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American shindig

9/10/2009

The September dove season opener: It's a shindig to beat all shindigs — a raucous, fun, once-a-year, call-all-your-friends and be-sure-you-don't-miss-it party to celebrate the end of the summer hunting drought.

In the world of hunting, nothing compares. Almost two million people in 38 states take part. Guests come tricked out in swanky ensembles by designers like RealTree, Mossy Oak and NatGear. Men, women, boys, girls, young, old, rich, poor — folks from all walks of life gather for a day of exciting wingshooting that keeps the shotshell manufacturers in business for another year.

The focus of all this attention is the beautiful, delicious, fast-flying little mourning dove, the most-hunted, most-harvested gamebird in North America. More than 40 million doves (about 10 percent of the total fall population) are taken by hunters each year, and darn near all those are killed on opening day.

PHOTO GALLERY

Launch Gallery

In the first week of September alone, American hunters harvest more mourning doves than the sum total of all the ducks, geese, snipe, woodcocks and other migratory birds killed throughout the year. No other gamebirds — few game animals, period — can compare to mourning doves when it comes to popularity.

Sons Matt, Zach and I hunt a friend's sunflower field in east Arkansas. It's a two-hour drive at four in the morning to get there, but we'd no more miss this hunt than we'd miss Christmas dinner.

On this day, the same scene plays out from California to Pennsylvania and Arizona to Georgia. We arrive at the field an hour before sun-up and join more than a dozen other hunters fortunate enough to be on the invitation list.

In the predawn darkness, everyone prepares. Shotguns are pulled from their cases; everything from brand-spanking-new, fancy European over/unders costing tens of thousands to ancient, scarred, hand-me-down double barrels used by generation after generation of wingshooting enthusiasts.

Everyone carries a seat as well — a bucket, a stool, a lawn chair. And all are groaning under the weight of shotshells. Lots of shotshells.

One box is never enough. Two might be, but probably not. Three works for most. But some, knowing their limitations when it comes to shooting fast-as-bullets doves, carry four boxes or five or even six, the 100 to 150 rounds they hope will produce a limit of 15 birds.

In most cases, it won't be enough.

Hunters disperse to the edges of the field. Fathers with sons. Husbands with wives. Friends with friends. Guns are loaded. Retrievers are calmed. Faces turn toward the sky. For a few minutes, all is quiet. And then ...

Thirty minutes before sunrise, the barrage begins. It crosses the landscape like a wave, a long swell of rapid-fire pops and bangs like distant fireworks. At times the firing of shotguns is so fast, it's hard to distinguish separate shots.

For the first hour of the day, it would be impossible to stand outdoors anywhere between Little Rock and Memphis without hearing the sounds of gunfire in all directions. From Wichita to Kansas City, the same. From St. Louis to Louisville, Cheyenne to Omaha, Pierre to St. Paul. In the safflower fields of California. Around the tanks in Texas. In the corn fields of Pennsylvania. On sandbars in the Mississippi.

Wherever habitat is right, there are doves, and there are hunters, and there is shooting and more shooting and more. Before the first day of September passes, billions — that's billions with a B — of shotshells will be fired from coast to coast and border to border, more than any other day throughout the year. Dove season has begun.

"Bird!" The warning rings out. Heads turn this way, then that. Where?

The doves come rocketing from behind at light speed. We swing, shoot, hit, miss.

"Birds!" again. Another flock rockets past. More shooting. More misses. Some hits.

Everyone gets in on the action. We watch hunters across the field leap up, swing, fire. One shot. Five. Ten. Three doves fall. A retriever fetches.

We're itchy ... our trigger fingers that is. We swing on dragonflies and killdeer and dickey birds. Gotta watch close. In the next flock of killdeer, two doves try to sneak past. They do. We don't see them until they're out of range. But they don't make it through the gauntlet. We call: "Birds!" Two hunters in the turnrow drop a single.

We spy the next flock before it arrives.

"Behind us," Matt whispers.

Zach and I look over our shoulders, and in the distance, we can make out the distinctive shapes of doves. The five birds cross the overgrown fencerow where we hide, then cup their wings, spin and tumble down. The boys shoot. I watch and smile and think how much fun it is to be here together enjoying the hunt and the outdoors.

For two and a half hours, the action continues. We watch. We talk. We shoot. We hit. We miss. We smile.

Empty hulls pile up around our feet. But our hearts are full. The morning brims with merriment, as much as one who loves wingshooting can stand.

When it comes time to leave, all the hunters grin and laugh and high five and pat each other on the back. But there's always a tinge of melancholy when it's over. Opening day is the day. Most of us won't hunt doves again until this time next year. And we know that nothing from now until then will equal it for sheer fun and enjoyment.

If only every day could be like this.