Two days before the season started, I went to take a look at my sweet little spot from last year – a big state wildlife area bordered on the south by an oak-and willow-lined ditch, and beyond that, fields of sunflower and safflower. It wasn’t always great shooting, but it was pretty solid. And there was never competition from other hunters because you had to hike across an Africa-hot savanna to get there.
I could see right away things wouldn’t be the same this year.
Last year, sheep had grazed in the savanna, keeping the growth pretty manageable, but there was no sign of sheep this year, so growth was thick and chest high, despite the drought.
When I made it to the border, I realized how much the shepherd’s ATV must have done last year to make the place huntable. This year, the growth was so thick along his “road” that nothing looked terribly hospitable to open-ground-loving doves. The Mojos were going to look pretty out of place.
Across the ditch to the south, I saw nothing but fields that had been disked to a fine dust – no sign of the dove-magnet seed crops. I found out later the farmer had planted melons, but there was no sign of any life in those fields now.
But I did see some doves, and that was good enough for me. I love limits, but I don’t require them. And lacking a better spot, not to mention loathe to fork out a couple hundred bucks for a harvest that could be measured in ounces, I was going to give this place a go again.
On opening day, I took a party of five out there for the afternoon. While we saw some doves, it was a bust.
But I just knew it could be good, so I went back the next afternoon. Teala, a friend who’d hunted it with me last year, followed me out there about 45 minutes later.
I guided her in to my spot via cell phone. “Look for these trees,” I texted, attaching a photo. I sat in the sparse shade of young willows, the buzzing of a wasp colony a little too close for comfort over my head. When she was about five minutes away, I saw the unmistakable outline of a dove flying toward me from the west on the tree line.
Wait, wait, stand, swing, shoot, shoot, down!
I made a beeline to the spot where it fell, and there it was. OK! My spot hadn’t lost its magic!
Teala had no problem finding me after that, and we had clear evidence that doves could be killed where I was sitting, so I gave her my spot and hauled my stuff farther down the line to give us some space. I had just begun to cool off after the walk when I looked up and saw a dove coming in.
Stand, swing, shoot, down!
I retrieved the bird and returned to my stool in time to hear a text message come in.
It was Teala.
I texted back: “You should come down h…” and when I looked up a dove was barreling straight into my Mojo, already in range when I saw it. I flung my phone, grabbed my gun. Shoot! Down!
“Whore!” she yelled.
I love hunting with women.
After the retrieve, I found my phone and finished my text, and she joined me.
I got two more that day before I finally started missing, and when I did, like a switch had been flipped, Teala got her first bird. And she really, really got it. She knew she’d hit it on the first shot, but fearing it might sail across the ditch, where we’d have to walk a mile to retrieve it, she hit it again on the way down, and it fell into a wild rose bush right next to her, thorns stripping feathers as it fell.
It wasn’t hard to find. Just hard to reach. When she lifted it above the bush, I could see it was pretty tattered. Center patterned.
That was it for us, and despite my missing, I was jubilant. My spot had produced a good hunt! Not lights out, but I was happy. Back at our cars, Teala and I cracked a couple beers to celebrate the blessed return of hunting. There is no finer place in the world than wherever you are sitting with a friend after a fun hunt.
Then when I returned a few days later, alone, I didn’t fire a single shot. Didn’t see anything even remotely in range. I started picking compact little rose hips from the scraggly bushes along the ditch. As the boyfriend always says, if you know how to forage, you never get skunked.
And I just knew that if I got immersed in the roses, doves would come in.
But they didn’t.
Two days later, same thing. Came home with a pocket full of rose hips.
By this time, the reports had been coming in consistently: Almost everyone in Northern California was having a crappy dove season. But I didn’t want to give up. I texted a friend who’d hunted a different spot on this wildlife area and asked where he’d been, thinking maybe I was being stubborn about my spot. He texted me a map.
When I went there – alone again – I thought it had possibilities. It was along a deep gully that had a bit of water here and there, and a good tree line. I set up where I saw the most shells on the ground – literally more than I’d shot all season – picked up the slobs’ litter (NOT my friend’s), then waited for the flight that never came.
I got one dove that day when I took a stroll along the gully. As I walked, a dove burst up from the floor of the gully and disappeared around a tree before I could get a shot off. I looked back to where he’d come from and there was another one, pacing, with that “Oh shit, oh shit!” look. As I lifted my gun, he lifted his wings and I shot him.
When I plucked him later, his crop was empty, his keel bone protruding, one wing bearing the clear markings of a shot injury a few days old. That explained the look. He’d really had no escape on the barren hardened-mud floor of the gully. It had been a grim addition to my strap.
I began to question my sanity, returning time after time to this place when it seemed clear it was NEVER going to be good.
Part of me was holding out for a miracle. Last year, it wasn’t until closing day that I’d had my very best shoot at this spot – a limit! That could still happen.
But as I trudged out there for my last hunt of this season, I knew it was folly. I hadn’t seen a single dove on the drive out there. It was obvious I just wanted to be right about my spot having some magic. It was a spot I’d found on my own, and it was public land – I didn’t need anyone’s permission to hunt there, and I didn’t have to pay for the privilege. That’s a beautiful thing in this state.
I hiked across the savanna to my spot, set up, and started picking rose hips. Nothing was flying. I tried to be Zen about it. Just enjoy the afternoon, Holly. And scan the sky.
At 6 p.m., I saw a dove coming down the tree line from the west, just like that first one almost two weeks earlier. Wait, wait, stand, swing, shoot, shoot, down!
Not more than five minutes later, I looked up to see another one coming in low, straight at me. Wait, stand, shoot down!
Had the magic come back? Would this be the glorious end I’d hoped for?
That was it. I stayed until the last shred of sun dropped behind the distant oak tree line, and nothing else came in range.
But I’d gotten two birds, and that was enough. Enough to know my little spot may not be great, but if there were any doves to be had, it wasn’t insane to believe I’d find them there. Decent hunting there was not just a mirage.
So I’ll be back next year.
Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at www.hollyheyser.com.