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Dove-killing etiquette near the Chocolate Mountains

Shoot time

Chuck Nesby: "You’re only allowed three shots at a bird. There’s a plug in the gun that only allows you to put in three.” - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Chuck Nesby: "You’re only allowed three shots at a bird. There’s a plug in the gun that only allows you to put in three.”

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.

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.”

As Nesby slides a new shell into his gun, Treeshooter walks past the road in front of us. “How ya doin’?” he asks.

“Got one,” Nesby answers. “You?”

“Got my limit,” Treeshooter answers, referring to the legal limit of ten doves. “It’s been a good day for me.”

“Where have you been shooting?” Nesby asks.

“Down here in the middle,” Treeshooter says as he walks past.

When he’s gone I tell Nesby, “That’s the guy who’s been shooting them out of the trees.”

Nesby grins. “I know. Notice he didn’t tell us that.”

A half hour later, a dove comes flying at us out of the west. With the wind behind him, he’s moving very fast. In a snap, Nesby is up out of his chair shooting. The bird continues on but wobbles to the ground amid a hail of shotgun fire from the other hunters. Treeshooter walks over to the dead bird, but instead of pocketing it, he brings it over to us. “I think you got it,” he says, handing it to Nesby.

Around 8:45, the wind dies a bit, it starts to get hot, and the bird activity slows to almost zero. Nesby has taken no shots since he got his second of the day. At 9:15 he decides to pick up and go. In the car on the way back, he says, “Some guys will stay out all through the heat of the day. But I’m a pleasure hunter. I want hunting to be pleasurable, not miserable. I come and shoot in the morning, and I’m in the mountains heading home before it gets hot.”

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Chuck Nesby: "You’re only allowed three shots at a bird. There’s a plug in the gun that only allows you to put in three.” - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Chuck Nesby: "You’re only allowed three shots at a bird. There’s a plug in the gun that only allows you to put in three.”

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.

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.”

As Nesby slides a new shell into his gun, Treeshooter walks past the road in front of us. “How ya doin’?” he asks.

“Got one,” Nesby answers. “You?”

“Got my limit,” Treeshooter answers, referring to the legal limit of ten doves. “It’s been a good day for me.”

“Where have you been shooting?” Nesby asks.

“Down here in the middle,” Treeshooter says as he walks past.

When he’s gone I tell Nesby, “That’s the guy who’s been shooting them out of the trees.”

Nesby grins. “I know. Notice he didn’t tell us that.”

A half hour later, a dove comes flying at us out of the west. With the wind behind him, he’s moving very fast. In a snap, Nesby is up out of his chair shooting. The bird continues on but wobbles to the ground amid a hail of shotgun fire from the other hunters. Treeshooter walks over to the dead bird, but instead of pocketing it, he brings it over to us. “I think you got it,” he says, handing it to Nesby.

Around 8:45, the wind dies a bit, it starts to get hot, and the bird activity slows to almost zero. Nesby has taken no shots since he got his second of the day. At 9:15 he decides to pick up and go. In the car on the way back, he says, “Some guys will stay out all through the heat of the day. But I’m a pleasure hunter. I want hunting to be pleasurable, not miserable. I come and shoot in the morning, and I’m in the mountains heading home before it gets hot.”

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