The short-cropped cornfield spread before me was topped with a fresh layer of snow, and a cold wind carried away any warmth that the sun may have summoned. I huddled near a fence corner, depending on the bare limbs of a wild thicket for cover.
Suddenly, a pair of doves sliced across the field. They were high, and I wished that my skeetchoked, 12-gauge, side-by-side shotgun had a little more choke. I crouched a little lower as the birds banked sharply and barreled straight for my corner of the field.
I moved the Winchester to my shoulder and snapped off a shot from the right barrel -- and missed.
I then shoved the muzzles a few more bird-lengths to the left and puked the trigger on the left barrel. One bird lost feathers and began losing altitude on set wings, signaling a long retrieve into the adjoining field.
Snow-covered field? Cold wind? What's wrong with this picture?
Everybody knows that you hunt doves in the heat of early September. For most dove hunters, the season is compressed into opening day and a couple Saturday afternoons afterward. The bird is the unchallenged prince of September shotgunning.
Well, not quite right.
A few Decembers ago, I stumbled onto what I now believe might be the year's best dove shooting throughout Central Maryland -- and especially in Carroll County. Doves are migratory, and this is one of the keys to good winter shooting.
Around here, the fact is that during the early September-October season, the migration has not begun in earnest. The big, darker northern birds are a hardy breed. They will wait out some severe weather if they have found suitable food and roosting conditions.
But, even if a winter storm pushes some birds out, there is a good chance that the same storm will bring in some new flocks.
December shooting is a bit different. The year-end migrants are full-fledged adults -- big, strong flying and wary.
These birds travel in compact, well-integrated flocks of 10 to 30 birds, and they are aggressive and opportunistic feeders. The flocks range over the countryside seeking food.
They are looking for waste grain from the fan harvest, new plantings of winter cover crops and various weeds that drop their seeds late in the year. As always, doves prefer the feed in open, clean areas, as fresh as possible.
When I locate a potential feeding field, I watch it for a couple days, trying to ascertain how many doves are using the area.
Sometimes the birds will hang around a good field for several days, but don't count on it. A change of weather or a newly discovered food source may change their feeding pattern overnight.
Winter doves are not inclined to hang around once the shooting starts. Gun a field today, but you can probably forget about it tomorrow.
This type of shooting also calls for a heavier load than most of us would drop into our shotguns in September. My standard late-season dove load is the so-called "pigeon" 12-gauge load of 1/4 ounces of plated No. 7 1/2 shot.
The late-season dove hunt begins Thursday and continues through Jan. 7. The daily limit is 12 birds.
Pub Date: 12/22/96