<
>

The swoosh of September

9/1/2004

The dawn is oftentimes pleasant, even in my home state of Texas, with the temperature falling somewhere between the oppressive heat and humidity of late summer and the forthcoming crisp, cool days of autumn.

But even if there isn't any cool air to be found in these parts a half-hour before sunrise on Sept. 1, I'll still be afield — me and thousands of my shotgun-toting kinsmen on the south side of the Red River.

After all, it isn't the promise of cool air as August falls from the calendar that draws me outdoors every year on that date.

No, it's the whistle of wings, the distinctive whistling swoosh of a mourning dove rocketing overhead — before the afterburners kick in, of course.

From Texas to Timbuktu, the encroachment of modern civilization has done little to quench the call of the wild that begins every year when the calendar flips to September in a nearby grain field or around a waterhole.

That's why I'll have the Lab in tow this week, fighting fire ants along the way, all for the chance at a handful of birds that, when coupled with bacon, a jalapeno slice and a red hot grill, offer some of the finest eating this side of a five-star restaurant.

But opening day of dove season is more than just the prospect of fine eating. It's far more than that, actually.

For starters, there is the tradition associated with opening day, a date on the calendar that holds all of the promise of Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July rolled into one.

When I receive a new calendar every year, there is one date that gets scribbled in before any other — the dove opener.

It's a good thing that my wife's birthday isn't Sept. 1. Ditto for my kid's birthdays. Otherwise we would have to hold their annual celebrations in a local grain field or around a nearby stock tank.

I'm just kidding … I think.

In many parts of the southern Great Plains, the tradition of opening day brings the atmosphere of a local county fair as old friends shake the dust off handshakes, uncase the pump shotguns, sip on a cold Coca Cola — or in my case, a Diet Coke — and laugh at how rusty each other's shotgunning skills have become since last year at this time.

Throw in kids on their first hunting trips and the clownish antics of a Labrador retriever who doesn't like dove feathers in her mouth and you've got a great recipe for a morning or afternoon of wingshooting fun.

As long as everyone is careful and remembers the lessons of gun safety from their hunter-education classes, that is.

To top off the tradition, some of the more elaborate dove hunts feature a pile of Texas barbecue, baked beans and potato salad, to boot.

While I've never had the privilege of being invited to such an affair before, I think I could quickly clear my calendar and change hunting plans for this week if such an invitation was to find its way onto my answering machine!

Aside from the tradition of opening day, dove hunting also gives a shotgunners a chance to show off their shooting skills for hunting buddies — if you can call it that since the shooting average across Texas is a paltry one dove bagged per every five shots fired.

Why is that? Take a hunter whose physical senses have been dulled by another hot summer of lawn care, an over/under that hasn't seen the light of day since last duck season and a diminutive gray ghost that can kick it into Mach One as the first salvos are fired, and you have an ammunition maker's dream.

But perhaps the best reason of all to enjoy the opening day of dove season is what it represents: the hint of autumn hunting pleasures soon to come.

With each passing day, the heat of summer will slowly begin to wane — the key word is slowly in my part of the world — into the cool, crispness of autumn as ducks and geese wing south, bobwhites queue up into coveys, the leaves on the Creator's palette turn their brilliant colors and secretive whitetail bucks suddenly appear on a frosty dawn with love on their minds.

Sure, I know what the calendar says: Autumn's official beginning is still weeks away.

And I know all too well what the thermometer has been saying in recent days across much of the country: Summer's heat isn't ready to go off quietly into the September sunset just yet.

But don't try to tell any of that to me, or any of my hunting cronies, this week.

For the legions of us who still thrill to the ancient chase of table fare on the wing and on the hoof, we all know better.

Let the outdoor games of autumn begin. The swoosh of September serves as a harbinger — a sure sign that fall in all its hunting glory is finally at hand.