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Dishing on doves: Making the best of opening day of dove hunting at public sites in Illinois

Dove hunting at public sites in Illinois is an experience that spreads across the preparation to the hunting to the cooking and eating.

A lone dove breast turned into a meal Credit: Dale Bowman
A lone dove breast turned into a meal.
Dale Bowman

KEWANEE, Ill. — How do you stretch one mourning dove into a meal? Stay with me.

Tuesday was opening day for dove hunting in Illinois (Sept. 1, as usual).

But 2020 being 2020, I missed the first application for Illinois’ free public-site dove hunting. For the second, I saw only Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area had opening-day permits and drew one.

I had been to Johnson-Sauk Trail once. In 2002, a 42-pound muskie was weighed during a survey. Later, I rode with Musky Hunter’s Jim Saric and Jeff Lampe (now publisher of Heartland Outdoors) rode with ‘‘Chef Todd’’ Kent as we targeted that muskie. That big girl never was caught, as far as I know.

For others, the Ryan Round Barn is the defining feature at the site.

The Ryan Round Barn is one of the defining features at Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area. Credit: Dale Bowman
The Ryan Round Barn is one of the defining features at Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area.
Ryan Red Barn, Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area, outdoors

As for doves, I worried while barreling west on I-80 through driving rain. But the rain abated by the time I found parking for Field A.

One key change because of the pandemic was that there was no stand-by or in-person drawing. Each hunter received a letter with his or her field and stake.

I miss the social aspect of gabbing with clustered camouflaged hunters while stakes are drawn. Don’t misread that. I support the protocols, but I miss the camaraderie.

At Field A parking, I bumped into Jolyn Jackson, one of the few women site superintendents. She was born to the job, starting as a conservation worker (summer help) at Starved Rock State Park.

‘‘I knew this is what I wanted to do,’’ she said.

Jackson became the site super a few years ago. She found out while honeymooning with her husband, Tom Jackson, the site super at Illini State Park.

While I prepped, Louis Morgan, a Chicago guy who is one of the few Black hunters I’ve come across at Illinois public sites, introduced himself. He has an interesting mix on his YouTube channel (Louis Morgan).

We talked about hunting at Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area and Iroquois County State Wildlife Area, then walked out together.

I found my stake, but a guy was there. I scooched down and sat nearly with my back to Doug Kirgan. Fields were set up with stakes on either side of a strip of standing corn, facing opposite directions.

Dried well-developed sunflowers overhead while dove hunting at Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area on opening day. Credit: Dale Bowman
Dried well-developed sunflowers overhead while dove hunting at Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area on opening day.
Dale Bowman

As usual, doves flew immediately after the noon start. After that, it was mostly sporadic singles and pairs. In between, Kirgan and I discussed hunting and fishing around North America and family matters.

In describing his dog as ‘‘notional,’’ Kirgan gave me a new word.

I bagged nothing with my first 10 shots. Most of the others in the field weren’t doing much better. At 4:30, a half-hour before closing, a dove swung by. I dropped it clean.

It was time.

I went one dove out of eight on 13 shots. I had four boxes (100 shells) of No. 7 steel along. At 5 p.m., as I walked out, Morgan — who went 2-8-14 — said: ‘‘Mostly staring at the sky, hoping the rains held off.’’

Rain affected some sites more than others (see chart). At Johnson-Sauk Trail, the heaviest rain fell in the final half-hour.

Jackson emailed Wednesday that Fields E and C were the top ones, while A had the fewest with 33 doves harvested. At least I got one.

My one turned into a meal. I stuffed the breast with seasoned cream cheese, then wrapped it with jalapeno slivers and thick-cut bacon. After frying, I made a homegrown cilantro-and-chives wine sauce from the grease. I plated the breast on long-grain and wild rice, then garnished it with homegrown grape tomatoes and parsley.

Only harvesting the wild rice myself would have made it better. (Someday.)

That reminded me that Kirgan had asked: ‘‘What is on your list?’’

I would like to shoot a black bear — not over bait, but by being in the right spot at the right time. I would like to arrow or shoot a trophy whitetail (missed a couple). I would like to boat a 100-pound tarpon (busted one off once in Florida). I would like to fly-fish one of the fabled trout rivers in Montana.

After sitting in a dove field watching the skies, my mind drifts.