COLEMAN — At the opening of dove season last September through early June, portions of Coleman County and North Central Texas got double, maybe triple, the normal year’s rainfall total.
Last Sunday, opening day of the 2019 season, much of that same country was under a burn ban.
When the rain quit falling, it really quit, and for those with an interest in dove hunting something happened.
“This is the lowest number of birds I have ever seen,” said outfitter Dusty Greaves, of the Lodge at Rock House Ridge. “It could get tough in the coming weeks.”
Those are not exactly the words you want to hear two days before the season opens. But with less than 48 hours before the first groups of hunters showed up at RHR’s year-old lodge to open the season, the search was on with spotters scouting fields from Albany to Winters and Ballinger.
Then a call came from another outfitter in Stamford asking about bird reports.
“I have been doing this for 35 years and it is the slowest I have ever seen,” said Roy Wilson, of Texas Best Outfitters. “I have fields that normally look like Argentina with 5,000 birds and they may have 300 to 500.”
It was all flip-flopped from reports just weeks earlier when a boom season was being projected. Texas dove hunters annually kill about 10 million birds each year and most are taken the first couple of weeks in September.
Heavy rains and cool spring temperatures were expected to have delayed the hatch, but with an abundance of native food sources the counts were believed to be good.
Hunting with a group of about 35, our first hunt was an afternoon shoot on the outskirts of Abilene. Scouts had been watching the sunflower field and were seeing a good number of white-winged dove entering the field late in the afternoon.
What no one expected was a pop-up rain in the area as we drove toward it dropping the temperature and bringing the birds in an hour early. Hundreds were circling the field preparing to eat and others were already leaving when we pulled in about 4.
Hunters scattered around the field and within minutes shoots were ringing out in all directions. At any moment there could be 300 or 500 doves over the field in groups of five to 25. It did not take long before one after another hunters started taking limits.
It is a field I have hunted many times over the years, and it has always been exceptional. Although minus mourning doves for the most part the field was, as an old outfitter used to say, surprisingly chili red hot.
It was especially so compared to reports from through much of Texas, not including South Texas. One group near Breckenridge reported 22 hunters taking 22 birds opening morning. Wilson said some of his fields were better than expected but still not up to normal standards. A few of his better hunters limit while the majority struggle. Even other fields with hunters from Rock House Ridge struggled for the most part.
Texas Park and Wildlife Department Game Warden James Cummings of Abilene said he found very few limits working throughout the Taylor County area the first two days.
Oddly the Rock House Ridge guides were seeing almost no birds in the morning. A short hunt south of Coleman on Monday proved their point when the best bag was less than 10.
That afternoon our group returned to the Abilene field getting there an hour early just in case the birds showed up early again. They did not. It was a hot wait in the bright sunshine with hunters picking off a few birds here and there until about 4:30. Then it was like the skies opened up and the dove fell out. From every direction the dove flew low into the field and hunters blasted away. The birds were oblivious to everything. Standing in front of six trucks parked at a middle gate about seven hunters quickly limit. One other, who had no dove hunting experience before opening day, finished with 10.
By the time everyone left the field, 21 hunters had limits. Everyone else had a smile or at least a story about having one of their worst days shooting ever.
Making it even better was a bunch came out of the field with some Eurasian collared doves, a bonus bird that does not count against the 15-bird bag limit since it is considered an invasive species.
Fortunately Rock House Ridge has dozen of fields in a hundred-mile band west of Coleman, so they should be able to place hunters. Still, guides and hunters are hoping something changes in the coming weeks whether it is brought on by cooler temperatures, moisture or fall farming activity. If not, this could be one of those all-time clunkers of a season dove hunters have not seen for a long time.