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Fields of Dove

Opening weekend revives Texas hunters’ passion for doves.

By Carter P. Smith, TPWD Executive Director

Thirty minutes later, as our procession of trucks pulled through the front gate of the Hedtke place over near the Karnes County line, thunderheads started to billow up overhead. Little pocket showers could be seen blanketing the surrounding Brush Country. Sporadic raindrops found their way onto our dust-covered trucks. And, judging by the flapping of the grass and the flailing of the mesquite leaves in the pasture, a pretty fair breeze had blown in from the southeast.

One of the more pessimistic members of our party wondered aloud whether we might get rained out. A second said with unwavering confidence that the weather forecast called for only a 30 percent chance of scattered storms, so any rains likely wouldn’t last long.

And, still another wit, clearly the most altruistic one of the bunch, posited that if we did get rained out, then so be it. The country needed it worse than we needed an afternoon in the field.

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Mourning doves on a fence.

Outdoorsmen spend a lot of time speculating about the weather. And, like most such conversations I have been party to over the years, none of us really had a clue.

Notwithstanding all that rain banter, our little merry band, including Charlie, the excitable young white Lab, was not about to be deterred by any of that. Not rain, not wind, not worry, not nothing. We had simply waited too long and too longingly for what was in store that afternoon. So we pressed ahead down the winding caliche road with the unfettered haste and unbridled enthusiasm of kids rushing to the tree on Christmas morning.

As we went by the ranch headquarters, someone rolled down a window, and off in the distance, the siren call of a steady pop, pop, pop of shotguns could be heard. We all pointed and nodded our heads in affirmation at the line of mourning doves stretched out on the power lines. Out over a big stock tank, flights of doves in pairs and trios were beginning to sail over like rockets in the wind.

When a pair of white-wings landed lazily on the eave of the barn where we had pulled up to park, it was simply too much for our party to bear.

Doors were flung open. Tailgates on the trucks came clomping down in unison. Shotguns were unsheathed and shells quickly stuffed in bird vests. Snake boots were hurriedly put on. Stools were slung over shoulders, and a cooler of cold drinks was thrown in the back of a Polaris. Someone remembered to grab a can of insect repellant.

Meanwhile, the doves kept flying by.

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Hunters take their spots for opening weekend of dove season in South Texas.

With the tools of the trade appropriately assembled, we were off like a shot for one of the great rites of fall. Like the gaggle of other sporting enthusiasts out in the field that day, we had waited with great anticipation for the better part of a year for this time to come around again.

And here it was, just like clockwork, the opening weekend of dove season.

For as long as I have been old enough to shoulder a shotgun, there’s hardly a place I’d rather be than around a stock tank, sunflower patch or freshly harvested grain field. Dove hunting is one of the most social of our shooting sports. Good friends and good retrievers are always welcome. And, when the birds are flying, it is as good as it gets. Even when they aren’t, it still beats most of the alternatives.

On this day, our hosts were the Hedtke family at their Coy City Ranch. With its mix of brush mottes, tree lines, sprawling live oaks, gnarled mesquites, caliche outcrops, open fields and a big tank with plenty of open shoreline, the ranch will have doves if there are any to be had.

The Hedtkes, longtime cattle people from the Karnes City area, are gracious hosts. Strangers are greeted like old friends, and old friends are welcomed like family. Son Wade, a rancher who also works at the local Farm Bureau Insurance office, likes nothing better than to put his friends onto the abundant game that call his country home. His canine sidekick, Charlie, more than earns her keep when it is time to locate an errant dove dropped in the tank or hidden by the tall grass.

Dad Larry and his wife, Beverly, live on the family place. He recently retired from the Farm Bureau office where Wade works. He was also one of the original founders of the local Lonesome Dove Fest, a weekend-long festival organized by the area Rotary Club. Their mission is a noble one — to raise money for college scholarships for kids from Kenedy, Karnes City, Falls City and Runge high schools.

The Dove Fest, now in its 23rd year, was the brainchild of a few area ranchers, business owners and hunters who wanted to capitalize on the region’s outstanding dove hunting and couple it with a family-friendly event that heralded the state’s proud outdoor traditions.

After all, they pondered, who could resist raising money for kids while promoting dove hunting? It proved to be a pretty potent mix and grew with time.

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Three hunters carry their guns and gear for an afternoon dove hunt.

From its humble beginnings in a freshly mowed coastal Bermuda field to its current home at the County Fairgrounds, the Lonesome Dove Fest now attracts upwards of 10,000 people to try their hand at archery and sporting clays or to watch the leaping Labs in the pool, see their kids catch a fish, watch a falconry exhibit, attend a bird-dog exhibition or listen to great live music at night.

One of the founders and local ringleaders of the Lonesome Dove Fest is native son and businessman Benny Lyssy. His sentiments make it clear why there is such strong community support for this annual festival.

“What makes this event so special is what we do with the money we raise and how we involve the youth in the outdoors,” he says. “We are rapidly losing them to other pursuits, and this is our way of pulling them back in.”

Come September, communities all over the state welcome Texas’ quarter of a million dove hunters into their folds with open arms. Their arrival is the harbinger of a diverse and robust hunter-driven economy that extends through the fall bird season and the winter deer, quail and waterfowl seasons, and mostly wraps up with turkeys in the spring.

Dove hunters alone pump more than $300 million annually directly into small towns across Texas. More than 3,000 jobs are generated from these pursuits, and everyone from landowners to convenience store and motel owners to restauranteurs and sporting goods stores benefit from these hunter expenditures.

For other reasons, dove season means a lot to Benny, who is also the owner and proprietor of Big B’s convenience store in Kenedy. The business has been in his family for more than 51 years, a justifiable source of pride.

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Lonesome Dove Fest features dog demonstrations, vendors, food, music and more.

Like many such businesses, Big B’s caters to the sportsmen who come down to this neck of the woods. Benny’s dad gave the store its oft-repeated slogan: “Come to Big B’s, the Sportsman’s Headquarters for Supplies and Lies!”

In his store, you can get shells, ice, gas, hunting and fishing licenses, camo shirts and caps, and all the other supplies you need for a weekend or week in the field. And if you want a little local flavor, stop in at 6 a.m. to join the local coffee klatch for lots of good advice and wisdom.

Thankfully, Texas has long been blessed with some of the best — if not the best — dove hunting in the country. Our unique position along the Central Flyway, coupled with our diversity of well-managed rangeland and farmland habitats, suitable climate and abundant places to hunt in and around both urban and rural areas,  ensures bountiful opportunities for Texas bird hunters.

And, as the numbers suggest, Texas rarely disappoints. Fully 25 percent of all the mourning doves in the country are harvested right here in Texas, as are 80 percent of the white-wings. All in all, somewhere between 5 million and 6 million birds are harvested here annually.

That is not to suggest that dove hunting is anything but sporty. Throw in a little wind, birds that know when to fly high and when to fly low, as well as those that can — and will — zig and zag in flight with impressive acrobatic prowess and breakneck speeds, and even the best of shooters will eat a little humble pie now and again.

It gets even sportier when you pursue our native mourning and white-winged doves at the same time as the non-native Eurasian collared-doves. All three species have rather distinct patterns of activity, different habitat preferences, variable feeding times and unique tendencies in flight.

White-wings often fly high during their morning and afternoon feeding flights, while mourning doves may come at you low, high, fast or slow. Mourning doves almost always are the first feeders in the morning, while white-wings have a penchant for “sleeping in.”

Collared-doves, which have recently expanded in our state and for which no bag limit exists, can be hunted all through the day. They also tend to be found around habitable structures and farm and ranch infrastructure like grain bins and cattle pens.

It was just our good fortune that all three were to be had that September afternoon at the Hedtke place.

After Wade dropped the six of us off at our spots around the big tank, it didn’t take long for the action to begin. In fact, it didn’t take a minute. To my left about 70 or 80 yards away sat Earl under a grove of little mesquites near the tank’s edge. When a mourning dove came barreling by in the wind, Earl dropped it with effortless precision, the first shot and the first dove of the day. As I watched him trot out into the broomweed to retrieve his bird, another dove came by, which he again dropped with one shot.

“Save some for me,” I heard someone yell jokingly.

A minute later, I heard someone shout, “Over you, Ross, over you,” just in time for our friend Ross to pound out two shots at a pair of doves sailing fast and furiously over a tree line. Almost concurrently, I heard another shot, and looked over to see a bird falling out of the sky near the tank’s edge.

The hunt was on!

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Carter Smith hunts doves during Lonesome Dove Fest weekend in South Texas.

As it turned out, it was one of those blessed days in the field. The rain stayed at bay, and the cloud cover made the afternoon an unusually pleasant one. Both mourning doves and white-wings came in to the tank pretty steadily, and a couple of hunters around the barn got a bag full of the Eurasian collared-doves.

On my spot at the edge of the tank dam, I had more than my fair share of pass shooting. Birds leaving their afternoon roosts in the adjacent brush came by as they went to water. To add to it, I had some pretty fair bird watching to boot during the breaks in the action. A big battalion of white pelicans came over, and a nice flock of blue-winged teal buzzed over me. A pair of great blue herons kept me company for much of the afternoon, and a great kiskadee showed up unexpectedly in a nearby mesquite.

Charlie, Wade’s trusted young Lab, put on a great show. At the end of the day, I had four downed birds that I couldn’t readily locate. Two were in the tall grass behind the tank dam, one was off in the brush, and one more was out in the tank. Charlie more than proved her mettle, locating the birds on land quickly, then diving into the water and diligently following Wade’s hand signals to locate my last bird that had floated out into the tank.

After a quick pat on the head, Charlie was off to help one of the other hunters with a lost bird. Her job (and her fun) weren’t done.

At the end of legal shooting hours, we all met back at the barn for what is one of the wonderful traditions and culminations of a dove hunt. Gathered around the tailgates with cold drinks in hand and with all eyes fixed on the last rays of a setting sun, we reflected on the good shots and the bad ones and laughed heartily about who hit what and who didn’t hit anything. Hunting stories from years gone by were told and retold. Charlie was universally praised for her disposition and her retrieval skills. The Hedtkes were toasted for their stewardship and their generous hospitality.

As the night took over the day, and the final birds were cleaned and the gear stowed away, we all made a promise to the dove fields. We would do it all over again soon.


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