Sporting Life

Maryland’s First (and Tastiest) Game Bird

By Dennis Doyle

The mourning doves came in low and fast, just over the treetops, casually pumping their wings to maintain cruising speed, about 50 miles per hour. I tensed and readied myself, careful to remain motionless. Swiveling just my eyes to keep them in sight, I gripped the light 20-gauge over/under just a little tighter.

Then they were in range. I pitched the gun up to my shoulder, my cheek on the stock, and swung the barrels through to the second bird in the group and hit the trigger. Bam. The slight recoil rocked me back just a bit and my adrenaline surged as the bird collapsed in a burst of feathers.

Continuing to swing, my barrels then passed the first bird and I fired again to the same effect. Elated at scoring my first double of the dove season, I stepped out into the field to secure my prizes and also acknowledge that it was likely be a rare accomplishment. I’m not known for my marksmanship with the species.

Dove season is always one of the first of many game bird seasons in Maryland and opens Sept. 1 of every year. To those sportsmen who are addicted to wing-shooting, and there are many, this bird is among the best of them all. Though diminutive, at five to six ounces with a 17-inch wingspread, the rest of its sporting attributes are many and great.

It is of the fastest of all game birds with a top speed of over 60 miles an hour. You may recall, if searching your memories, noticing small flocks of these speedsters easily keeping pace with your automobile while transiting highways at that speed and above. With brisk tailwinds they’ve been known to exceed 100 mph.

One of my many indelible wing-shooting moments remains a dove hunt in a southern apple orchard with an approaching storm front featuring large, particularly strong and sustained gusts of wind. A string of doves screamed in over the treetops and, prepared, I swung quickly on the first dove. Giving it a healthy lead, I fired and was astounded to note that I’d hit a bird in the middle of the group, some 15 feet behind my target. I never got a chance at a second shot.

The gray speedsters are also quite delicious on the table and a simple bird to clean; their breasts pick easily and while it does improve their table quality a bit, it’s not necessary. Since their legs are very small, many hunters simply discard them, though gourmands hold them in a separate pile. Sautéed in butter and garlic they make a great finger-food.

The recipes for dove breasts are many and most are excellent. With a wrap of bacon they can be grilled over a charcoal fire with great results. Many folks add a pickled, half jalapeno inside that wrap to give the birds some extra pizzazz.

Others sauté the birds gently with a dusting of flour in butter and olive oil, adding mushrooms and sliced onion after they are well browned. Finishing with a pour of white wine at the end and a 10-minute simmer gives a rich gravy sauce; the delicious birds pair nicely with wild rice.

Even with a historically generous limit of 15 birds per day, mourning dove populations remain quite healthy as pairs may reproduce up to six times throughout the year. They have consistently been one of America’s most popular game birds with estimates of 20 million harvested each season out of a national population of 240 million.

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The rockfish bite is becoming quite good entering the fall season. A few fish in the high 30-inch range are showing up for anglers drifting live spot along channel edges or chumming and fishing fresh menhaden on the bottom. Jigging structures with paddle tail plastics is also producing nice fish as is trolling with medium size bucktails tipped with Sassy Shads in white and chartreuse, gold and silver spoons and deep diving Rapalas. Working the mouths of the tribs and the prominent points is the best way to begin the search for quality fish. Spanish mackerel are still raging around the Bay in small groups generally south of Thomas Point and hitting fast moving lures with a few bluefish mixed into the scrum. White perch are schooling up for the winter and taking pieces of worm, shrimp and crab in 20 to 30 feet of water. Crabbing remains mostly mediocre though some areas are hot due to an early fall off in the number of crabbers this year.