Thursday, September 3, 2009

I'm Pretty Sure It Was All the Gun's Fault...

Early-season dove hunting in my area is one of those things best done without the help of a dog. It's usually very hot, very dry, very snakey, sandburrs are everywhere and if you're not careful heatstroke is just one long retrieve away.

Plus, if you're sending the dog on a blind, or even on marked birds that have fallen in the sagebrush, they often have a hard time finding them because scenting conditions are so poor.

So what did I do? Took my dogs dove hunting, of course. I knew at the outset it was going to be a low-percentages hunt, but I wanted to get the dogs, especially my male, the chance to start getting into the hunting season mindset, so I decided to hunt a stock tank on my local WMA and shoot "training" birds, only taking specific shots that would be good retrieves for the dogs.

That turned out to be a fair bit of chutzpah on my part...

My area's wheat crop was a total bust this year. My local WMA manager told me he didn't even bother discing and burning the food plots they plant to attract dove, so right there one of the main concentrators of dove on the areas I hunt is absent this year. That's not to say there aren't good numbers of dove still around. There are. But when there are 16,000-odd acres of native vegetation to feed on, figuring out a good spot from which to shoot a few can be a challenge.

But dove must drink, too, and one of the best (and one of my favorite) ways to shoot a limit around here is to set up on a stock tank or windmill in the evening. Usually by late August/early September we're dry as the proverbial bone and those creaking old Aermotors are dove magnets.

Unless of course, you get rain. Which we have. And unless we've had a spell of cool, cloudy weather that starts getting those dove thinking about leaving for warmer climes a bit sooner than normal. Which we have.

In those conditions, if you hunt public land that means there are few easy birds. You have to hustle and you have to walk and scout to find enough birds to shoot. Not good for dogs when it's in the 90s.

But I felt sorry for the dogs. They've lounged around all summer getting fat and lazy. I couldn't just leave them there, could I? So off we went.

I've shot a lot of limits off this particular tank, and for what I wanted to do it was perfect: fairly short walk, good spot and thanks to all the rain it was about four times its normal size, big and deep enough to provide a good swim for the dogs.

Despite our recent cool weather, it's still getting pretty warm in the afternoons. Which makes this...

One of my absolute favorite parts of dove hunting. Being public land, you (thankfully) have to hoof it to reach most of the windmills on northwestern Oklahoma's WMAs, but when you get there you're rewarded with one of life's greatest simple pleasures: clear, cold water straight from the outlet pipe of a high plains windmill.

That is, if the wind's blowing. If it's not, well, then you're hot, thirsty and screwed.

So we get there and we sit and wait for a dove to fly by. And we wait. And wait. And wait.

I mean, I know I just waxed poetic about the beauty of not shooting dove, but after a while it was like "come on, throw me a bone here, hunting gods! I've been sitting here broiling and musing on life long enough. Now I want to shoot something."

I am nothing if not hypocritical...

So finally, two hours, a sunburn, four gallons of water and two burned-out retinas later, a dove flies by...while I'm eating a bag of peanuts. A few minutes later another one flies by...while I'm taking pictures of the dogs. Several minutes later a pair flutter by...while I'm up trying to chase off the cattle whose sole purpose in life is to mill around in my line of fire while chewing cuds and shitting on each other.

And then, it happens. A dove finally flies by when I have my gun in my hands, a perfect quartering away shot that, if I can hit it, will force the dog to swim the pond diagonally, exit, keep the line, pick up the bird and then swim back.

That is, if I can hit it. Which of course, I don't. Bang. Bang. Shit. This, however, is just the opening salvo in what would prove to be possibly the worst bout of shooting I've ever experienced.

Now I'm not vain nor do I have any grand illusions about my skill with firearms. I consider myself a pretty lousy pistol shot and a merely adequate rifleman. But I've always been reasonably good with a shotgun, and I'm especially proud of my dove shooting.

But for whatever reason - bad luck, self-doubt, karma, the folly of pride - I literally can not hit anything flying. I miss crossers left and right. I miss them flying away. I miss them in singles, I miss them in pairs and I miss them in groups. It is an epic display of shotgunning incompetence.

And after each miss, I look down at my gun - my beloved little Beretta - in amazement and ask "Are you the same gun? What the hell did I do to piss you off?"

Yes, I was starting to get irrational. And the dogs were getting bored.

But finally, after expending a number of precious and now-quite-expensive AAs, a number so staggeringly large it shall not be repeated here, I hit a dove. Sort of. After the shot it flutters across the pond in that way that says "I'm dead, I just don't know it yet." It finally crashes into the side of a sage-covered sandhill about a hundred yards distant.

So much for easy marks for the dogs. My male is a good marker but he doesn't handle very well yet and I don't want to get him out there and get him confused, so I decide to send my old female.

She's a good dog, but, bless her stumpy little heart, she's not the best marker in the world and I know I'll probably have to handle her to the bird, because she's got a pond and at least two depressions to cross before she hits that hill. She also has a tendency for her lines to drift on longer retrieves

I know she saw the bird drop, so this isn't considered a blind. I line her up as best I can and send her on her name, "Tess" (if it had been a blind I'd send her on "back").

Now Tess has always been something of a bank-runner, which is mostly my fault because I never really worked her on things like channel blinds. If she thinks she can get to a bird or bumper faster by running around water instead of swimming through it, that's what she'll do.

But not this time. She hits the water, swims across the pond and starts toward the hill. I lose sight of her when she drops into the first depression behind the pond dam and when she comes out she's tailing off the line to the left.

Thank god for that, because another of Tess' annoying little habits (thanks to my lousy training) is she always, always turns to her right when she turns around on the sit whistle. So if she's tailing to the right to begin with, this means I usually have to give her a left "over" to get her back on line.

I give her the sit whistle and she of course turns to the right before sitting facing me. This puts her directly in line with where I think the bird is. I cross my fingers, give a little prayer to the dog gods, raise my hand and give her a "back!"

She wheels around, takes off and to my utter amazement, nails the bird at the base of the hill. Not only that, she keeps the same line coming back, hits the water, swims back across the pond, gets out, comes to heel and when I say "drop" she gently spits the bird into my hand and looks at me like "whaddya think of that?"

I look down at her - my fat, stubborn little chessie - in astonishment and say "Are you the same dog? Where the hell did you learn that?"
Did I have my camera out for any of this? Silly question. Of course not.

Even though I still had a half-hour of shooting light, I decided picking my gun back up (besides being a superfluous and futile gesture) would surely sully what had suddenly become a good day. So I decided to end it on a positive note.

I let the dogs splash and swim around, threw them a few bumpers and just sat and watched the hard light of day slowly melt into dusk. All in all not a bad way to start the season.


  1. Awesome! Sounds like it was a pretty tepid dove opener for almost everyone I know. But like you, we made the best of it, but in a different way: We went jack rabbit hunting.

  2. Great article. You often catch the way I feel while hunting. Thanks for your words, I'll keep reading.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Josh,

    Norcal, it's definitely been hit or miss around here. For me, mostly miss so far...

  4. Great way to make the most of a tough opener!