SACRAMENTO -- The busiest hunting day of the year in the central San Joaquin Valley should be even busier this year.
That's because the dove opener falls on a Saturday -- today -- for the first time since 2008. And thousands of hunters throughout the region would like nothing more than to begin the three-day Labor Day weekend with a full quota of birds.
"We expect to see a lot of people out there," said Capt. Nathaniel Arnold of the California Department of Fish and Game.
"With the price of gas being what it is, people don't want to drive for hours to hunt. A lot of them can take a limit of doves just 15 or 20 minutes away from their houses. It's really convenient."
While a no-shoot zone extends around the Fresno-Clovis border, dove hunting is commonplace in rural areas and often close to homes; hunters need only be at least 150 yards from occupied buildings.
Legal hunting begins 30 minutes before sunrise and must stop at sunset (7:28 p.m.). Hunters cannot enter property that is fenced, being cultivated or posted with "no trespassing" signs.
Fields on the west side of the Valley are the most heavily impacted, Arnold said.
"Hunters need to be aware of where they are at all times, and nonhunters should know they're going to hear shooting Saturday morning," he added.
The daily bag limit for mourning doves is 10 birds, and hunters may have no more than 20 in their possession. Mourning doves remain the most common dove species in the Valley, but Eurasian collared doves are becoming more plentiful every year.
Eurasian collared doves are nearly twice the size of mourning doves and fly more like a pigeon with their squared-off tails. They're also lighter in color, except for dark feathers on their wing tips, and have a distinctive dark ring on the back of their necks.
Being able to differentiate species is critical because Eurasian collared doves do not count toward the daily bag and possession limits.
Dove season is divided into two sections -- today through Sept. 15 and Nov. 10 to Dec. 24. But the opener is by far the busiest day.
"A lot of people buy hunting licenses just for the opener. This is a one-day affair for them," Arnold said. "But maybe they'll go two days this year because the opener is on a Saturday."
Last year, game wardens in the DFG's 11-county Central Enforcement District made 1,933 hunter contacts while issuing 57 citations and letting off 49 with warnings.
The most common citations were for over limits, hunting without a license or failing to plug a pump or autoloading shotgun. (All guns used in migratory bird hunting must be plugged to a three-shot capacity, meaning one shell in the firing chamber and no more than two in the magazine.)