Cancel what I said before. I’ve probably already been carried off in a straightjacket.
Here’s the funny thing: If you had seen my first dove hunt ever, you probably would’ve predicted that I’d never do it again.
It was the weekend after the opener, in the afternoon. Hot, hot, hot. California ain’t all beaches and bon bons – the Central Valley, where dove hunting rocks, is a furnace.
My boyfriend Hank and I were going to join our friends Edward and Tom X (names changed for reasons that will soon become apparent) in a young almond orchard – trees no more than 6 feet high, lots of bare dirt, lots of dove weed. Yeah, heaven for doves.
Tom X and some of his friends had hunted the opener there and apparently it had been quite a bloodbath. The place was filthy with doves. Very auspicious!
We convened at the orchard, and then did something that baffled me: We spread out. Wait, you guys are leaving me alone? I’ve never hunted doves before. I’m not even sure I can identify them on the wing. Uh … OK …
There was some shooting here and there, but it didn’t sound anything like how they’d described the opener.
I eventually figured out what doves on the wing looked like and started taking shots at them, but I couldn’t hit anything. I was used to this from my duck hunting – I was still a really new hunter – but it seemed like this was unusually challenging.
I hadn’t learned yet that doves are the most nimble acrobats in wingshooting, and that the average dove hunter shoots five to eight shells for every one bird in the bag.
At one point, two men in a white pickup drove by, and I nodded at them courteously. I didn’t know if they were fellow hunters or farm workers, but I knew it was important to be courteous when you’re wielding a shotgun.
As their dust trail dissipated, something amazing happened: I shot at a dove and actually hit it! I saw the bird tumble to the dirt just two rows ahead of where I stood. Jubilant, I rushed over to claim my bird.
Which wasn’t there. How could it not be there? I saw it fall. It did not get up and fly away. I know it didn’t!
I hadn’t learned yet that one reason doves love bare dirt is that they blend in with bare dirt really well. I searched and searched and searched until I’d lost all perspective on where the bird dropped, and then searched some more.
Hank called out to me: “Holly! We’ve got to go!”
I yelled back: “No, I’m looking for a bird!”
He yelled back: “No, we have to go NOW!”
Seriously? I don’t give up easily when I know I’ve wounded an animal. And this was my first dove ever. Reluctantly, I gave up and sulked my way to Hank. That’s when I found out what had gone down after that truck passed me.
First it came to Hank. “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing here?” the driver asked.
Surprised, Hank said, “I’m here with Tom X!”
The driver moved on to Edward. “Who the f*** are you and what the f*** are you doing here?”
He too was baffled. “I’m here with Tom X,” he said.
The driver finally came up to Tom X and asked him the same question. “I’m Tom X, and my friend (insert property owner name here – your guess is as good as mine) said we could hunt here.”
“This isn’t his property. Get the hell out!” the driver said.
Oopsie. Wrong address.
So we all got the hell out while Tom called his buddy, who said his property was the adjacent orchard. I honestly can’t tell you what kind of orchard it was, but the trees were so mature and the canopy so thick – no sunlight penetrated it – that I’d have to guess it was walnut. Not exactly ideal dove hunting grounds.
We all parked our butts along a dirt road that separated that orchard from the one we wished we had permission to hunt and took pokes at the doves that flew by once in a while, but I don’t think we hit any. If we did, there’s no way we ever could have found them in that dark orchard.
We moved to another spot that we were pretty sure was Tom’s friend’s property, and between the three of us, we might’ve bagged a couple more birds. And by “we,” I mean “they.” When shoot time ended, we cracked open cans of Coors Light. That was the highlight of my hunt.
My next dove season went a little better, but not much. I mean, we weren’t trespassing, so that was an improvement, but I wasn’t exactly filling my bag.
It was last year when everything changed. I can’t say exactly what did it, because so much had happened. I’d switched from a 20 gauge to a 12 gauge. I’d spent my summer vacation shooting a LOT of skeet, shooting doubles at every station. It was my fifth year of hunting; in terms of mastering a craft, I was a solid journeyman now.
And my friend Bill had the most amazing dove hunting spot ever: a field of cut safflower, lined by a field of sunflowers, more safflower, and behind us, one big block of uncut alfalfa – just to keep us on guard about where we dropped our birds. Best of all, Bill actually had permission to hunt this place.
I think. I mean, that’s what he told me.
Anyway, I bagged a lot of doves last September. Hank and I enjoyed Roman-style orgies of dove eating – he’s a food writer (www.honest-food.net), and he used our good fortune to develop some really spectacular recipes for dove.
Hunt, eat, hunt, eat, hunt, eat. Doves taste sooooo good.
With all that success, it was easier now to enjoy the finer points of dove hunting: the spectacular shot on a bird that had just defied the laws of aerodynamics, the spectacular miss of said type of bird, the amazing retrieval of a bird the color of dirt, the fact that you don’t have to hide much at all, and that you can freely shout down the line, “Coming your way!” I get it now.
Which is why I hope you’ll excuse me – I’ve got to call Edward. Or Tom. Or Bill. Get me outta this office!
Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, food photographer and college journalism lecturer. She writes a blog about hunting at http://norcalcazadora.blogspot.com.and shoots food photos for boyfriend Hank Shaw, who writes a blog about wild food at http://honest-food.net.