OSBORN — Dennis Browning didn't get much sleep on a recent night.
The wildlife management biologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation's Pony Express Conservation Area tried to nod off on the couch in his office. But he knew whatever sleep he would get would be short-lived.
This, after all, was the eve of the Missouri dove opener. Hunters always arrive in the middle of the night to check in and then rush off to the fields to get a choice spot.
"I got my first hunter at 2:30 this morning," Browning said. "But it's like that every year. That's why I stay in my office the night before the season opens.
"Everyone wants to be the first to get out. I remember one year when a guy thought he was first and he went out to the field in the dark and stumbled over a guy who was already out there in a sleeping bag."
Such was the case when Missouri's dove season opened at Pony Express, a conservation area in the northwest part of the state.
By the time shooting hours began at 6:17 a.m., more than 150 hunters were already hiding in the weeds rimming the area's many sunflower and wheat fields.
Conservation Department workers had already mowed strips in the sunflower fields and burned the wheat, making the conservation area one big dinner table for doves.
On cue, the feathered guests showed up bright and early. The sounds of gunfire carried across the hunting fields.
Brad Mick of Kearney was one of many pulling the trigger. As he sat on a bucket in a patch of standing sunflowers, Mick swiveled his head and watched two doves dart across the gray sky to his right.
He jumped to his feet, led his target and fired. Then he watched as a dove tumbled to the field.
"These doves are tricky," he said as he tossed the bird to the ground beside him. "They can be hard to hit.
"You bring a lot of shotgun shells when you come out here for the opener. I've got four boxes with me."
About two hours in, Mick had six doves and was celebrating the start of a new hunting season.
"I've been waiting all summer for this," he said. "I couldn't wait to get out here and burn some powder."
In the corner of the field, four of Mick's friends were enjoying similar success. As a wave of doves suddenly arrived, shotguns boomed and birds fell.
"This is tradition for us," Mick said. "This kicks off our hunting season.
"We do a lot of duck hunting later on, but this is the start of everything."
Mick and his friends scouted Pony Express the day before and arrived at 4 a.m. so they could get the hunting spot they wanted. After a wait of more than two hours, they decided a night without much sleep paid off.
Rick Gossman and Justin Pfeifer of Lee's Summit also benefited from some preseason scouting.
They spent three hours earlier in the week patterning the doves, seeing where the birds entered and left the feed fields. When they arrived that morning, they headed right to the spot where they had seen the most activity.
It paid off. Shortly after the sun came up, they saw a steady stream of doves pass overhead. By mid-morning, they both had their limits of 15 doves.
Others also did well. By the end of the day, 196 hunters had taken 619 doves at Pony Express.
"Normally, we have a cold front right before the season that sends the doves out of here," Gossman said. "But that didn't happen this year.
"We saw a lot of doves today."
Others echoed that sentiment.
"I am a golf-course superintendent and I mow my summer away," said Aaron Gaiser of Maysville. "It's just great to be back out hunting again.
"We hunt just about everything. But we always look forward to the dove opener because this is the start."