A simple formula guiding him through nearly four decades of dove outfitting has helped Sammy Nooner provide wingshooters with one of the largest dove hunting opportunities in the Lone Star State.
“From the beginning, I realized you have to be able to say “No,” he said as he relaxed on the massive open-air patio of the Valdina Ranch Lodge— a 30,000-square-foot hunting facility he will be opening this season.
“My philosophy has always been to be honest with the hunters and if the birds aren’t there, tell them not to come out to hunt. There will always be a hunt tomorrow or even next season,’’ he said.
Saying “No” to the dollars today in order to make sure the hunters will come back tomorrow has been key to Nooner’s outfitting success that he hopes to carry forward with the Valdina Ranch Lodge.
The lodge will be one of the largest facilities in the country serving as a base for up-scale dove and quail hunting; and is just the latest innovative effort that has earned Nooner the moniker of the “Duke of Doves.”
Offering high quality hunts with massive numbers of birds in the air has helped Nooner develop a huge cadre of repeat customers since he first began putting hunters on doves in the 1980’s.
At that time, he started out with mourning dove hunts on a piece of property near D’Hanis that was “covered up with native sunflowers,” he said.
“That is when afternoon bird hunts became the real deal,’’ Nooner said.
When that lease ended in 1993, Nooner found property just east of Hondo city limits that he was able to acquire in 1994.
“That was right about the time that white-winged doves started coming in. We could not hunt them because they were not included in our dove limit at that time,’’ he said.
Gradually, the numbers of white-winged doves in the area increased to the point that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department officials included more and more white-winged doves in the daily bag limit.
Currently, hunters can take home as many as 15 white wings a day as their daily bag limit — something even less-than-proficient shooters have been able to accomplish with relative ease at Nooner’s fields year after year.
Those fields are planted in commercial-grade sunflowers – the type that is normally grown to render into sunflower oil – in a ground-breaking effort Nooner discovered was a dove-magnet crop.
White wings and an occasional flight or two of mourning doves literally fill the skies each day as they feed on more than 1,000 acres of irrigated property before heading back to their roosting sites.
The massive flights provide afternoon hunters with shooting opportunities similar to scenes in Argentina.
“I tried planting milo and corn, even native sunflowers, but those crops are all so weather sensitive. If you get any rain on those seeds, they start to sprout and you no longer have food for the doves.
“The only reason the birds come in is to get to the food and if they can’t get any food, they will go somewhere else,” Nooner said, adding that he first started planting the big sunflowers in 2000.
The large heads of the commercial-grade sunflowers do not drop their seeds, allowing the dove feeding grounds to attract birds throughout both dove seasons, he explained.
“It costs a lot to manage the sunflower fields like a farmer, but that is what is holding the birds here for our hunters,” he said.
After laboring almost non-stop to maintain his dove-hunting mecca for day-lease hunters since those early days, Nooner decided to transfer that part of his operation last year to Paloma Pachanga, based in Hondo.
That well-known outfitter will now work to maintain and improve what Nooner has built into a dove-hunting bonanza.
The transfer has allowed Nooner to focus his full attention to transforming the massive D’Hanis tile and concrete horse barn at the Valdina Ranch into a luxury lodge for over-night dove hunters.
According to local historians, the structure dating back to the early 1940’s was built by hand, using cement mixed in small batches and carried in five-gallon buckets to be poured into forms.
The ranch owner, E.F. Woodard, raised thorough-bred race horses and had previously lost a wooden horse barn to an accidental — he was determined to construct a building that was fire-proof and succeeded in his effort.
“When we started working here, the barn had not been used for decades. There was still hay in some of the stalls,” Nooner said. “The handmade walls and ceiling are just incredible — it is just amazing that they poured all of this just using five-gallon buckets.”
The renovation effort has been a massive undertaking, but the result is a lodge unlike anything in the state. The horse stalls — stretching along both sides of a building that is 300 feet long and 68 feet wide — are being converted into double occupancy bedrooms.
In addition, there are two spacious convention rooms, including one that features an 18-foot by 6-foot conference table once used at the AT&T Headquarters in San Antonio, and several entertainment areas.
“We also have a complete kitchen and will have a chef on site,” Nooner said.
Because of the size of the lodge, several groups of 20 or 30 hunters will be able to experience high-quality accommodations without feeling crowded, he said.
“This is set up for the corporate crowd, providing a better quality hunt for groups. In addition to the 90 acres of irrigated sunflowers next to the lodge, we will also have hunting sites in Uvalde, Sabinal and Knippa.
“Hunters don’t mind driving to a hunting site if they know quality birds will be there. Some of the sites will be all mourning doves, like here at the lodge, and some will be white-winged doves,” Nooner said.
“There is always a demand out there for high-end hunters interested in high-quality hunts.
“This lodge will be the biggest by far offering them what they want,” he added.
By Ralph Winningham