If you are reading this column this morning, I hopefully am out in the field with my two sons, Mark and Steve, and other friends trying to bag a limit of doves.

The best part of the opening morning of dove season is that shooting time is always 30 minutes before sunrise, or right about 6 a.m. Hunters who have jobs can get out to the field, get their limit of birds and still make it to work on time, assuming they find a hot spot to shoot.

My late friend Steve Merlo used to tell me of the times he and his brother Larry would go hunting in the mornings before school started while living in Buttonwillow. Larry said he vividly remembers he and Steve taking a hunter safety course from the Bakersfield Police Department at age 9 so they could begin hunting. My oldest son, Steve, bagged his first birds at the same age and is shown in the photo on this page.

During all the years I hunted with Steve Merlo, we always awaited Sept. 1 with great anticipation because it was the start of not only dove season but also the beginning of other game-bird openings that fall between now and the end of the year. These include quail, pheasant, ducks and geese. It ends the last weekend of January, so we had five months of great fall and winter hunting.

Steve always challenged me to a duel for the dove opening. We would both be shooting Winchester Model 42 pump-action .410 bore shotguns and would make some kind of crazy bet as to who could take a limit with the least number of shells. I always told him it was unfair because he would use 3-inch shells with 50 percent more shot than my 2-1/2-inch ammo I usually used for skeet shooting.

But I really didn't care, and we would both usually get our 10-bird limit with fewer than 15 shells. This was possible because we always tried to shoot at birds that were no more than 20 yards away. If most people tried that, I guarantee you they would have better results time after time, and fewer crippled birds that just fly off.

If you are in a good spot ... just be patient. It will not take long to get your 15-bird limit if you just pick your shots. Before shooting time, step off about 20 yards from where you are waiting to shoot and mark the spot with a piece of brush or something prominent. If you are hunting near an orchard, the birds will almost always be coming from one direction, so just wait until they are inside of your marker before firing. Believe me, it works. You will certainly beat the national average of seven or eight shots per bird.

I have a feeling that God, in his infinite wisdom, has a special field in Heaven today for Steve, Leroy Fontana, Ray Bloomquist, my cousin Jim, and a host of other friends I have lost over the years, and they are up there just blasting away while enjoying one another's company. RIP guys. You are all missed.

I called Candy Merlo and asked if it would be all right if I ran a copy of Steve's awesome recipe for doves in today's column. She said absolutely. So here is the recipe from Steve's published book titled, "The Official, Can't Live Without It, EASY, Wild Game And Fish Cookbook."

INGREDIENTS FOR DOVE DINNER FOR EIGHT

40 Plucked and drawn doves

1 tsp. each salt and pepper

40-1" sq. strips of bacon

2 med. onions cut into 3/4" squares

1/4 cup chopped parsley

2 tsp. dried, bottled Italian seasoning

A handful each of fresh sage and rosemary

20 cloves finely chopped fresh garlic

2 cups red wine

1 cup olive oil

40 canned whole button mushrooms

Dump the birds into a large pot. Add all the ingredients onto the birds except for the bacon. Stir and mix, let set for a while, then stir and mix again. This is basically a marinade and can be done hours or even several days in advance. It should be turned every so often so all the birds are done equally. (Keep it refrigerated.)

To prepare, take a single bird and stuff a piece of onion and a whole mushroom from the marinade into the cavity. Lay the bird breast side up in a flat baking pan with at least two-inch sides. Aluminum cake pans are perfect for the job. Take a second bird, repeat the stuffing procedure, but face the opposite direction as the first. Repeat this procedure, one bird one way, one the other, all breast side up, until the pan is full. All the birds should touch, crammed into the pan like sardines. If they don't, then use a smaller pan or add more birds until the container is full. I normally add more birds.

Finally, add about a quarter-inch of the marinade to the pan and sprinkle some of the marinated garlic and parsley from the bottom of the container over the birds.

Place a single 1-inch square of bacon atop each bird. Chop the marinated rosemary and sage together and sprinkle a moderate amount over the doves. Don't be stingy, but don't overdo it either ... a quarter-cup or slightly more of mixture per pan of birds is about right.

Season them again with a little salt and pepper, cover with a nicely fitting lid or aluminum foil, then place into a preheated 375-degree oven. Bake for 30 minutes, then baste with the pan juices. Cook for another hour at 350 degrees, basting every 30 minutes. You might have to remove some of the accumulated stock from the pan to prevent the birds from boiling, but save it if you do. Eventually you'll run low on basting juices and will have to rely on the stock you removed earlier.

Lower the heat to 325 degrees for 30 more minutes, basting often, then lower the temp one more time to 300 degrees, cooking uncovered for the last 30 minutes but still basting. 2 1/2 hours seems to be a long time, but when you taste the finished product, you'll see why. The whole secret's in the cookin'. Thank you Mom, Dad, and Betty Fanucchi.

Ken Barnes is a local outdoorsman and record-setting target shooter. His views do not necessarily represent those of The Californian. Contact him at ken.barnes@aol.com with comments or column ideas.

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