The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 8, 2013

Dove hunting in Minnesota means Heat, humidity and humility

Mourning doves are North America's most plentiful, popular game birds

By John Cross jcross@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Hunting excursions usually are associated with cool, crisp mornings.

But the other evening, as I tucked myself into the edge of a tall cornfield, even after a short walk, a rivulet of sweat already trickled between my shoulder blades.

September in Minnesota can be that way sometimes, of course — just an extension of summer.

But summer heat notwithstanding, several hunting seasons, among them one for lumbering giant Canada geese and at the other end of the avian spectrum, one for fleet-winged mourning doves, began last weekend.

So on this, the 10th autumn since the latter species once again was declared a game bird in Minnesota, I hoped to bag a few.

There undoubtedly are a few reading this who will take issue with the mourning dove’s elevation to game bird status and the idea of hunting them.

Even though it was classified as a game bird in most states, since 1946 the mourning dove was a protected species in Minnesota.

So maybe it’s understandable how some are inclined to make an emotional connection with the birds seen at bird feeders or cooing from roof ridgesin the evening.

From a biological point of view, however, there is no reason the prolific, short-lived bird should not be hunted.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2012 population estimates, mourning doves are North America’s most plentiful game birds with an estimated continental population of 308 million.

They also happen to be the most popular game bird with anywhere from 20 million to 70 million harvested annually by hunters.

In many states, the opening day of the dove hunting season is elevated to holiday status, a time for family and friends to gather.

In Minnesota, the dove hunting tradition has been slow to gain momentum since that first modern day season was held in 2004.

Except for that first year, when some 15,000 hunters hunted doves, hunter numbers have settled in at around 10,000.

Minnesota is at the northern edge of the mourning dove’s range. And even through the season which began last weekend runs into November, most of the state’s birds fly the coop by mid-September with the first hints of cool weather.

Conventional hunting dove hunting strategies call for targeting open areas, specifically shallow farm ponds or harvested small grain fields.

In Nicollet County, a landscape of tall corn and lush soybeans, both are in short supply.

Instead, I found a cornfield where a portion recently had been opened up after being cut for silage.

Hoping to entice a few of the dozens of doves I spotted perched on nearby roadside power lines on my drive out to the farm, I fastened a half-dozen dove decoys to the artificial perch — a shepherd’s hook — I borrowed from my wife’s garden.

Camouflaged and tucked into the first row of uncut corn, a petite 20 gauge side-by-side nestled in the crook of my arm. Nothing fancy but it was special, nevertheless.

The Fox bearing the patina of wear from its years afield was a gift from a friend — longtime hunting buddy — earlier this summer.

Approaching his eighth decade, he concluded that his days of busting through briars and cattails in pursuit of pheasants were behind him.

And although he still hunts wild turkeys, he felt he was a bit under-gunned for those big birds with a little 20-gauge.

“Would you like to have it,” he offered. I was honored to accept it.

I’m not getting any younger either and the difference between lugging my 12 gauge over-under and the 20 gauge as I had walked the several hundred yards to reach my hunting spot the other evening was delightful.

Sweating, occasionally sipping a bit of already-tepid water from the bottle, I scanned the horizon for the speck of approaching doves.

A few barn pigeons swooped by, the dodging and darting dragonflies had me momentarily tightening the grasp on the shotgun.

While several flocks of doves skirting past, they were either out of range or flying over the unpicked portion of the cornfield where a downed bird would be impossible to find.

Finally, a pair materialized, their approach over the cut cornrows betrayed by the characteristic whistle of wing-feathers, a passing shot from left to right.

I swung and pulled the trigger. A miss. I increased the lead a bit and fired the last barrel. Feathers flew and I had drawn first blood with my friend’s gift.

An hour and many shots later, as the sun finally touched the horizon, I headed back to the truck. Along with only two more birds in the bag, I carried a good dose of humility over my poor shooting at the fleet targets.

Tasty though they may be, I’m not so foolish as to suggest that the breasts of three doves makes a meal for two.

But later that evening, brushed with olive oil, seasoned, then run across a hot grill, they were a fitting appetizer to the casserole made of one of last year’s pheasants that was bubbling away in the oven when I got home.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.