OLIVIA, MINN. ­­­– The mourning dove rocketed about 35 yards above me, a relatively easy shot.

My first spray of shotgun pellets flew well behind the bird. My second shot, fired as the dove was directly overhead, also missed badly. My third and final chance was a going-away shot, but the bird dipped and fluttered like a knuckleball and I missed by a mile.

I smiled and reloaded. Yes, doves can humble a hunter.

Welcome to another Minnesota mourning dove season, the 11th since 2004, when the Legislature reinstated it after a nearly 60-year absence. Lots of doves were flying in Renville County last week, swooping all morning into a harvested wheat field to feed. Our group saw thousands on the 160-acre parcel.

"Holy moley, there's a ton of birds out here,'' said Greg Larson, 63, of Woodbury, after shooting his 15-bird limit. "It's a gas.''

Hunting nearby, Mike Smith, 63, of Cologne, shot a daily bag in under an hour, with his 13-year-old Brittany spaniel, Soufie, at his side.

"I didn't even get time for a morning snack,'' he said, smiling.

The early season success means there'll soon be dove breasts wrapped in bacon and peppers roasting on a grill — some of the best wild game fare to be found.

Rekindling a tradition

Despite the good eatin' and hot action, relatively few Minnesota hunters have embraced pursuing mourning doves. The latest Department of Natural Resources hunter survey estimated 10,400 people hunted doves last year, harvesting about 80,000 birds — or roughly eight birds apiece.

That's the highest number of dove hunters in three years. The most recorded were the 15,500 that went afield in 2004, the first year dove hunting became legal again.

There are myriad reasons dove hunting hasn't flown here:

• Any dove hunting tradition that existed in Minnesota was killed by the 60-year dove-hunting ban. When hunting was reopened, few hunters knew how or where to hunt doves.

• Most dove hunting occurs on private land, primarily on small grain fields, of which there are relatively few now with intensive corn and soybean production. And while doves can be hunted successfully on some state wildlife management areas, most of that acerage isn't suited for doves.

• Scouting, which takes time and effort, is critical.

"I can go grouse hunting or woodcock hunting and even duck hunting and have a good idea that I'll find some birds,'' said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife program manager. But finding doves, a migrating species that often head south at the first hint of cold weather, is more difficult and uncertain.

• Hunters have other choices in September, including bear, goose, deer, waterfowl and, by mid-September, ruffed grouse, rabbit, squirrel and other small game. "People have a lot of options,'' said Merchant. "In the South, where dove hunting is a pretty big deal, most other seasons don't start until later. It's the only game in town.''

Doves: No. 1 game bird

Dove hunting may be small potatoes in Minnesota, but nationwide, it remains huge. Doves are the most widespread and abundant game bird in the U.S. and North America. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the population last year at about 275 million — and about 857,000 hunters killed 14.5 million doves — more than any other game bird.

By comparison, about 1 million duck hunters harvested 13.7 million ducks.

Decoys and dogs

Most of the hunters I hunt with now use spinning-winged dove decoys, hoping to attract doves to within shotgun range. Some also use a "dove tree,'' a pole with plastic decoys attached.

Opinions on their effectiveness vary. I've had doves land next to the decoys and others fly close enough to merit shots. But other times doves seem to ignore them.

Travis Luebben, 40, of Albertville, was among seven of us in the field in Renville County on the dove opener. He bagged 13 birds.

"I had a spinner [decoy],'' he said. "It's amazing how it pulls them in.''

The bottom line: The decoys seem to help. But having a good dog to find downed birds boosts your chances of putting doves on the dinner table.

Bang, bang, bang

One thing is certain: Dove hunters can go through ammo. I fired three boxes of No. 7 steel during two mornings. Some hunters will shoot that much in a single outing.

Tom Kalahar, 61, of Olivia, a solid shot and avid dove hunter who located the field we hunted last week, took his 7-year-old granddaughter, Emily Luebben, along on the opener to watch. She carried pad and pen to record his missed shots.

Early on, Kalahar fired at several doves, dropping one but missing several others.

Emily dutifully recorded the misses, and obviously expected more.

"Papa, I'm going to need more ink,'' she told him.

Doug Smith doug.smith@startribune.com

Twitter: @dougsmithstrib