Photograph by Chris Irwin

An exotic piece of trivia that some of the estimated 460,000 Texans who engage in dove hunting might find fascinating can be found in Ecology and Management of Mourning Dove. According to the 1993 book written by Thomas S. Baskett, fossilized dove remains from the Pleistocene Epoch were found at an archaeological site in Llano County in 1967. That would mean that dove was flying around in the Texas sky anywhere from 11,700 to 2.6 million years ago. And although no one is quite certain when the first dove hunt took place, we do know that the shotgun was not invented until 1878, so the first dove hunters were likely firing rocks rather than buckshot.

But even though they may not know the history, they understand the passion because of their own personal history. “A lot of people in Texas grew up hunting and we’ve been doing it all of our lives,” says Brett Conger of Paloma Pachanga Ranch in Hondo. “When I was 4 or 5 years old, I would go out with my family and pick up birds in the field. Then at 7 or 8, I started shooting the smaller guns. And I just kept going from there. It’s a pastime in Texas and everyone who grows up hunting wants to continue doing it with their kids.”

There is little doubt that dove hunting is thriving in Texas. According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, one of every four dove hunters in America hunts doves in Texas. More than $200 million dollars is spent yearly on dove hunting retail sales, which generates more than $11 million dollars in tax revenue for the state of Texas.

Besides tradition, dove hunting is an attractive sport for social and economic reasons. It is not only a popular family activity, but is also a fun group event. Dove hunting season begins in the North and Central Zones of Texas on Sept. 1 and that is reason to celebrate.

“It can be an entertaining atmosphere,” says Adam Jauch, who is the bird hunting manager at 10-2-4 Texas Hunting Ranch in Commerce. “We have a group of guys who come every year, and the night before the hunting season starts, they have their fantasy football draft. It all comes together – football, hunting, guys getting together and having a lot of fun.”

When Bob Thornton was in high school in San Antonio, the start of dove hunting season was like a state holiday – not sanctioned by the school district, but something that had to be observed. “If Sept. 1 fell on a weekday, we were not in class,” Thornton says. “We were out in the fields with our dads. It didn’t matter if we had a test or anything. It was an unwritten holiday that started the New Year for hunting. Your hunting license expires Aug. 31 so you’ve got to get a new one by Sept.1. It triggers everything. Other hunters – deer hunters, quail hunters, turkey hunters – they are all in the field during dove season because that’s the first chance they have to go hunting.”

Thornton’s passion for dove hunting led him to form the Texas Dove Hunters Association, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of services. But the primary emphasis is centered on dove hunting as a family sport, which, according to Ralph Winingham, is the major reason dove hunting is so popular.

Winingham has been an outdoor writer for more than 40 years, writing for newspapers and magazines including the San Antonio Express News. He also is the author of two books, including The Campfire Chef: Old Boots and Bacon Grease.

“Dove hunting is one of the few outdoor activities where the family can get involved, have a good time, enjoy the camaraderie and the shooting,” Winingham says. There’s only so much space in a deer blind, so if you take a kid out deer hunting the two of you have a good time. But when you go dove hunting, you can take the whole family and have a party. People tailgate, do the cookout thing – that’s the way it is all over the state.”

Nowhere is it more festive than in Karnes City, which is 50 miles southeast of San Antonio and home of the Lonesome Dove Fest. On Sept. 14, the 3,300 residents of the city will begin celebrating the 25th anniversary of the event, which marks the beginning of the South Zone hunting season on Sept. 15. More than 8,000 dove hunting enthusiasts are expected to attend the two-day festival, which features:

● A 5k run
● A parade
● Arts and crafts exhibits
● Games for kids
● A team sporting clays competition between state officials and members of the media
● A dance featuring a Live Band from 9:30pm until midnight on Saturday.

“In some places,” Thornton says, “the opening of dove hunting season is a lot like a Super Bowl party. It’s not like people are going crazy, but people are having a good time.”

The good times are directly connected to sound. In many forms of hunting, silence is a necessity because voices startle the game. That’s not the case in dove hunting. “You don’t have to be completely engaged in the hunt in order to enjoy it,” Jauch says. “It’s more of a laid-back deal where there is a lot of conversation going on. You don’t have to be quite like you’re in a deer blind. You don’t want to be yelling but you’re able to talk in a normal voice.”

If the goal is to have something closer to a party than a vigil, conversation is a plus. So is the affordability. Even the initial investment is reasonable. “It’s not an expensive sport,” Winingham says. “You buy an inexpensive shotgun, you get a couple of boxes of shells, and that’s it. You’ve got less of an expense going in and you can do it more. If you play golf, you’ve got to get a tee time, buy a lot of expensive equipment and you’re playing with people who are kind of serious. They don’t like you talking and cutting up on a golf course.

“In the dove field, that’s what they want. You harass the other shooters and make fun of them when they miss a shot, but you also praise them when they make a good one. It’s one of the few activities where fun prevails and that’s what makes it so enjoyable.”

Winingham is part of a San Antonio group that makes Sept. 1 a special day. “We have about 25 guys with different backgrounds,” he says. “We’ve got an astronaut – Charlie Duke, who was the youngest man to ever set foot on the moon – former state officials, wildlife biologists, free lance outdoor writers and others. Every year on Sept. 1, we get together, hunt doves and eat barbeque. You see that kind of thing all over the place in Texas. Dove hunting is not an individual-type of thing. It’s an event for family and friends. That’s why people love it.”

www.texasdovehunters.com