A reflective dove opener

FIRST BIRD - The action was fast and consistent during the author's solo dove opener. TIM E. HOVEY PHOTO


My alarm is set for 3:30 a.m. but it doesn’t wake me up; it never does. Whenever I set it for hunting, I’m up before it goes off. I roll out of bed and within minutes, I’m dressed for the hunt

With gear loaded, I’m on the road twenty minutes later. Due to a number of issues beyond my control, which include the California fires and the opener falling on a Tuesday, I am hunting this dove opener solo. Many of our regulars couldn’t get the time off work or decided to hunt areas closer to home. My buddy Jose was out of state at a college orientation for his son Adrian and my daughter, Alyssa couldn’t miss her classes as she starts her third year in a nursing program. Regardless of the reasons, I am hunting this opener alone for the first time in twenty years.

On the drive out, I think about the previous seasons and all the memories we’ve made hunting the California dove opener. I try to remember how many birds we killed last year but can’t. I do remember who was there and the good times we had. Now heading out by myself it feels different. Despite my consistent positive personality, I can feel my mood slipping.

WAITING FOR THE BIRDS – A Mojo decoy sits ready for action during the recent opener. TIM E. HOVEY PHOTO

I roll into one of our regular spots and am met with the usual abundance of hunters and vehicles. While having a few hunters in the area helps move the birds around, the crowd seems excessive this season and irritates me a bit.

Luckily, I am able to find a good spot a bit outside the group and get set up a few minutes before shooting time. I sit there by myself casually searching the early morning sky for birds when I realize I left my shooting glasses in the truck 100 yards away. With shotgun in hand I make the walk back to my vehicle right at shooting time.

In the truck I search for my glasses as the symphony of shooting begins. Heading back a bit more prepared I spot a trio of dove flare at my presence and offer up one of the easiest shots in dove hunting. I mount the shotgun on instinct, find the lead bird and squeeze the trigger. Click! The shells that make any shotgun more than just a tube of metal are nestled comfortably under my shooting chair at the end of the field. It’s funny how your mood can really start to guide the day if you let it.

As the morning unfolds, the activity is consistent. Shots from all over echo through the sky and I start to get into the groove. I have four birds in the shade under the chair and I start to feel more enthused. A whistle from behind me has me turning. The hunter to the east has alerted me to an incoming bird. The swing is smooth and the shot crumbles the bird in flight. As I retrieve the downed dove, I give a short wave to the hunter. He returns the gesture and adds, “Nice shot!”

GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN – My good friend Darrin Bergen on a dove hunt back in the early 2000s. I miss you beyond words. TIM E. HOVEY PHOTO

The mood brightening, I notice two texts on my phone as I store the bird. In the instances when my daughter can’t come hunting with me, she would always checks in to see how things are going. It is simple and to the point but the fact that it is from her makes it feel like she is there. “How’s the hunting?” I send her a photo of the five birds and check the other text. It is from my buddy Ed. “Are you out slaying today?” Indeed I am.

In a lifetime of heading out on my own I have frequently been alone but I have never been lonely. It’s not who I am. In the beginning of the shoot I was feeling a bit down because the usual gang wasn’t with me, but with hunter’s camaraderie, great memories and the occasional text, I get back to work.

I wish I could say that my improving mood showed in my shooting ability; it doesn’t. I rush a few, shoot behind many and whiff on several. That doesn’t matter to me and I just keep at it.

As the heat comes up, I remove my hat to wipe away the sweat. I stare at the hat I had chosen for my solo hunt. It belonged to one of my best friends who passed away in 2016. All I could do was smile. Even by yourself, you are never alone.

I scratch out a limit and put a major dent in the just-in-case shells I brought along. Back at the truck I notice I had a few more texts. My buddy Rito had to hunt a closer spot due to work commitments. His text was simple; a photo of a limit with his shotgun and the statement, “By 9:00!” My other buddy John had to work during the opener, but he checks in as well.

THE HUNTER WITHIN – Despite feeling a little down on hunting the dove opener solo for the first time in decades, the author still scored a limit of mourning dove. TIM E. HOVEY PHOTO

Driving out of the area, I speak to a couple of other hunters. I don’t even remember the conversations, just sportsman’s chatter, but we are all smiling. On the drive home I get a call from Alyssa asking about the hunt. She concludes the call by wishing she was out there with me. I think about the morning, the texts and the interactions with the other hunters. A quick glance in the rearview brings the brim of Darrin’s hat into view. I smile and realized Alyssa had been out there with me in spirit; all the regulars were.