Those who enjoy a hunting lifestyle are fortunate. Because hunting isn’t always easy—especially for the millions of Americans looking to get into the sport. Competition for hunting ground, a significant financial investment in gear, and time spent on hunter education, scouting, and shooting practice are just a few of the barriers to hunting participation. Thankfully, some types of hunting (Doves) are simpler than others.
By Josh Lantz
Not too long ago, rabbits and squirrels were the most-pursued game in our country. It was easy to put a single-shot .410 shotgun or .22 rifle into the hands of a young person and, with a bit of instruction, safely plant the seeds that could grow into a lifetime of passion for hunting and wildlife conservation.
While somewhat less popular today, small game hunting remains one of the best and most accessible options for getting into the field. Farmers and landowners who lease their land to deer or turkey hunters may be willing to let small game hunters use their property, especially if a supervised youngster is involved. And the required gear is minimal.
The month of September marks the opening of dove hunting season in 40 of the lower 48 states. With an estimated population approaching 300 million, the mourning dove is one of the most abundant and widely distributed game birds in the country. Each year, about 1 million dove hunters typically spend more than 3 million days afield, harvesting between 15 and 20 million birds. These fast-flying fowl present challenging shooting and are exceptional tablefare. And, as with with squirrels and rabbits, hunting doves is a relatively easy proposition.
A Place to Hunt
Most states offer public-ground dove-hunting opportunities, and specifically manage properties or parts of those properties for doves. Realize, however, that hunting one of these properties—especially during the opening week of the season—may require advanced registration.
Private-ground hunting opportunities are available to those who are willing to do some scouting and knock on a few doors. Understanding a few basic factors will make scouting for doves easier. Doves are seedeaters, feeding on waste grain from many agricultural crops including wheat, corn, millet, barley, sorghum, sunflowers, and others. They also eat weed seeds such as foxtail, thistle, and croton. Doves prefer to feed on relatively bare ground, and typically do so twice a day—once in the morning and again in the late afternoon.
Doves also need to drink and pick gravel to help digest the seeds they eat. They’ll visit clear-water sources such as ponds and streams a couple times a day, usually after feeding. Barnyards with gravel lanes and puddles of standing water are often excellent places to ambush doves in the afternoon—especially when located near preferred feeding areas.
Roosting habitat is also an important factor in locating good dove hunting spots. Doves prefer overhead lines and dead or dying trees with sparse vegetation. Such roosting habits favor the dove hunter, as they make the birds highly visible. Doves tend to flock to the best habitat, so finding a great hunting location can be as easy as spotting several birds roosted on an overhead utility line.
Once you’ve located some good areas, it’s time to knock on some doors. Be polite, introduce yourself, and explain why you’re there. Listen to any specific instructions or concerns, and assure the landowner that you’ll remove all traces of your hunt. Always let the landowner know when you’ll be coming and going. Bring along a simple, prepared permission slip that states you have permission to hunt the property and ask them to sign it in case you are questioned by another hunter or a conservation officer.
Get Ready… Go!
A small game hunting license from your state’s Department of Natural Resources or wildlife conservation agency is required to hunt doves. Because mourning doves are migratory, they are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so a Federal Duck Stamp is required. These stamps are available online, from most hunting license vendors, as well as most U.S. Post Office locations.
Almost any shotgun is suitable for dove hunting. Doves are fast and small, so a model with an open or modified choke is ideal. This will spread the shot out and create a larger pattern. Double-barrelled, autoloading and pump-action shotguns allow for fast follow-up shots.
The national average is around 7 shots per dove harvested, so choose affordable shotshells that won’t wear you down. Leave the 3” and 3-1/2” magnums at home. Standard 2-3/4” shells deliver plenty of payload for doves, and your shoulder will thank you after a morning or afternoon afield. Most dove hunters shoot 6-9 shot, and many consider standard number 8 target loads to be ideal. Lead is still the most popular shot material for hunting doves, but check your state’s regulations. Many require steel or other non-toxic shot on public hunting properties. Shooting skills are certainly a factor, but each hunter should plan on using about 4 boxes of shells to harvest a limit of 15 mourning doves.
You’ll need a way to carry those shells and other supplies into the field, as well as a place to sit while hunting. One of the best options available for this purpose is Plano’s new 1812 Hunting Stool. This clever and affordable seat is built around a magnum-sized Plano 1812 Field Box that holds ammo, tools, snacks, drinks, and other necessities inside its customizable divided interior—supplemental to several built-in pockets on the seat’s nylon—camouflaged exterior. It features a tethered seat cushion for all-day comfort and a padded shoulder strap for easy transport. When the hunt is through, the 1812 Hunting Stool will tote your birds, empty shotshell casings and the rest of your gear back to the truck. The versatile Plano 1812 Hunting Stool sells for around $50 and has many other practical applications for the hunter or outdoor enthusiast.
Like most birds, doves have fairly good eyesight, so tuck yourself into some cover if possible. Camouflage clothing is advisable. A dove decoy or two can be helpful in bringing birds within shooting range, but aren’t a necessity. A nifty tactic some old-timers use is to toss their cap a few feet into the air and let it land on the ground to catch the attention of passing birds. Doves may think a bird has landed to feed and come closer to investigate.
Dove hunting is a highly social activity that a family or larger group of friends can enjoy together. It’s also a great way to wrap kids and others new to the outdoors into the action, traditions, and excitement of hunting. They don’t need to be quiet or hold excessively still, and even if they aren’t hunting themselves, kids love to watch and retrieve the downed birds.
Dove hunting represents, perhaps, hunting at its most basic and fundamentally-joyous level. It doesn’t take an abundance of gear or preparation; just a little upfront legwork to find concentrations of birds. And the feast that follows after the hunt? Well, that’s an entirely separate article.