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For the last several years, I have worked in Virginia and have come to embrace the southern tradition of hunting mourning doves.  It reminds me of the openers of deer season in my home state of Michigan, or the pheasant opener in South Dakota.  It’s a social event as much as anything else.

Our hunt starts with a tailgate atmosphere. Legal shooting hours start at noon, but the landowner where we hunt doesn’t like us to get started until 1:30pm. It’s probably because he enjoys having friends gather around to talk about last year’s season, or their new dog, or a new scattergun. Believe me, all this yacking gets to a fevered pitch as we watch doves flying into the sunflower field in great numbers as we wait for starting time.

The best dove fields are about 10 to 20 acres. Everyone spreads around the edges, staying about 30 to 40 yards apart. All the shooters do their best to keep shots high and safe, but an occasional light shower of #8 shot is always inevitable. In a weird way, it feels kinda good.

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There are some lessons that you learn and relearn every year:

#1: Pick your shots. I spend a lot of time shooting sporting clays throughout the year. Well, that “shooting at every clay target because you’re paying for it” attitude doesn’t pay off on doves. At first, it took me about a full box of 20-gauge ammo to put 3 or 4 birds in the bag. Obviously, I needed to get back into an instinctive shooting mind-frame and leave the target shooting behind. Don’t get me wrong, practice helps with the muscle memory of shouldering the gun. But doves don’t fly like clay targets. Once I started picking shots and getting serious about treating them like wild birds, they started falling out of the sky.

#2: Trust your dog. Throughout the year I judge versatile hunting dog tests, and I train my own dogs to pass these tests. A few weeks ago, I ran my big Italian pointer, Bravo, in a utility test that encompasses fieldwork on upland game and water-work on ducks. We passed, but he got some low numbers in the “retrieval of a shot bird” portion. This was a little hard for me to swallow, mostly because Bravo was a faultless retriever until I forced him to be “steady.” That means that he’ll find and point birds, but he won’t go for the retrieve after the bird flushes and then (hopefully) falls to the ground unless I give the “fetch” command. This takes a huge amount of obedience training. It’s not something that I ask of my dogs when I’m hunting wild birds, which fly strong and fast. So I worried about how Bravo would bring in these doves to me, just two weeks after the grueling training and testing regimens. For a dozen of my downed birds that I needed Bravo to find, he ran to and retrieved them quickly, and then delivered them to hand. My worries were just worries. He was into his natural hunting mode, where he thrives. Just like me.

#3: The 2013 hunting season only comes once. I know this sounds obvious, but the older I get, the more I wonder how many more seasons I will be privileged to enjoy. Today, with some old friends and a few new ones made, I realized just how much we need to take every opportunity to be out afield, chasing whatever game that we are passionate about. For me it’s birds. For others, it’s deer or bear or elk. But whatever you love to chase, and whomever you enjoy chasing it with, make it happen. Hunters are a small fraternity, but we’re the oldest fraternity on earth.

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