It was the first of September, the opening day of dove season, on the eastern plains of Colorado. The long summer had toasted the land into a patchwork of tan and gold, and the sun would be blazing hot come midday. But there’s something about September, even when it’s only a few hours old. The sky was a darker blue than it had been all summer, and thin clouds scudded overhead, driven by a fresh breeze. Rows of bright yellow sunflowers, heads heavy with seeds, nodded with promise.
The calendar said it was still summer, but the sky and the clouds and the sunflowers told a different story. As did the distinctive whistling rush of wings that gave me a split-second’s warning and sent me surging to my feet, the shotgun coming up instinctively, first to cheek and then to shoulder, swinging ahead of the speeding gray blur--but not far enough ahead, as the dove rocketed past me, unscathed.
The miss elicited mild ribbing from my hunting companions, but I just grinned at them, since I knew there would be plenty of misses to go around—it’s the nature of dove hunting. Mourning doves can pass a pickup truck on a prairie highway flying as fast as 55 mph, which makes them a challenging target even for the most expert wing shooter.
The mourning dove is one of the most abundant and widespread of all North American birds, with an estimated 2021 population of 167 million. It’s a prolific breeder, with a single pair of doves raising as many as six broods of two chicks each in a single year. That’s why it can easily sustain the pressure from some 650,000 enthusiastic dove hunters in 42 states. In 2021-22, according to data from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, hunters shot an estimated 9 million doves, which represents a harvest of just over 5 percent of the population. In almost every state, the season opens on September first, a date that has become synonymous with the start of fall and the kickoff of hunting season.
I did not become a dove hunter until I was in my twenties, dove season not being much of an event where I grew up in the big woods of northern Pennsylvania. I experienced my first dove opener soon after I moved to the heavily agricultural southern tier of the state. Back then, shooting hours started at noon, and a group of us would gather in a likely field, standing under shady trees to pass-shoot the few doves that happened past. Those early September days in southern Pennsylvania were sticky and sultry, the fields green and lush, the roadside ditches full of goldenrod.
On those openers, there were coolers of snacks and sandwiches, and lots of socializing with friends and colleagues. I came to treasure the day not just as a tradition but as a transition—the true dividing line between the long and leisurely summer days just past and the tantalizing promise of the upcoming fall, where adventure awaited with the arrival of the big-game and upland bird seasons.
In later years, I experienced some productive dove openers when I lived in bird-rich southern California, the most memorable of them an incredible shoot in the harvested fields near Calexico, with the border fence visible just a few hundred yards away from where we waited on our stools, the Border Patrol apparently unfazed by our camo and shotguns. The doves flew over us in waves, most of them executing an easy, passport-free border crossing, but a small pile of them remained with us to grace our backyard grills over Labor Day.
Dove season in the northern latitudes, on the other hand, is something of a crapshoot. The fields of eastern Colorado are a good example: they typically harbor thousands of birds in late summer, and you will salivate as you watch the flocks lifting like clouds as you drive by the farms on your way to the sporting-clays range. If, as so often happens, a cold front moves in during the last week of August, those flocks will lift off overnight and point their collective beaks toward New Mexico, leaving you sitting on your stool on opening day in quiet hopelessness, your loaded gun sitting listlessly on your lap and unopened boxes of shells at your side. On the other hand, if that late August front doesn’t materialize and warm summer weather meanders on into September, the shooting will be fast and furious, and you may limit out in the first hour.
No matter where you spend opening day, the tradition is not complete without the denouement: doves for dinner, preferably prepared on the grill on a perfect September evening. Try marinated dove kebabs or whip up some doves with dumplings, but always be sure to save a few to make a platter of mouth-watering dove poppers stuffed in homegrown jalapeno peppers and wrapped in bacon.
When opening day rolled around last year, it took me somewhat by surprise and I scrambled to assemble my camo and shells. I had been camping and fishing in the cool glamor of the high country all summer, paying less attention than I should have to the dusty, wide-open lands east of the Front Range, where fields of wheat and corn and plentiful sunflowers stretch to the horizon. But it had been a hot summer, and there had been no cold front yet, so I knew we were in for a good day, and I wasn’t about to miss it. We parked our trucks a safe distance behind us on the farm lane, and our small group of hunters spread out under a few isolated trees, some of us perched on stools, others leaning against tree trunks.
The first hour passed without much action, but as the sun got higher, the whistling of wings was all around us. I was ensconced under a big, shady cottonwood, and I was astonished at the numbers of doves—an abundance I hadn’t seen since the Calexico days. A frenzy of birds fluttered in to inspect our static and spinning-wing decoys. After my initial miss, I pass-shot one dove zipping past from right to left, then dropped one heading straight away.
I started to get into a rhythm: Shoot, miss; shoot, trot out from beneath my tree to pick up a dove; reload; miss; shoot, pick up another dove; repeat. In an hour I had fourteen doves. Could this be real? My shooting companions were done, limited out, and then I was, too. I walked out to pick up my last dove of the day, fanning out the black-spotted wings to admire them. I took a moment to pay homage to these fast little flyers, and to savor the joy that comes with being in the field on the opening day of dove season, the gateway to the best time of the year.