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Courtesy photo | USFWS There has been a slight overall decline in mourning dove numbers over the past couple of decades, but West Virginia retains a population stable enough to provide fast action during the season's first three days.

Well, truth be told, it's really more of a bang-bang-bang-bang-bang.

During the first three days of the annual dove season, hunters burn boxes and boxes of shotgun ammo. Those doves, which in August hardly seemed capable of hopping a suburban curb, magically are transformed into miniature F-16s, jinking and darting through the air and thumbing their beaks at frustrated hunters.

The first segment of the state's three-part dove season opens Sept. 2 and closes Oct. 13. In all likelihood, most of the shooting will be over by Sept. 5.

"The first three days are big," said Mike Peters, game bird project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources. "It's fast, exciting wing shooting. There are usually a lot of birds, and it's a lot of fun."

It's also a social event. Turkey and deer hunting tend to be solitary affairs. Dove hunters - well, they tend to gather in camouflage-clad flocks.

"You can sit out in a field and talk to the guys while you're waiting for the birds to show," Peters said. "There's no need to be especially quiet."

Having a number of hunters in one place can also help ensure more action. Green Bottom Wildlife Management Area in Cabell County always seems to attract dozens of hunters on opening day.

Once the shooting starts at Green Bottom, the doves get stirred up and keep flying, often much longer and farther than they otherwise might. When birds flare and dart away from one field, they often head straight toward another gaggle of hunters spread out over an adjacent field.

Having the doves fly is one thing; hitting the little buggers is quite another. The daily bag limit for doves might be 15, but only the most skilled wing shooters will limit out without burning at least a full box of shells.

Sharp-eyed veteran dove hunters will, by now, have noticed that this year's season opens on Sept. 2 instead of the traditional Sept. 1. Peters said there's a good reason for that.

"September 1 is a Sunday," he explained. "Sunday hunting is legal, but it's not popular quite yet. In order to get the most hunter participation out of this year's opener, it seemed better to go with a Sept. 2 opening day."

Peters said that, when Sunday hunting becomes more widespread, DNR officials will be much more willing to open the dove season on a Sunday. "We just don't think we're there yet," Peters said.

Hunters who want to try their luck with doves should look around the edges of agricultural fields, especially freshly harvested hayfields or grain fields.

"The birds will be flocking to those fields, picking up seeds left over after the harvest," Peters explained. "The best fields also have sources of water nearby, and trees where the birds can roost."

Some of the better fields in the state can be found in DNR-operated hunting areas, where managers plant sorghum, wheat, milo and other dove-attracting crops. Green Bottom, McClintic, Pleasant Creek and Hillcrest are four of the best, but Peters said there are others.

"If I were a novice dove hunter, I would call the DNR office in my district and ask where in the district they planted some dove fields," he recommended.

Because doves are migratory birds, hunters must obtain free federal Harvest Information Program cards along with their state hunting license. The HIP cards allow wildlife officials to estimate harvest levels, which allows them to more accurately set season lengths and bag limits. Each year, DNR workers trap and band doves. Peters said hunters who shoot banded doves should log onto the World Wide Web address listed on the band to report their kills.

"It's our only way of estimating dove populations anymore, so it's pretty important," he said.

Peters also has a recommendation for hunters who take that whole bang-bang-bang-bang-bang thing to extreme levels.

"People who tend to shoot a lot," he said, "should take care to pick up their spent shells. It's a small price to pay for a whole lot of fun."

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