By Nick Simonson
It happens fast and almost unexpectedly, like a mourning dove banking hard from behind to circle in on the muddy edge of a stock pond during an evening hunt, or in the way a doe and her fawns suddenly appear in front of a bow stand where there was nothing a moment before. Fall shows up in this manner and in abrupt fits and starts, with gusty winds and cool conditions sweeping in for a day or two, only to be ousted by an equally-surprising summery counterpunch that makes for warm weekends and temperate evenings. The transition between the seasons is rarely even as atmospheric oscillations influence the weather in the upper Midwest.
What is consistent though is the start of those hunting seasons which help make the transition from summer into fall easier to recognize, like guideposts along the path toward waterfowl, pheasant and firearms deer opener which serve as the primary markers of autumn. Among the early openers that help hunters along the way are the start of mourning dove, deer archery and grouse seasons as the calendar turns to September. Preparing for and participating in each of these options provides a fullness to fall teaches lessons that add to success in future adventures and diversifies an exciting time of transition.
The Direction of Doves
One of the earliest migratory birds to be on the move in the region is the mourning dove. With the federally set start date of Sept. 1 kicking off the initial upland season across the upper Midwest, many hunters in an effort to get their first taste of action – and perhaps a sampling of wild game skewers on the barbecue after a summer of grilled chicken – take to the edges of harvested small grain fields or nearby stock ponds to pursue these pint-sized birds. Fast-moving, erratic and often arriving in multiples into a spread of clip-on decoys positioned around a hunting area, doves provide an early season challenge as they go from roosting spaces to the places where they feed and water. On a calm night, the whistle made in flight is a sound which remains with a hunter from season to season and a cue to ready a shotgun as the birds make their moves and may come in unseen from various directions. In those stretches where weather conditions are calm, clear and enjoyable is when doves decoy best, but don’t forget to walk treelines during the day or more challenging conditions to get legs ready for later seasons and find shooting opportunities in the here and now.
The earliest opportunity for deer hunting begins at the end of the month, as North Dakota’s archery season starts at noon on Aug. 30, providing a shot at bucks in velvet and the first heart-pounding rush of an animal warily approaching a tree stand or ground blind. In Minnesota, the season kicks off on Sept. 14, and in that two weeks velvet will be shed and the heat of summer will be more fleeting – hopefully along with the mosquito populations – bringing the suggestion of full-on autumn for many hunters, and more comfortable temperatures and conditions for time spent on stand.
In the process, the patterns of those big bucks change as crops are harvested, daylight levels lessen and the weather shifts with the season. As a result, hunters learn to adjust locations and tactics and to expect the unexpected in the earliest of deer hunting seasons before the rut clouds the minds of bucks in pursuit of does later in fall. Make note of those chillier, still mornings and cooler evenings with little wind as those first cold snaps will trigger more movement in the herd. Each time out in pursuit of deer during the camouflage season will provide more insight on the animals and give up-close-and-personal experiences to draw on in the future.
Finally, in the early seasons that set autumn hunting activity in motion, the pursuit of grouse – both ruffed and sharptailed – provides a precursor to pheasant opener that gets the blood pumping, the boot leather smoothed, and generates excitement that stretches from the prairie to the woods. While sharptailed grouse like open grasslands, and ruffed grouse are the kings of the northern forests, both birds can be chased after with a good dog and light ammunition. Shot in size 7 1/2 in September is ideal in putting a pattern out that can take down both birds in their preferred environs but remember to switch to a more open choke for ruffies which often flush closer, and utilize the cover of the forest to make their escape, especially around the opener when there are plenty of leaves on the trees that will absorb a shot pattern.
A sampling of seasons is approaching and they pave the way to the more noted openers like those for the waterfowl, pheasant and deer firearms seasons. Taking advantage of some or all of these earlier options makes for a well-rounded autumn, increased skills in the field, and lessons that will help with other species to be pursued in seasons to come. In the process, it adds to the memories made and the appreciation built for all the hunting options available and the game that resides…in our outdoors.