It’s commonly known that hunting season kicks off with the opening of dove season on September 1. That makes it a virtual holiday for millions of hunters who can’t wait to get started after laying out since spring gobbler or the fall-winter seasons that closed way back in December or January.
The truth is, though, the dove-shoot kickoff is kind of symbolic. Open seasons for a handful of other game animals actually precede or coincide with the much-heralded dove shoot-BBQ. A few states and Canadian provinces offer big game hunts for bear, deer, antelope and bighorn sheep in the same time frame; and a few states get started quite early with squirrels and other small game. But what’s really notable for many of us who love to tote our shotguns out into the summer sun for a crack at aerobatic doves are other early-bird wingshooting opportunities. And so here’s a quick roundup, including the gray streakers that bring us together on September 1. Keep in mind this is just an overview and for actual season dates, licensing and other regs, you’ll need to check with state wildlife agencies where you hunt.
Doves—Since upper Midwestern states like Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin joined the fold over the past decade, most of the U.S. now is onboard for the early-September dove opener. For most long-time practitioners, it’s as much a social occasion as a hunt, but that doesn’t mean the faithful aren’t serious about the shooting: Heck, yeah we are. Besides a shotgun, shells, a stool and a cooler of ice tea or water, not a whole lot of equipment is required. Finding a good spot can be a challenge, but typically big parties form up, which is how most folks get involved. Anywhere that ag fields have recently been cut, or near ponds or other water sources are good bets. The shooting can be difficult, but the rewards for mind and body are great.
Crows—In several states, crow seasons actually predate the dove opener, getting started in mid-August, yet this sport largely goes unobserved. That’s because crow hunting tends to be an iconoclastic pursuit, and the relative few who are truly serious about it are an arcane bunch indeed. However they know something that many others don’t: that crows are incredibly sporting game, that a fair amount of tactical know-how is required, and that the shooting can be high-volume, high-intensity pandemonium when you’re in the right spot at the right time. Basic crow gear is rather like dove gear, add in calls and decoys, and then whatever it takes to stay concealed from sharp-eyed crows.
Geese—When the resident goose population boomed throughout the East, South and Midwest, wildlife managers reacted with a previously unheard-of approach by opening seasons that begin much earlier and end much later than traditional seasons geared to migratory birds. Early resident goose hunting can take place in unusual places like golf courses and subdivision drainage ponds (where shooting can be done safely), and hunkering down in a layout blind dressed in T-shirt and shorts is a far cry from standard waterfowling practice. No matter, the shooting can get hot and heavy, even on days when temperatures will hit 90 degrees, and generally these early seasons offer larger-than-normal bag limits.
Teal—Small, sporty teal—led by the smallest species, bluewing teal—are the earliest migrators, and so the federal framework that guides state regs provides a mostly-in-September window exclusively for hunting these fast-flying, fine-tasting birds. Usually starting in mid-September, duck commandos and other diehards won’t miss out on this reason to put the boat in the water and brush-up a blind or two, while fine-tuning their calling, shooting and dog work. Along the coast, public-access marshlands can be good places to hunt, but there’s also plenty of teal action along the sloughs, creeks and rivers of middle America and the Great Plains.
Rails—If you like getting wet and muddy up to your knees/waist/armpits (hey, it’s summertime), then slogging through coastal marshes in search of clapper and Virginia rails is perfect exercise. Typically starting along the Eastern Seaboard on September 1 or shortly thereafter, this migratory-bird pursuit works more like pheasant or quail hunting, minus the pointing dogs. You wade in (literally) when the tide is out and bull through the marsh grass hoping to flush these gangly, long-legged waterbirds. They’re not the most graceful fliers, but don’t underestimate a rail’s elusiveness. Every one in the bag is well earned.