While waterfowlers are anticipating the cold clouded days of late December, deer hunters begin putting vacation time on their calendar for the first couple weeks of November. Regardless of your quarry, the first day of dove season has become the opening ceremony of the seasons to come.
Opening day shouldn’t just be about the birds. Nor should it be about cold-beers and jalapeno poppers (although we’d highly recommend both). Opening day is about getting out in the woods with friends and looking forward to the fall and winter seasons. I’ve also found that opening day can be a great time to set the tone for safety in the field – especially when hunting with a group.
Hunting season starts before opening day. If the opening day of dove season is the first time you’ve unsheathed your shotgun, you’re probably already behind. Shotguns and firearms that lay dormant in the offseason should be tended to days before you put them to work.
- Take your shotgun out and give it a little attention. Be sure to check the barrels for debris or clutter and run some gun oil over the receiver, ejection port and loading port (for semi-automatics) or the action release and safety (for double barrels).
- If you have the time, sneak off to a sporting clay or skeet course and pull the trigger a few times. Such an exercise will help you identify any functional problems with the weapon, or the shooter (eek!). Double-check ammunition, chokes and safety mechanisms.
- Prepare your vehicle. We ask a lot of our vehicles during the season. I like to clean and reorganize my car before opening day. Before I get to the field, I like to know exactly where in my car I find hearing protection, extra ammunition, Ziploc bags, bird cleaning shears, a knife, some rope, jumper cables, and an ice chest. Preparing in this way prevents the frantic search for the equipment when you need it most.
In the field, make a plan. Opening day is a truly festive affair. You can bet your boots opening day you will see more hunters in the field than any other subsequent time in the season. When you have a lot of people around, extra precautions just make sense.
- Know your fellow hunters. If you’re hunting with folks you don’t know as well, be sure to have a conversation about their level of comfort with a firearm. If they are relatively new shooters you might consider a quick safety briefing and placing them at the flanks of your dove line.
- Establish clear shooting lines with all hunters. Indicate to your hunters the direction from which you expect the birds. Walkthrough different scenarios - even down to questions like, “If a bird comes this way, who is going to take the shot?” Clarity before the hunt helps avoid uncertain and potentially dangerous shooting scenarios.
- Don’t be afraid to pull the plug. (Figurative plug, of course). If you have a shooter who is uncertain around firearms or has taken some questionable shots, politely ask them to watch for the rest of the hunt. It’s not a judgment call on that person, but rather an effort to keep everyone else in the field safe.
- Keep communication lines open. Whether it’s walkie-talkies or a group text, be sure you have a way to get in touch quickly with all your hunters. You may want them to change position, be aware of incoming birds or stop shooting altogether.
Man’s best friend. Often times, hunters will bring retrievers. Dogs can increase bird recovery rates and enrich the hunting experience. But be careful! Often times wounded birds will pop up like a quail as the retriever approaches. Do not shoot at a low flying bird over any dog – yours or not. More often than not, the dog will be able to leg him down and if he doesn’t, a wounded bird is always better than a wounded dog. Moreover, respect the relationship between a dog and his or her owner. I’d never presume to issue commands to a dog that wasn’t mine. Even if the retriever is recovering a bird you shot, let the dog bring it to his or her master and then trade.
Be grateful. It’s easy to treat opening day like the festive event that it is, and you should! But try to take a moment in the field to soak it all in. Mourning doves didn’t use to be the ubiquitous species they are now. They benefited from our own proliferation and largely flourished alongside humans. While some doves you see in the field will be “local birds” others have migrated hundreds if not thousands of miles. On rare occasions mourning doves have even been spotted flying over the Gulf of Mexico! Pretty incredible for such an unassuming little bird. (For more specifics on doves, dove species and how to hunt them check out another blog called Dove Hunting 101.)
In sum, have fun out there this season. Be safe. And always remember we’re lucky to be able to enjoy the bounty of the great outdoors.