Yesterday, September 3, 2022, was the Opening Day of the mourning dove season in Virginia. In 35 seasons hunting in the Commonwealth I've never before had the chance or a place to shoot doves, but last year my neighbor M- invited me to come to a venue his club goes to every Opening Day, and I leapt at the chance.

We went to a farm owned by a local real estate agent, a very generous guy who's decided to allow people to shoot there.  In return he asks for donations to cover his expenses but those are completely voluntary: readers of this blog may know that I am adamantly and absolutely against the concept of "hunting leases" for native game animals: I won't pay a mandatory "lease" fee for anything, period. But I was happy to contribute voluntarily to his paint-can-with-a-slot as a way to cover his expenses. Not everyone does, but I did.

The farm is large, with several parts. There were 8 or 9 in our group. We convened there at 7:00 AM; my neighbor had picked me up at 6:30 (I groaningly dragged my aging carcass out of bed at 5:00 to be ready) and some others rolled in on their own later.

When we arrived we set up for making breakfast.  It was a leisurely affair, since official starting time wasn't until noon.  My neighbor has one of these big gas-fired portable stoves plus the proper cast iron skillets; everyone contributed something.  I'd brought some feral hog sausage that a friend who'd killed a pig at Caryonah Lodge in Tennessee had given me. It went over very well, so well I barely was able to snaffle a patty for myself. There were biscuits and gravy and scrambled eggs to go with the sausage.  Plus lots of coffee; because it was so damned early in the morning I needed that. Until I can get my caffeine titer up to "Conscious" I'm no good for anything, let alone anything involving shooting. One man had brought his 8-year-old-going-on-9 daughter E— who is one of these take charge girls: some day she'll be bossing her husband around, I think. She took over cooking the eggs and breakfast gravy.

I asked E— if she would shoot. She wanted to know if I had a gun she could use, which of course I did. With her father's permission I let her hold my 20-gauge shotgun, but in the final event she went off to the other side of the farm after we ate and she never did get to shoot it.

About 11:30 two CPO's rolled up in a supposedly unmarked vehicle. This was a big black Chevy Suburban studded with half a dozen antennae, so it was pretty obvious what it was even though it had "civilian" plates, not the blue "S" plates state vehicles use. The presence of two uniformed men inside was also a dead giveaway. I hadn't met either of them but I knew who one was: he'd written a kill permit for a friend and I was on that, so we recognized each others' names.  (Of the two CPOs I've known for years, one has retired and the other is now back up on duty after some extensive sick leave. He came later for a different purpose.)

The two CPO's were very relaxed. I had assumed they were going to check licenses but they didn't.  I suppose they knew most of the people in the group who go there on a regular basis, plus the one knew who I am. I imagine they were satisfied that we were "good guys," so they confined their visit to chit-chat for 15 minutes (and, of course, the policy of "showing the flag" just as a reminder) then they left.

Noon came and it was time to shoot.  We sauntered out about 11:40, with our group and the others who came in independently posting ourselves about 100 yards apart around a very large open pasture.  I counted 12-14 people in all, but since we were pretty widely separated there was little danger.  My post was on top of a rise on a fence line.  I had the mowed, short-grass field in front and an un-cut, heavily grown up area behind me.  That field cost me two birds, but more later on that.

The birds started to fly and we started to pop-pop-pop at them. I was using my little "Churchill by Kassnar" 20-gauge Spanish double, shooting Winchester 2-3/4" 1-ounce #7-1/2's. These seemed to work well when I did manage to hit a bird now and then.  I don't know what the "proper" average for doves might be but I ended up using 66 shots for the 12 I killed, i.e., 18.0 %.  It wasn't my best day but it could have been a lot worse.  In Argentina some years back I managed 40% but I rarely shoot that well. Nevertheless I killed four birds in the morning session. My Churchill behaved very well. It has selective ejectors: it will throw an empty shell 10-12 feet. We were asked to pick up our empties: the bright yellow of 20-gauge shells made that easy so I recovered all of them. The right barrel ejector seemed a bit sticky so I cleaned it today and lubricated the ejectors, that may cure the issue.

We broke for lunch about 1:00: it was elk-meat hamburgers (my neighbor goes to Montana to shoot elk every year).  During lunch another CPO, one whom I know well, showed up (this time in a DWR marked vehicle) not to check licenses but to hawk raffle tickets for the CPO Association's Emergency Relief Fund.  Needless to say I bought some. If November 1st comes and goes and I haven't had a call I'll know I didn't win that Ruger 10/22 rifle.

We went back out into the field about 2:00.  I felt my shooting was marginally better than in the morning session: I dropped two birds that plonked down right at the fence line, making for easy recoveries.  Others fell into the short grass.  But some (at least four) fell into the long weeds behind me.  Luckily my neighbor had brought his 1-1/2 year old Chesapeake Bay Retriever, "J—," who found two of those birds for me. Unfortunately towards the end of the day the dog was so tired she couldn't hunt any longer (she'd been on the go since dawn) so two of my birds went unfound but I know they hit the ground stone dead. Something will benefit from their death, though. In Nature nothing really goes to waste.

One annoyance was that the presence of so many other shooters meant that a lot of the birds that flew over the pasture got knocked down before they got within range of my gun; and there were two shooters behind me facing the other direction. They repeatedly popped off birds coming in from behind me.  At least once I hit a bird that kept flying but someone on another stand knocked it down. But I did OK, I'm satisfied with what I brought home.

This event taught me, among other things, that I would never have survived as a fighter pilot.  I've always felt my peripheral vision was pretty good, but my neighbor 100 yards off kept yelling "Tom! Behind you!" to alert me to incoming birds I didn't spot. I can (and will) make the standard excuses that doves are tiny things, they're hard to see, they're very fast flyers, they jink and weave and duck around, yada, yada, yada. Nor did it help that I was wearing a hat (it was damned hot up there); nor that my position was so open the birdies could see me and shied off, so it's not my fault, so there. However, I learned some things for next time, including better places to sit.

On the other side of the farm there were more shooters; at times it sounded like there was a firefight going on.  We were all pretty busy (especially in the afternoon) but on the other side they were just whanging away constantly, with lulls only to reload.  Now, I know that every shot doesn't hit a bird (how well I know that!) but they must have killed a bunch on that side even if they didn't do any better than the 18% kill rate I managed. In Argentina, there were so many birds I could pick my shots, and those Spanish-speaking doves always came in dumb. If Virginia doves were that stupid I might have hit more, but I'm just glad they weren't smart enough to understand that if they sat on a power line they were safe.

We packed it in at 6:15 or so. It was time to clean up. We left about 15 minutes later.  My neighbor brought home 14 birds, J— having lost 2 or 3 of his in the tall stuff, too.  Once home I showered, then spent the evening cleaning birds. I will note that doves are a damned sight easier to pluck than pheasant! After that I collapsed into bed because I was as tired as J— was.

My neighbor is going again on Monday (the landowner doesn't want people to shoot on Sunday) but he'll be there at dawn, and I'm not up to another 5:00 AM wake-up. I'll pass that time but might go again.

All in all, it was a good day despite lousy shooting.  I tried some of those "Spred-R" loads in the afternoon and felt they did some good, though not enough to justify the expense (assuming I can find any shells at all these days).  They were 7/8-ounce 8's, not the ounce of 7-1/2's in the Winchester stuff, though I'm not sure shot size or an eighth of an ounce made much of a difference.