For many hunters around the country, dove season is the first hunting season of the fall. It’s the first chance to get the shotgun in the field, see old hunting buddies and to wear your favorite color: camouflage. To welcome in this dove season, we put together a how-to guide covering tactics, stand location, decoying and shooting. Photo: Estancia Los Chanares
TACTICS Ever notice how most successful dove hunters seem to bag their limits quickly? Such deadeye wing-shooters can hit most of the birds they swing on, but they also are veteran students of knowing where and how to best position themselves in a dove field. They’ve learned from long experience that the easiest way to drop a limit of birds is to select the best stand locations, as well as to utilize the best gear and tactics. Equally important, they know how to recognize and avoid poor stand sites in a field. Here are some suggestions about where to find the best stand locations in a typical field and how to get the birds to come to you. Photo: CYC Outfitters
Find the Hot Spot Don’t waste time sitting in spots where doves aren’t flying. They are creatures of habit, so a little scouting goes a long way in patterning doves. Birds frequently navigate along tree lines and field edges as well as across the middle of fields, where terrain features help them navigate. Doves like to be able to see, and feel protected at the same time. Once you’ve identified their “flyways,” look for spots that satisfy their need for security, and your need to get off a shot. Key on gaps in a tree line, a saddle on a hill, converging crop fields, a dead tree, windrows and even a high spot, such as a lone dirt mound in a field.
Hunt Low in the Wind When sustained winds from a storm front roll in, doves typically move out. But barring a tropical storm, nor-easter or twister, winds will more often than not simply cause doves to adjust where they will roost. Like turkeys, doves tend to roost in sheltered areas where they can avoid stiff breezes, such as in trees along the leeward side of a hill or in a creek bottom. When they do get up to fly, they will stick tight to tree lines or shelterbelts, preferring to fly along the side that protects them from the harshest gales. Set up along these low, out-of-the-wind spots, and you’ll be sitting pretty when the birds take to the air.
Dove Drives While a solo hunter can walk birds up for the occasional jump shot on days when they otherwise refuse to fly, this is a tactic best employed with three or four hunters. Set up several posters in key spots around the field. A single gunner can kick the birds up. Doves require grit to grind up and digest their food, and as such will spend near-flightless days along sandy trail edges and between the rows of low crops, such as soybeans and peanuts. The driver can work back and forth across a field with the wind or he can walk the shady side of tree lines, where midday birds might be found roosting.
Decoy a Water Hole On afternoons when the birds are flying in random patterns, scatter decoys along a fencerow or on bare limbs near a small watering hole with a sandy bank. The combination gives doves a spot to find both grit and water, which they will seek an hour or two before dusk. Use at least a dozen decoys in various positions to mimic a roosting flock. Place the dekes where they can be spotted by approaching birds: one or two on a high limb, a few at the water’s edge. Doves will want to pause on a bare limb to check out the scene before descending. Set up where you can take a shot just before a bird lights on the limb.
Scout the layout Study a dove field carefully with binoculars a day or two before a hunt. On some fields it’s possible to drive around their perimeters to get a better, close-up look at the best spots for stands. Sometimes checking a field at dawn reveals where to hunt that afternoon. Look for perching sites where doves sit just before landing in fields. Such spots usually consist of tall, though sparse, trees and can be found in overgrown mid-field fence lines or field “islands” of timber. Similar islands can be formed by old, abandoned farm machinery, dilapidated farm buildings, tall brush, log piles or broadcast towers. Don’t assume that a stand that was great the last time you hunted a field will automatically be a hot spot this time. Conditions change, and so, too, does the way doves work into and out of a field. Photo: CYC Outfitters
Watch the early birds Be patient before choosing a dove stand. Sit on a field edge and observe the shooting action that other sportsmen experience before rushing in. On most dove shoots there are early birds that wing over a spot before the bulk of birds arrive. Learn from them. Watch where they enter a field and where they exit. These paths or flight lanes often indicate the routes other doves will follow to approach and depart a field later in the day. Photo: CYC Outfitters
Close the gaps Station yourself near a prominent dip or slot in perimeter timber, a noticeable place where the prevailing height of trees is significantly shorter. This can be a natural flight lane for doves. Take a stand 50 to 75 yards out in a field facing the tree gap so you can spot incoming birds before they pass you. Birds leaving the field and flying toward the gap won’t surprise you from behind; hunters farther out in a field likely will be shooting at them, alerting you to turn around. Photo: CYC Outfitters
Cover the corners Don’t overlook hunting a corner, which can be a focal reference for doves working in and out of a field. In many fields, a corner might also be the place where two fences join. This is useful; fences form travel lines for doves. The best corner might be one that has a tree-line gap adjacent to it, or perhaps a large isolated tree with sweeping, open limbs. Photo: Estancia Los Chanares
Take the high ground A hill or high spot in a field can be a dove magnet. Even a slight rise in a field is easily seen by passing doves and is a natural flight target for them. If you can take a stand between a hill and a perimeter woods line entrance spot for birds, you might have a choice stand for doves arriving and leaving a field. Photo: CYC Outfitters
Hunt in the dirt Freshly plowed ground is attractive to doves, especially when it is adjacent to a grain field. The birds like to feed in newly tilled dirt since it contains seeds and affords them an unrestricted view of their surroundings. Plowed ground beside a harvested cornfield or standing sunflowers is choice. Photo: CYC Outfitters
Hit the points Points that jut into a field are natural entering and exiting spots for doves. Less conspicuous points can be hot spots. Check out fences that bulge out into the field, especially those points that have a large, prominent tree at their tip. Photo: CYC Outfitters
Identify the lines Doves have a habit of flying down “lines” along the ground, such as a strip of standing sunflowers missed by the farmer or weeds along a drain. A place where two or more lines meet is a good location for a stand, because birds might converge from different directions. Doves also track fence, power and telephone lines. Phone and power lines serve as perches for birds coming into a field. Photo: Estancia Los Chanares
Stake out the trees Toward late afternoon, if you still need a bird or two for a limit, start moving toward the side of the field that has large trees, preferably pines. Doves roost in such trees and sometimes use them for a staging point before flying down into a field. As the sun sets, doves that are feeding in a large field often fly toward tall timber after their evening meal is done. Photo: CYC Outfitters
DECOYS While setting up in the right location is probably the most important aspect of a successful dove hunt, don’t underestimate the impact decoys can have. “The simple fact is that most hunters don’t know about decoying doves. They’re just not familiar with it. I hunted doves for years without decoys, but once I discovered how effective they can be–well, it’s just amazing,” says Chris Paradise, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for O.F. Mossberg & Sons. “Hunting doves with decoys is just like calling waterfowl. It can be that effective.” According to Paradise, folks who use dove decoys often use them incorrectly. How can you misuse something like a decoy? You hide it. Photo: CYC Outfitters
Get some air under them “Doves have feather patterns and an overall coloration that doesn’t promote good visibility. They’re very well camouflaged. If you’ve ever walked a cut field jump-shooting doves, you know you can often walk right up on them without seeing them,” says Paradise. “Many hunters tuck their decoys in around their blinds or put them on the ground.” Photo: Estancia Los Chanares
Silhouette is key Anywhere the birds are likely to come within eyeshot of the decoys is a potential place to set up. However, there is one trick to keep in mind for using dove decoys effectively. “The silhouette of the decoy is the key. Get them off the ground. Use a dove wire (see sidebar). Some decoys have eyelets on their backs. Guys attach these to fishing outfits and literally cast their decoys up into branches of dead trees and over out-of-service telephone lines,” says Paradise. “Put the rod down, grab a seat, and you’re in business. It works even better if you have a buddy moving that decoy like it’s a dove that’s just landed. It’s deadly.” Photo: CYC Outfitters
Use a dove wire In its most elemental form, the dove wire is little more than a stout cable stretched between two posts. Decoys are clipped, taped or otherwise secured to the wire, and the ensemble is erected. Finished? You might be, but not surprisingly, there are an infinite number of variations on this simple design. Photo: CYC Outfitters
SHOOTING But even with the best strategic positioning in the world, you still have to make the shots if you want your limit of doves (which is usually easier said than done). 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. 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. Here are some simple shooting tips that will help you fold more doves and use less ammo. Photo: Estancia Los Chanares
Keep hidden 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. Photo: CYC Outfitters
Blend in Once, and I wore bright yellow T-shirt and hunkered down in the plants. I’m not sure if I 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.
Know your lead 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.” Photo: CYC Outfitters
Understand Flyways 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.” Photo: CYC Outfitters
Don’t overlook the obvious 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. Photo: CYC Outfitters
Which 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.
Practice, Practice, Practice 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.”
Range that bird 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. Photo: CYC Outfitters
Think you have some good dove hunting tips of your own? Share you suggestions in the comment section.