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Early bird special

A crack shooter bags 10 doves by 9 a.m. and calls it a day. Steve Chapple reports on the fall hunting season's big opener.

September 07, 2004|Steve Chapple

Calipatria, Calif. — IT IS 5:37 IN THE MORNING BESIDE the canal, dark but for slivers of light from a bulging pre-harvest moon high above the saline slick of the Salton Sea.

Shooting begins in 10 minutes, not counting overanxious pop-offs. Honeybees from hives scattered across the farmland bump into the hunters. By 10 the Imperial Valley heat will be enervating, by 11 oppressive, and by noon an eviscerating 112 degrees. That's good, though, because doves fly farther south when it dips below 70.

Twenty yards up the canal, Curtis Fischer, 15, paces near his father. If the hunting is fine, he will miss first period at Calipatria High. Nearby, his 20-year-old brother, Russell, an emergency medical technician with a leg tattoo a Maori warrior would admire, checks his shotgun.

Shooting begins not like a war zone but like a backwoods Independence Day, more noise than flash. The muffled crack of a shotgun sounds like a plastic water bottle stomped in sand, and by 5:48, the Aquafina volleys pound the valley.

"Curtis! Above your head!"

Curtis swivels, fires, BAM! -- misses.

Russell drops to his knees. His semiautomatic 12-gauge pops. Two doves hit the sand.


Droves turn out

For hunters, months of anticipation mercifully ended Wednesday -- a date, Sept. 1, that thousands await all year with goofy eagerness. Dove season, which lasts through Sept. 15 and then resumes in mid-November for 44 days, draws among the biggest hunting turnouts of the year and marks the first in the autumn series of hunts. The state Department of Fish and Game estimates 80,000 hunters bag nearly 2 million doves annually.

It is a democratic gathering, the everyman's season, because dove hunters do not surmount peaks to track elk or deer or drag hulking carcasses through timber or brush. Dove hunters simply park the pickup or SUV next to a field, unfold a chair, pop the ice chest and let it rip. Shooters banter and blast away so near to one another that shot pellets sometimes rain on their feet.

Gear is cheap: boots, a hunting license, a $4 box of shells and a borrowed shotgun. It's also accessible, just a few hours' drive from Los Angeles to the Imperial Valley.

Until the waning days of summer, this agricultural oasis is famous for melons and cotton. Then thousands of people flock to its stubbly fields and miles of crosshatched irrigation canals to harvest birds. And like any crop harvest, the dove hunt amplifies the rhythm of the seasons, the passing of skills and lore: Kids ditch school, parents skip work, shops close on opening day.

Nearly 1 in 5 California dove hunters -- men and women of all ages and kids, lots of kids -- comes here, camping and booking hotel rooms as much as three years in advance.

One hunter from Colorado wrote the proprietor of the Calipatria Inn, "As usual, we are counting down the 51 weeks until we see you again," and he requested perpetual opening-day room reservations for his group "until we die."

The upscale hunters, wearing soft safari caps and bathing suits, smoke cigars and discuss the stock market and political conventions beside the pool at the inn.

Another batch barbecues wieners in front of RVs at Weist Lake.

A couple of years ago, a game warden spotted two hunters in Scottish kilts.

This year, a bunch of codgers donned white caps marked with the numeral 50 to celebrate five decades of blasting birds together.

Rodney Fischer, a lanky 43-year-old local, has chalked up 35 consecutive dove openers.

"My daddy put a 12-gauge shotgun in my hands when I was 8 years old," Fischer recalls. " 'There's a bird, Rodney, a nice shot, I'll be right behind you, I'll hold you up.' I ran up there fast and pulled the trigger, but he wasn't behind me. I fell flat on my butt from the blast. Even so, I hit that bird, yep, I hit that first bird. My daddy couldn't believe it. He says, 'You're going to be a hunter, Rodney, yep, you're going to be a hunter.' "

Here on opening day with his own boys, Curtis and Russell, he wears shorts and camouflage while standing on the sandy strip in front of the Vail canal at dawn. He used to start shooting when his graveyard shift ended at 7 a.m. Now, like many locals, he takes Sept. 1 off.


Doves tuck and roll

DOVES tend to drink after feeding, and the Fischers want to shoot them as they migrate between fields and canals. Mourning and white-winged doves fly a similar pattern each day, from their nighttime roosts in orchards to a patchwork of fields to eat seeds. State wildlife officials, farmers and Desert Wildlife Unlimited, a conservation group, manage about 2,700 acres of wheat, safflower and milo around Calipatria to attract doves to acreage open to hunting.

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