MORRISON COUNTY -- If U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates are accurate, Minnesota sends about 6,500 of its residents afield each fall to hunt mourning doves. This is a drop in the bucket compared with some states, including Kansas (29,000 hunters), Missouri (25,000) and especially Texas (nearly 300,000).
That seasons in each of these states begin each year on the same date, Sept. 1, is borderline amazing, given the temperature extremes that prevail, north to south, on the opener in what the Fish and Wildlife Service calls its mourning dove Central Management Unit.
Tuesday morning, for example, when doves became the first legally hunted game bird of Minnesota's fall seasons, thereby giving 6,500 of us a reason to rise at 4:30 a.m., the predawn temperature about 15 miles east of Little Falls was 52, whereas in west Texas, where tens of thousands of dove hunters undoubtedly were perched on 5-gallon buckets, also awaiting the morning's first light, the temperature hovered near 90.
"I scouted here a couple of evenings ago and there were some birds around," said wildlife photographer Bill Marchel of Fort Ripley. "But it was cool last night, and the radar was lit up pretty good. A lot of birds migrated.''
Just ahead of me in my truck, Bill had parked his van on the edge of a no-count country road that likely drifts over with snow in winter.
Standing now in the still-dark night, he uncased a 12-gauge shotgun and filled his jacket pockets with No. 7½ steel loads, while a hunting partner, Rolf Moen of Nisswa, armed himself similarly while keeping track of his 5-year-old German shorthair, Sally, who romped nearby.
Present also were hordes of mosquitoes, and they quickly engulfed Bill and Rolf. Deploying whatever Star Wars-like antenna or other predatory advantages they possess, they soon also homed in on me, clouds of the little buggers buzzing and biting as if this were Alaska in July, not Minnesota in September.
Along also on this escapade was an 11-month-old Labrador retriever who was making his hunting-trip debut.
Riding north with me the night before in the back seat of my truck, Rowdy had snoozed soundly while I careened in and out of slowpoke traffic, speed-gulping caffeine. As a behavior bonus, upon reaching our destination motel, the young dog slinked into our room thief-like, as if knowing one false move — the slightest whine or bark, a leap onto the receptionist's counter — could get us kicked out of the joint.
Bruising the eastern sky, a sliver of crimson greeted Bill, Rolf, Sally, Rowdy and me as we mosquito-slapped our way down the no-count country road to a weedy field we hoped, come sunrise, would be frequented by our feathered quarry.
Ground-feeders that love to chomp on foxtail and Johnson grass, doves at times can be predictably patterned, especially in agricultural areas, such as those in southern and southwestern Minnesota, where they often trade back and forth between small-grain fields, water and the birds' roosts.
Central Minnesota, where we were hunting, possesses fewer of these habitats, especially in close proximity to one another. Add to this that Minnesota is at the mourning dove's northern range and that these birds often migrate out of the state before the season opens, and you have the primary reasons why dove hunting isn't wildly popular in Minnesota — this even though doves are by far the nation's most abundant game bird, with some 12 million harvested annually.
"Here we go,'' Bill said, watching the distinctive outline of an airborne mourning dove appear amid the gathering light a few hundred yards distant.
Only about a foot long, mourning doves are small, blue-gray birds that fly fast — 60 miles an hour at times — and erratically. These traits make them particularly challenging to bring down, because in the blink of a hunter's eye, doves can dart side-to-side randomly, while simultaneously gaining or losing altitude.
Shouldering his gun, Bill touched his shotgun's trigger. The firearm's loud report echoed in the otherwise quiet morning, but nothing fell.
Zigging then when he should have zagged, the dove vectored toward Rolf a few hundred yards away, who discharged his firearm, somersaulting the bird to the ground.
Quickly, Sally made the retrieve as we scanned the sky for more doves. Instead, in a short while, a pickup rolled slowly by on the no-count country road.
Hanging his head out the truck's side window, the guy behind the wheel asked, "What are you guys hunting?"
Believing it should be obvious — dressed in camouflage, we were standing in a field on the first day of dove season — Bill answered the question nonetheless.
"Doves," he said.
"You see any bears?" the guy asked. "We're hunting bears."
"No," Bill said. "No bears."
Taking this all in, and sitting alongside me, Rowdy seemed to brighten a bit, as if realizing for the first time that, whatever we were doing out here, shooting infrequently at small, overflying birds while discussing seriously with strangers the possibility that bears, as in plural, might have gone thisaway or thataway on a no-count country road, he was at least as smart as the rest of us, and could handle it.
On previous dove openers, hunts with Bill and Rolf proved productive enough to warrant the on-site grilling of these fine-eating birds. That wasn't the case Tuesday, when the fingers of one hand were sufficient to count the morning's bounty.
But so be it.
Being afield again felt good. And the youngest among us, Rowdy, seemed at hunt's end to high-step his way back to the truck, his confidence brimming, and content, soon, to snooze his way home.
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org