© 2010 Aaron Atkinson Wingmaster

The Year’s First Hunt

The first week of September is always the unofficial kickoff of the Autumnal bird hunting season. And the quarry for this early hunt are those acrobatic, grey streaks in the sky – mourning doves.

This past weekend found me and a handful of pals in Concordia, Kansas. It’s 4 pm. The day is dry and warm and the wind blows strong; I can feel the grit crackle between my teeth. We’re hunkered in the tall grass and thistles that line a stock pond in the middle of a pasture. Across the gravel road is a brown field of harvested winter wheat. And while there aren’t many doves around our pond, we can see them flying low in large flocks as they scour the wheat field for waste grain.

And then, with a blur and a bang the first dove of the day crests the dam, is hit with a single blast from my companion’s 870, and splashes into the pond. The birds continue to come in singles and pairs for the next couple of hours until around 6 o’clock when the shadows begin to grow longer as the sun sinks lower in the sky. With the heat and light of this late summer day relenting, the doves, stuffed on wheat, begin to come in for their evening drink.

Big mistake.

Soon the oranging sky is dotted with doves in every direction. Flocks of a dozen birds are trying to land right on top of us. The routine repeats itself again and again:

Spot an incoming flock of ten birds at 200 yards. Their wingbeats are unmistakable. Flap, flap, glide. Flap, flap, glide. Three peel off to the left at 160 yards. Flap. Two veer to the right at 100 yards. Flap. Two more split off at 50 yards. Glide. At 40 yards I’m tempted to blow my cover and start firing. But I wait for just a few more wingbeats before I focus on the lead bird, ignoring the other two. Time slows. Flap, flap, glide. I start to swing the muzzle an instant before standing and raising the stock to my cheek. I trace the bird’s path and pull ahead, putting five bird’s lengths in front of his beak. At the shot, a puff of feathers catch the breeze and the dove falls gently to the ground in a long cartwheel.

I stroke the delicate plumage of his breast with my gloved hand. His feathers are pastel gray and brown with a touch of white all smudged together. I admire the coral color of his feet and his slim black bill. Gently I stuff him in my game bag. As I reach for my shotgun something in the distance catches my eye.

I freeze.

Four more doves are at 80 yards and closing fast.

Tunnel vision on the lead bird.

Flap, flap, glide.

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