A week ago, I was worried that I was going to have a lousy dove season because I hadn't shot skeet much over the summer. I figured by this time - 10 days into the season - I'd be burning through spendy steel shells at a shameful rate.
For some strange reason, it didn't occur to me that my spot might be anything short of epic the way it was last year. I can still smell the best day - hot, dusty, sweaty, doves coming in so relentlessly that I couldn't reload fast enough. Blood, feathers and dirt on my hands. A limit well before the sun went down. That funny feeling: It's too early to leave!
Well, I certainly haven't had to endure that problem this year. But what's really peculiar is that I seem to be enjoying the season just as much.
My first day sucked, by most dove-hunting standards. I went out with friends last Saturday morning and staked out a spot in a shallow, dry ditch. The flight was minimal. My two best opportunities came from behind and the birds were too far away before I saw them. I got distracted by pigeons and kept firing at them, somehow forgetting that pigeons wear body armor and will not succumb to anything less than a shell full of BBs. For me, at least.
I killed one dove that morning, but I never found it in the neatly identical rows of the stiff, foot-high stalks of cut safflower. I'd rather kill nothing at all than kill a bird only to fail to retrieve it. No bueno.
But throughout the whole thing, I found that the rhythm of the day so comforting. As the sky brightened, I re-awakened my long-distance ID skills: Killdeer? Swallow? Dove? Oh yeah, swallows don't land in the field...
Even the methodical search for the lost dove felt good. My eyes had spent the summer looking through camera lenses and staring at images and words on computer screens, but now they knew what to do: Let your focus go limp, sweep a short arc in front of you, left, right, left, right.
It felt so good that I went home cheerful, despite being just eight shells poorer.
The next day, I went back for an evening hunt. The flight wasn't much better, but I planted myself in the sweetest little spot: It was in a corner of the safflower field. There was a little triangle of uncultivated land that housed bee hives, junk, star thistle, blackberries, a fig tree and ...
... a big covey of quail. I laughed as I punched down a spot in the waist-high weeds, then set up my chair and settled in.
It was a much better spot than the ditch. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see several doves pecking at the dirt in the shade - too far from me, and besides, I would've been shooting toward a road. But after a while, they got up. I wheeled around, raised my gun ...
... I'd never find them if I dropped them in that weedy triangle, so I lowered my gun. But then they curved around.
Bang! Bang! One dropped 10 yards from me at the edge of the triangle. As I approached it, I saw how enormous it was. Gotta be one of those Eurasian collared doves.
I was right. This was my first - a good one to have in the bag because there's no limit on them. They're invasive, and the state would like us to kill as many as possible.
I got two more doves that afternoon. Dropped 'em about ten yards into the safflower field where I had no trouble finding them. But my favorite shot of the day was my last one.
I'd been seeing movement in the field, but when I'd stare to figure out what I was seeing, all I saw was crisp safflower leaves waving in the breeze. A dove came in and I shot once and missed. Couldn't take a second shot because I would've dropped it where I could never retrieve it, but I didn't have time to fuss over that, because the field exploded. Wave upon wave upon wave of quail came speeding out of the field, flying straight over my head to get back into the triangle.
I laughed and laughed and laughed - at myself. They had completely infiltrated the field in front of me while I was scanning the skies. Good thing they weren't armed - I'd've been dead.
The next afternoon - Labor Day - was even slower. I was wearing my Sport Ears - hearing aids that amplify most sound, but cut off high-decibel sounds like gunshots - and I spent most of the time just listening to sounds around me. The whinny of a horse that sounded so close I was sure he was about to step on me. A guy running with his dog along a distant ditch, yapping so much that he had to be on his cell phone. The liquid burblings of the quail in the triangle. The crunch of ... people? Behind me in the triangle?
Had to be, but I didn't turn around. They were probably scavenging for junk, and I was content to keep scanning the sky in front of me.
I'd fired only one shot so far - suh-wing and a miss! - but just before sunset, a dove came in. Stand, shoot, thump. I marched quickly into the field straight in front of me, but there was no need for speed - he was dead. When I turned around, bird in hand, I saw deep in the weedy triangle two men, alert and upright as prairie dogs, staring at me, bug-eyed. I suppressed a giggle.
Turns out they were the beekeepers. I'd heard them, but I'd kept so still that they'd had no idea I was about 20 feet from them.
"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you!"
Man, I hope they didn't get stung.
I went out again yesterday, this time with Jesse, one of my students who's interested in learning to hunt. It was still slow, but a useful experience. One dove came in, and I rose to shoot, then dropped back down.
"I would've muzzle-blasted you if I shot," I explained. Jesse's an Iraq vet. The last freakin' thing he needs is a muzzle-blasting.
Another came in, and I shot once, then stopped when it arced in a bad direction.
"Why didn't you shoot again?" he asked.
"I would've dropped it in these weeds, and I'd never find it."
Finally one came in perfectly. I shot once and dropped him about 15 yards away at the edge of the triangle. I bolted out of my little weed blind to get him - again, stone dead, no need to rush - and when I turned around, there was Jesse, following me. He wanted to see.
I handed the bird to him - warm, limp, blood dripping from his beak.
"Wow, you shot him in the head!"
That was it. No more birds came in where I could shoot without blasting Jesse or dropping a bird where I couldn't find it, so we just talked as the sun dropped.
With just a few minutes to go, I turned toward the field and saw a cottontail ambling right to left on the little dirt road lining the triangle. Ten yards in front of me.
Cottontail! I'd just eaten the last of my cottontail from summer hunting. I wanted another.
I stood to shoot, but the bunny got that "Oh shit!" look on his face and bolted. I still had a shot, technically, but I would've had to shoot across Jesse to get him, so I sat back down and just laughed.
When the sun dropped below the horizon, we picked up our stuff and went back to the car. I drove Jesse back to his house and showed him how to pluck and clean a bird. Showed him how easy the feathers come off a dove. Had him squeeze the bird's crop so he can see where it stored seed.
I cut off the bird's butt and started pulling stuff out. "This is the gizzard - it grinds seed. Feel how hard it is - it's a really strong muscle."
Jesse squeezed it. Then I handed him the heart. "The cat would love that!"
Turns out his kitten didn't love it, but she was absolutely thrilled with the bird's head, which she batted happily across the porch.
Then I handed Jesse the liver. He'd told me he loved liver. He popped it straight into his mouth. He said it tasted like clotted nosebleed, which, strangely enough, he found likable.
We went inside the house to rinse the bird. It was beautiful, perfectly shot - I'd hit only the head. "Want it?" I said, offering it to him.
It was funny: I went into this season thinking I'd have a huge stockpile of doves by now, that I'd be firing up the grill to eat 'em up so I could go out and hunt more without going over my possession limit. But the way things are going, I won't even have a single day's limit by the end of the day Sunday, which will be my last chance to get out before the season closes.
What I have stockpiled instead, though, is a series of vivid memories that I've been savoring as much as the fleeting ecstasy of grilled dove.
The memories last longer.
And there'll be another chance to fill the freezer next year.
Holly A. Heyser is a former newspaper reporter and editor who went on her first hunt at age 41 and immediately fell in love with the honesty, grace and humility of acquiring food the hard way. She has combined her two loves - journalism and hunting - in her current job as editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. She also does food photography on the side. Click here to contact her.
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