The potential for fast-paced, high-volume shooting makes dove hunting an excellent choice for a family outing. The weather is generally pretty nice with seasons starting in early fall, and the sport requires nothing more than sitting in a field and shooting at fast-flying birds as they pass by. It's the closest thing to a real-life arcade game in all of hunting. Needless to say, dove hunting is a great way to introduce a kid or new hunter to the sport.
It's no wonder that mourning doves are the most hunted migratory game bird in North America, according to he US Fish and Wildlife Service.
So whether you're new to dove hunting or a seasoned veteran, here are some tips and pointers to help you get started or improve your chances at bagging one of the most challenging of game birds.
Where to go
One word: Sunflowers. Doves love sunflower fields. Especially the ones which have been 75-85 percent mowed just prior to opening day. Many states have public areas where these fields exist. States like Missouri even posts maps of those areas online. If there aren't public areas available (or if they're just too crowded), consider creating your own dove field. With the proper preparation (or favor from the local farmer) sunflowers are relatively easy to plant.
Beyond that, follow this recipe for finding dove habitat:
- 4-5 parts open field. Doves like wheat and other small grains, especially post-harvest. Sandy or grainy soils are preferred.
- 2 parts trees. Some of those trees should be standing dead.
- Veteran tip: Figure out the flight path doves take from feeding areas to their favorite "skeleton tree" and set up in between. Keep in mind that they'll often follow tree lines. Scouting in advance will help you figure out those preferred flight paths.
- 1 part water. Doves like wet spots near dry fields. Wetlands, ponds, streams and even larger lakes or rivers will attract doves to an area.
- Add power lines to taste. Doves are often found sitting on power lines. The lines serve largely the same resting-area purpose as trees. Figure out their preferred flight paths from those lines and you'll be set for some quality shooting.
It probably goes without saying, but check your local regulations first to see what kind of licenses you need to hunt doves. Know what other regulations apply to your hunt (such as steel shot in some areas). Remember, though they're not waterfowl, doves are still a migratory bird. A migratory bird fee is usually required in addition to the requisite small game license.
One of the many great things about doves is that you don't need a fancy shotgun to hunt them. You can miss just as well with a Remington as you can with any other shotgun on the market. And you will miss a lot.
Pick a gun that offers the least amount of recoil like a semi-automatic. Doves usually offer a lot of shooting. You'll appreciate a soft kick after about the fourth box of ammo.
Sure, any other action type will work fine, but opt for a repeater over a single shot. Doves seem to have the ability to realize you've got the drop on them and suddenly lose several feet of altitude the millisecond they detect your brain sending the "pull" signal to your trigger finger. That follow up shot will come in handy.
Your ammo selection should be based on the following considerations:
- Doves are small.
- Doves are fast. Crazy fast. Don't be surprised when one keeps pace with your car travelling down the highway.
- You will miss. Repeatedly. See numbers 1 and 2 above for why that's true.
For comparison, imagine shooting skeet where the targets have top, bottom, and side thrusters and can juke, dip, dive, and dipsy-doodle without warning. That said, buy whatever cost-effective target or small game ammo you feel will function reliably in your shotgun. One or 1-1/8 ounce loads, 8 shot, in 12 gauge are good for doves and readily available at most stores. Plan on three to four boxes or more per limit of birds.
Obviously, the harder you are to spot, the better chance you have of getting a bird to buzz by within dropping distance. But your choice of camo should be weighed against other factors: namely other hunters and temperature. When the shooting gets hot and heavy, you'll want to be visible. You also don't want to overheat in the late summer sun. Many a hunter in jean shorts, earth-toned cutoff tee shirt and orange hat has bagged an opening day limit. Keep that in mind before you hop in that new ghillie suit.
Simply put: Not necessary. But if you're into gadgets, get one of those spinning wing dove decoys (assuming they're legal in your area). It doesn't always do the trick, but you'll definitely notice when it does. Doves will practically land on it.
Shooting and Follow Up
Shooting doves is no different than shooting skeet or sporting clays (minus the whole dipsy-doodling thing). Rely on the fundamentals of shotgunning: Swing, shoot, follow through. Repeat.
When you do knock down a bird, mark it well and retrieve it quickly. Something about their plumage gives doves the ability to practically disappear on pavement. Add any amount of vegetation and the search approaches impossible without a good mark or a good dog. Even then, the small birds are hard to smell in dry conditions. Mark your hits well.
Enjoying the spoils
The total quantity of meat on a dove is just about equivalent to that of a large chicken nugget and is contained wholly in the breast. Luckily, bag limits are pretty generous. Clean doves by peeling the skin off the breast, starting in the middle and peeling toward the base of the wings by pressing against the breast and sliding the skin away. Cut the meat off the breast plate, or leave it attached and cut the whole breast out with a pair of game shears. It's dark meat, but lacks that "gamey" flavor. It can be fried, grilled or baked in any number of ways. Done right, it really is quite tasty.
So here's to a successful season in pursuit of America's favorite migratory game bird. Shoot straight, be safe and enjoy your time afield.
Photo via Sunflower Camo