For millions of Americans, fall means one thing: hunting season. Sure, there are school openings and pumpkins to be carved and, for much of the nation, “leaf-peeping” trips and screens to be swapped out for storm windows and countless other signs, big and small, of the cooling months. But in states from Maine to Texas, Oregon to Florida, the end of summer and the beginning of autumn heralds that time of year when family and friends get together for some quality shooting.
More than fifty years ago, in October 1961, one hunt in particular caught the attention of LIFE magazine, and the weekly sent a photographer and correspondent to Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley to document Texans and others from as far away as New York gunning for the white-winged dove. The resulting feature—titled, with a wry nod to Shelley, “Hail to Thee, Blithe Spirit: BLAM!” painted a picture of a pastime that seemed one part death wish and three parts rollicking, 20-gauge fun.
We’ll let LIFE set the scene:
There is nothing else in all outdoors quite like this hunt. . . . [The white-winged dove] is most plentiful in the southern tip of Texas . . . and for this reason virtually everyone in the Rio Grande region able to raise shotgun to shoulder—and many barely able to do even this—take up arms for the three-day season and moves out to put the blast on the gray birds with the blue-ringed eyes.
Correspondent David Nevin, who with photographer Ralph Crane (pictured) survived the hunt, gave this description of the firing line where the shooting was heaviest: “Except for occasional friends who worked together, everyone hunts without pattern. They fire guns in every direction, often over each other’s heads. In their excitement, some lunge about frantically, while others plunk away almost casually. Birds fall nearly shredded by shot from as many as four or five guns. . . . Crane and I went flat several times as gun barrels swung in our direction.”
[There are] incredibly few mishaps, though as Nevins noted, “Everyone, including us, was stung by spent shot that fell like rain.”
Here, LIFE.com offers a gallery of Crane’s photos—including many that never ran in LIFE—from that 1961 dove hunt in Texas.