Most days Jason Black works in silence and solitude. Not Friday morning.
“I counted 32 pickups when I got here, and I’m pretty sure more have arrived since,” said Black, as the reports of shotgun blasts sounded nearly non-stop in the background. “Sounds like we’re off to a pretty fair start, don’t you think?”
Dove season had begun and Black, McPherson Valley Wetlands manager, estimated 100 hunters were scattered about a 60-acre field of partially-harvested sunflowers on the property owned by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Mother Nature had been more than kind with the right amount of moisture, temperatures and sunshine to create bumper crops of sunflowers, and doves.
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A hundred yards from where Black watched from the field’s parking lot, Dan Melton and his grown sons, Tyler and Michael, were spread over in a broad strip of standing sunflowers.
“More to the right. My right not your right,” Melton yelled at Tyler Melton, directing his son to where he’d seen a dove fall in the tall plants. “Hey, birds coming from the right. Your right, not my right.” His son spun and dropped a dove with his second shot.
Remi, the family’s vacuum of a Brittany spaniel, easily found both birds, her stub of a tail whirling full speed.
“She whined all the way out here this morning,” Dan Melton said. “Remi knew we were finally going hunting again.”
Anticipation for opening morning had been high for many.
Tyler Goehl and two friends arrived at the field at 4:50 a.m., and were pleased to be the second pickup in the parking lot. Twenty minutes later he said it looked like a caravan of headlights as load after load of hunters came to the field.
“They just kept coming after that,” said Goehl, of Wichita. He said the day’s action was more than worth the early rising and drive.
Many doves came as singles flying straight lines. Many passed over the field up to 10 in a bunch, dipping and climbing as the doves changed positions in the flock. The Meltons kept their eyes on the birds and their fingers on their shotguns’ safeties no matter the flight direction or distance.
Repeatedly, distant flocks scattered in several directions over the field as guns sounded. Sometimes the birds headed their way would make it all the way to the Meltons. Sometimes they’d flare just out of range when another hunter took a shot.
No matter, Dan Melton smiled.
“Doves are about the only thing I really hunt much anymore,” he said, as he watched Tyler and Remi search for a bird he’d dropped about 20 yards away in an area Black had mowed. “They’re fast, and a challenge to hunt. I always find (dove hunting) best in these sunflower fields.”
The Meltons talked of sunflower fields they’d hunted in seasons past, some two or more hours away from their homes around Hutchinson. The younger hunter ranked Friday’s field as “awesome.”
By 7:30 a.m. heads covered in camo caps could be seen walking toward parked vehicles. A few minutes later most returned.
“They’re going to get more shells,” Dan Melton said. “You can go through a lot of ammo out here today.”
Dan Melton took special pleasure hitting birds high overhead so they’d fall within a few yards. After a few rough strings of misses, Tyler Melton got on a roll of consistent accuracy.
At one point a pair of doves came toward the Meltons full speed. Each hunter folded the dove closest to them.
It was about 8 a.m. when the first hunters wandered back to the parking lot or where they’d parked along the gravel road, done for the day.
A father and his son home from college were smiling because they had limits of 15 and had shot well.
Another hunter followed a few seconds later, smiling at his poor shooting since he got two doves with 35 shots.
Many hunters answered with “limited out,” when Black asked how they’d done.
“We shelled out,” said John Baker, who’d driven up from Edmond, Okla., to hunt with two friends. “We ran out of ammo before we limited out.” The three hunters totaled 28 doves.
Goehl and two friends shot limits. More memorable, Goehl said, was that they’d shot three white-winged doves from a flock that had keyed in on their dove decoys.
Whitewings are slightly larger than mourning doves and are generally associated with the deserts of southwestern states. They’re becoming increasingly common in Kansas.
“It was really something, the way they turned and came right at the decoy,” Goehl said. “We could tell they were bigger, but when we picked them up we saw the white on the wings and got pretty excited. I’ve never shot one before.”
Most of the hunters lingered at their vehicles rather than leaving quickly. Black questioned most groups that returned to the parking lot. Wildlife and Parks game warden Hal Kaina checked hunters for licenses and their birds.
Every new dog to the parking lot had to pass the sniff test of canines already there, before they got well-deserved drinks from buckets or big water bowls.
Hunters walked from group to group, sharing homemade venison jerky, other snacks or bottled water. Talk ranged from the hunting action minutes past to duck, pheasant and quail hunts months in the future.
Several hunters spoke with disgust of the spent shotgun shells and empty water bottles others had left in the field.
Only a few hunters were in the far corners of the field when Black got ready to leave about 11 a.m.
“You know, the night after Sept. 1 is one when I usually go home feeling pretty good. Most of the hunters did pretty well and all seemed happy. I like how they stayed around and talked a while, and did things like sharing deer jerky.” he said. “Hunting seasons are off to a good start.”