Saturday night, I had dove breasts and braised pheasant for dinner. That's because that morning, I'd shot them, brought them home, cleaned them on my back porch, then sat and watched as my girlfriend made them for dinner.
"Dove opener's this weekend," my friend Scott IM'd Thursday night. We made some loose plans and he picked me up the next morning for the drive down to Calexico.
Scott's a seasoned hunter (and a hell of a good shot), but neither of us had been dove hunting before. He'd been Googling it and found an operation called Woodland's Hunt Club which has the lease to a good piece of land down where the Colorado River meets the Mexican border.
At 5am, we rolled up to an AM/PM out on some farm road to meet up with the hunting party, a bunch of guys who'd driven in from all over the South West for today's shoot. Opening day of the season is typically the best for hunting, giving you the least skittish birds and the warmest weather. So it was a full party.
Mendel Woodland, the most appropriately named hunting guide in the world, turned up at 5:30, pointed at the gas station's roof from where we stood and told us not to shoot any lower than about that angle. That was it. He led us out to the old cattle feed lot next to the river where his lease is, staged us a hundred yards apart and left the rest to us.
I guess the doves fly over every morning as the sun rises, so the idea is to wait until one comes flying towards you, then try to knock it out of the sky. That's probably sounds easier than it is, doves are small, fast and wary. They seem to be able to detect you when they're about 40 yards out, which is your maximum range with bird shot. And, as soon as they see you, they flare off, giving you just a split second to make your shot.
The only shotgun I own is an ancient side-by-side hammer gun last fired by my great great grandaddy when the Union Army came to burn the family farm down. So Scott loaned me his Beretta Silver Pigeon 12 gauge. I haven't quite caught up on the lingo yet, but he choked the top barrel for a nice, wide shot pattern effective at 30 yards or so and the bottom barrel into a tighter cluster that would travel a bit further. If I missed the first shot, the second gave me a chance at hitting the bird as it turned away.
As the sun rose, the birds came flying straight out of it in little flocks of three to four. Some came high, some low and some flew across us, from left to right. Most saw the humans wearing blaze orange and gave us a wide berth.
With 30 or so hunters spread around the field, shotgun fire was pretty much continuous. Every now and then, you'd feel the tiny brass shot — which had gone up, lost its velocity and come falling harmlessly back to earth — sprinkle on your head.
Four boxes of ammo and two hours later, I had seven birds and Scott eight. California's limit is 15 per person and some of the other hunters had reached that in their first hour, but we were happy for our first time out.
Some of the other guys had brought their bird dogs to go after pheasant and invited us to tag along. The terms? "Shoot my dog and I shoot you," explained a wiry old sonofabitch with a shorthair pointer.
I quizzed him enviously about bird dog training. His approach is to buy a puppy from a champion sire well before his old dog reaches retirement, then have the young dog shadow the old until he's ready. He gets the dog excited about birds by bringing home wings and feathers from shoots and giving them to the puppy to play with. The sniffing and pointing comes from instinct, but it's standard command and reward training for the fetching.
We walked through field of alfalfa spread out in a loose line of five hunters. The dog ran ahead, sniffing out pheasants, then would obediently stop and point when he'd found one. Late in the morning, temperatures were 80 plus, so the birds were reluctant to fly. The dog was enough to flush a couple of them, but we had to resort to chasing others until they'd take off.
I missed my shot, but Scott hit two, winging one. When the dog ran to fetch it, he brought it back so gently in his mouth that the bird ran off as soon as he dropped it as his feet. Scott grabbed it and twisted its neck.
Being able to work so seamlessly with a dog was a neat experience. If I'd brought Wiley out here, he'd have killed every bird in the field before we would have had a chance to get a shot off. He's a great camping companion and a good guard dog, but a working animal he is not.
One of the other hunter's took pity on my lack of marksmanship and handed me one of his birds before we took off.
Scott drove us back to LA as I Googled instructions for cleaning the birds. I figured we had it down by the time we got home, so we sat on my back porch, opened a couple beers and started processing them.
The doves were as easy as cleaning trout. You just de-feather their breasts, then stick your thumb in under the breast bone and tear it outwards. A twist separates that from the wings and neck, you rinse it in the sink and are left with about an ounce of meat. Compared to cleaning fish, you do end up with a lot more feathers.
The pheasants were surprisingly easy too. The skin again yields to your fingers, so it's just a case of tearing that off, clipping the feet, wings and head and cleaning out the body cavity. Wiley ate those feet, plus the hearts and livers. One of the best feelings I experience is when I get to feed my little buddy animals that I've killed myself.
We had the birds cleaned and bagged up in the fridge by the time Lara arrived, carrying two old cookbooks her mum had given her and a big Le Creuset pot. Wild birds can dry out easy, so the trick is to cook them in a way that retains or provides moisture. The dove breasts went in a frying pan along with white wine, cream, spring peas and bacon. The whole pheasant went into the pot with butter, cream, port, and a bouquet of lavender, thyme and rosemary.
I opened a nice bottle of red wine and we sat down for good meal. Eating like this just feels far more rewarding than buying your food at the supermarket.