The problem with that scenario is the word “farm,” which requires “permission,” which, me not personally knowing any farmers, means, “I need a friend who has access to a farm.”
Makes you feel a bit like a leech, having to say that year after year, depending on others to put you on the birds. What I really wanted this year was my own spot, and California not being the kind of place where you can walk up to a farmhouse and get permission to hunt, that meant public land.
Miraculously, my first task – finding a spot – was easy: Earlier this year, I’d gone on a tour of some wildlife areas with a group of bird watchers. I’d been hoping to spot some honey holes for duck season, but the light-bulb moment of the day came when one of our tour guides held up a map showing what crops were being planted directly south of one of the wildlife areas, and there it was:
And next to that: SUNFLOWER.
I’m pretty sure I salivated. I wouldn’t be able to hunt those fields, but I was well aware that doves like flying the lines at the edges of fields, so there was a strong chance being on the public-land edge would be good enough.
I’d hoped to head out to the spot before dove season to look for empty shells to see if it was heavily hunted – that last thing I wanted to do was have to fight for a spot, or worse, deal with a bunch of rude jacklegs. But I got busy and never went for that walk until the day the season started, and that’s when I quickly learned that I had misjudged this place.
The spot I wanted to hunt was the farthest you could go from the parking lot, so I walked down the tree line on one border, came across one lone dove hunter at the edge of a pond, waved, and pushed through the woods behind him, certain I was close to glory.
The woods were magical – a little oak forest absolutely covered with turkey sign and not a single human footprint to be seen. It felt like the places I’d explored as a little kid, only the imminent possibility of a supernatural occurrence – which was what pulled my imaginative self through the woods as a child – had been replaced with the equally imminent and much more likely possibility of seeing game. It was exhilarating.
When I finally reached the edge of the woods, I looked south and saw not a farm field, but a vast field of wild grasses. Had the crop map been wrong? Had it not said 2013? I was sure it had said 2013!
Well, hell. I wasn’t certain this field was part of the wildlife area. But I didn’t see any “no trespassing” signs, so I decided to head into the field.
A stiff south wind kept me cool as I wove through hip-high bunch grasses, dried bull thistle and scrubby stands of wild carrot, mentally noting the locations of the latter for my foraging maniac boyfriend.
The field was being patrolled by a fleet of raptors – red-tailed hawks, Swainson’s hawks, kites and others I couldn’t identify. I was hoping to see jack rabbits lurking in the grass (yum!), but all I saw was what the hawks were after: tiny little furry shadows diving for cover as I approached. The birds flew low over the field, occasionally folding their wings for a brief dive. I rooted for them.
A coyote trotted into view 20 feet in front of me. I froze. With the wind in my face, he couldn’t smell a thing, and he was so busy looking over his left shoulder that he wasn’t even looking in my direction. He stopped, looked, trotted again, stopped again, looked over his shoulder again, then disappeared, never the wiser.
What was it he’d been looking at? I spotted them quickly: two white things pushing through the grass maybe 50 yards away. Pigs? Dear God, I hoped they weren’t pigs. I had only No. 7 shot, and there was not a single tree to climb for at least 200 yards if they decided to chase me.
They didn’t walk like pigs. They walked like polar bears. That would REALLY suck with only No. 7 shot to defend myself.
But Holly, it’s California. They’re not polar bears. OK, the overactive childhood imagination is apparently still intact.
I remained frozen and they ambled my way, eventually becoming a couple really fat sheep. Must’ve been escapees from a herd, on their own long enough to have some wits about them, because when they got where the coyote had stood, they saw my silhouette, stomped a few times, then turned around. They didn’t know what I was, but they didn’t like me, which did much to repair my poor estimation of domestic sheep intelligence.
I grinned, ear to ear. I hadn’t seen a single dove, and now I didn’t care, because encounters like that just make my day. Something happened – sense of possibility fulfilled!
I was starting to feel like Christopher Columbus. I’d been so sure I would be at that safflower field by now, and all I’d done was find this other glorious place. But it was getting late, and I decided to turn around so I wouldn’t find myself miles from my car at sunset. On the walk back, I eventually saw a few doves and even took a few shots, but didn’t get anything.
Back home that night, I pored over satellite photos and maps and realized I had vastly underestimated the size of that wildlife area, and that I’d probably made it only halfway to the Promised Land of safflower. A few days later I went back and went all the way to the border, and I found that there were doves flying on that line right where they should be. I even hit a few of them. Every few days after that I went back again, sometimes alone, sometimes bringing friends, sometimes seeing few birds and shooting well, other times seeing a lot of birds and missing all of them.
What I didn’t see was other hunters. Personally, I love dove hunting because the birds are 1) challenging to shoot and 2) delicious. But I was getting the strong impression that there aren’t many people willing to hike very far to get to the birds. Me, I didn’t care if I had to hike three miles on a hot afternoon for a few ounces of meat. I needed the exercise, and crossing that wind-swept field was good for my soul.
On the final night of the season, I went out there one last time, bringing my boyfriend and another friend, a newbie hunter. I’d given the newbie the best spot, the place where I’d had doves barrel in straight at me over and over, but I ended up parking my chair on what would turn out to be the best spot of that particular day. And miracle of miracles, I shot really well, killing nine of the first eleven birds that came my way. Bam, thump, bam, thump, bam, thump. Missed a few after that, then got my groove back and finished my limit, well before sunset.
It felt like a reward – a reward for taking the initiative to go find a spot of my own, and definitely a reward for being willing to hike farther than most people are apparently willing to hike to hunt doves. Maybe it’ll be different there next year, but that doesn’t matter, because now I know that fortune-cookie saying can be true: The harder you work, the luckier you get. And “can” – just the possibility – is good enough for me.
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 hollyheyser.com.