Special hunt at a Kansas windmill

They came down the valley like squadrons of Star Wars fighters. Often a dozen or more in a bunch they dipped and dived in flight like only doves can do.

Thirty yards from a waterhole, three of the birds slowed and floated in. Jim Mellensifer raised his 20 gauge, swung on the birds then lowered the gun without firing a shot. The hunter had unloaded the shotgun long before, his limit of 15 doves already filled.

“I really think I could have gotten all three of those if I’d still been shooting,” said Mellensifer. Friday’s evening hunt was so good he sat on a bucket and enjoyed the dove parade until dusk. While he’d expected a good hunt, what happened in a friend’s pasture 45 minutes northwest of Hays was one for the memory banks.

He came from his home near Oakley, first by pavement, then gravel, then dirt and finally a dusty trail squeezed tight by brilliant wild sunflowers and assorted grasses.

“I’ve never, ever, seen the pastures this tall and this green this late in the summer,” Mellensifer said when he paused to open a gate. “We just keep getting rains.”

But late summer rains meant puddles on roads and in pastures, gave doves plenty of places to drink rather than forcing them around rare spots of water. The cold front that brought the most recent rains had taken many doves when it left. Mellensifer commented he had seen fewer doves than the week before.

A pair of doves flushed near a windmill when he pulled up to unload his gear at 5:45 p.m. A few more passed close when he walked back from parking his pickup near the gate.

Rotted stock tanks pulled to the side showed the windmill had watered livestock for decades. Corroded empty shotgun shells tossed in the tanks for trash showed dove hunters had been using it for years. Doves came within minutes of Mellensifer’s arrival.

“Normally it’s pretty slow until that last hour or so of daylight,” Mellensifer said, watching a guest’s Lab fetch his third bird 15 minutes into hunting. “If it’s like this now I can’t help but wonder what it will be later.”

He’d set his shooting chair 15 yards from the windmill that groaned and clanked as spinning blades worked old pump rods up and down. Water from the windmill was pumped into two stock tanks. Overflow from the tanks created the 20 foot mucky pool where Mellensifer placed two dove decoys, their white wings spinning to replicate birds landing to get a drink.

The decoys worked and doves often hovered around the fakes like hummingbirds at a nectar feeder. It was one of those hunts when it seemed all worked well.

Rather than 100 degrees, which can happen early in dove season, it was in the low 80s. Cloud cover and a steady breeze made it seem even nicer. When hot, the energetic Lab jumped into one of the full water tanks and patiently watched and waited for another dove to fall.

Mellensifer commented it was the best scenting conditions he could remember on a dove hunt, when the combination of heat, dry, dusty plants and tiny birds often make it tough for dogs to find downed birds.

It helped that most of the shots were close and Mellensifer was shooting well enough to get his limit of 15 with 27 shells. His last two birds fell at a single shot, the first time that has happened to Mellensifer in the 41 years he has hunted doves.

Early in the hunt, doves came mostly in singles and pairs. Mellensifer filled his limit from those flights by about 7:15. His guest 15 minutes later.

Mellensifer, with an empty shotgun, and his guest with a loaded camera, stayed at the waterhole to enjoy a show that seemed to get better and better.

Flocks seemed to get bigger and bigger and wasted less and less time coming to the water. Two landed within six feet of the Lab that sat and whined as he watched them peck a few seconds then fly away. Mellensifer estimated enough doves flew within 30 yards of the windmill that four more hunters could have easily shot limits, too, on the scores of opportunities of easy shots.

“You know things went well when two hunters get two limits with basically two boxes of shotgun shells,” he said, finally casing his shotgun and gathering his gear as dusk settled over the prairie. He talked of ways he’d cook his birds when he got them cleaned at his home as he plucked empty shotgun hulls from the ground. Doves are one of his favorites amid the dozen or so species of birds he hunts.

Back at his pickup he snacked on a quick dinner of a deer stick, topped with a line of mustard, rolled up in a tortilla. As he talked of past hunts and the good dogs of his past, Mellensifer looked west and saw enough of a pause in the clouds to provide a rose-colored sunset.

“Look at that, it’s just beautiful,” he said as he put ingredients for dinner back in a cooler. “What a great way to end a great day.”