CHEROKEE COUNTY — While most hunting ground is measured by its remoteness and size, 10 guys stood on a single acre of habitat Wednesday afternoon.
They were basically in someone's backyard.
Rain, the worst possible element for good dove hunting, poured from the sky.
But in 75 minutes of shooting, the hunters shot their collective limit of 150 doves.
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They'll probably do it many more times this season.
Last season, Brian Natalini and friends shot about 980 doves from his one acre of mowed sunflowers.
"We could have shot a lot more if we wanted," Natalini said as he watched flocks of doves settle onto the field after Wednesday's shoot. "We just kind of quit hunting doves and went to other stuff."
Natalini, of Columbus, said the high protein and easy feeding drew doves by the thousands to the tiny field weeks before the season opened.
Careful management of hunting pressure keeps them around for many weeks.
"I keep telling people anybody could do this," he said. "Anybody."
Field of dreams
One acre = 90 percent of a football field minus end zones
State game departments have been planting sunflower fields for dove hunting for decades.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks has dozens located on their wildlife areas around the state.
The fields are popular with hunters and success rates high for a while — often after a few non-stop days of heavy pressure early in the season and the birds migrate on.
Natalini saw a better way.
"I just live for hunting and I'm always thinking of ways to make things better for me and my friends," he said as he watched his Lab, Gunner, work a retrieve. "I thought I'd give this a try."
That doves line utility wires and dot the fences around his 9.8-acre rural farmstead are testament that his idea's working fine.
Natalini's field was planted in the spring and a pre-emergent sprayed on the soil to help combat weeds that are never welcome.
"Doves love a wide-open field when they're feeding," Natalini said. "I pretty much want sunflowers and dirt."
Natalini allow unaltered weed growth in about six rows of sunflowers in the field's center.
It's where hunters hide when hunting season arrives.
The rest of the field is regularly inspected.
When weeds become a problem, he's quick to rid them from his field by hand sprayer.
"It's no big deal, maybe a few evenings during the summer," he said. "If you stay on them it's not too bad. You don't want to let them get away from you."
He mows 90 percent of the field about two weeks before the season opens.
Chris Tymeson, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks attorney, said federal and state laws allow hunting doves over unharvested fields that have been mowed.
Rules for hunting waterfowl are different.
Easy does it
One acre = 1/10th the size of a city block
Providing an ideal feeding ground isn't the only reason Natalini's dove field has produced between 800 and 1,000 doves for hunters the past several seasons.
"I think managing the hunting pressure is so very important," he said. "You pressure them very much and they'll quit coming. You have to let them come in and feed so they'll stay in your area."
His goal is to occasionally hunt a small percentage of the birds using his field and avoid the masses of dawn and dusk.
Morning hunts aren't allowed because the biggest flocks come at sunrise. Afternoon hunts are finished about two hours before sunset.
"I'm wanting to keep those birds around as long as I can," he said. "They're attracting birds that are migrating through, too."
After hunting the first two days of the season, he'll rest the field several days. He'll hunt again when numbers are high.
"That's one of the nice things about having it right here by the house," he said. "I can kind of keep an eye on things. When a bunch of birds move in I can get on the phone, call some buddies and know we'll have a good hunt."
Opening day aqua hunt
One acre = about 208 feet by 208 feet
At mid-afternoon Wednesday, nine of Natalini's friends gathered in a shed beside the field.
Rain pounded the metal roof so hard that Natalini had to raise his voice to give a "safety first and foremost" lecture.
The gunners then spread in a line amid the strip of standing sunflowers.
"It's 42 yards to that fence," Natalini said, pointing to the field's east border. "I've set it up so if it flies over the field, it's in range."
At 3:30, he gave the OK to start shooting.
Birds came through the downpour at a steady clip.
Natalini urged the hunters to resist shooting into a big flock until it was over as many hunters as possible to avoid educating birds and to help the group leave the field soon with limits.
Doves fell at a steady pace.
"We've got some pretty fair shooters here," Natalini said in a major understatement.
Many within the group were competitive target shooters or serious waterfowlers.
An hour after the shoot began, several hunters had their limits of 15.
All were done by 4:45.
"That's it, we're done, let's get out of here," Natalini said when a friend shot his 15th bird. "Don't worry about picking up empties. I'll get them later. Let's let these birds come in and feed."
Of the 150-bird limit in 75 minutes he said, "That was nothing compared to what it can be like on a clear day."
Natalini's wife, Susie, served dinner in the shed.
By dessert, sunshine had broken through and the hunters watched as hundreds of doves landed and fed on the field.
One acre = 1/640th of a square mile.
Natalini and six friends hunted in sunshine Thursday afternoon, taking their limits of 15 each between 4-6 p.m.
Next, the group will hunt a similar friend managed by a friend for the first time this year.
Natalini is sure they could shoot limits throughout the season on both fields.
"People think dove season is two or three days and then the birds are gone," he said. "It doesn't have to be that way. I'd love to see others plant these little fields all over. I can only imagine the numbers of doves we'd be holding then."