Sep 21, 2018 - Brantley Farms employs around 25 full-time hands on its 10,000-acre operation in Lonoke County, Arkansas. This month, as dove season opens in many states across the country, the farm will host about twice that number as family and friends gathered to open the hunting season.
Laudies Brantley Jr. is a third-generation farmer who with his oldest son Dow grows cotton, corn, rice and soybeans on the western edge of the Mississippi River Delta in east-central Arkansas. Farming is in his blood, but dove season each September offers a welcome reprieve to what can be the dog days of late summer and early harvest.
"My dad hunted -- he was a quail hunter. We always hunted," Brantley said. "When one of your fields is working, you can really get a number of birds. It's a lot of fun, a great sport. I have great memories of those hunts."
The Brantleys lease roughly 1,000 acres of their farming operation for dove, duck and deer hunting each year. Last year, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission started leasing a sunflower field on the farm for permitted dove hunts, marking the first time it had been done on private land. Leases can vary from 15 acres to 700, but usually are in the 200 to 300 range.
For many farmers, hunting is ingrained into their lives. Brantley said many hunts still include kids in diapers on their first outing. His first memories of hunting as a kid entail leaving the house, walking down a fence row and, voila. He was there. The only thing that's changed, and not by much, is the proximity -- he and his wife now live a few miles down Highway 165 from the farm.
Dow is the only of Brantley's three adult sons who farms, but all three are experienced hunters. In 2016, Dow took a 16-point buck (a farm record) from a 300-acre block of trees roughly a mile and a half from the farm shop. That same thicket produced a 6-foot-long timber rattler that farm hands stumbled across four years ago. Its skin and rattler now are mounted in the farm office.
Brantley said that deer were a rare sight on the farm as recently as 20 years ago, but are plentiful today.
"Now, on the farm, we're doing as much deer hunting as anything," he said.
But as dove season opens, the memories of taking his boys to the fields to hunt are foremost on Brantley's mind. His middle son Russell may have been hooked one late summer morning when he was 12. Dove hunting on the farm, chomping-at-the-bit Russell ran out of ammo on a good day when birds were plentiful and falling. None, however, because of Russell.
Brantley gave him his 16-gauge and three boxes of shells to close out the hunt, and left him to his mission. Returning to his son not long after, Brantley found a grinning Russell holding out three shells and proudly proclaiming that he'd shot 72 times. He'd hit just two doves, but still, he'd filled the sky with lead.
Russell would grow up to become an avid bow hunter, and two years ago he and his dad took Russell's 5-year-old daughter on her first deer "hunt." Russell's instructions -- no shots. They were taking her to the deer blind to gently introduce her to the experience. Russell was afraid the impact of shots being fired at close range might scare her away from hunting.
So, the trio sits in the blind, geared up like it's the real thing, munching on Cheeze-Its. Suddenly, out of the treeline, a trophy buck is there. Brantley could see in his son's face the internal struggle going on, but ultimately, as they always do with dads, the daughter and her best interests won out.
Indeed, the Brantley grandkids are being fully immersed: Dow's oldest daughter took her first deer at 9, and his No. 2 daughter (of three) was with him when he took the 16-point on the farm last year.
In much the same way faith is a cohesive bond, hunting is a tangible part of family life handed down over generations. It becomes part of the DNA.
"For an old guy like me on the farm, to finally get a crop out and get to go deer hunting in November, it's great fun," Brantley said. "It's a very important part of our lives."
The Brantleys may dove hunt on opening weekend only this year. After all, farming pays the bills and it's a 6-day-a-week gig at minimum in season. But come winter, the deer and duck blinds should be filled many times.
"What we're doing is just standard procedure," Brantley said of the farming-hunting connection. "The crop cycles and hunting season, it just all falls into place. And doves are a great start, great targets the way they bob and weave.
"There's nothing more fun than seeing your dog point and the rise of a covey, even when you know it's there."