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Temperature's Rising

A hunting writer and his dog make their first South Texas dove hunt.

By Henry Chappell

I found Maggie’s confidence in me touching, but her reasoning was badly flawed. My 8-month-old German shorthaired pointer had deduced that since the boss’s first two shots of the day had each produced a dove to be snatched up and paraded about, then every shot dropped a bird. Now she was out of sight in a patch of dried sunflower stalks 40 yards away, searching for a dove that was well on its way to Mexico after evading two loads of No. 8 shot. I could hear her furious snuffling above the rustling stalks. I gave up trying to call her with the whistle and resorted to threats. She broke out of the brittle cover, tongue lolling, her dark liver face covered with grass seeds and tiny, pale violet petals of awlleaf aster, and looked at me as if to say, “What are you hollering about?”

I pulled a leash from my game bag and went after her. Striding through the rank, knee-high cover, I considered our location (far South Texas), the time of day (mid-morning), the temperature (low 80s), and the likelihood of stepping on a rattlesnake (too high for comfort). I dragged Maggie to the shade of a mesquite tree, where she took her water lying on her heaving side.

This was my first South Texas hunting trip. The day before, I had driven 9 hours from the Dallas area to Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley. Rolling through the Brush Country south of San Antonio, I understood why biologists were predicting a great 2003-2004 quail and deer season. The early November pastures still held a vernal lushness after ample spring and summer rain. I rolled down the windows when I entered the Valley at sundown. The warmth and subtropical scent of fruit groves, mesquite, crop fields and luxuriant grass gave me the sensation of having driven back into late summer.

I arrived with no preparation other than a quick phone call to Las Palomas WMA manager Steve Benn, who suggested that I concentrate on areas with plenty of brush, where I might find mourning doves loafing during the warmer hours of the day. A lone hunter would have sparse shooting in large, open pastures and grain fields with no other hunters to keep the birds flying. Naturally, Benn reported that hunting had been excellent a few weeks ago, but most of the birds seemed to have moved out of the area. I comforted myself by noting the possibility of late-season reinforcements from the north, and that if all else failed, quail season was open.

Next morning, I pulled into a big, brush-lined pasture, part of the 600-acre Taormina Unit of Las Palomas WMA, just south of the little town of Donna. The power lines were empty of birds, except for one distant avian figure that I eyed hopefully for several seconds before it fluttered in the unmistakable manner of a kestrel.

I studied my prospective hunting ground. TPWD had disked dozens of strips through the tall weeds and brush, creating alternating rows of relatively open ground and thick, weedy strips. From the truck, I could see sunflower, croton and ragweed in the disked rows. Feeling better, I filled a couple of water bottles and let Maggie out of her box. She flew out of the truck before I could lower the tailgate. As an afterthought, I put together my 20-gauge over-under, and we went for a walk.

There’s nothing like a long road trip into new country for teaching a young hunting dog lessons that can only be learned through experience. For instance, one gets only 5 minutes at roadside rest stops — not enough time to sniff every blade of grass before performing essential tasks. In motel rooms, we don’t drink from the ice bucket, and the boss prefers not to share his pillow. Also, it’s poor form to rear up beneath the curtains to woof at people in the parking lot.

Of slightly more importance is the positive association of gunfire with birds. Fortunately, at the Taormina Unit, the brush along the ditches and field edges held doves. A few flushed within shotgun range. By the time I pulled her away from her search for the missed dove, Maggie was bird- and gun-crazy. Pointing-dog purists might cringe at the thought of a young dog chasing flushed doves, but like most suburban pups, Maggie needed a break from her daily regimen of digging up sprinkler heads and uprooting backyard landscaping. Besides, we had several hundred acres to ourselves, and I enjoyed her company.

We picked up a few more birds before noon, and on the way back to the truck, the largest bobcat I had ever seen ambled across the pasture only 60 yards away. Maggie lifted her nose, but fortunately her instincts (and my hoarse warnings) told her this wasn’t the neighbor’s housecat.

An hour later, waiting on a cheeseburger in a diner in Weslaco, I finally studied a map of the area and tried to ignore the 6-foot diamondback rattlesnake hide on the wall above the cash register.

Mourning doves breed in all 10 Texas ecological regions, and every region receives migrating doves. Yet South Texas — the Brush Country and the Rio Grande Valley — has long held nearly mythical status among hunters. While South Texas is nearly as famous for high-dollar leases as for great hunting, doves remain affordable and available to even the most cost-conscious hunter. Moderately-priced day and season leases are available throughout the region; prices of $75 to $100 per day are common. A polite call to the chamber of commerce in most small towns will yield day lease contacts. However, a lease isn’t a necessity. In addition to the various units that make up the 5,600-acre Las Palomas WMA, TPWD offers some 15,000 acres of public dove hunting areas in South Texas. These are mostly small agricultural areas made available through the TPWD public hunting program. In the Brush Country, the 15,200-acre Chaparral WMA, in LaSalle and Dimmit counties, offers superb hunting depending on the rainfall and weather. Of course, most South Texas deer and quail leases offer good dove hunting as well.

Although mourning doves make up the bulk of the region’s annual harvest, South Texas may be best known for its white-winged dove hunting. In the days when white-winged doves were at their population peaks, before the early 1980s, as many as 40,000 hunters — many of them from out of state — would greet the opening of the season. But severe freezes in 1983 and 1989, and a horrific drought in between, reduced both the white-winged population and hunter interest. According to TPWD migratory game bird program leader Jay Roberson, only about 20,000 hunters have shown up for white-winged hunts in recent years.

Historically, white-winged doves were confined to far southern Texas, south of the Nueces River. But during the past two decades, white-winged doves have spread northward. The birds are now fairly common as far north as Kansas and seem to be continuing their northward expansion. Biologists suspect the birds are responding to habitat changes, both in their historic home range and in territory to the north. The rub for hunters is that in Texas, especially outside of the Rio Grande Valley, white-winged doves have become primarily urban birds. San Antonio and Austin boast tremendous populations. “The overall health of the white-wing population in Texas and the United States is better than it ever has been,” says Roberson. “But in terms of their historic range, they’ve never really recovered.”

Nevertheless, white-winged dove hunting in the Valley remains good because of habitat conservation and restoration. “Overall, I can say that white-wing numbers seem to be relatively steady in recent years,” Steve Benn says. “A focus at Las Palomas has been to restore native habitat. On one hand, we’re providing breeding and roosting habitat, and on the other, we’re trying to maintain some of the old farm fields we’ve purchased as feeding areas for the birds.”

White-winged doves migrate early. Although the general South Texas dove season typically opens the third Saturday in September, several early-September hunt dates in the Rio Grande Valley — which is designated a Special White-winged Dove Area — allow hunters into the field before the birds head south.

When it comes to mourning doves in South Texas, only one thing is certain: In any given season, the hunting will be good somewhere, sometime. “In the 2002 season, hunters took about 8,000 doves on the Chaparral WMA,” says David Synatzske, manager of the area. “In 2003, hunters harvested only a few hundred birds. But there was good hunting just south of San Antonio.” The difference? Rainfall. Unlike bobwhite quail hunting, dove hunting in the Brush Country usually is best during drought years. In 2002, South Texas suffered a severe drought through early summer. To the north, grain crops either failed or weren’t planted. Then the drought broke. Between July and December, much of South Texas received between 20 and 40 inches of rain. The rough pastureland responded by producing a bumper crop of seed-producing forbs such as sunflower, croton and ragweed.

“The Chap just turned to croton, and the doves poured in,” Synatzske says. “Nearly everyone took home a limit.”

But in 2003, residual moisture in the soil and timely summer rains brought on healthy grain crops to the north, and migrating doves took advantage by stopping over for most of the season, leaving the Chaparral and the rest of the Brush Country with only resident birds and a few migrants.

To consistently get into birds, thoroughly scout promising areas, hunt early in the season and keep tabs on the birds by frequent scouting or by checking with local sources.

Or you can show up for the last two days of the season with high hopes, plenty of shells and a half-trained pup.

Maggie and I finished our first day in the Valley three doves shy of a limit. We earned every bird. Late that afternoon, she pointed in a thick stand of ragweed along one of the disked strips. I waded in and flushed a covey of bobwhites. As my young bird dog bolted away to retrieve her first quail, I decided my timing was pretty good after all.

Next morning, we worked our way northeast into Cameron County, slowly building a limit of mourning doves and picking up a few bobwhites as we tried the various small Las Palomas units. It was sweaty, buggy, satisfying hunting.

In a tiny diner in Rio Hondo, the proprietress served me a late lunch of chicken fajitas, then popped The Jungle Book into the VCR. While Shere Khan terrorized an elephant caravan, I tried in vain to remember what sort of urgent business had kept me out of the South Texas dove fields back in September.

Mid-afternoon, at the Arroyo Colorado Unit in far northern Cameron County, I sat on the dog box in the bed of my pickup and watched the occasional mourning dove fly into a huge maize field. Maggie reared up on the tailgate and whined at a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers fluttering about a power line. A sharp wind brought welcome relief from the gnats and mosquitoes. I had plenty of doves in the cooler. My shotgun was stowed in its case behind the seat. I could feel the season winding down.

Two camo-clad hunters sat on stools out in the maize. After a while they walked over to pet Maggie and say hello. Both men were locals taking advantage of their retirement. They apologized for the lack of birds in their country, assuring me they’d been melting their barrels until a few days ago, and urged me to come back next year.

We wished each other luck. I drove away, and they carried their stools and shotguns back into the field. As I pulled onto the highway, I returned their final wave and hoped I’d see them next September.

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