Labor Day is just around the corner and for those with a sporting heart it is among the grandest holidays of the year. Fans of college football have reasons to rejoice, but outdoors-oriented adventurers will be heading afield for the earliest hunting season opener.
Two hunting seasons open, with the lesser interest in the season for non-migratory Canada geese. The most important reason to pick up a shotgun is to try knocking down a mourning dove, according to Joe Fuller, the N.C. Wildlife Commission's Migratory Game Bird Coordinator.
“Our dove hunter participation varies a little bit, but last year's (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) estimate was 62,100,” Fuller said. “The year before, it was 49,700.”
This year dove season opens on Monday, though the legal time has varied in North Carolina. Federal guidelines allow shooting 30 minutes before sunrise.
“This year will be the same as last year, with the season opening 30 minutes before sunrise, rather than noon.” Fuller said. “States can be more restrictive than the federal guidelines. The argument from people favorable to the half-day opener in some parts of North Carolina is that it is tradition.
“Some dove clubs have an opening day barbecue then hunt afterward. However, on the other side are those who hunt with a dog who say it is easier on the dog. Instead of going out in the heat at noon and waiting until 3 o'clock for the doves to start to fly, the dog works in the cooler hours of morning,” he said.
“It may also be more beneficial to people with young hunters. They can take their kids hunting, then they can do something else the rest of the day, such as attend ball games.”
Fuller mentioned the issue of double dipping, which has more potential to be prevalent on opening day when lots of doves may be feeding at a specific field. An unscrupulous hunter may shoot a limit of 15 doves in the morning, then go back again and shoot another limit in the afternoon.
“It is an enforcement issue,” Fuller said. “It might in some way impact the dove population, but there is no evidence that that would occur here or in other states. It's not an issue that has been raised by biologists.”
One change for this season applies to all migratory game birds. Whereas in the past, the possession limit was twice the daily bag limit it has been changed to three times the daily bag limit.
“It's something that a number of biologists have been working with the sService on for four or five years,” Fuller said. “Change comes slowly. The justification is that possession limits have very little biological impact.
“Back in the day, it was thought not as many birds would be harvested with the two-day possession limit,” he said. “But more people are traveling long distances for a weeklong trip, and are having to eat their birds or give them away. Some even may have disposed of birds to keep from running afoul of possession limits.”
Another thing hunters today can be thankful for is that the Service no longer penalizes a state choosing a bag limit of 15 doves, rather than what was the decades-long bag limit of 12, by reducing the first season segment by 10 days.
Biologists agreed that the 15-bird limit has no impact on the dove population, and supported the higher limit. Today, the 15-bird limit applies throughout the Eastern Dove Management Area. The worst thing about a 15-dove limit is that it takes a hunter more shells to bag a limit.
“Doves are generalists,” Fuller said. “They are found in a variety of habitats, from Piedmont suburbs to coastal farms. We hear almost every year that they disappear in late August or early September, but they probably just move within the state.
“We've banded 10,000 to 12,000 doves and very few bands are recovered out of state. Food on the ground from cut crops can very well move the birds around.”
There are also fewer hunters after opening week to move birds. Based on a 2011 survey, 85 percent of dove hunters hunted the first week of the season, while 70 percent said they did not hunt doves at all in the second or third season segment.
For hunters who do not have a place to hunt, an interactive map on the commission's website (www.ncwildlife. org) shows the locations of dove fields planted on state game lands.