The dawning of September 1st is always an exciting time of year for hunters. It signals the changing of seasons – literally and figuratively – as we anxiously anticipate the first bird hunting opportunity of the year. Most states throughout the U.S. have a dove hunting season and those seasons traditionally begin on September 1st. The Fish & Wildlife Service says that doves are most-harvested of all game animals in the U.S., a testament to the ceremonial beginning of the hunting season.
Dove hunting camps are legendary with stories of large groups of hunters gathering for early mornings filled with fast and furious wing shooting and afternoons full of food, family, and fun. Those tales are typically associated with large plantations in the south, but around here we have a similar annual tradition that has become quite special. I wrote about it here.
But this year was gearing up to be even more special because it would be The Boy’s opportunity to participate in his first real hunt. I’ve written previously about The Boy’s journey in obtaining his hunter safety certificate and all the practice time we have spent at the Sporting Clay course, but this would be the real deal – his first game hunt.
For a dad, this opportunity was equally special. In fact, I’m not sure who was more excited, me or The Boy, about the prospect of heading out for his first hunting weekend at the invitation of Dave, my good friend. Dave is a third-generation land owner of 450 acres of beautiful oak-studded foothills in northern California. He has created an amazing place where the guys retreat a few times of year for the opening of dove and quail season.
This year The Boy would carry his firearm, with starry eyes filled with the hope of harvesting his first game. Since September 1st was in the middle of the week, we had the advantage of receiving early reports from others who were able to ditch work and head out for the opener. Unfortunately, the early reports were spotty, with some early-season cool weather likely pushing these migratory birds toward the heat of Las Vegas or Mexico.
Keeping the sultry 100 degree northern California heat is critical for good dove hunting, which isn’t normally a problem for us through mid-September. But it seems that every few years we get a freak cool spell around the end of August that sends a memo to the doves that its time to pack your bags and head for the desert.
Arriving in camp Friday evening confirmed the early reports we’d received. At 5:30pm it was only 85 degrees, which is a good 15 degrees below what we’d hoped for. Driving into the property didn’t reveal the usual groups of doves bouncing between the fields, just a couple of mockingbirds and a grey squirrel, an early indication of what was in store for us over the weekend.
After exchanging greetings, we headed out on the ATVs into the upper meadow where, if the doves were around, we were sure to find them. As The Boy and I set up our stools and loaded our guns, a gun reported from the opposite end of the meadow from one of our camp-mates. Good news!
As daylight began to fade into the last 30 minutes of shoot time, our hopes increased for a final flurry of grey ghosts to pile into the field for their supper. Unfortunately, the dinner bell never rang and there were just a couple of birds that skirted the end of the field, too far out of reach.
As we arrived back in camp, the evening began filling with stories, laughter and plenty of food and wine. The perfect end to our first day at dove camp.
We accidentally overslept by an hour the next morning (darn kids – we counted on them to wake us up!), which I believe has a direct correlation to the amount of wine consumed the night prior. After a quick guzzle of roughneck coffee, we were blazing down the dusty road back to the upper meadow where we knew any doves in the area would be using this corridor as their personal super highway between the roost and breakfast in the meadow. We set up and waited for the birds to arrive, but unfortunately, like the evening before, they were nowhere to be found. It was official, the birds had boogied south at some point in the previous weeks. The few local resident birds that flittered about were too wise to fall for our usual tricks and always kept a towering oak tree between us and them.
As you can imagine, with this being his first trip, The Boy was a classic example of the first phase of a new hunter – “I just want to shoot something!” Knowing he would be getting anxious, and that the action was not likely to turn to hot-barrel shooting this trip, I turned my attention to talking with him about all the other reasons we hunt. We talked about all the fun he had driving the ATV, hanging out with dad and the other fellas in camp, and the beautiful place that we were experiencing. He still begged the hunting Gods to send hoards of doves, but I was pretty impressed that he seemed to ‘get it’, that there were many other benefits to doing what we were doing other than pulling the trigger. I think The Boy put it best when I asked him if he was having fun. He said, “I am having a great time, I’m just disappointed there aren’t any birds.” For a nine-year-old on his first hunting trip, I think that is a pretty amazing perspective.
The rest of the weekend we spent time running the ATVs, inspecting Dave’s newly-built ponds, and helping do some repairs around camp. Oh, and also eating way too much. Unfortunately there weren’t any doves to be harvested, but we all had a wonderful, relaxing time in fellowship together. In the end I think this trip will serve as a great introduction for The Boy as the best lessons in why we live to hunt!