleepy little northeast Texas town located roughly 20 miles from the Oklahoma border. You could have heard a pin drop amid the sun-baked sunflower fields during the pre-dawn darkness, but all that changed once legal shooting light arrived, just as Brent Smith and Jace Outlaw had promised.

Smith and Outlaw are 20-year-old natives of nearby Ivanhoe who have been best friends since grade school. They grew up among the wide open farmlands and dense hardwood thickets of northern Fannin County and pretty much cut their teeth hunting ducks, doves, hogs and coons and fishing in stock tanks and the Red River for whatever happened to be biting best at the time.

The two men graduated high school in 2011 and have since been working their way towards promising careers. Smith is going to school to become a fireman, while Outlaw has plans to be a real estate broker. In the meantime, they are doing what they love and earning extra money running a successful outfitting business they call Swamp Nasty Outfitters. Their specialty is ducks, but I can tell you from experience these guys are on to smoking good dove fields, as well.

“We started out about four years ago while we were still in high school,” Outlaw said. “People started hearing about some of our duck hunts and all of the sudden we had folks offering us money to take them along with us. We started off with a just a few people and it's gotten bigger every year. A lot of people around here thought we were crazy getting into this business; they said we could never make any money at it, but it has been pretty good to us so far.”

To wit:

Smith said they had about 30 opening morning dove hunters their first year in business. This year they had 150, including dozens of youngsters and a handful of wives and girlfriends. The majority of the hunters I spoke with reported outstanding shoots.

I spent the morning in the field with a couple of good friends from Dallas — Tommy Bartholomew and Kerry Karlix — along with two of their co-workers, Clay Callaway and Keith Hayle. All of us were nursing bruised shoulders by 8 a.m.

Callaway is veteran wingshooter who claims he hasn't missed a Sept. 1 dove opener since 1968. He typically spends opening day hunting at his deer lease near Graham in Young County, but elected to give the Swamp Nasty boys a shot when he discovered their outfit while browsing the Texas Hunting Forum on the Internet.

In hindsight, he is glad he did.

“I've never dove hunted in this part of Texas, but this is about as good as it gets,” Callaway said, just moments after dusting the last bird in his limit. “I've hunted lots of places over the years and I've never seen so many groups of 6-10 birds.”

Not everyone in our group killed and found 15 doves, but it certainly wasn't for the lack of opportunity. Hayle, who made his inaugural dove hunting trip that day at the age of 26, collected a partial limit. Admittedly, he had a extremely large time in the process.

“I can't believe what I've been missing out on all these years,” he said. “This is a  blast. I'll definitely be back.”

Dealing with those voodoo doves

I've been hunting doves for years, but this marked my first experience hunting around a mechanical dove decoy. My good friend Tim Boatman sold me on the idea of getting my hands on a Mojo Voodoo model just a few days before opening weekend, and I'm glad he did.

The decoy attaches to a steel stake, which elevates it about three feet above the ground. Four AA batteries power a small motor that causes the magnetic wings to spin tight circles. Doves can spot the flashy white wings from a considerable distance, which simulates another bird dropping down to feed. At times the decoys can work almost like magic.

“They work so good they should be outlawed,” joked Boatman, a veteran wingshooter and duck hunter. “You definitely don't want set one up any closer than 30 yards away. You're shots will be too close and you'll tear up your birds. They'll land right beside it if they get the chance.”

The effectiveness of the Voodoo was plenty obvious. We had several birds hover right above the decoys. A couple even landed on the powerlines above our heads, even though they had already been shot at multiple times.

Other types of decoys will work as well, even one that simulates a different species. I saw one guy toting around a mechanical duck decoy in the field.

“It's the wing movement that fools them,” Boatman said. “I can't count the number of teal I've killed coming my dove decoys. They're deadly in the right situation.”

Getting organized

An army of unmolested doves to shoot at wasn't the only factor that played into the banner hunt. Smith and Outlaw ran the whole deal very well from start to finish. Otherwise there would have surely been issues with 150 hunters to contend with.

Our hunt actually began the day before when they offered us the opportunity check out the 100-acre sunflower field we would be sharing with several other hunters. The square-shaped field was outlined by county roads on two sides and tree lines on the northern and southern boundaries.

Bartholomew insisted that we set up along the northern edge, mainly because it was flanked by a powerline where the birds might stage before dropping down into the sunflowers to feed. Smith ok'd the request, but pointed out that it probably wouldn't make any difference where we set up.

“We've been scouting these fields for a while,” he said. “There are a ton of birds and they are going to be coming from all different directions once the shooting starts.”

Not surprisingly, the outfitter was right.

On opening morning

The only way to run a good day lease operation is to make sure all your hunters gather in one spot at the very beginning. It also pays to shoot everyone straight and to provide services at a rate high enough to make money without leaving customers feeling as though they have been gouged.

Swamp Nasty scored high grades on all counts. Their services couldn't have been more accommodating and their day rate of $65 per hunter was right in line or cheaper than several other outfits I've hunted with. What's really cool is they let kids 12 and under hunt for free.  

Our group, along with at least 75 other hunters, met Smith at the Brookshire Bros. parking lot in Bonham at 4:30 a.m. From there we formed a dove hunting convoy of pick-ups and SUVs that looked more like a twilight funeral procession for a person that was very well liked.

Once we arrived at the field, Smith hooked his pick-up to a flatbed trailer loaded with hay bales and began shuttling hunters around the perimeter, making sure to space out each group a safe distance apart. He made occasional rounds throughout morning to keep check on his clients just in case anyone needed anything. When the shooting ceased, he repeated the whole process in reverse.

Doves 'N more

As earlier mentioned, doves hunting represents only a fraction of the services Swamp Nasty provides. In addition to duck hunting, they also book trips for bass fishing, hog hunting and coon hunting, all on private property they have sub-leased from area farmers and ranchers.

Duck hunts are $150 per gun; hogs are $75 per gun with a $40 kill fee and $200 per person using dogs. Coon hunting rates are $75 per person; bass fishing, $50; and $75 for bow fishing.

Smith said the operation has about 1,000 acres leased for dove hunting and about 2,000 acres available for duck hunting. The majority of the duck hunts are carried out on private lakes or over flooded timber and sloughs. The men use pumps to flood some hunting areas; others don't catch any water without rain.

“Our duck hunting is our main deal,” Smith said. “We get a lot of mallards in here when we've got the water. We always make a point to tell our customers what to expect ahead of time. If we don't have birds, we'll tell them up front.”

Smith added that they a couple of water holes that are currently holding decent numbers of teal, which should bode well for hunters during the early teal season that runs Sept. 14-29.

For more information on booking a trip, swampnastyoutfitters.com or call 903-449-3923 or 903-640-3685.

Matt Williams is a freelance outdoors writer based in Nacogdoches, Tx. He can be reached by e-mail, mattwilliams@netdot.com.

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