At 6:00 a.m. it’s light enough to see across the field in front of us, even though the sun hasn’t yet risen. A shotgun report rings out 50 yards to our right. I look in time to see a dove tumble from the sky. A minute later a hunter 30 yards to our left, dressed in full camouflage, drops one. Then another dove flies north almost straight overhead up the length of the road we’re standing on. Seven hunters, starting with Nesby, all take shots at it. All of them miss. The dove lands in a tree in the cattle pen. A hunter down at the foot of the tree takes aim for a few seconds and blasts it out of the tree. I’m new to hunting, but something tells me that’s not sporting. The look on Nesby’s face confirms my suspicion. “I refuse to humiliate myself by shooting a dove out of a tree,” he says.
As the shooter climbs over the cattle-pen fence to retrieve the dead dove, other hunters along the road heckle him, laughing and calling him a “treeshooter.” He doesn’t seem to mind the label. Ten minutes later, he shoots another one off a tree branch.
About 6:15, one flies right to left about 45 yards in front of us. Nesby takes one shot, misses. “Just out of range,” he says. The first guy to our right fires at it but misses, and the dove lands in the tree where Treeshooter dispatches him from 20 yards. Nesby shakes his head. “Cowboy,” he mumbles.
In Nesby and Treeshooter, two types of hunters are represented. Treeshooter kills roosting birds. He fires in all directions, not caring if he rains shot on people around him. And he talks all the time, calling attention to himself. Nesby is a sportsman. He’s friendly but reserved. He doesn’t shoot at birds out of range, he doesn’t aim over people’s heads, and he doesn’t fire at birds that aren’t flying. In fact, when one dove lands 20 yards away on the ground in the pen behind us, Nesby will not fire at him. Even when it does start flying he doesn’t shoot because of the herd of cattle in the next pen 50 yards away. “The owners of this ranch are nice enough to let us hunt here,” he tells me. “I’m not going to return their courtesy by firing over their cattle.”
The problem is, the doves seem to be coming from that direction, the east. “Last year,” he says, “they came from the west.”
Still, Nesby won’t shoot to the east, due to the cattle and the six or seven hunters standing on that side of the empty corral.
This doesn’t stop Treeshooter from firing in that direction. By 6:30 he’s abandoned his spot on the road and is roaming in the middle of the corral firing in all directions, raining shot on everyone. A few times he aims so low in the cattle’s direction that I’m surprised to not see a steer keel over. Around 6:40, the hunter to our left fires at a bird over his head, winging it. The dove flutters into the corral straight at Treeshooter, who levels his gun, shoots the wounded bird from ten yards, and pockets it. The guy to our left, who first hit the dove, looks incredulous but says nothing.
At 6:45, doves are flying along with sparrows and blackbirds — “tweeties,” as the hunters call them. Looking into the rising sun, it’s hard to identify them as doves or tweeties. One hunter along the road mistakenly fires at a group of blackbirds, earning him a “That’s not a dove, damn it!” reprimand from someone along the firing line. Nesby tries his second and third shots of the day, both fairly long range, missing both. We’re not getting the dove traffic enjoyed by hunters on either side of us, 50 yards away.
At 7:00, Nesby misses another long shot and the bird almost flies into Treeshooter, who fires and misses from five yards. Undaunted, he turns and from ten yards blasts the dove as it roosts on a low branch of a nearby tree. The shot sends up a cloud of feathers. Nesby shakes his head.
For the next 45 minutes, Nesby sits in his hunting chair, chatting with a friend named Bill who’s walked up. Bill, wearing Hawaiian shorts and a black T-shirt, tells me, “This is an unusual opener. Usually there are fewer guys out here, so there’s at least 40 yards between shooters. It’s a little overpopulated today.”
We’re talking about Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire’s home-run derby — Nesby is from Chicago, and Sosa plays for the Cubs — when a lone dove flies straight overhead from the east. Shots ring out from the left and right, both missing. Nesby takes aim for a split second and fires, dropping the dove. He walks out in the field about 40 yards and picks up the bird. “He’s still alive.”
He brings the wounded bird back and hands it to me. “What do I do with it?” I ask.
“Just wring its neck,” Bill says, demonstrating the motion on an imaginary dove. “Grab his head in one hand and twirl the body around.”
I follow instructions but so vigorously that the head pops off in my hand and the body goes flying. Nesby and Bill have a good laugh while the headless dove flaps around on the dusty road.
By eight o’clock, the sun is a hand and a half over the horizon and getting stronger. A growing wind out of the west keeps the temperature comfortable but makes shooting more difficult. One dove, traveling into the wind, is barely making headway as he flies overhead. “You’re dead,” Nesby says as he takes aim and fires. He misses, and the bird turns downwind and flies off. “That’s the problem with all this wind,” Nesby complains. “I tried to lead him, but it’s hard to gauge how much in all this wind.”