MORRISON COUNTY, Minn. - If U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates are accurate, Minnesota sends about 6,500 of its residents afield each fall to hunt mourning doves. This is a drop in the bucket compared with some states, including Kansas (29,000 hunters), Missouri (25,000) and especially Texas (nearly 300,000).
That seasons in each of these states begin each year on the same date, Sept. 1, is borderline amazing, given the temperature extremes that prevail, north to south, on the opener in what the Fish and Wildlife Service calls its mourning dove Central Management Unit.
Tuesday morning, for example, when doves became the first legally hunted game bird of Minnesota's fall seasons, thereby giving 6,500 of us a reason to rise at 4:30 a.m., the predawn temperature about 15 miles east of Little Falls was 52, whereas in west Texas, where tens of thousands of dove hunters undoubtedly were perched on 5-gallon buckets, also awaiting the morning's first light, the temperature hovered near 90.
"I scouted here a couple of evenings ago and there were some birds around," said wildlife photographer Bill Marchel of Fort Ripley. "But it was cool last night, and the radar was lit up pretty good. A lot of birds migrated."
Just ahead of me in my truck, Bill had parked his van on the edge of a no-count country road that likely drifts over with snow in winter.
Standing now in the still-dark night, he uncased a 12-gauge shotgun and filled his jacket pockets with No. 7 1/2 steel loads, while a hunting partner, Rolf Moen of Nisswa, armed himself similarly while keeping track of his 5-year-old German shorthair, Sally, who romped nearby.
Present also were hordes of mosquitoes, and they quickly engulfed Bill and Rolf. Deploying whatever Star Wars-like antenna or other predatory advantages they possess, they soon also homed in on me, clouds of the little buggers buzzing and biting as if this were Alaska in July, not Minnesota in September.
Along also on this escapade was an 11-month-old Labrador retriever who was making his hunting-trip debut.
Riding north with me the night before in the back seat of my truck, Rowdy had snoozed soundly while I careened in and out of slowpoke traffic, speed-gulping caffeine. As a behavior bonus, upon reaching our destination motel, the young dog slinked into our room thief-like, as if knowing one false move - the slightest whine or bark, a leap onto the receptionist's counter - could get us kicked out of the joint.
Bruising the eastern sky, a sliver of crimson greeted Bill, Rolf, Sally, Rowdy and me as we mosquito-slapped our way down the no-count country road to a weedy field we hoped, come sunrise, would be frequented by our feathered quarry.