Years ago, my son Dan and I were looking for hidden desert water holes, hoping to find a place to ambush a Utah antelope. It was a week before the season, and while glassing a distant herd of antelope, I noticed several small groups of doves flying into a draw. Their flights were so consistent that I had a hunch they were headed to water. Dan and I hiked into the draw and found a small water hole that was almost dried up but held just enough water to satisfy the birds.
For years I shot doves at that oasis. I increased my shooting success considerably by positioning myself to take incoming birds when they were about 20 yards out. At that point they were committed to coming into the water. They flew straight in about 6 feet off the ground, offering no-brainer targets, and I was proud of taking a 10-dove limit with a dozen shells. I'm not a world-class shot when it comes to hitting doves, and I was pleased and surprised with my success, which was due to the simple, almost nonexistent lead. Ammo companies love dove hunting because of the copious amount of shells that hunters expend each season. We often hear of people who average one dove for five shells or more. There are two very good reasons for that dismal ratio: Doves present a small target, but more important, their greatest defense is their amazingly erratic flight. Nothing flies like a dove. Unless you're targeting incomers like I've described above, they zig and zag, swerving and flaring, and are totally unpredictable while you try to place a shot pattern in a spot that will collide with their path.
I'm convinced that most doves will flare at the sight of a human, even on opening day. I believe it's a big advantage to be as inconspicuous as possible, even if it means wearing full camo. Many doves will quickly alter their flight pattern to avoid obvious humans. At the very least, it's a good idea to try to blend in with the surroundings, whether that means sitting or standing in the shade of a tree or finding a position in a clump of brush.
Western doves love wild sunflowers, and I've often set up in the midst of them with great success. Once, Dan and I wore bright yellow T-shirts and hunkered down in the plants. I'm not sure we looked like sunflowers, but we fooled plenty of doves. They came in unswerving, offering simpler targets than usual. I've always found it a whole lot easier to hit incoming doves than flushed birds that are going away. The latter make me crazy, and are a major challenge. I flush birds by slowly working stubble fields or weedy patches that offer feed. After scores of misses, I've found that the point-and-shoot method works best for flushing doves. I pick a spot where I figure the dove will be and touch off the shot.
How to Lead Doves
Normally, I like the sustained lead method: You aim ahead of the bird, keep swinging, squeeze the trigger and maintain the swing. Mike Jordan, who worked for Winchester for 35 years, agrees. "If you have trouble hitting doves, double your lead," Jordan says. "Most new dove hunters don't lead enough. If you're still missing, try other leads until you get it right."
Eddie Stevenson, PR manager for Remington ammunition, is also an experienced wing-shot. He also likes the sustained lead system, and increases his odds by watching birds in flight.
"I improve my shooting success by first observing birds and patterning them, either while I'm actively shooting or before legal shooting hours," Stevenson says. "Doves use flyways, and I'll watch them to observe their most consistent routes. One of my favorite tactics is to set up over an out-of-the-way pond in late afternoon. Doves need a drink before they roost, and I usually find plenty of action away from other hunters. Whenever possible, I'll move to the most heavily traveled flyways." That's good advice. Whenever I hunt in a group, some guns have more shooting opportunities than others. That's because they're within range of a flyway, which is simply a route used by birds. Some flyways have no rhyme or reason, but most are predictable. Birds flying from one field to another may prefer a certain route-usually along some man-made or geographic feature. During the heat of the day, birds may roost in large, shady trees. In early morning and late afternoon, they'll head for water. Doves also love to sit on power lines and fence wires.
How Much Gun?
Jordan likes a 20-gauge Model 12 Winchester with a modified choke. He uses light 7/8-ounce loads throwing No. 8 shot. Stevenson prefers a 12-gauge 870 Remington Wingmaster with a modified choke, and uses ShurShot ammo in No. 71/2 shot. My favorite dove gun is an old Savage 440 over/under loaded with No. 8 shot.
Being unfamiliar with your firearm's performance is a common error made by dove hunters. "It's amazing how many people never pattern their guns before they hunt doves," Jordan says. "The most important aspect in any type of shotgunning is knowing the point of impact of your firearm."
Both Stevenson and Jordan stress the importance of practice. Jordan says any shotgun sport is good, whether it's trap, skeet or sporting clays. "Fine-tuning your swing is of paramount importance," Jordan advises. "When you begin to hit clay targets consistently, you'll hit more doves."
While hunting, Stevenson works hard not to spook the doves. "I try to be as unobtrusive as possible, wearing camo and not moving until the bird is in range, about twenty or thirty yards away," he says. "I believe the glint from a gun barrel will spook birds and make them twist and flare away from the perceived danger. I'll use decoys not only to attract doves within range, but to distract them from seeing me."
How to tell if a bird is in range? If you can see any of the bird's feather features and it appears dark, it's probably in range. If it's a light gray blur, it's usually too far out. Some hunters delight in challenging themselves with long shots. A few can do it consistently, but most will waste ammo.