SIKESTON - While Labor Day is set aside to honor our nation's laborers, many in the area will use the day off to celebrate a different annual event: the opening of dove hunting season.
Monday will "probably one of the busier openers that we have being a weekend holiday," predicted Scott County Conservation Agent Leother Branch, noting this area was once known as "the dove capitol of the world" with hunters coming from far and wide. The number of hunters has declined somewhat over the years, but the doves still come.
Branch estimated well over half of the hunters on the opening couple of days will be from out of this area. He said he expects there to be 5,000-6,000 people between Benton and the Arkansas state line out hunting on the first two days of the season, after which most of the hunters from out of the area will probably return home leaving the fields to local hunters.
Dove season begins Monday and runs 70 days this year, according to Branch. "Sometimes we have a 70 day season, sometimes 60 days," he said. "Shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise to sunset."
Like many in the area, Justin Brown of East Prairie has hunted dove "every since I was a kid," he said. "I hunt everything pretty much - dove, squirrel, deer."
While Brown hunts all sorts of game, he noted several reasons why dove hunting can be one of the most enjoyable of the hunting sports.
"This time of the year the weather's a little bit warmer," Brown said. "And they're really plentiful - you can find them about anywhere around here. There are people that come here from the St. Louis area and lots of places throughout Southeast Missouri because it's one of the most populated areas in the state for doves. You get a lot of shooting in and they're good to eat."
"All the hotels will be full," predicted Sam Thomas of Bo's Jewelry & Pawn Shop. As with all hunting seasons, "sales have been great" at Bo's Jewelry & Pawn Shop, he said, with shotguns being the hot item for dove season.
Thomas, a dove hunter himself having picked up the sport about seven years ago when he moved here from California, is looking forward to opening day as well.
"It's the best day," he said. "After opening day the birds are all scared and they fly high and fly fast. You'll have good days later in the season, but not like the first."
Thomas said opening day he and his friends typically go out in a big group for the morning hunt, have a big feast, then go back out in the evening.
Although he also hunts several types of other game, dove hunting is his favorite. "It's just so easy - you know you are going to kill them. You know when you go out you are going to get some doves," said Thomas. "You don't have to worry about camouflage. It's just so much more relaxed."
In addition to having plenty of targets to shoot at, dove hunters have a higher limit than is generally placed on other game. The daily limit this year is 12 doves and the possession limit is 24, according to Branch.
"I've seen it as low as 10 and as high as 20," Brown said of the daily limit. "The state changes it every year based on the population of doves."
Dove hunting is also "less expensive that some of the other hunting with all the decoys and everything," Brown said. "Other than a shotgun and shells there's really not any other special equipment you need to dove hunt."
"You have so many people that dove hunt," Thomas, speculating that dove hunting is very popular "just because more people are able to do it."
For example, many dove hunters are older hunters who no longer feel up to "sitting in the cold when your deer hunting, climbing up into a stand, sitting in a tree," Thomas said. "With dove hunting you just sit in a field."
"It's pretty much a family sport - kids and wives, you see them all ages," Brown said. "My wife hunts with me, too. She started after we got married."
Dove hunters are required to have both a migratory bird permit and a small game hunting permit, both of which are available from any hunting and fishing license vendor, according to Branch.
As many area fields may end up with as many as 30-40 hunters wielding shotguns in them Monday, Branch advised everyone to be mindful of safety.
Even though most shots will be up in the air, he cautioned hunters to always be aware of where they are pointing their gun's muzzle.
Noting that most gun accidents happen while traveling to or from the hunting site, Branch advised hunters to "make absolutely sure their firearm is unloaded while transporting it."
Branch advised avoiding alcohol or drug use any time while in possession of a firearm.
He also cautioned hunters about trespassing. "Don't go on anybody's land before you get permission," Branch said.
Branch also noted that teal season begins earlier this year and is a bit longer that usual beginning Sept. 6 and running through Sept. 21. "We've never had a 16-day season for teal," Branch said.
The teal daily limit is four this year, possession limit is 8, and shooting hours are from sunrise to sunset.
For more information on dove, teal or other game seasons, contact Scott County Conservation Agent Leother Branch at 471-5737 or your local conservation agent.