New statewide possession limits for waterfowl and upland game birds will impact both hunters and wildlife officers, starting with Sunday's dove opener.
This month the California Fish and Game Commission increased possession limits from double the daily bag limit to triple for waterfowl, band-tailed pigeon, doves, snipe, pheasant, quail, grouse and chukar.
For dove season, when hunters are allowed 10 birds per day, that means they are now allowed to have 30 birds in their possession instead of 20.
"Even though the possession limits have increased, hunters are going to have to be extremely careful," said Capt. Nathaniel Arnold of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"They can't just have 30 fresh doves on their tailgate. I would suggest they separate their birds by the day."
One of the most common violations is hunters who "double dip," meaning they take 10 birds in the morning and 10 more at night.
Will unethical hunters begin to "triple dip" now? Arnold hopes not.
"There's such a big difference between a hunter and a poacher," he said. "A hunter follows the laws. But if you're a guy who shoots 10 birds in the morning and 10 at night or shoots birds for another guy who can't get his 10, that's poaching. Plain and simple.
"Hunting is a unique opportunity, and the fastest way we're going to have it taken away is poaching."
The most popular hunt in the central San Joaquin Valley, dove season is divided into two sections — Sunday through Sept. 15 and Nov. 9 to Dec. 23. But the opener is by far the busiest.
Despite consecutive years of below-average rainfall that impacted breeding, CDFW environmental scientist Ben Lewis said there still are plenty of birds.
"I believe it's going to be a better opener than some of the wet years because the weather is holding up," Lewis said. "Some years we'll get a fantastic hatch but the weather turns right before the opener and drives the birds down south.
"This year, we're going to have more birds here even though the total population might be lower."
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 homes or barns.
Legal hunting begins 30 minutes before sunrise (6:30 a.m. Sunday) and must stop at sunset (7:29 p.m.). Hunters cannot enter property that is fenced, being cultivated or posted with "no trespassing" signs.
"There's a lot of people who don't know it's dove season," Arnold said. "They wake up to the sound of shooting or just see a guy walking in the field with a shotgun and call the sheriff."
Most dove hunting takes place on private property, but there are also public lands where reservations aren't required.
At Mendota Wildlife Area, access to three fields (parking areas 2, 21 and 22) will be first-come, first-served beginning at 4:30 a.m. Other areas there are considered "free roam" and open to hunters who register at the check station before noon. Entrance gates will close Friday night.
At Los Banos/North Grasslands Wildlife Complex, draws will be held 6-9 p.m. Saturday at the Salt Slough and Los Banos check stations for hunters who did not win a spot in the previous lottery. Those seeking access to the China Island Unit should line up at 4 a.m. Sunday.
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