The most dangerous game in Texas doesn’t have menacing claws, sweeping tusks or broad headgear.
It isn’t a predator, it isn’t a carnivore, and in fact, it doesn’t even have teeth.
It’s a 5-ounce bird.
Dove hunting was the most hazardous outdoors pursuit in Texas last year, and it’s a good bet it again will keep that title in 2013 as roughly 400,000 hunters are likely to pursue mourning doves and white-winged doves from the Panhandle to the Mexican border.
Dove hunting offers a number of dangers, chiefly the inherent risk that comes with the proximity of hunters armed with weapons capable of inflicting serious damage – even out to distances that many may consider relatively safe from bird shot.
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department data, there were more than 1.155 million hunting licenses sold in 2012 and 25 firearm-related hunting accidents, including five fatal incidents. Of that total, nine accidents were reported by dove hunters, the most for any species. In fact, dove-hunting accidents also were at a four-year high.
The most common hunting scenario involved a hunter tracking a bird with their shotgun and swinging the barrel into what is considered outside a safe zone of fire. This is far and away the most frequent danger in any bird hunting scenario, but it’s one that easily is avoidable. It’s almost effortless to get caught up in the heat of the moment when a streak of feathers springs up out of nowhere, whether it be doves in September, quail in November or pheasants in December, but knowing where others are, including dogs, is paramount to safety.
A couple of decades ago in Brown County, a varied group was out quail hunting and a simple twist of fate meant the difference between life and death for a young hunter whose only mistake was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After a couple of pointers locked in on a covey in a thick clump of brush and grass, the four-hunter party cautiously approached with their scatterguns at the ready. Within steps of a young pup and a seasoned furry tracker the quail blasted out in all directions, fluttering low and fast as they typically do. An instant later, barrels barked, and a few birds dropped.
But so did a youngster on his first hunt, hit in the chest at about 40 yards with a wad of No. 8 shot. Luckily for him, one of his hunting partners that day was a doctor. Even luckier, the old man was willing to massage his heart to keep it beating.
If he hadn’t been there, the boy wouldn’t have left the field alive.
I think most hunters realize how destructive a shotgun can be, but a quick examination of sheer energy reveals that the killing force can be devastating to more than just birds. The average shotgun spits out dove-size loads at about 1,200 feet per second. When you consider that there are about 350 pellets in an ounce of No. 7½ shot measuring .094 inches in diameter and about 410 in No. 8s measuring .089, there’s a lot of potential for operator error even if you’re firmly on target nine times out of 10. Every veteran dove hunter I know has been peppered by falling shot more times than they care to count and I know quite a few who have been whacked decisively without any large wounds in and around dove fields.
This is the part where I usually knock my knuckles on something wooden.
Unfortunately, in another weird twist, our family ophthalmologist from when I was a youngster went on a Panhandle pheasant hunt with two eyes.
He came back with one.
He was blocking the end of a field when a couple of roosters took flight at least half a football field away from him and the same distance from a line of approaching hunters in the other direction. The vibrant birds also hovered low, and since he had taken his glasses off, a single pellet fired from nearly 100 yards away lodged itself into his face and claimed an object it never was designed to.
Another amazing demonstration of shotgun pellets came on a spring turkey hunt about five years ago in the eastern Panhandle. After spending all day calling and moving, and calling some more, we finally found a wily bird that seemed willing to cooperate along the edge of a field dotted with a large oak motte. However, right at the moment of thinking we had an easy hunt and things were shaping up perfectly, the bird decided to pop its head up and almost get away. The hunter to my right abruptly rolled the Rio Grande turkey at more than 60 paces with a single shot an instant before it would have been gone, folding the longbeard at a distance you shouldn’t be able to with No. 6s, even though they flew from a choked-up barrel.
If there’s one thing I can stress now that fall hunting seasons are upon us, it’s to always control the barrel of your firearm. It sounds straightforward but even in perfect conditions things can and do go wrong. So as you head into the field this weekend and next and further into other wingshooting seasons, don’t forget to watch your background and stay vigilant, no matter where you are.
And always wear eye protection, whatever it may be.
No bird is worth that much should you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.