The calendar read Sept. 1 but it might as well have been Christmas morning for Bakersfield dove hunters.
Yes, the first day of September marks the first day of dove hunting season in California, and in the Central Valley — from Modesto to Fresno, from Kings County to Kern — it’s an annual rite of passage.
Local hunters were up early Sunday — most said they arose around 4 a.m. — to enjoy the morning shoot. Afterward, they congregated at a packed-out Pyrenees Cafe in central Bakersfield to take in a Basque breakfast, belly up to the bar and reconnect with friends and acquaintances.
“It’s a tradition,” said Eric Mather, his voice rising above the music and vibrant chorus of chatter. “You know, it never gets old.”
Brent Needham, who was sipping a drink on the restaurant’s back patio with his son Carter and longtime friend Randy Crabtree, said the day and subsequent festivities at Pyrenees symbolize much more than just a hunt.
“It’s not about killing birds or killing things. It’s really not. It’s about this right here — my son, of course this guy,” he said motioning to Crabtree. “It’s about camaraderie.
“Everyone at this bar is a good, upstanding citizen. They’ll do business on a simple handshake.”
Crabtree's group went hunting just off of Porterville Highway, he said. Mather's group ventured out near the community of Richgrove. Lester Surgener and friends went to Lost Hills, where he shot his allotted 15 doves in efficient fashion, he said.
“I did good,” he said. “Less than an hour, and I was done.”
Many said the number of hunters appeared down on this Sunday, as compared to previous openers. The hunters attributed it to various factors: the state moving to strictly non-lead shooting requirements, tighter restrictions on ammunition purchases, limited access to hunting areas, and the fact that opening day coincided with the Labor Day weekend.
Still, Pyrenees owners Julie and Rod Crawford didn’t see a downtick in customers walking through the door. The restaurant serves usually about 200 breakfasts on opening day, Julie said, and this Sunday was no different.
“Just a fun time for everyone,” she said. “Come in, have your food, have your cocktails. Go home, take a nap. Then wake up and go back out for the afternoon hunt.”