The rural restaurant lunch crowd in Maryland shouldn't be surprised if a happy group of camouflaged characters elbows its way to the counter a week from Tuesday.
Forget the beach. Farewell, Ocean City. Summer is over. Sept. 1 marks the traditional opening of that state's dove-hunting season, and more than 100,000 Marylanders are expected to line the edges of corn and wheat fields as soon as the clock reaches noon.
Ah, dove hunting. It signals the beginning of bigger things to come: frosty mornings, scalding cofee, the dawn of yearly hunting rituals.
Dove hunting is the only game-bird shooting that involves suntan lotion, T-shirts, sweatbands and hordes of insects. But that's okay. The hunting has to start some time. Better next week than in January.
Newcomers must not despair. Help is on the way. For starters, dove hunting is easy. All you need is one box of shells for every bird you hope to bring home. Well, almost.
Ask any seasoned bird hunter who has made the mourning dove his favorite prey. Wizards of the cornfields, he'll call them during good moments. Far worse descriptions are the norm when the first group of zig-zagging, tumbling, twisting flashes zips past the hunters -- usually long before the humans have a chance to lift their shotguns.
"Mark, 2 o'clock!" one of the shooters shouts when a dove flits across a row of trees. That's the call intended to warn fellow hunters of the bird's position. But in our gang os sweathogs, the response to that is, "Doggone it, you know my name isn't Mark and it's almost sundown, not 2 o'clock." It's the standard excuse for admitting the bird has foiled us again.
Doves are indeed exceptional flyers. Swift, able to change flight lanes in a fraction of a second, these birds probably are responsible for more shotgun shell sales than any other species of wild game. The number of missed shots by average hunters can be described only as astounding.
So you visit a local skeet range and practice like the devil. All the same, you'll discover that the clay imitations have the unnerving habit of coming from the release towers at nearly the same angle every time you holler, "Pull!" No live bird will do you that favor. But a few dozen rounds of skeet and trap shooting is sound medicine for the poor-aim-and-follow-through syndrome.
Where to hunt? Get busy and drive the back roads. Look for mixtures of grain and grassy fields. If the corn and wheat has been chopped, all the better. It will ensure larger flights of feeding birds and easier searches for downed doves. If a shallow creek or pond is in the vicinity, along with a stretch of gravel road, rejoice. Doves are guaranteed to come to the water before sunset. They also must have a bit of sandy grit to help them digest their food.
Knock on farmers' doors, hat in hand. Politely ask for permission to hunt. This time of year, there isn't a rural area from New Jersey to North Carolina that isn't home to doves.Virginia biologists, for example, estimate the state's September dove population at 15 million. By mid-December, it will swell to more than 50 million.
In short, there are enough birds to go around, no matter where you'll be.
Of late, however, some of our farming brethren have learned not to ignore the sign of the dollar. Offer between $5 and $10 for an afternoon of dove shooting. It's the accepted norm if a freebie can't be squeezed from a landowner.
Equipment can be kept to a minimum. Wear brown or green pants with a short-sleeved shirt of the same color. Most neighborhood tackle shops carry camouflage T-shirts and lightweight pants that will do nicely. Despite what some hot-shot may tell you about sportsmanship and small-gauge guns, stick to a 12-gauge smoothbore loaded with No. 8 shot. Low-power bargain shells, usually sold in stores this time of year, can do the job for short-distance shooting. But buy at least one box of high-brass express loads for the time when doves seem to fly only at 40 or more yards away.
When the season starts, find a good hiding place at the edge of a field. The less the birds can see of a hunter, the better. Don't be afraid to squeeze into a cluster of shrubs and honeysuckle. Keep the sun to your side and wait for the birds.
I'm not much on using tree-hung dove decoys. But if it'll make you feel more secure, do it. Dove decoys cost little. A dozen could serve you well.
The maryland dove-hunting dates re Sept. 1-Oct. 10, Nov. 11-27 and Dec. 21-Jan. 2. Daily bag limit is 12. Shooting hours are from noon to sunset.
In Virginia, the seasons run from Sept. 5-Oct. 24 and Dec. 19-Jan. 7. Daily bag limit is 12. Shooting hours are from noon to sunset during the first season and from a half-hour before sunrise to sunset in the second.
Pennsylvania's dates are Sept. 1-Nov. 9, with a daily bag limit of 12 and hours of noon to sunset.