On opening day of the Missouri dove season Tuesday, Rick Cartwright arrived at the Platte Falls Conservation Area at 5 a.m. — more than an hour before the start of shooting hours.
But he quickly discovered that he was late. Way late.
“When I got here, there were so many lights out here in this field, it looked like a runway at KCI,” Cartwright said as he stood at the edge of a cut sunflower field. “Everybody was out here, reserving their spot.
“I guess everyone knew where the doves would be flying and where the best shooting would be. I wasn’t going to fight that crowd. I just fit in where there was an opening.”
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A full house. That described opening day at Platte Falls, a conservation area near Platte City.
The word was out: The public-hunting area had sunflowers. And they were attracting flocks of doves.
In a year when wet weather prevented workers at other wildlife areas from pulling off a successful crop of sunflowers, a top attractor of doves, that made Platte Falls stand out.
Traditional hunting spots such as the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area near Lee’s Summit and the Pony Express Conservation Area near Cameron, Mo., were among the public-hunting areas that didn’t have sunflowers, and it has shown. The early hunting has been subpar.
But it was pretty much business as usual at Platte Falls, and that drew a crowd. Before the sun came up Tuesday, parking lots near hunting fields were full, and the roads were lined with vehicles pulled off to the side.
“I talked to a guy who got here at 2:45 (a.m.) and he was the fifth vehicle in the lot,” said Chris Blunk, area manager at Platte Falls. “We knew we were going to have a crowd, because of our sunflowers.
“But we were a little surprised at how many people showed up. This has to be one our biggest crowds ever.”
The hunters sat on buckets and chairs in the cover at the edge of the cut sunflower field, waiting for shooting hours to open. Once the magic time arrived, the sound of shotgun fire began crackling like popcorn.
Cartwright was one of the hunters pulling the trigger. As a dove darted across the field, it ran the gantlet, avoiding several other shots. But it couldn’t escape Cartwright.
He raised up, fired and hit his target. And with that, hunting season 2015 was underway.
“For me, dove hunting is like preseason football,” he said. “It’s the warmup.
“I hunt a lot during the season. But I have to be out here for the dove opener. That starts it all.”
It can be a humbling opening. Doves are recognized as one of hunting’s toughest targets. They’re speedy, and they are known for their aerial maneuvers, darting and dipping at the sound of gunfire.
Even with many guns pointed their way, some of the birds flew across the field unscathed.
“Ammunition companies love this time of the year,” one of the hunters, Terry Brown of Belton, said with a smile.
But a fair number of those shots hit their target, especially on the side of the field that adjoined the timber where the birds roost — the hunting spots that were the most sought-after.
Brown and his group of five other hunters left the field with a total of 25 doves, a satisfying way to open the season.
“This is tradition for us,” Brown said. “Our group has been hunting together for 15 years.
“We scouted six to seven conservation areas and we decided to come here. I think we made a good choice.”
Dalton Dreher of Mound City, Mo., was among those who had a memorable opener. He took his limit of 15 doves on his first trip to Platte Falls.
“I scouted and knew where the birds were flying,” he said. “But I guess a lot of other people did, too.
“I was surprised at how crowded it was. But everyone was real safe. I didn’t see people shooting at low-flying birds.”
For Dreher, now comes the good part. He gets to eat the doves he shot.
Care to share a recipe, Dalton?
“You’ll have to ask my mom,” he said. “She cooks them for me.”