Holly A. Heyser
Everything about dove hunting is ephemeral. It is a zephyr of a season, lasting just two weeks. Yet in that short span we rekindle friendships, some of which exist only in dove season. We recapture our lost humility: Doves are among the hardest targets to shoot, even with a shotgun —making all that summertime practice seem as if it never happened. And finally, once we manage to shoot a few, we remember just how wonderful it is to dive into a big plate of doves.
Then, in a flash, it's gone. Our focus shifts back to deer, and then on to quail, pheasants, and ducks. Those early mornings and late afternoons we spent standing in farm fields, scanning the sky, fade to memory.
So we live in the moment. Holly and I have been hunting doves relentlessly since the season opened September 1. We know our window is small, and that one good cold snap could start the great dove migration that happens at this point every autumn; we're expected to get such a cold front Tuesday. After that migration, it's slim pickin's.
Doves can fly up to 60 miles per hour, faster than any duck, and can, as I found out, turn on a dime.
There are two kinds of dove hunts, and I happened to have had both on Opening Day. The first kind of dove hunt is a true hunt—it is a search for a place where lots of doves happen to live, or at least fly over en route to water, grain (doves love safflower and sunflower seeds above all else), or a big ol' dead tree, which is their favorite roost. It is a search conducted on public land, or on land owned by a friendly farmer who says something about having seen doves around in recent days.
Such was the hunt that my friends Kevin and Josh and I went on. Kevin had found the place—90 miles south, down in Modesto—and it seemed a likely spot to find a good flight of doves. We awoke before 4 a.m. full of hope; I was certain I'd at least get a half-dozen. With a daily limit of 10 doves, I thought I was being conservative. Apparently not. After hours of tromping around, we saw maybe a total of six doves the whole morning, and shot none. Skunked. Sigh.
Fortunately I was invited to the other sort of dove hunt that evening. This is a "hunt" that's really more of a "shoot" because the farmer is (A) growing safflower or some other grain crop, ensuring the presence of doves, and (B) there is both ample tree cover and water nearby. This farmer had it all scoped out. About 15 of us stood in a line and waited for the doves to arrive.
We did not wait long. The shooting was furious, and we all learned why it takes an average hunter between five and eight shells to kill one dove. Doves are fast, and their aerobatics are bested only by their larger cousin, the pigeon. I had one dead to rights when it saw me—and reversed its direction instantaneously, in mid-air. All I could do was laugh.
Holly A. Heyser
What is it like, hunting doves? You wear camo, or at least clothing in browns and greens, and stand near something like a tree, a bush, or a row of grapevines—the idea is to remain just hidden enough so that a speeding dove might not see you until he's in range.
Sometimes the birds fly in a consistent direction. Most often they do not. There's a lot of, "Holy shit! That one came from right behind me!" or, "To your left!" or my favorite, "It's right over your head!"
But even seeing a dove approach you from a distance doesn't guarantee anything. Doves can fly up to 60 miles per hour, faster than any duck, and can, as I found out, turn on a dime. You need to shoot somewhere in front of them to actually hit doves. They're that fast.
Most often the birds will come in flurries, punctuated by bouts of nothing. You get a little bored. Maybe you start looking at the plants all around you, or check your voicemail. That would be the time when a pair of doves whizzes by your ear, that distinctive whistling of their wings an audible "Fuck you, hunter!" as you just stand there and watch their tails recede.
At least doves die easily. It doesn't take much to bring them down, unlike pigeons, which in my opinion are the ultimate game bird—they can outfly anything else we hunt, and are far wilier than most other birds. Pigeons also can take an enormous amount of punishment before they go down. Doves, on the other hand, expire if you think undue thoughts in their direction.
At the end of opening day, I shot seven doves and came home with 10, thanks to a fellow hunter who did not feel like plucking that night. Several other guys limited out, and we most definitely had the makings of a dove feast.
A few days later, Holly's friend Bill invited us to a farm field near Sacramento airport, and it has been more than a little productive since then. Holly scored her first-ever limit of doves, and we've each had some excellent shooting at this spot, made even better by its proximity.
Which leads me to another thing about dove hunting: It is not something done in a wilderness, or even really much of a wild area. Doves eat seeds exclusively, and grain seeds—safflower, sunflower, wheat, milo, even corn—are their preferred food. Dove hunting is deeply agricultural, possibly even more so than pheasant hunting. The grumble of tractor engines in the distance, pickups loaded with Stetson-wearing ranch hands and disked fields bracketed by unharvested grain are your most likely surroundings.
Holly A. Heyser
Aren't these doves cute? Like bite-sized chickens. But tastier.
I can hear some of you: "How can you eat those cute little doves?" From time to time I do hear from people who wonder why we hunt doves at all. The comment I hear most often is that they are too small to eat. Since when did size determine whether humans can pursue a creature? See Exhibit A: shrimp.
Holly A. Heyser
Besides, it's true that good things come in small packages. There's a lot of flavor in a dove, which, once plucked and gutted, averages a shade under three ounces. Doves have red meat like a duck, but no fat. They are best served medium or medium-rare, and because they rarely live very long, are almost never tough the way pigeons often are. Doves rarely run around, so their legs are tender, and because they are such strong fliers, they have unusually meaty wings for a bird their size.
That's why, unlike most hunters, I keep my doves whole. Doves are the easiest of game birds to pluck, and, once you get the hang of it, it takes just a couple minutes to clean one.
By far the most popular way to cook doves is to debone the breast, lay it next to a slice of jalapeño pepper, and wrap the whole shebang in bacon. Grill until the bacon is done, and you're good to go. It is, in truth, delicious. And while I agree that grilling is the best way to cook a whole dove, I took a different route with our first doves of the season.
Teriyaki doves, anyone? I know, I know. Teriyaki is another hunter classic. But I make my own teriyaki sauce, the traditional Japanese way. Marinate the doves 24 hours in the sauce, boil it down, and then use it to baste the birds as they cook.
And who doesn't like teriyaki? Sweet, salty, mildly exotic. I like how the sugars caramelize on the bird when they're grilled.
I also cooked another dish that's becoming a classic with me: Grilled Doves a La Mancha, a Spanish-inspired recipe I first made at Dovapalooza, and have made many times since then. You get a hit of aroma from the rosemary and sage, and a little richness from bacon fat, which also adds smokiness along with the Spanish smoked paprika. I could easily eat a half-dozen doves at one sitting this way.
Holly A. Heyser
I had one more variation on grilled dove to try, and this one I suspected would be the best. Ever have bistecca alla Fiorentina? That's that huge Italian porterhouse steak, grilled over charcoal and dressed only with really good salt, a lemon wedge, and maybe a drizzle of top-quality olive oil. It is my favorite way to eat red meat, and the method works well with venison and duck. But why not Doves Florentine? After all, doves are red meat, too.
Oooh yeah ... as I'd guessed, this was the winner. Simple, and it really lets the flavor of the bird shine. I like the other dishes, but when you have such perfect, pretty doves, why mess with them too much?
Dove season ends in less than a week, and Holly and I will hunt as often as we can until the curtain falls. And in that time, you can bet we'll be eating a lot of doves.