Joe DiMaggio once said of opening day, "You look forward to it like a birthday party when you're a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen."

While DiMaggio was obviously referring to the opening day of major league baseball, the same could be said for the opening day of dove season.

Actually, there are several common denominators between the opening day of baseball and the opening day of dove season.

They both generally fall on the same day of their respective months, April and September, every year. They both signal a feeling of rebirth, newness and a chance to forget last season. And they both represent an extremely short-lived level playing field.

Every major league baseball team begins opening day at 0-0 (unless you count that trumped-up Sunday night game that ESPN has aired the past 10 years), and every hunter begins opening day having not screwed up the first shot.

By the end of opening day of baseball, though, 50 percent of the teams are wondering why they lost. And by about 5 p.m. of the opening day of dove season, probably more than 50 percent of the hunters are wondering why they can't hit the broad side of a barn.

The neat thing about both opening days, though, is that they are unofficial holidays for hundreds of thousands of people. Baseball fans see it as a day to either play hooky from school or call in sick, and some would say to the full realization of teachers and employers.

The opening of dove season is always on a Saturday, but you can bet that if it fell on a Monday like the opening day of major league baseball, there would be almost as many, if not more, defections from school and work.

Last September, I had the opportunity to make the opener at Palo Alto Gun and Rod Club in Donaldsonville. This upscale hunting plantation offers first-class opening-day hunts that could best be described as events or happenings rather than hunts.

The same could be said for other pay-to-shoot places like Atwell Guide Service in Belle City, which also turns the opening day of dove season into a first-class foray into what Robin Leach might call the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

On this particular hunt at Palo Alto, generations of hunters started showing up at the camp that was built from wood gathered from one of Jean Lafitte's hideouts, and they quickly began reminiscing about past hunts and predicting their success for future hunts. Several young hunters making their first dove hunt had their heads patted, scratched and knuckled as they were introduced to the crowd.

After a meal of barbecued pork, turkey and sausage, white beans and French bread, Bubba Lemann went through the safety briefing before loading us all up on trailers to take us out to the fields.

"If you don't get your limit today," he said, "shame on you."

It wasn't long into our ride before Don Dubuc began pointing out doves that were already passing over our heads. We eventually came to a stop, and we all started staking our claims to spots along the ditches that crossed the field — everybody, that was, except for New Orleans Saints color commentator Hokie Gajan, who found a comfortable spot under a shade tree to wait them out.

What I discovered during my hunt at Palo Alto was that dove hunting isn't as much about hunting as it is spending time with family and friends. And if you're looking to spend some quality time this opening day, you can't go wrong with either Palo Alto or Atwell.

However, there is hope for those who are looking for a little dove action on public land this September. Louisiana is blessed with wildlife management areas that don't just claim to have good hunting opportunities; they actually do have good hunting opportunities.

Because of the effort required to create and maintain desirable dove habitat, though, only a select few of the WMAs actually offer the opportunity to shoot doves.

Northwest Louisiana

The public dove hunting in this corner of the state could best be described as quality rather than quantity. Region 1 Biologist Manager Steve Hebert said as much.

"Public hunting in Region 1 is somewhat limited due to the limited amount of publicly owned WMA land," he said. "However, what is available at times can be considered very good to excellent depending on the weather and dove migration."

Hebert pointed out Bayou Pierre and Bodcau WMAs as having the best dove hunting due to the planted and native grass fields that are managed specifically for doves. Bayou Pierre has approximately 100 acres of winter wheat and sunflower/millet fields, while Bodcau has about 75 acres devoted to dove management with winter wheat, sunflowers and native grasses that attract and hold doves.

"Hunters should take note, though, that the opening day of the September dove season at Bayou Pierre is limited to 75 hunters selected by a computerized lottery," Hebert added. "All hunters are welcome to dove hunt on Bayou Pierre after the first day, though."

Prior to the implementation of the lottery system at Bayou Pierre, as many as 400 hunters were trying to crowd into the dove fields on the first day of the season. Hebert says the lottery system is a means to help provide a safe and quality hunting experience.

Northeast Louisiana

While the descriptions on the LDWF web site identify Ouachita, Union and Big Colewa WMAs as being the best for dove hunting in Region 2, biologist Jeff Taverner suggested that Big Colewa was the main one for a little opening-day action.

"We planted sunflowers on Ouachita and Big Colewa," he said, "but Big Colewa has three fields that can accommodate quite a few hunters. We go in about a week or so before opening day and bush-hog the sunflowers and spray to make sure we get the bare soil that doves like."

The fields at Big Colewa are accessed by taking 165 north from Monroe to Mer Rouge. Take Highway 2 toward Oak Grove, and turn right at the store in Goodwill. Go down about a mile or two, and take a right at the intersection. Follow the long, straight road, which will end at a bayou. Turn right onto the gravel road, and hang a hard left. Go down to a four-way stop sign, and go through that. The parking area will be about a forth of a mile past the stop sign.

"The Ouachita field is easier to get to," said Taverner. "Turn off Highway 15 on Shop Road, and veer to the right at the fork like you're going to headquarters. At that intersection, there are sunflowers planted on the left. They're making, but they aren't great. Ouachita will hold a few doves, but probably not as many as Big Colewa."

East-central Louisiana

"We manage Boeuf, Buckhorn and Red River for doves," said Region 4 biologist John Leslie. "However, one of the fields at Boeuf, the 20-acre field we call Mile's Field, completely failed. We just didn't get the rain there when we needed it. Therefore, I would suggest either Buckhorn or Red River."

The main draw at both of these WMAs is the excellent crops of sunflowers, millet and sorghum. However, there is more acreage at Red River with approximately 150 planted acres right beside Highway 15 north of WMA headquarters.

"You can't miss it," said Leslie. "It's the same place it was in last year. We've got 75 acres planted at Buckhorn — mostly sunflower and millet. It has an excellent crop, and should offer some good shooting."

While Leslie said Region 4 doesn't try to limit hunters on either WMA, Red River did get almost to the point of overcrowding last year. LDWF always has the right to limit numbers to maintain safe hunting conditions.

"Get there early is all I can tell you," he added. "We cut the fields into strips, so you can get anywhere out there in the fields. Most hunt around the perimeters, but the sunflower lanes that are left are tall enough for you to just squat down and hunt in them."

West-central Louisiana

According to Region 3 Wildlife Division Supervisor Czerny Newland, there is limited public-land dove hunting in this area of the state because WMAs in the region have minimal dove habitat.

"Some years, we are able to lease fields for opening day, though," Newland said. "Those leases are made final a few days prior to the opening day to try to ensure that doves are using the fields. The best way to find out about them is to contact the Region 3 office the week before opening day."

If pressed to select a WMA that does have good dove hunting opportunities, Newland would recommend Elbow Slough because it has historically provided excellent hunting. However, due to its small size, only 40 hunters can be accommodated on a first-come-first-served basis, and steel shot is required because Elbow Slough is a waterfowl refuge.

Newland also pointed out Camp Beauregard WMA as another possibility for opening day dove-hunting success. Both WMAs have obvious dove fields with mostly browntop millet at Camp Beauregard and a variety of plants at Elbow Slough. However, they are not marked as such on the ground. Camp Beauregard has different areas planted in some years, but it can generally accommodate up to 50 hunters.

"Heavy pressure for opening day tends to make subsequent days less productive," Newland added. "However, there are sometimes good numbers of birds for the second split."

Southwest Louisiana

While West Bay, Fort Polk and Peason Ridge are the three WMAs in this corner of the state identified as having dove hunting by the LDWF web site, Region 5 biologist John Robinette suggested that West Bay offers more dove hunting than either of the other two because of the military training that keeps much of those areas closed to hunting.

"All WMA hunters must have a WMA permit and are required to use a daily, self-clearing permit," Robinette said, "but Fort Polk and Peason Ridge also require a yearly military clearance permit, which has to be obtained at North Fort Polk building 7654. These areas also have special rules and regulations, so hunters need to learn military rules before entering these areas.

"Hunters can contact Fort Polk wildlife enforcement office at 888-718-3029 or 337-531-5715 or www.jrtc-polk.army.mil/fpk_hunt/ for more information."

No areas are set aside just for dove hunting in any of these three WMAs. However, each area does have planted plots and open areas that will naturally attract doves. According to Robinette, some of the better hunts at West Bay occur in cutovers that have grown up in goat weed.

"Region 5 also has offered several public dove fields over the past few years that are leased by the LDWF for opening day," Robinette added. "Hunters pay $10 each with youth under 16 hunting for free. A 1,000-acre field just west of DeRidder has been leased for many years. These fields are usually planted in corn, soybeans or other crops that are harvested and then plowed about a week or two before opening day."

Robinette said on average 300 hunters show up at this large leased field, and they kill approximately 1,000 doves. Some hunters limit out while others shoot a lot with less success.

Southeast Louisiana

Sandy Hollow WMA wins hands down as the best WMA for dove hunting in the southeastern section of the state, according to Region 7 Manager Randy Myers. However, winning the battle of the best of the public lands doesn't mean hunters can expect excellent hunting.

"I'd say Sandy Hollow provides moderate dove hunting opportunity for the public," said Myers. "Region 7 personnel plant several fields for dove hunting, but the early season usually finds competition from other private fields that will sometimes draw the doves away from the area and scatter them."

Myers went on to say that Sandy Hollow is affected by a myriad of factors that determine if doves will be present or not. Other than adjacent fields, the area is subject to drought, insect damage to fields, too much rain and feral hogs that can wipe out a dove field overnight.

"The north end is reserved opening day in September for a youth hunt," Myers explained. "Adults may hunt as well, but they must have a hunting or non-hunting youth with them.

"The size of the area really limits opportunity, and the proximity to Baton Rouge, New Orleans and the North Shore region means it gets a tremendous response from the public for opening day."

Myers went on to say that hunting pressure diminishes after opening day, and that Sandy Hollow can offer some pretty decent dove hunting later in the season. Hunting is allowed on the first Saturday of the opening split and the following Saturday and Sunday. The remaining split is the same as the outside.

"The fields on Sandy Hollow are noted on the WMA map," Myers added. "However, there are no special signs designating them on the ground as they are highly visible. The fields vary in size and can hold from 10 to 75 hunters."

Thanks in large part to the efforts of the LDWF, we can all find a place to make this opening day one to remember no matter if we've got deep pockets or not.

If you want to be treated like a king, try a pay-to-play outfit like Palo Alto or Atwell. If you just want to shoot some doves without shelling out the dough, give one of these WMAs a shot. No matter which you choose, you ought to be getting the feeling like something wonderful is just about to happen.