It felt more like swimming season than hunting season last week, but there we were, hunkered with our shotguns and dogs along a bare wheat field on a sultry dawn — scanning the crimson sky for mourning doves.

The old yellow Lab at my feet — a veteran at this game — panted from the summerlike heat.

At 6:40 a.m., just as the sun was rising through dirt-gray clouds, the first shot rang out, launching the 2015 hunting season. This is the 12th season since dove hunting was reinstated by the Legislature in 2004 following a 60-year-absence, offering wingshooters and their hunting dogs an early jump on fall.

Minnesota's black bear and early Canada goose seasons also opened last week, and hunters battled the heat and humidity to pursue those critters, too. But it was mourning doves — one of the most abundant and popular game birds in North America — that our group of seven sought.

And soon the sky was abuzz with them, single birds and flocks of eight or more winging in from all directions across the dank landscape. For Tom Kalahar, 62, of Olivia, hunting on the south edge of the field, the action was fast and furious. Not so for those of us on the west side. We could only watch as scores of doves flew in and landed well out of shotgun range.

But that's dove hunting, where serendipity is a key player. That's why some hunters can have excellent hunting, while others on the same field are lucky to scratch out a bird or two.

Two of our group hunted an identical field just one-eighth of a mile away, and had nary a shot Tuesday morning. They quickly moved to our field, where the birds — for whatever reason — flew in.

"You've got to be where they want to go,'' said Kalahar, an avid dove hunter.

We put out plastic dove decoys on poles, and added spinning-winged decoys on the ground, which we hoped would entice doves to at least fly within shotgun range. But in reality, the doves go where they want.

Youngster finds success

Forty minutes after Kalahar began peppering the sky with birdshot, a dove finally flew over me, and I had my first bird of the season. The 12-year-old Lab ran out, snapped up the downed bird, and retrieved it with the glee of a pup.

Nearby, Mike Smith, 64, of Cologne, mentored his grandson, 11-year-old Graham Smith of Lakeville, on his first hunt ever. The youngster got his firearms safety certificate this summer, and earlier had practiced his wingshooting on some clay pigeons.

"There's one!" Mike Smith said as a dove rocketed toward them.

Graham shouldered the 20 gauge shotgun, swung on the darting bird and fired, dropping it.

"Nice shot!" Mike Smith said, patting his grandson on the back.

One of the challenges of dove hunting is hitting a bird that flies as if it's been sipping spiked cider — bobbing and weaving, dipping and darting at 30 mph to 40 mph and faster. Just when you think you have one targeted, it inevitably swerves and you miss, badly. It's a humbling experience. For young, inexperienced shotgunners, doves are especially challenging.

"They're tricky,'' Graham agreed.

Several times I fired three times at doves that swooped and swerved, performing aerial acrobats — and missed every shot.

Tricky, indeed.

By 9:30 a.m., the doves had retreated to their roosts, the temperature left us sweating in our camouflage clothing, and we called it quits. Most of us ended the morning with 15-bird limits.

Graham finished with three birds.

"Getting three doves on your first time out is fantastic,'' Grandpa told him. Graham pulled the trigger often: He expended 2½ boxes of shells. Which is one of the joys of dove hunting: When the sky is full of doves, as it was for us last week, shooting opportunities are plentiful.

"It's not how many you kill, it's about having fun,'' Kalahar told Graham.

"It was fun,'' said Graham.

Dove difficulties

After the Legislature reinstated dove hunting, DNR officials had hoped that perhaps 30,000 hunters would partake in the hunts. But last year, the Department of Natural Resources estimated about 10,000 people hunted mourning doves — close to the 12-year average. The DNR estimated those hunters killed 103,000 doves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a different survey, and estimated the number of dove hunters last year at 7,700, harvesting an estimated 53,500 birds.

Regardless, one reason more people don't hunt mourning doves probably is because of the unique difficulties involved, including finding a place to hunt.

Pheasant, ruffed grouse and duck hunting all can be done successfully on the vast amounts of public lands and waters in the state. Likewise, deer hunters have no shortage of public forest to hunt. But few public lands offer dove hunting opportunities. Doves prefer short grass or bare fields, where they feed on seeds. The grasslands in state Wildlife Management Areas usually are too tall to attract mourning doves.

Which means dove hunters must find private land to hunt and, ideally, harvested fields of small grains, such as wheat. Most acreage in Minnesota is planted to corn and soybeans. Even if hunters find the right type of field, they then have to locate one holding mourning doves.

"You have to scout, scout, scout — scouting is more important than anything,'' said Kalahar. "And then they're there one day, and gone the next.''

And because farmers rotate crops, a great dove field one year might be a cornfield the following season — meaning hunters have to start the scouting process over again.

"Every year it's a chore to go find the fields, and then to find the fields that hold doves,'' Kalahar said.

"But that's dove hunting.''

Doug Smith •