Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dove hunting in California: wet boots, full straps and lots of dove recipes

Dove hunting used to be something I'd do once a year, usually without much luck.

But two things have changed: First, I got a 12 gauge, slapped an adjustable-comb stock on it and have subsequently been doing my best skeet shooting ever. Like, really good, and occasionally amazing.

Second, I went out alone on the opener last week and had a wretched hunt with almost no doves flying, and my self-pitying moans caused my friend Bill from the North Area Sportsmen's Association to invite me to his spot.

Now, when I say "spot," I mean it's one of those spots. It's a big field of recently cut safflower backed by a ditch with some trees along it, surrounded by corn, sunflowers and still more safflower. You may recall that safflower is what I used this summer to trap doves so I could band them, so we know it is a certified dove attractant.

What's even better is that this spot is at the edge of the city. Literally, you have city, then this farm field. As an urban hunter, I'm used to having to drive great distances to hunt, but this one is 20-25 minutes from my house. Score!

So how's it been? A typical Cazadora affair.

Friday morning: Bill told me he'd been reading a book on dove hunting and it said the average hunter goes through five to eight shells per bird.

Oh no.

I'm more than a little obsessed with being above average.

Now I'm going to count. Damn.

The hunters lined up on either side of the ditch and waited for the doves to come in. The action was not epic, but it was steady, and you could hear plenty of shouts of "On your left, Hank!" and "Coming up behind you, Josh!"

Which reminds us that doves, as lovely and sweet as they are, are not terribly bright. They will fly down a line of yelling hunters and as often as not, keep going down that line even after being shot at. In contrast, we noted that a huge flock of pigeons (rock dove!) had the good sense to maintain a safe distance from us at the other edge of the field.

But while doves' brains are small, they're still really hard to hit because they fly fast and they're capable of some nimble aerial maneuvers. I ended up with three that morning, 15 shots fired. Thank God Bill had told me what the average was - I was on the good end of it!

Friday afternoon: When Bill said we were welcome to come back in the afternoon, my hunting DNA went nuts. It was just like duck season: I was utterly exhausted from having gotten up early TWICE that week, which happened to be the first week back at school, which is already chaotic enough. But I couldn't say no.

I headed back to that safflower field after work and took my place in line with four other hunters, and that's when it gets really good: The more hunters you have, the more you've got each other's backs, alerting each other when birds are coming someone's way.

My shooting started off pretty lame, and the doves taught me some lessons. Twice I knocked them down and approached them to find their heads still up. You have a choice when that happens: Shoot them on the ground, usually at close distance, turning them into instant sausage, or approach carefully and hope you can pounce and get them before they scoot away.

Both times, I chose the latter. Both times, they up and flew away. Guess I hadn't knocked 'em down that hard.

But my shooting improved, and by 6:30, I'd filled my strap - the first time I've ever gotten a limit of doves! Shell count for the day: 51, 5.1 shells per bird. Not bad.

Sunday morning: Back in the field again! If I were a dog, I'd've been panting excitedly and wagging my tail. I was totally getting the hang of dove hunting - I knew how much I needed to lead the birds, when I had to suck it up and shoot cripples on the ground, what trajectories best to avoid so I wouldn't drop them in places where retrieval was difficult.

In about an hour and a half, I got four birds, with 12 shells - and average of three per bird! Oh yeah, baby! Then right as I was hauling in my gear, Bill and Boyfriend shouted that birds were coming my way.

I dropped everything and emptied my gun's contents in the general direction of those doves. I swear I could hear them laughing at me as they sped away. Ha ha, where's your average now, bitch?

Still pretty good, suckas! Could it be I was becoming good at this?

Sunday night: We'd been stockpiling doves all week, and now it was time to feast! Bill came over to our place and Boyfriend started working his magic on these tasty little birds.

First up: Italian Grilled Dove Florentine.

This one was simple and delicious: Doves, sea salt, olive oil and lemon. Yum!

Next: Japanese Grilled Dove Teriyaki.

Teriyaki is a familiar flavor for hunters, who love this preparation for all kinds of game. But this one is with a home-made teriyaki sauce, a little less sweet than the over-the-counter preparations most folks are used to. Delicious!

Finally: Grilled Dove a la Mancha.

This is my old favorite, though the Florentine doves may have beat it this time. The doves are salted, painted with bacon fat repeatedly and dusted with smoked paprika - tangy and juicy.

Nothing like an outstanding meal to remind you that the hunt is only the first half of the experience.

Monday afternoon: After a dinner like that, you didn't think I'd be getting up early, did you? No way. Instead, I fought my way through the end-of-Labor-Day-weekend traffic to get back to that field for an afternoon hunt. This time, it was just me, Bill, and his German Shorthaired Pointer, Cedar.

Bill was having a regular shoot-em-up down at his end of the field, where Cedar would go out into the field, stir up the doves, and amazingly drive them not away from Bill, but right to him.

Over on my end... Well, I dropped my first bird with two shots, and he went down just behind me. In the ditch. Which was lined with blackberries and other thorny dried plants. And I was wearing shorts for the first time all week.

I needed a dog, but Cedar was really far away, so I fought my way to the edge of the ditch and scanned for my bird.

There he was, the picture of perfection, floating on the water like a lily pad - wings out, head up. Beautiful. Except I'd shot him, and was about to kill him. That is definitely the part of hunting that sucks: Your success, your dinner, means snuffing out another life, sometimes at close range. Sigh.

But first I had to get him.

I slipped to the cattail-choked edge of the water, found a dead tree branch and used it to pull the poor little thing toward me. It worked! And as I reached for him, he skittered away on the water, just a bit, just enough to challenge my balance, and suddenly I was in the water up to my waist.

But I got my bird!

I sloshed back to my seat on the other side of the ditch, my boots filled with water, my clothes soaked, my legs and arms scratched and covered in thorny things, which I began plucking off my shirt and shorts.

And when the next bird came in, would you believe I dropped him in the same spot? And yes, I went in up to my waist again.

But I had two birds with five shots, so I was feeling pretty good. Perhaps today would be the day I'd get my average below three shots per bird!

Well, of course, you know the minute you start thinking like that, the gods can smell your hubris from a mile away, and they send you a mighty smackdown.

It started when I shot at a rare pigeon who came my way. Missed. Shot at a few more birds. Missed.

Meanwhile, Bill was absolutely slaughtering them at the other end of the field.

A helicopter circled the field. It was there to shoot the epic traffic on the freeway, but I really didn't want them to swing my way for a live shot of my shooting. God forbid I should hit one and have the explosion of feathers televised live.

Then an SUV came down the road. Farmworkers, maybe. Then another one, this one with a trailer. It crept ever so slowly toward me.

For the love of Pete, get moving! I thought. If birds came in anywhere in the vicinity of that car - which was generally the direction they were coming from - I'd have to pull my swing to avoid shooting it.

The car stopped next to me. Two doves came in from behind the ditch. Perfect shooting distance. But with their trajectory, I might've dropped one in a field where I couldn't see it drop - which means losing the bird. And that car was there, which meant it was likely I couldn't keep swinging and take a second shot if a bird flew low. So I held fire.

The driver rolled down his window. "You know, you can't hit 'em if you don't shoot!"

Really? No, I didn't know that! Thanks for the tip!

At this point, mentally, I really had my tits in a ringer (as my dad used to say), and I started shooting even worse. I was plowing through ammunition. Expensive ammunition, because I converted to steel this year.

Bill, close to his limit, came over to see how things were going. I whined and acted irritated. Oooh, I hate it when I get like this. Big freakin' baby.

My confidence had utterly deserted me, and without confidence, I'm toast.

Calm down, calm down. I sat my soggy butt on my chair and breathed slowly.

How will I ever get my average back down?

Shut up, moron!

Wow, what an idiot, that I would allow my quest for a good average to get in the way of good shooting.

I decided to stop counting. And I started shooting well again. Not perfectly - there were some bad shots, and there was one dove in particular whose mid-air gyrations almost made me laugh as I was pulling the trigger. But my strap was filling up, and by the time the flight stopped - all the birds were now on the ground feeding - I had eight, just two shy of the daily limit. And I was happy with that.

I picked up my enormous pile of shells, trying to leave the farmer's field tidy, and put them in my bag without playing the numbers game.

I was proud of myself. This was the first time that I've gotten really psyched out about bad shooting - I mean really pissy - and actually pulled myself out of it.

Back at home, Boyfriend was waiting to cook me what was about to become my very favorite new dove recipe: dove breasts in a sunflower-seed crust. Boyfriend has a thing for combining game animals with the foods that they like to eat. Oh. My. God. Divine.

And if none of those four pieces of food porn appealed to you, check out Boyfriend's dove recipe page - there are more recipes there.

It's been a great dove season so far. I told Bill I won't be able to get out during the week now because it just kills me to do that and school - it's just too taxing. But maybe Friday afternoon...

And maybe I'll be shooting better again by then. Or maybe not. Who cares?

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Alison said...

Oh my goodness they look delicious, now I'm even more sorry I didn't get a chance to go with you this year!

And I definitely shoot worse when I'm trying too hard, if I can manage to loosen up it always goes better. I'm guessing that counting averages is similar to that, it's great that you were able to pull yourself out of it!

Phillip said...

Holly, sounds like Bill hooked you up on a "spot"...but good!

Beyond that... I swear you think too much!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Alison: Oh yeah, them's some yummy little birds!

Phillip: If I didn't think too much, I wouldn't be me! But I am trying to cool it when I'm in the field...

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Nice work, Holly! Isn't "Ten doves a-grilling" part of that song?

It's amazing how big a role confidence plays, and in so many things. Bobby Jones said that golf is played on a 5 1/2-inch course -- the space between your ears. Same with shooting, many other sports, and even commodity trading (as my husband will tell you).

Funny how the pigeons have the good sense to get out of the way -- not for nothing did they get to be everywhere.

NorCal Cazadora said...

I like the musical way you think, Tamar!

And funny you should bring up golf - at one point during the hunting extravaganza Bill quipped that he needed to take up something easy, like golf.

And yes, pigeons are pretty bright. I'm convinced the only thing that keeps doves so abundant is that they are very, very prolific.

gary said...

Man they look good! I've never shot one, or eaten one and I don't know why. Maybe cause Bow elk season is open at the same time! Sounds like a lot of fun but it is funny how something can get in your head and distract you from your truest intentions.

Josh said...

I'm vacillating between being really happy for you and being really jealous/pissed... I'll stick with happy.

Sadly, I'm free this week, so let me know if you all are going to hit up some public land...

NorCal Cazadora said...

Public land? No. But Hank and I have decided that if we get our farm before we're too old to hunt, we're going to grow safflower. You'll be invited, of course :-)

hodgeman said...

Nice shooting Holly!

Don't sweat the average shells per bird...this isn't baseball, the doves won't hold your batting average against you next season!

I bet Hank can do something flat amazing with dove...

SimplyOutdoors said...

Way to stay about average, Holly!

This thing they call dove hunting sounds like an absolute blast. And those pictures of the dove aftermath are making me extremely hungry.

It really is too bad we can't hunt doves in Michigan. I might need to plan an out-of-state hunt.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Sniff sniff! That's the about the most touching compliment I've ever gotten! ;-)

Rich Mellott said...

Hi Holly,
it's not fair! The other day I drove for 2 hours, and saw 3 dove setting down on the top of a ridge, about 200 yards away, without shooting light. But I did have a great day, and saw the sunset from outside, so I'm happy to just read and drool over your pictures. Save me a doggie bag!

NorCal Cazadora said...

I hope it's some solace that the only other dove hunt I've had that's come close to this past week was a 4-1/2 hour drive from here.

The hardest part for me is that because I'm relying on a friend's invitation, it's not a resource I can share with my friends.

Josh said...

Okay, I'll root for you buying the farm... literally, not figuratively.
: )

Rich Mellott said...

Went out again tonight, and did a little better...no birds, but I was on the ridgetop this time, different area, and I actually flushed a few dove at sunset. I missed two shots, and saw about a dozen birds (most never even close), so I'm getting the hang of picking/walking the country around here. Also, I only drove about an hour for this one, and I can go back with a friend later. Public land, not hunted much.

Rich Mellott said...

p.s. Getting on that ridgetop took me an hour of switchbacking up the dirt hillside, with a pack and a shotgun. Then, coming off, I went down a gully, and had a lot of fun crashing through the brush like a rabid elephant. Came back, and peeled off some soaking wet camo. Gonna lose some weight or croak doing this!