SACRED HEART, MINN.
The eastern sky hadn't yet turned crimson when the first mourning doves appeared, jitterbugging over the lush landscape.
"There's one!'' 22-year-old Eric Hillesheim shouted. He whirled around, shouldered his shotgun and fired once, dropping the bird.
The pop, pop, pop of gunshots echoed in the distance as six other hunters in our group peppered the sky with birdshot, trying to hit the elusive birds.
On a balmy summer day that later sizzled, Minnesota's mourning dove season opened Saturday. The dove opener doesn't have the tradition in Minnesota that duck, pheasant or ruffed grouse openers have. I saw no other dove hunters at my motel, or in the restaurants or gas stations nearby.
But for those who love wing-shooting, retrieving dogs and excellent wild cuisine, the hunt is a time to renew acquaintances with a 12-gauge.
Why not more?
Dove hunting -- wildly popular in many states to the south -- was reinstated by the Legislature in 2004 after a nearly 60-year absence.
Officials had estimated 30,000 to 50,000 hunters might pursue the sporty birds, which are among the most challenging for wing-shooters. Instead, Minnesota hunter numbers have averaged around 10,000 the past three years. That compares to 78,000 pheasant hunters, 83,000 duck hunters and 94,000 ruffed grouse hunters.
Dove hunting has a lot going for it: Action can be fast. Gear requirements are minimal. And doves taste great. And unlike November duck hunting, no one gets cold chasing doves.
So why hasn't it grown?
Ed Boggess, Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife director, can only speculate.
"We lack the long-term tradition of dove hunting,'' he said. "And we're blessed with lots of options here -- goose hunting, bear hunting and fishing. I think there always will be a number of hunters who like to do it, but it may never be a big activity here.''
Still, some have embraced it.
"Last year, there were more cars at Talcott Lake [wildlife management area] on the dove opener than on the pheasant opener,'' said Wendy Krueger, DNR area wildlife manager at Slayton. "That's a first.''
More birds in 2012
I missed the first two birds I targeted Saturday, but when doves are plentiful, redemption can come quickly. I dropped the next two.
Hillesheim, of Bird Island, Minn., was more accurate and quicker, and several times two birds fell to his shots.
While his dad, Ben, and brother, Jason, 25, of Apple Valley, hunted a half-mile distant, he and I hunkered along the edge of a state wildlife area whose grass had been grazed short, adjacent to a harvested wheat field. Nearby were water and a gravel pit.
"It had everything they needed,'' said Mike Anderson, 33, of Danube, Minn., who bagged 11 birds by the time we quit at 9:30 a.m.
We deployed a spinning-winged dove decoy and four stationary decoys on a 10-foot pole. The outfit seemed to attract some doves, but others ignored it.
At morning's end -- with few birds flying, the temperature rising and dogs panting -- we quit. Our tally: 76 birds, or about nine apiece. That's well short of the 15-bird daily bag limit, but we were more than satisfied.
"It was a lot better than last year,'' said Adam Kalahar, 30, of Minneapolis.
And an encouraging start to another hunting season.
Doug Smith's Twitter name is @dougsmithstrib, and his e-mail address is email@example.com