The In-N-Out Burger is a great fast food tradition in California. Well, Texas has a great fast food tradition, too—In-And-Out whitewings.
Each September afternoon, flocks of white-winged doves come in and flocks go out. The drill is basic for hunters stationed in the prime feeding fields of grain near the roosts in small towns scattered across the South Texas Brush Country.
The potential for bagging a generous 15-bird limit of plump palomas seldom is better than under one of these feeding flights—that is, if you don’t mind increasing the profits of your favorite shot shell manufacturer.
Make no mistake. Windswept doves are, indeed, among nature’s best examples of “fast food.”
Hit or miss, in or out, the explosive spread of white-winged dove colonies across the state during the past 20 or 30 years has created a bounty that can rival the fabled days of hunting in Mexico.
Much of this increase in the whitewing population and distribution is attributed to the fondness of doves for roosting and nesting in protected urban environs. Predation in these “sanctuary cities” is minimal.
Unlike many wild creatures, game and non-game, doves adapt well to civilization—assuming the parking lots and strip centers are rimmed with suitable swatches of trees and bushes.
Towns west and southwest of San Antonio such as Castroville, Hondo, D’Hanis, Sabinal and Uvalde pretty much occupy Ground Zero for this seasonal phenomenon. The whitewings descend on the feeding fields not in singles and doubles and scattered small bunches, but in waves of hundreds—no, thousands. It’s a spectacle for hunters unaccustomed to witnessing such abundance.
And, as a refreshing tradition, the seasonal influx of hunters is embraced by the various towns. The dollars spent on motels, restaurants, fuel and supplies are a definite spike in each local economy. Most of the whitewing hunts are conducted by day-hunt operations leasing access to the feeding fields. The cost usually is between $75 and $200, depending on services provided (some outfitters provide post-hunt barbeques).
For example, I hunted last season with a group of Houston-area hunters at a day-lease operation near Hondo. We had access to an uncut sunflower field that extended for miles, one of several in the region.
Come along on a typical In-And-Out whitewing hunt:
After checking in and providing hunting license information and signing the obligatory waivers, you drive caravan-style with other assembled groups along the intercept perimeter of the field. Vehicles are parked at regular intervals along the thornbrush and trees rimming the field.
The whitewing hunt can be a casual affair, with open tailgates and eager dogs and excited hunters. Camouflage sometimes is not taken too seriously. The birds are coming and that’s that.
One advantage to this type of hunt is that you seldom are far from your support vehicle—extra shells, water bottles, sunscreens are within close reach. Each group has a designated area and, for reasons of safety and courtesy, hunters are discouraged from ranging too far. Most large day-hunt outfitters prohibit shooters from stationing too far out in the field; first, for safety, second, to allow flocks to settle and feed.
You grab your gear and walk about 30 or 40 yards into the cut-grass edge of the sunflowers. It’s a rookie mistake to set up too tight to the tree-lined perimeter, where you are “brushed out” and unable to see the incoming flocks until they sail past—a terrible twisting moment almost certain to produce a red-faced miss.
You position your shooting stool alongside a bale of hay and wipe your amber shooting glasses; the wraparound shades are not just a high-contrast aid in tracking targets, but a smart safety accessory in a crowded dove field. You raise the shotgun and practice a few swings. All shots at the incomers are to be taken at high angles, and never low to the left or right down the long line of parked vehicles and waiting hunters.
The sky is empty, save for dragonflies, during the first 30 minutes, and the lack of activity under the September sun is just long enough to instill a bit of impatience.
The flight begins as a trickle then the first high flocks appear as dots riding the stiff south wind. Muffled pop-pop-pops announce the passage father down the line.
This “In” stanza offers the greatest challenge; many flocks are passing overhead at 50 or 60 yards, maximum range for your full-choked gun. Your first three or four shots are behind and you fail to cut a feather. Settle down; concentrate on proper gun mount, smooth swing and sustained follow through—there you go! A leading bird crumples amid a quick puff and falls straight, bouncing off the cut grass for an easy retrieve.
You admire the mature whitewing; it is chunkier and larger than the average mourning dove, a prime candidate for the grill.
The next flock takes you to school. The incomers cross the trees at maximum shooting altitude then begin descending, dropping for the sunflowers, weaving and rocking and hurtling through your zone.
What began as a serious full-choke swing collapses into an improved-cylinder quick draw in the time it takes to shoulder the gun. The flaring doves scatter past like shrapnel and your mental weapons tracking system overloads. You can’t pick a target from the melee. Sheepishly, you lower the unfired shotgun.
A guy down the way waves his gun in futile salute. Buddy, you ain’t the only one. Those jetting incomers falling out of the sky and whipping past are a confounding shot.
The “In” stanza slows after about an hour. Most of the birds have settled into the sea of sunflowers that stretches in the soft glow to the west. You unbuckle the King Ranch-type belt bag and take stock. Eleven whitewings are plumped into the rear pouch and you are five shells into your second box.
You retreat to the tailgate for a fresh bottle of water and to dump the red empties into a bucket. Roughly a one-for-three average, not too bad, considering the shaky start. The keen shooters are finished with full 15-dove limits; but others, like you, lack several birds.
You are one of the lucky ones. You get to partake in the “Out” stanza. Conversely, the cool hand under a hot flight might be “limited” in 20 or 30 minutes. In this, the In-And-Out whitewing field might be too much of a good thing.
Better to take your time and enjoy the experience and leave a few to prolong the action as the fed-out flocks begin filtering from the field. Of course, this is a calculated gamble that the flocks will adhere to the scouted flight lines.
The “Out” session is the flip side. You return to your hay bale, but turn 180 degrees to face the sunflowers. Ragged waves of whitewings are lifting from the distant rows and boring in, elevating slightly as they climb to cross the tree line and return to roost. It’s a pretty sight, with the bold white slashes on wings and tails flashing in the late-afternoon sun.
Most of the shots again are at incomers, but the birds are low and slow—well, maybe not exactly slow, just not as fast as those high ones racing across open sky. And they are slipping and sliding, dipping and flaring as you raise the gun.
Many chances are close, inside 30 or 35 yards. Indeed, if you have a selection of chokes, you might want to switch to modified or improved cylinder. Or, if you have a trim little 20 or 28 gauge stashed as a backup in the vehicle, now is an excellent time to give it a workout.
Stay focused and keep it all out front over the safe ground of the open field. Be wary of birds passing high overhead. The slanting fall might carry behind, into the brushy tangles of the perimeter. Chances are, a fence is back there somewhere.
If the shot isn’t what you want, let it go and wait for another. The lulls under a strong flight are seldom long.
A low bunch clears the sunflower stalks and approaches your stand. You position your feet and wait. The whitewings start to break to the right at 30 yards, and the gun comes up. You swing through a trailing bird and see it fold, then pass through a prominent leader and watch it topple—a clean double to round out the 15-bird pouch!
Whether you concentrate on the “In” or the “Out,” or combine the two, the feeding fields scattered across South Texas can offer an amazing bounty for whitewing hunters during early fall.
—story by Joe Doggett