THEY COULD HAVE carrier pigeons, flying through the smoke and gunfire on a centuries-old battlefield to deliver a secret message. But they were just pigeons, fond of eating popcorn. My friend Ryan and I knelt in the shade of a smoke barn that had wisps of smoke billowing from its rafters as we waited for the birds to float over the roof and take a look. Most of them had already deployed their wings and were gliding into their chosen field by the time we saw them. As pigeons go, it was easy shooting.
Tobacco barns, where “dark fire” tobacco leaves are cured by smoke before being sold, are still common in western Kentucky, if few other places. Every year, people from the city driving through the countryside call the fire department to report barns that appear to be on fire. The calls happen so often that local news outlets are running PSAs, starting in August, to remind people that barnacle smoke is part of a perfectly normal regional farming practice.
For a few glorious weeks in early fall, barns make the countryside smell like a smoking pipe. My wife says the smell reminds her of her grandfather, who grew several acres of tobacco and was known to pluck leaves from the rafters after recovering to make his twists, which he kept in his shirt pocket. When she was a little girl, the old man hired Michelle to clean his 3-acre garden and pay her a full dollar wage at the end of the day. Then they would sit on the porch in the evening, and he would give her his turn so she could bite a plug and chew a little. To this day she can spit tobacco juice halfway across the yard and hit a stray dog if she’s so inclined, but she’d be embarrassed if anyone knew.
To me, the smell of the dark fire is that of squirrel season, kayak season and dove fields, at a time of year when autumn is about to start, guaranteed. At the same time that farmers are curing tobacco in the barns, they are airing the wheat in the dirty fields where it has been cut. The silage is being chopped and the first cornfields are being shelled. The strips are mowed in sunflower and millet plots. The harvest creates a smorgasbord for mourning doves, and the birds arrive here by the thousands on the heels of smaller cold fronts. Spotting coffee takes some knowledge, but anyone with sense enough to walk outside and look down a power line can tell if a push of pigeons has arrived.
Of course, there is a difference between seeing birds scattered on power lines and being allowed to hunt a field where a thousand of them have been feeding every day. This is the other reality of this time of year. You’ll know if you’ve been a good friend for the last 11 months—or at least if you’re owed a favor—because official pigeon shoots are happening, and either the phone will ring with your invitation or it won’t. It’s bad form to call and invite yourself to a shoot (or really even suggest it). But the truth is that even the mediocre corners of the pigeon fields are filled every autumn in such a shameless way. This time of year is so sacred, so short-lived, that sometimes you do what it takes to get out there.
Having a dear friend like Ryan helps. I don’t think I’ve run out of place to shoot pigeons in the 20+ years I’ve known him. A few years ago, we settled on a 20-acre field of marijuana—or at least, that’s what the industrial hemp plants looked and smelled like to me, and apparently to others, as there were PSAs that fall to mind. people that the plants in the hemp fields didn’t have enough THC to make it worth stealing and smoking them. But the pigeons liked the seeds and we made a lot of “high” jokes about the place. The hemp craze, here at least, was short-lived compared to the long period of tobacco.
To this day, that popcorn field by the tobacco farm we hunted back in college ranks at the top of my list for all-time favorite dove shoots. I was a journalism major then and didn’t know anyone useful in terms of hunting spots. But Ryan was a master, and good at fixing things too. As I recall the story, he was covered in oil and fingered after working on a local farmer’s sick tractor. When he was done, he said to the man, “If you don’t mind, me and my friend will come back in the morning and kill those pigeons that are burning in your popcorn field across the road by the tobacco barn. “
This would not be a formal shoot. Most of them start around noon, partly to allow for socializing and eating, and partly because most of those shoots are on opening day, when legal hours don’t start until 11 a.m. Ryan and I have never been overwhelmed with invitations to anything official. pigeon shooting or otherwise. But that was okay because we actually preferred hunting later in the season when you can start hunting 30 minutes before sunrise.
The best hunting is right at dawn, especially if you are located on a good food source.
We started that morning hiding in a fence on the far side of the popcorn field. We shot one or two, but noticed that several waves of pigeons roll over the top of the tobacco barn and then pour into the popcorn straw, like drops of water from a bucket. “I think we might have to move over there,” Ryan said, and so we did, shooing the birds out of the field as we walked, but knowing they’d be right back. And they did.
Neither of us shot a limit that day, but we had plenty to set up a charcoal grill outside the dorm that night. It was a good meal, especially at that time of year when the smoke is in the air and you know fall is guaranteed.
This story originally appeared in the fall issue of Field & Stream. Read more F&S+ stories.