Fields and pastures across the Rio Grande Valley echoed with the reports of hundreds of shotguns Saturday as hunters across South Texas looked to the sky, hoping to harvest their limit of birds on the opening day of regular dove season.
Richard Kotzur, one of those hunters, and his German shorthaired pointer, Hoss, set up on a field of sesame stubble just south of McCook late Saturday afternoon, arriving just before the dove did. Kotzur, shotgun in hand, squinted at the horizon while Hoss impatiently sat in his shadow, whining and growling frustratedly. Occasionally, Hoss would dart out of the shade and start bounding about the field, prompting Kotzur to admonish him for wearing himself out before the shooting started.
Clearly, Hoss was ready to start hunting.
About an hour later he got his chance. Flocks of 20 to 30 birds, whitewing and the occasional mourning dove, came out of a mott of brush south of the field and began the treacherous trek over the sesame stubble. Kotzur and the other hunters in the field began downing the birds. Kotzur would sight a bird and in an almost mechanical motion, bring his .410 shotgun to his cheek and drop the dove from the sky, hitting his mark much more often than not. Hoss would launch out into the field and lope back a few moments later with the bird hanging from his mouth.
Kotzur, a competitive skeet shooter and 4-H shotgun instructor, has been hunting dove in South Texas since he was in grade school.
“I was in the third grade when my dad put a 16-gauge in my hand, and it liked to knock me over, but I got the bird off a tree,” he said. “A couple years later we got a very well-used .410, single shot. You learned to make a shot count back then. We’d have that one shotgun and I’d shoot a bird, give it to my brother, then he’d shoot one, give it back to me, then I’d shoot one. Believe me, there were a lot of misses between us.”
Kotzur was joined in the field Saturday by friends from Central Texas, drawn to the Valley by the exceptional hunting, who he’s been shooting with on most opening weekends for the past two decades. One of those hunters, Earl Wayne Parten, of Madisonville, remembered one of the first times he hunted dove in the Valley.
“We don’t have many whitewings where I’m from,” he said. “I just remember seeing all of them out there, they weren’t 10 feet over the sunflowers, they looked like bumblebees.”
Kotzur says he expects this year to be another good dove season. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department agrees with him.
“With the abundant highly preferred dove foods available on the landscape this year, we’re seeing excellent production,” Owen Fitzsimmons, TPWD dove program leader, wrote in a statement last month. “White-winged dove production, in particular, has been very high in the southern half of the state. Plus, many of the states to the north had similar spring habitat conditions, which should result in a strong influx of migrant birds for Texas later in the season. I’m excited about the prospects this season, it should be fantastic.”
Kotzur and his friends were just a few of an expected 300,000 hunters across the state taking part in the sport this year. Those hunters are estimated to harvest 10 million birds in Texas, by far the most out of any state in the country, but Kotzur says the real trophy is the relationships made through hunting and shooting.
“Friendship, that’s 99% of it,” he said. “You meet people from all over the place, and make great memories with them.”
New legislation proposed by state Rep. Terry Canales of Edinburg, which went into effect this month, is aimed at allowing people to make those memories just a little bit easier, by modernizing licensure requirements for hunters and anglers.
HB 547 gives Texans the option to show a digital receipt or a photo of their hunting and fishing license to game wardens as proof of licensure rather than showing their actual paper license. In a statement Wednesday, Canales said that the legislation was aimed at contemporizing wildlife law enforcement in Texas.
“My staff and I have had conversations with Texas Parks and Wildlife and found out that game wardens have the ability to verify a photograph of a person’s hunting or fishing license,” he said. “This legislation is seeking to modernize the age-old Texan tradition of hunting and fishing, while making it easier for the next generation of Texas sportsmen to fish and hunt.”
Canales also said the new law will aid outdoorsmen who purchase their licenses remotely.
“Texans can buy hunting and fishing licenses in physical stores, but increasingly many are buying their licenses online through the Parks & Wildlife website,” he said. “When you buy it online, the license is mailed to you, but you get a receipt from the online store immediately.”
Hidalgo County Game Warden Ira Zuniga has already checked several hunting licenses digitally.
“The past two weekends we were busy with special white-wing season,” he said. “I personally had about 10 people show me their license that way.”
Zuniga says he believes the new law will be popular with sportsmen.
“A lot of folks are not aware of it yet. I had a lot of new hunters this year and some of them actually complained about having to wait in line to buy their license, which they could have done online,” he said. “All in all, I think it was well-received. It’s definitely a convenience for the hunter.”
Zuniga cautions sportsmen that physical evidence will still be required for some game.
“This doesn’t mean they’re not going to need their license for stuff that requires tags, like turkey and deer,” he said.
The digital licenses can be viewed on the Outdoor Annual mobile app and the My Texas Hunt Harvest app. A digital photo, an emailed receipt or an online purchase record are also acceptable forms of identification.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department encourages hunters to treat all firearms as if they were loaded, take a hunter education course, and report any game, fish or natural resource violation to Operation Game Thief at (800) 792-4263.