Feature Article: Dove Opener Family Tradition

The Dove Opener: A Family Tradition

By Bill Jaenicke/WON Staff WriterPublished: Aug 23, 2019

Tradition. Whenever I think of the word, I can’t help but remember the song “Tradition” from the 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof. The main character, Tevye, portrayed by the actor Topol, asks the question, “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!” I can’t think of a better way of putting it. Tradition helps us keep our balance in an increasingly unbalanced world.

For the California trout fishermen, the Eastern Sierra Trout Opener at Crowley Lake is a family tradition. I’m sure many of you reading this participate in that event and have done so for years and years. Likewise, for the upland game hunter, the biggest event is the September dove opener. It too is a family event that spans multiple generations. At the end of one dove opener, plans are immediately made for the next. And so it goes, year after year.

THEN: The author and his son, Jake, on one of their first dove openers in Yuma.

When I was young, in my pre-teens, my dad started taking me trap shooting at the Winchester Gun Club. It was located then (but no more) in a secluded area nearby the University of California, Irvine. My dad was an expert shotgunner capable of busting 200 straight trap targets. My love for shotgunning started then. It also came in handy as a shot shell reloader for all those rounds we went through.

That led to a dove opener tradition with my dad, Virg, his friend Art Lopez, and others and their sons that were around the same age as me. In those days, we hunted in the fields of Brawley and around the irrigation canals of Blythe. We’d get there the night before, stay in a cheap hotel and while the parents smoked, drank and played cards, we kids found ways to entertain ourselves out and about in the desert night. During the hunt it was hot, and we mostly tried to stay in the shade of hay bales or eucalyptus trees and take our shots at incoming “grey ghosts.” But man, was it fun! Limits were not easy to come by. My favorite part was going off by myself with my Winchester Model 50 and walking the ravines, jump shooting dove. Then it would be back to the group and into the canal to cool off. On our return, my mom would prepare the dove — simply pan frying the breasts with some salt and pepper. But oh, weren’t they satisfying!

During my college years I wasn’t as consistent with the annual dove opener. When it did happen, it was with a group of high-school buddies — friends that I still have to this day and still hunt with when we can manage to get together.

One opener in particular I’ll never forget. My buddy Don had gotten his pilot’s license and had a little Cessna. We departed John Wayne Airport in the late afternoon and landed in a little field strip in Calipatria. We spent the night sitting by the tarmac, drinking beer and watching the crop dusters coming in and out with their rotary engines roaring and flaming and lighting the night sky.

We were up before dawn, with absolutely no idea where we were going to hunt. Ended up wandering through town, openly carrying our guns in the streets, until we found the outskirts and the fields and canals. That was one tough hunt. We ended up near a pig sty and for the first time I experienced the odiferous, mud-caked, essence of the porcine species. Also, how omnivorous they are, as some clueless dude shot a sparrow hawk, which landed in the pig sty and was immediately consumed. I think I came away with two birds and a new appreciation for doing some hunt planning beforehand.

In the ensuing years, life happened. Work, marriage, kids. The annual dove hunt became not so annual. My friends spread out. We would still get together on occasion, but things were definitely not balanced by tradition.

Then one night, some 30-odd years ago, my friend Tim Carew called me and asked if I wanted to drive to Yuma with him to meet up with his family for their annual dove opener. My mind flashed with the family tradition experiences of my past dove openers and my heart flickered with excitement at the prospect of renewing the tradition. But my answer was, “No, I can’t do that. I don’t have a hunting license. I can’t just pick up and go, I have to ask my wife…” and on and on with the excuses. But Tim can be persistent, and my wife was relenting, and the next thing I knew I was with him in his Jeep Cherokee along with my Model 50 and we were off to Yuma.

NOW: A more recent photo of father and son. The tradition lives on.

I’ll spare you the details of that drive. Suffice to say it wasn’t until dawn was breaking that we met up with his family at the Denny’s on 16th Street. A quick bite and it was off to Sprague’s Sports for ammo and hunting licenses. I was adopted into the Carew family and the tradition was reignited. Some degree of balance had been restored.

For the next few years, that tradition of the dove opener in Yuma persisted. The main family had a big room at the Motel 6 on 16th Street. All Tim and I could get was a single-bed room there. It didn’t matter though, as we never spent much time there. The nights were spent with the family at one bar or pool hall or another. The days were spent in the pursuit of dove.

Tim had a golden retriever named Duke. “Duke the duty dog .” This dog had never been formally trained. He just did what came naturally, which was to alert to incoming dove and then retrieve those doves once they had been knocked out of the sky. One of my best dove hunting memories was of Tim and I standing in a little river as evening approached, with Duke at our side in the water. The trees along the bank concealed us but also made for a very quick and very fast shot as the dove came into view. There were misses and curses, but also some awe-inspiring shots. If we missed, Duke would give us that look of, “great shot — not!” But when we hit, he would dutifully swim off and retrieve the bird and then go off again and retrieve the floating shell. A great dog and hunting companion who is still missed to this day.

With that tradition and balance now operative, it was now time to include my son, Jake. At nine years old, he got his hunter training certification at Raahauge’s and got a junior hunting license. That was in 1999. For that first year he shot his great-grandfather’s single-shot Stevens .410. I was there, in that cotton field, when my son took his first dove all on his own. The memory of that shot and his joy upon retrieving his first dove from the field and the accolades from his extended family is bright and clear and everlasting. Such are the foundations of tradition.

So, we joined up with the Carew clan and began a tradition of our own. Get into Yuma the day before opener and check into our room at the Motel 6, which we had reserved the year before. Go to Sprague’s Sports and get an Arizona 2-day license and ammo. Do some scouting. Go out as a group and get re-balanced, away from the cares of the world. Stay up late, get up early, hunt some dove. Then do it all over the again the next day.

Over the years Jake and I, the Carews, various friends of Jake and mine would always go to Yuma for the dove opener. Some years we just hunted California in Winterhaven. We would find spots that were productive for a few years but then wouldn’t be. So, we’d move on and find new spots. Sometimes we just hunted Arizona — the river, the Marine Air Station, the old orchards. All over. Sometimes we’d go further out in our quest for limits — as far out as Welton. Some years we hunted with the Carew clan, others not. But for the last 20 years, we’ve only missed one dove opener. That tradition has kept us balanced.

For his 12th birthday I got Jake a Remington Wingmaster 20-gauge pump shotgun. He shoots it to this day and is absolutely deadly with it. Doves don’t have a chance if they come within range of Jake and his 20-gauge. Many is the time I’ve called out, “Great shot, Jake!” These are the memories that make for tradition.

I’m getting older. Jake is almost 30 now. But we have our reservations made at the Shiloh Inn. We’ll go to Sprague’s Sports and get our licenses and ammo and probably a Big Breast Contest shirt or hat or other apparel, do a little scouting. We’ll enjoy the good restaurants and probably meet up again with the Carew clan, though we’ll retire early, play some cribbage and get up early and head to this year’s spot. And, God willing, one day Jake will be hauling me out there with his son or daughter, sitting me in the shade with my shotgun, and maybe I’ll shoot a bird or two — or not — but I will enjoy that the tradition has carried on.

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