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The joys of hunting dove

By Don Sapatkin

Inquirer Staff Writer

Sportsmen can get antsy by the end of summer. The trout are largely done biting. The fresh-killed game they jammed into big chest freezers last year is long gone. Their reflexes need sharpening.

While city types may lament the steamy beach season's traditional end on Labor Day, for many outdoorspeople, the happy hunting season begins Sept. 1 at noon, the opener for dove.

"It's the first thing you can shoot at," explained Vince Totaro, who has several other reasons to love dove, most involving butter and garlic. "It's the first time you can get out and just carry your gun around. If you hunt, you miss that."

The sounds of shotgun blasts were rolling across the hills of Lancaster County with surprising frequency even before Steve Esworthy arrived on his uncle's farm northwest of Coatesville that afternoon. The 18-year-old loaded three 20-gauge shells into his grandfather's semiautomatic. His eyes scanned east, north, south, overhead.

A dead tree by Pequea Creek straight ahead was full of doves, but 75 yards was too far. He would not kill a sitting dove anyway. "Wait till it flies. Give it a chance."

A grayish-brown bird appeared from over his left shoulder, darting toward a small tree 25 yards away. The dove was fast. Esworthy seemed to aim his shotgun in slow motion, but the loud crack of the Remington was followed by the fluttering sound of a bird falling to the ground.

He shifted his weapon as two more headed toward the tree. The pellets missed as the birds flew out of range, and the grandfather's guffaws could be heard over the diminishing blasts.

Every game animal has unique attractions for hunters. Mourning dove - swift and able to turn on a dime - are a challenge to hit, and they offer the excitement of shooting dozens of shells in a few hours, versus one rifle bullet on a lucky day stalking deer. They also have the misfortune of being able to get men to talk.

"Dove hunting is a social activity," said Bob Mitchell, longtime editor of Pennsylvania Game News. There is no need for blinds or camouflage. Hunters set up near the birds' roost, talk, and wait in the open.

For Esworthy, hunting and family go hand in hand. Having just graduated from Coatesville High School, he won't need to skip classes, as he has since age 12, to join the men hunting deer in Huntingdon County.

September's dove season, he said, is a time for "having fun with my grandpop."

George McGinnis, 67, who taught his grandson to hunt, seemed content to alert Esworthy to incoming birds, beam with pride when he made a tough shot, and erupt in laughter when he missed. ("That's how you know you're having fun," Esworthy said.)

This was an ideal spot for dove, with fields of corn and alfalfa to the right, grass sloping down to the tree-lined creek ahead. The birds spend their days eating seeds and grain on the ground. As sunset approaches, they head for scattered trees and shrubs. Water is a necessity. All three were right there.

In a little over two hours, Esworthy had killed his daily limit of 12 dove, and McGinnis, who didn't really try, had four. They field-dressed the birds - a remarkably simple exercise - and took them home.

Dove are tiny. A big adult weighs 5 ounces, and most people eat only the breast, each half about the size of a tablespoon; it takes at least four to make a meal. The taste is described by some as similar to turkey dark meat and by others as unique.

"You can steer it in any direction you want," said Totaro, the owner-chef of Trattoria Totaro in Conshohocken. With young children at home, he hasn't hunted dove in five years and has never served it at his small place on Spring Mill Avenue.

He almost went hunting 10 days ago. You could just about smell the bird on Totaro's table as he described stir-fry with snow peas and white wine, or whole barbecued dove wrapped in bacon, or breasts sauteed with garlic and artichoke hearts and portobello mushrooms, finished with marsala and sprigs of fresh rosemary.

"Oh, boy," he said. "That's what I would have made for us!"

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