For Your Consideration… Shooting Doves Out Of The Trees
September 5, 2012
Maybe I’m feeling a little pugilistic tonight. It’s Wednesday night, after all, and I haven’t even bothered to post so much as an update since last week. Along with that, I keep finding myself dragged into the unwelcome world of political discussion… and these days, that’s an awful ugly place to be.
So I’m gonna just lay this out there and see what I get back.
Dove season opened here on Saturday, as it did across many parts of the country. It’s a big shindig for an awful lot of hunters… the kickoff to the fall season… a social occasion… and whatever else. The fields were full of shotgun toting nimrods, hoping to make the best of a handful of those feathered, grey rockets.
Wingshooting doves is a challenge. I forget the actual numbers, but the average number of shots fired for each bird killed is pretty ridiculous. They’re simply hard to hit… and when you consider that the vast majority of hunters in the field haven’t touched a gun since waterfowl or deer seasons ended last winter, that’s no surprise. But that’s also part of the fun of the annual hunt. Getting back into your swing, as it were, and that elation of knocking one of these creatures out of the air… well, they’re hard feelings to explain to anyone who hasn’t done it. And for many dove hunters, wingshooting is the name of the game. There’s no law (that I know of) against shooting them on the ground, or out of a tree, but most folks consider the real “sport” of a dove hunt to be in hitting the birds while they’re flying.
But what if you don’t?
Here’s the deal. All summer, I’ve had a pretty good number of doves moving across my little place here in the Hill Country. The majority of birds have been whitewings, mixed with a few mourning doves, and a fair number of Eurasian collared doves. The collared doves (AKA ringnecks) are considered an invasive, non-native species. Here in Texas, there are no restrictions, no seasons, and no limits for killing them. I’ve been shooting them out in the front yard with the pellet gun, pretty much since I moved in here. They’re delicious birds, plentiful, and I’ve never had qualms about picking a couple for the grill or skillet.
But the others, whitewings and mourning doves… those are different. The dove opener has been a tradition for me and some members of my family for as long as I can remember. And I’ve almost always preferred to stand out in the field and pop them out of the air. This year started out no differently. I’d been watching the birds every morning, as they’d land in my pasture and pick through the weeds, as well as the caliche gravel. I like to take Iggy for a walk most mornings, and as we’d stroll through the pasture we’d put a couple dozen birds up every day. With this in mind, I was pretty sure the dove opener would be a blast. I was out there before sunrise on Saturday, comfortably perched in a little brush pile with my dad’s old Ithaca Featherweight over my arm.
We waited and we waited. A few birds did get up and move from their roosts high up on the canyon to lower roosts. A couple crossed the field, appearing and disappearing before I could even get the gun up. As the morning heated up, the birds seemed to stop flying altogether. They never came down into the pasture. I don’t know, but someone could make the argument that there’s a secret society of intelligent and literate wildlife that reads and memorizes the seasons and regulations, and then passes that knowledge to the rest of the animal kingdom.
While the birds didn’t seem to fly much, they did come down the hill and light in the trees along the edge of my pasture. That first morning, after sitting tight for a couple of hours, I decided to go up and walk that treeline, in hopes of flushing birds into the open where I could shoot. Unfortunately, the birds were smarter than I was and tended to flush back into the woods instead of over the pasture. I circled my way around the pasture and finally back to the house after firing only four or five shots… mostly Hail Mary fusillades out of frustration.
With daytime temperatures over 100 all day, and no live water on my property, I knew continuing the hunt during the day was pointless. The birds sit tight in that heat, generally close to water and/or in the shade. I had stuff to do anyway. About an hour before sunset, I grabbed the gun and Iggy and headed back to the pasture. The birds that I did see flying before sunset never seemed interested in the pasture. Most flew in over my house, where the bird feeders hung, and followed the trees right back to their roosts up on the ridge.
I didn’t mess with the birds much on Sunday, but Monday morning dawned and I was really craving a dove dinner. I switched guns, since I’ve never been much of a wingshot with that old Ithaca, and took Iggy and my old Savage SxS out into the pasture. On the way out, we bumped a couple of birds out of the oaks, and I missed a couple of quick shots. Nothing jumped from the pasture, and for an hour or so, the dog and I sat in the brush pile watching one bird after another hop along in the oaks along the edge of the clearing. Once again, I decided to go try to jump shoot the birds, and once again, they simply flew away into the thick canopy.
Finally, I rounded a little bend and saw a group of birds perched in the dead branches of a big oak. I was only about 30 yards away… maybe less… and I’d come out where the birds hadn’t seen me. I took careful aim, and pounded the highest bird. The others, of course, scattered, and I spent my second barrel on one that practically flew into me in its panic. I missed. Hitting a flying bird at close range with full choke is no mean feat on the best of days, and this was not the best of my days.
I sent Iggy in for his first retrieve, anxious to see what he’d do. He had run out with me to fetch the ringnecks that I shot with the pellet gun, but I never pushed it with him. He’s still only 9 months old, but I let him find the bird (which he did handily), and then tried to coax him to fetch it. He picked it up, got a mouthful of feathers, and spit it out. Damn. This is a problem with doves, and especially with a young retriever. I encouraged him, cajoled, and called to him. He nosed the bird and pushed it around, but every time he took it in his mouth he spit it out. Unfortunately, he was deep in a thicket of juniper (cedar), and I couldn’t get to him. I just encouraged and encouraged, until he finally nosed the bird close enough for me to get to it.
Doves aren’t particularly big birds, and for a normal appetite, two or three birds are barely sufficient. Now, after all this work, I had one bird. Not only that, I had a dog that still wasn’t sure what to do with these feather puffs. I pocketed the bird and continued to creep along the treeline until I saw another group of birds perched. Again, I raised the gun, picked the most open shot, and cleanly killed a bird off the branch.
I won’t extend the story too much further, except to say I did it once again to make three birds and enough for a meal. All three birds fell in the thick cover, and I’m afraid the dog didn’t really get the kind of education I’d hoped for. But lessons were learned. After that, I took the gun and the dog and went back to the house.
So here’s the thing. Personally, I have no real problem with what I did. In purely pragmatic terms, I killed three birds out of the trees because I wanted to eat them. Killing them this way was definitely cleaner than wingshooting, because there’s much less margin for error. I know this gun, and I know it shoots where I point (god forbid I ever get a chance to take this thing to a turkey shoot!). I’m usually a pretty decent wingshot, although we all have good days and bad, but most times, I prefer to shoot my birds flying rather than sitting in a tree. This day was different. Even if I’d wanted to show off my skills as a wingshooter, there was no one around to see. I could have made up stories, of course. I could have just not said a thing to anyone. Instead, though, I’m laying it out here for no more noble purpose than to stimulate a conversation. What do you think? Would you do the same? If you feel like flaming, go ahead… but keep it civil.
What I’m really interested in is the justification of those who would “never stoop” to potting birds from the trees or off the ground?
So go for it.