For all-out fun, sporting camaraderie at its best and wing shooting at its most challenging, it's hard to beat a traditional mourning dove shoot of the "popcorn popper" sort.
That's when the doves are flying so well and hunters shooting so frequently it sounds like kernels of popcorn bursting. Unlike most types of hunting, dove shoots lend themselves to group activity. And the fact that dove hunting is ideally suited for introducing youngsters to the shooting sports adds to the pastime's appeal.
While doves breed in all of the 48 contiguous states, with the majority of these states offering hunting, the sport enjoys the greatest popularity in the American South and Southwest.
Bird numbers, tradition and migration patterns explain this regional appeal. In northern states, late August's first strong cold front usually sends the birds southward. Even in the South, inclement weather at the beginning of the season can wreak havoc with local populations. The only difference is that southern hunters know they can expect replacement birds as migrants from the North arrive.
Indeed, from Virginia southward as far as Texas, devoted dove hunters enjoy not just opening day (almost always the Saturday prior to Labor Day) and Labor Day shoots. They manage fields carefully in order to enjoy sport for virtually all of September as well as shorter second and third segments of the season around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In this part of the country, the key to having a plentitude of doves is ample food. Cornfields that have just been cut for silage, or newly harvested peanut fields, might provide a couple of barn buster shoots. Quite possibly the fastest action I've ever seen took place in a large watermelon patch that had just been bushhogged. For action spread over longer periods of time though, mixed succession crops such as browntop millet and sunflowers attract and keep birds best. This is especially true when strips are mowed every week or 10 days in order to put a new food supply on the ground where doves can feed.
The Ethos of Opening Day
Dove hunting takes many forms. The traditional approach involves a large group of hunters and has some of the attributes of a country revival, with all-day singing and dinner on the grounds. This is particularly true of opening day. A glimpse at the first-day shot I've participated in annually for two decades will give some insight on such events.
For the first week of dove season in South Carolina, where I live, hunting is allowed only in the afternoons. After that you can hunt all day. On opening day the crowd begins to gather at midmorning for the Turner hunt. The event, which will see 60 or 70 hunters taking to the field, combines family and friends with paying customers.
For weeks there will have been anxious phone calls of the "Have you got plenty of birds this year?" variety, and some hunters will even have done some scouting and picked out the spot for their "stand." For most though, the hunt is primarily a cause for socialization, relaxation and celebration. The smell of burnt gunpowder wafting across the sere September fields, where millet has recently been cut and baled, signals the start of another hunting season. Or, as a member o the host Turner family is fond of saying, "For me, it's Christmas in September."
Before the first hunter takes to the field or the first shot is fired, there are rituals to be followed. The master of the hunt will address the gathered assembly, reminding them that safety is of paramount importance, to avoid low shots, to be sure their guns are plugged and that they can expect a visit from the game warden sometime during the afternoon. Then it is time for a festive meal, which is in many ways as great a source of delight as the actual hunt.
The evening before, a whole hog will have been placed on a huge barbecue grill, likely flanked by several hindquarters of venison and maybe some other delicacies. Slowly cooked and smoked for hours as flavors mix and mingle in a perfect culinary marriage, the meat will fall off the bone by mealtime.
Along with the featured fare will be all the bounty late summer country gardens can offer. There are juicy tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, pickles aplenty, fresh and preserved figs, fried okra and squash, probably a chicken or wild turkey bog (a rice-and-meat dish), all manner of vegetable casseroles, cantaloupes fresh from the vine, and slices of sugar-sweet watermelon so cold the rind instantly beads up with moisture.
For dessert there will be a belt-loosening array of delicacies-lemon and chocolate chess pies, maybe a cobbler or two with some hand-cranked ice cream, and if those in attendance are truly fortunate, possibly that most toothsome of delicacies, a scuppernong pie. No one takes to the field hungry!
The Essence of the Hunt
Although the doves will not do a lot of flying until well on into the afternoon, anxious hunters nonetheless begin to filter to their allotted stands soon after lunch. There they will sit sweltering, possibly getting the odd shot, for two or three hours.
Around 4 p.m., it is as if the avian floodgates suddenly open. Doves are everywhere-singles, flights of three or four and then a dozen or more at a time. The field rings with cries of "mark right!" and "behind you" along with sounds of laughter and good-natured ribbing about easy shots that have been missed. Retrievers (of both the canine and youthful human variety) scramble after downed birds, and the shooting is virtually nonstop.
Within an hour or so things begin to slow, not so much for a lack of birds as because the better shots among the group have taken their limit of a dozen birds and have left the field. Others require more time, and there are always a few inept souls who fire three or four boxes of shells and only have a half dozen or so birds to show for their efforts. Eventually though, the fields empty and hunters wend their way back to the shady spots where they ate lunch.
Now is the time for the telling of tales-reliving hunts past, comparing this year to other years, bragging on a nifty double or the stellar performance of a new lab, bemoaning inept marksmanship or congratulating a young hunter on his first doves.
Amidst this camaraderie hunters are breasting out the birds, wrapping them in bacon strips and maybe adding a jalapeno pepper or water chestnut and firing up the grill. Dogs tired from the heat and their labors will seek water, then shade. Someone will likely have had the foresight to cool a jug or two of homemade scuppernong or elderberry wine and the delicate brew whets appetites for the feast of doves to come.
As dusk approaches, hunters young and old load up their dogs, stools, guns and other equipment and head homeward. Another opening day is done and another hunting season is well and truly begun. For some of those present, it will be their only hunt of the year. Others will return to the fields on Labor Day and many other times.
For everyone though, there's nothing like opening day. Shotshell manufacturers love it (nationally, estimates suggest one dove taken for every five to six shots fired), and in the world of the hunter it signals rebirth and renewal after many months of enforced inactivity.
Equipment for Dove Hunting
You can "get by" on a dove shoot, particularly early in the season when the birds haven't been pressured much, with nothing more than a gun, plenty of shells and some camouflage or earth-tone attire. Serious dove shooters, however, pay considerably more attention to equipment and accessories and they benefit accordingly in terms of better shooting, greater comfort and, at least arguably, more enjoyable hunting.
Clothing needs can vary a great deal, thanks to temperatures that can range from the 90s on the first day of the season to wind-whipped 30s in early January. The primary things to keep in mind when it comes to attire are comfort and concealment.
Clothes should allow easy movement and mounting of the gun. A comfortable hunter is a more attentive one. Whatever the nature of the weather, try to wear clothes that blend in with your surroundings. A camouflage pattern with some green in it might be fine in the season's first segment, but you will want brown to be the predominant color on late-season hunts or when afield in arid regions.
Normally a comfortable pair of low-cut boots is what you want for footwear, but in muddy areas or fields intersected by drainage ditches you might find high-top rubber boots a plus. In Texas especially but also in some other southern dove hunting locale where rattlesnakes or cottonmouths can be a problem, snake chaps or snake boots might be advisable. If mosquitoes are plentiful, as is frequently the case for the September portion of the season, you will find either a "bug suit" of some type or plenty of repellant a necessity.
Finally, the real veterans of the dove shooting world use a couple of items of attire that deserve mention. A lightweight vest that does double duty as a shell pouch and game bag can be mighty handy and it is certainly better than scrambling to find more shells in a box or inside a stool. Also, especially in situations where doves are quite skittish, wearing a face mask will help keep birds from flaring (although I am convinced that movement, more than anything else, spooks doves).
While a stool might not offer the best shell storage, as has just been noted, a seat can add a great deal of comfort to the hunt. Stools come in a wide variety of forms, with those featuring a simple folding frame or the more common padded seat atop a bucket. For shoots where there is at least a chance you will be afield for several hours, a stool with a backrest is a distinct advantage, and a seat that swivels is also appealing. Some of the nicer seats include a built-in Styrofoam cooler in which to hold water or soft drinks, something that is certainly welcome on hot days. Whatever its design, the stool should blend in with the surroundings.
Some hunters also carry portable blinds. These feature camouflage cloth attached to several stakes and can be erected with relatively little trouble. It is a good idea to carry a small hammer to drive the stakes into the ground, and the blind needs to be roomy enough for some movement (and to contain a dog if you hunt with one) and high enough so that it breaks all of you profile except your head once you are seated on a stool. Blinds are somewhat cumbersome and require a bit of time to erect and break down, but if you are hunting in a large field where there is little or no cover, they are a distinct advantage.
One final consideration when it comes to equipment is that of decoys. While dove decoys might not draw birds in quite the same fashion as a properly placed spread for ducks or geese, there is no question that they are useful. One common arrangement is a half dozen or so decoys placed on a telescoping metal pole with special arms to hold the decoy. Try to position yourself within easy gun range of this device. Alternatively, some hunters use a spincasting rod and literally cast decoys across power lines or the limbs of dead trees, both prime landing spots for doves. They then pull the monofilament tight to get the decoy into proper position.
Tips, Tactics & Techniques
Many dove hunters-indeed I would venture to say the vast majority of the breed-give little if any thought to approaches that will improve their effectiveness. They simply take to the field once or twice a season, sit where they wish or at the stand to which they are assigned and have a jolly good time. There's nothing wrong with that really. Dove hunting is about fun.
Scouting Is Key
Seasoned dove hunters, on the other hand, realize that there are rich rewards to be reaped from careful observation, pre-hunt scouting and knowledge of typical dove behavior patterns. A good friend of mine, Rick Snipes, is a savvy student of the dove as well as one of those disgustingly talented wingshooters who regularly kills a limit with a box of shells ... with plenty of shells left for the next hunt.
Rick works at his dove hunting virtually year-round. This includes consultation on crop placement with the farmer from whom he leases, making sure that the food planted will hold birds throughout the entire time the birds can be hunted (portions of the period from early September until mid-January), and regular visits to the hunting area to see what the doves are doing. As a result, he knows when birds will likely show up, their favored flight patterns, which fields they are using the most and the like. Knowledge of that sort can make a world of difference.
In arid areas like Texas and most of the West, doves are always attracted to ponds or stock tanks, and such locations can provide fast-paced shooting. The same holds true for roost areas if you happen to know where they are. (Over much of the South, clumps of cedar trees form a favorite roosting spot.)
Generally speaking though, most of your scouting and choice of a place to do your shooting will involve picking the right spot in a specific field. Where that is the case, keep the following factors in mind. Any (or all) information of this sort can put you in an ideal location while actually hunting.
Doves love to light in a dead tree to survey the situation before flying into a field.
Similarly, doves are drawn to power lines like a magnet, and at least one hunter I know has gone to the trouble of stringing a wire across a section of field for the sole purpose of giving doves a place to light!
If a field where doves are feeding is surrounded by a treeline, as is often the case, doves will usually use a gap in the trees or a low spot in rolling terrain as an entrance point.
By simple observation over two or three visits in the preseason, you can generally discern the doves' preferred travel routes.
Hunting Alone Or With A Buddy
While most dove shoots involve a large number of hunters-anywhere from half a dozen to scores of them-it can also be a one- or two-person sport. The problem when hunting alone or with a buddy is keeping the birds moving. It is all too easy for the doves to light out of range, fly off when you move toward them and then light safely again.
This challenge requires some "strategizing," as a good friend puts it. Sending a dog across a field can put birds aloft, or when hunting as a pair one hunter can move the doves while the second remains hidden and hopes for some shots. Mostly though, hunting of this sort requires careful selection of an ambush spot or some sneaky movement which leads to what is, in effect, jump-shooting-a shot or two at flushing birds. It's not classic dove hunting, but sometimes it's what you have to do.
If one distinguishing hallmark of veteran dove hunters is knowing how to pick a setup spot, another is the way they select their shots. Speaking through the sage insight of "The Old Man," in his book The Old Man and the Boy, Robert Ruark neatly summarized the essence of the matter: "Doves," the Old Man explained to his youthful understudy, "are the easiest hard shootin' in the world. Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe they're the toughest easy shootin' in the world. I'm telling you right now, you figger to miss more'n you hit, and it would surprise me none if you didn't hit any for your first boxes of shells."
Typically, newcomers to the sport do a lot missing (and even more muttering) until suddenly things like lead, swing and distance all fall together. Even then, finding the mark on a gray-winged speedster that dips, darts and dives can be devilishly difficult. However, keeping a few basic things in mind will help.
Don't budge, don't flinch, don't dare to move an inch until the dove is in range. Then mount the gun smoothly, find the target, swing through it and pull the trigger. The whole exercise should be almost instinctive, and the worst thing you can do is watch a dove flying your way, with gun at the ready, for 200 yards.
Most shots should be within 40 yards, and ideally they will be at 25 to 35 yards. Distance judgment is critical, and many mistakes are the product of nothing more than asking a gun to perform 60-yard shots.
It doesn't take a lot to bring a dove down, but if you keep getting tail feathers, you can almost bet you are behind the bird and the edge of your pattern is catching the non-vital rear of the bird. Indeed, the vast majority of misses find the shooter behind the dove.
It's unlikely most hunters will ever approach anything close to hitting doves consistently. They are too elusive a target with too many imponderables to deal with-wind speed, sudden changes of direction, flaring and the like. Yet doves are incredibly plentiful over much of the country (not to mention the wing shooter's Valhalla's of Mexico and Argentina), with liberal daily limits and long seasons. Add to these considerations such factors as the wonderful easting doves provide, the opportunity for lots of action with family and friends and the rush any shotgunner receives from "popping lots of caps," and you have some understanding of why, particularly in the Southern heartland, the arrival of dove season in early autumn is one of the high points of the year for hunters.
Dogs are by no means essential to successful dove hunting, but they can add appreciably to the overall experience. An obedient, sharp-eyed retriever with a good nose will add heft to your game bag, save precious time spent hunting downed doves when they are flying fast and furious and help avoid the loss of game.
Almost any dog trained to retrieve can be effective on doves, although in my personal experience, labs rank head and shoulders above other breeds. Boykin spaniels are quite popular where I live (they are South Carolina's state dog), but many of them are wound up as tight as a seven-day clock, thereby creating more problems than they solve. In fairness though, I have seen some stellar Boykins in the dove field, and a fine one is indeed a jewel.
Dogs require some special attention in the heat of the early season, and it's best to carry plenty of water. Make sure your staunch companion gets plenty to drink and it isn't a bad idea to pour cooling water over a dog once or twice in the course of an afternoon.
One word of caution is in order when it comes to use of a dog: Nothing is less welcome on a dove shoot than a poorly trained retriever that runs hither and thither, blithely ignoring commands and treating every bird that falls as if it belongs to his master. Remember-this is a sport of etiquette, and you canine companions should show their manners too.
Dove hunting might not offer the adventure of a bird hunting escapade to some far-flung place. The sport most often takes place close to home, but it's on turf that's very special to the hunter. And therein lies the attraction of dove hunting. It's a social affair. It's tradition. It's relaxed. It offers its own kind of excitement. It's a low-key and fun kind of hunting that every wingshooter needs to experience.
Perhaps the first fact to emphasize about the mourning dove, biologically speaking, is the bird's incredible reproductive capacity. Its breeding season is one of the longest for any North American bird, and it reproduces successfully in all of the 48 contiguous states.
Together, males and females build the nests, which tend to be quite flimsy. The female lays a clutch of two eggs and both parents share in the incubation duties, with incubation normally taking two weeks or slightly longer. The fledglings are ready to go on their own in 18 days. This means that on average, a pair of doves requires just more than a month to complete a nesting cycle, and one pair will typically complete several cycles in the course of a single year. Therein lies the explanation of why doves can, in suitable habitat, become so numerous
Doves are exceptionally versatile when it comes to nesting habitat, but they breed most prolifically in the agricultural areas of the South, Southwest and Midwest. They area migratory species, normally leaving areas of harsh weather just prior to its autumn arrival. This lets them avoid food shortages and the cold weather that affects their fleshy feet and ability to feed.
Doves are seed-eating ground feeders, with almost all of their diet comprising seeds or plant parts. Favorite foods include corn, smartweed, millet, sunflowers, ragweed, pokeberry and various types of pine seeds. Although the dove is the most harvested game bird in the United States, with more than 70 million shot annually, biologists note that other factors loom much larger in dove mortality: predation, diseases, parasites and pesticides to name the major ones.
Shotguns & Loads for Doves
Early in the season, and in particular on opening day, when doves are as close to being "low and slow" as the gray-winged speedsters ever get, any shotgun will work Many hunters, especially on shoots where they know birds will be plentiful, opt for he greater sporting challenge afforded by 20 gauges or even a 28 gauge or .410. Still, most of the guns you see on the average dove shoot will be 12 grams.
Double barrels, over-and-unders, semi-automatics (plugged, since you are only allowed three shells for this migratory bird), and pumps all have their advocates and all work just fine. When the birds have not been hunted much, if at all, most shots will be at arranges of 25 to 30 yards, and skeet or cylinder chokes are the way to go. Similarly, size 7 ½ or 8 shot in light loads are all you need when the birds are close.
This changes, and dramatically so, as the first season progresses, and such is even more the case in the later seasons (usually around Thanksgiving and then at Christmas) when you deal with migratory birds that have been shot at a lot. Then shots suddenly stretch out to 40 yards or more, and the bigger, stronger birds might already have migrated many hundreds of miles and flown through their share of flak. That means tighter chokes are needed-modified or maybe even full-and you need a bit more reach out and "knock 'em down" power in your shells. High brass 7 ½s or even 6s are the way to go now, and a 12 gauge definitely becomes the gun of choice.
Finding doves can be relatively easy, when compared to the details of selecting a good stand and actually hitting the speedy fliers! Fields, trees and water are dove habitat's key components.
This land should be farmed to varying degrees of intensity: You want active fields as well as fallow meadows if possible. In the planted fields, corn, soybeans, oats, wheat, sunflower, milo and many other grains are key staples of the dove diet. Doves also love wild and abandoned fields with their wild crop of doveweed, foxtail, ragweed and myriad other weed seeds.
Trees are also important-to provide daytime loafing places as well as nighttime roosts. True forests aren't necessary, although they are often present. Fencelines, shelterbelts, treelines and tiny woodlots often provide all the trees that are needed.
Water is the final component of a good dove habitat-preferably ponds, streams, wetlands or any other moisture with muddy margins where doves can land and get water. In the arid West, water is often a limiting factor, and an active windmill or full stock tank often makes the difference between having and not having doves in the area.