Opening Dove Season
Me and my best gun against small, fast birds
I stopped at the top of the hill, then eased back into an opening in the first cornrow. The shadows cast by the tall stalks shielded me from the blazing afternoon sun, and the camouflage clothes I wore minimized my presence. Placing an ammo bag and a soft cooler in the row beside me, I gently broke open the slim, Fox 16-gauge I was going to shoot that day.
Dropping two shells into the chambers, I closed the gun. The sharp click that an Ansley Fox shotgun makes when its lock seats home is like few others. It has been compared to the sound of a finely made safe closing, and in a sense it is.
When this particular gun was crafted in Philadelphia some 85 years ago, it was one of the finest sporting guns ever made in America. In my opinion, it still is. It has been a boon hunting companion to me for over 30 years.
I have always shot this particular Fox better than any of my other bird guns, and today I knew that I would need every edge I could get. It was the opening day of dove season in Maryland. Doves are one of our smaller game birds, but they are not to be taken lightly.
The Nature of Doves
Christened the mourning dove for their flutelike, haunting call, these avian rockets are particularly handsome. Males and females appear identical, a lovely slate gray color on their backs, breasts buff brown with a distinctive white edge to their tail feathers. With gracefully slender necks, doves have glistening black eyes centered on a small, elegant head.
The feathers make a whistling noise as they flush from the ground or as they accelerate overhead and they always seem to be accelerating when you see them. They probably weigh less than three ounces.
Mourning doves can cruise at 65 miles an hour, but they have been reliably reported passing automobiles on interstates at speeds well in excess of that. I have personally found that they can maneuver exceedingly well at any velocity. They are the most popular, and arguably the most challenging, game bird in America.
The bag limit on these birds is 12 and has been as long as I can remember. As other species decline, these bird maintain a remarkably resilient population. Their secrets of abundance are fecundity as well as flying prowess.
Nesting five and sometimes six times during their six-month breeding season, these birds reach sexual maturity quickly. The third nesting of the year often includes doves born in the first hatch. Mourning dove pairs generally have two hatchlings per nesting.
Migratory by nature, they reside throughout the 48 states and Canada. In early autumn, they begin their southern journey. They travel all the way down through the U.S., with many birds continuing on well into Mexico to winter.
The Thrill of the Hunt
Not surprisingly, more shotgun shells are expended at doves than at all other game birds combined. But in tribute to their aerial prowess, hunting accounts for barely 15 percent of the bird’s overall mortality rate.
Hawks, owls, foxes, domestic cats and other predators take a much heavier toll on the population. Only about 30 percent of their overall numbers survive the first year, though they can potentially live to be 10 years old.
Opening day in Fredrick brought vindication to me and my old Fox. It held up its end in knocking down our 12-bird limit, and I was ecstatic with not only the afternoon’s excitement but also the glow of reawakened memories of similar shoots in years past.
As the day ended and I joined up with my friend Greg Avedon, who had invited me, and our host, Meryl Maynes, back at his beautiful farm, the rest of the party was already gathered, putting gear away, recounting successful shots and readying for the trip home.
No one bothered to explain the obvious quantity of empty cartridges in buckets and bags. Anyone who has ever hunted these great birds knows that you miss many more than you hit. But no one cares, because the next best thing to shooting and hitting a dove is shooting and missing it.