If there’s anything worse than getting up at 2:45 a.m., it’s getting up at 2:45 a.m. only to be pulled over by a policeman at 3:00 a.m. But cracking out early and tickets from bored cops on graveyard shift are occupational hazards for the hunter, particularly the hunter who wants to get from San Diego to El Centro in time for the 5:44 a.m. shoot time for the 1999 dove season opener. At least that’s what I tell myself as I stuff the ticket in the glove box and continue on to meet Chuck Nesby at the Denny’s where I-8 and 70th intersect in La Mesa. I’m not dressed like a hunter. “All you need is shorts and a T-shirt… Oh, and bring some bug spray…and bring a lawn chair,” Nesby told me yesterday when he called around 8:00 p.m.

The last time I went hunting was for ducks, and I’d been instructed then to wear camouflage clothing and hats. I ran around town to military-surplus stores finding it all, including a “Desert Storm” soft-brimmed hat. I also bought a pair of knee-high boots for wading. “You won’t need all that,” Nesby said on the phone, “You don’t have to hide from doves.”

I’m a bit late when I arrive at the Denny’s and Nesby’s standing by the front door. He flags me down and directs me to a parking spot near his 1982 Toyota Supra. “Chuck Nesby,” he says, offering a firm handshake and directing me to the passenger seat of his car.

Nesby, 48, stands about six feet and is thickly built. He’s wearing faded-blue denim shorts and a dark-blue T-shirt. A Navy baseball cap hides his black and gray hair. I throw my lawn chair in the back and climb in. At 3:30 we get on I-8 heading east. Nesby, leaning back in his bucket seat, his face illumined by the instrument lights, fills me in on the day’s plans. “We’re going to a private ranch near El Centro,” he says. “I go out there every year for the dove opener.”

A retired Navy F-14 pilot, Nesby first came to San Diego in 1975. After his retirement from the Navy two years ago, he settled in Mira Mesa and now works as an airline pilot for Southwest and serves as senior military aviation advisor for the House Appropriations Committee. “I’m sort of a buffer between Congress and the military,” he explains. “I present to Congress what the military needs, and I tell congressmen the right questions to ask the generals and admirals and which generals and admirals they should believe and not believe.”

On the two-hour ride out in the dark, Nesby drives in the right lane while a line of pickup trucks flies by on the left at 90 miles per hour. “Hunters,” Nesby chuckles. “Trying to get where they’re going before shoot time.”

We get off I-8 at the exit for Naval Air Station El Centro. “When I was at Miramar,” he says, “we would come out here for a couple of weeks at a time to practice bombing tactics at the Chocolate Mountain Range. Out here you could be away from the phones and paperwork and the wife and get some work done.” After crossing over the freeway and taking a left, we pass by a narrow river gulch on the right. “We used to bring guns with us, and in the afternoons we’d do some shooting in that little canyon right there.”

A mile or two past the canyon, we turn right up a narrow road between plowed fields. Just as the road starts to curve to the right, Nesby steers the car onto a dirt road veering to the left. “This is the ranch we’re going to hunt on,” he explains.

At the center of the ranch, outside a metal barn, 20 men stand around talking in the predawn darkness, swapping stories about last year’s opener and discussing the best spots to shoot on the ranch. Nesby listens for a minute or so but isn’t into it. It’s about 20 minutes till shoot time, and he’s itching to find a good area to hunt. He gives me a nod toward the car, and we drive off toward the northwest corner of the ranch and park near a field of ten-foot corn. “This is where I shot last year, but that field wasn’t planted with corn then.”

Climbing out of the car, we realize another man has already staked out this spot, and another stands 40 yards away to the east. Nesby pops the hatchback of his car and removes his shotgun — a Mossberg 9200 12-gauge semi-automatic — and his combination seat, ice chest, ammunition storage case from beneath a blanket. “I want you to wear this vest,” he says, handing me a bright-orange hunting vest. He puts on a drab green one.

Chairs in hand, we set off walking north up a dirt road between an unplanned field on the left and an empty cattle pen on the right. We pass one hunter who’s already stationed himself at the south end of the road. We keep walking, and out of the dark another comes into view, and we can hear a third farther up. Nesby halts, asks the hunter ahead, “Are there more ahead?”

“All the way to the end of the road,” he answers.

“We’ll just pull up here then,” Nesby says.

He drops his seat/chest, sits in it, facing west out over the field, and starts to load his gun. “This gun could hold five shells,” he explains, sliding one into the gun’s chamber. “But you’re only allowed three shots at a bird. There’s a plug in the gun that only allows you to put in three.”

The gun loaded, he places about 15 extra shells in his vest pocket. The 5:44 a.m. shoot-time passes without any shots being fired. It’s still dark, though the glow on the eastern horizon grows brighter every minute. I had expected a cacophony of gunfire at 5:44, but not one shot rang out. But ten minutes later the first dull shotgun thud of dove season rings out in the distance to the Northwest. Then another from the east, and closer; then another and another. Pretty soon, the gunshots from all around crescendo into something like what I was expecting. But Nesby isn’t doing any of the shooting. No doves are flying within the 34- to 40-yard effective range.

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