With bird season just around the corner, I thought I would take a few minutes to explain the basics of one of my favorite pastimes.
I remember my old man waking me up at four o’clock in the morning and driving two hours to a random sunflower field in the vast open plains of Texas. He was a master at getting permission from landowners to hunt on their property. We would load up our various pieces of equipment into his old Ford pickup; shotguns, shells, water, spinning bucket seats, plenty of beef jerky and a bag of chew. (I wasn’t supposed to tell mom about the chew.) Just as the sun came up over the field, our prey would leave their nest site and if luck were on our side, something reminiscent of the Normandy invasion would begin. I would use every muscle I had to swing my hand-me-down shotgun into the air and pepper the sky in an attempt to bring down the agile aves. After we hit our bag limit, we would leave and try to find the nearest Dairy Queen. Our success at dove hunting was mainly due to a sixth sense my father seemed to possess. At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly how he always seemed to know when and where the birds were going to appear. As I got older and wiser, I learned how to develop this mysterious sixth sense by following a few basic rules that have allowed me to pass on these great experiences to the next generation.
When selecting your firepower, it is important to remember that you are trying to hit a moving object that is barreling through the air at up to 55 mph! I learned to hit birds with an old Western Field 20 gauge bolt-action shotgun using 1 ounce, number 8 shot dove loads. I know, it isn’t the best choice for rapid fire, but as a kid I had to learn to make every shot count. Practice makes perfect, and even with entry-level equipment, an experienced shooter can do quite well. Despite upgrading to new and improved, high quality shotguns since then, I still get a kick out of taking out that old 20, hearing snickers from friends who are sporting their new, shiny, high-dollar shotguns, and then bringing home a higher bird count than the guy with the $3,000 dollar boom-stick. You can spend as little or as much as you can afford; but for most people, a pump-action or autoloading 12 gauge is the most versatile dove hunting weapon on earth. Most tend to be reasonably priced, and can last a lifetime. Autoloaders have improved in recent years and even with an entry-level model, jamming and feed issues tend to be rare. A pump-action however, is by far the most reliable, and many models can fire almost any type of shell.
If there is anything I have learned over the years, it is that game animals know when it’s hunting season. Remember to camo-up and use cover like high grass or blinds. A tree line on the edge of an open field tends to work well, too. Doves have excellent vision and can see hunters from very far away. If you are really into it, you can camo tape your shotgun, and paint your face to hide the shine of your skin. Remember to wear a vest that can hold a large supply of shotgun shells. Always carry more than you think you need. There is nothing worse than cutting out mid-hunt to hike back to the truck to get more shells. If you don’t have a vest, an over the shoulder dump bag might do the trick.
The best way to find a wild animal is to find what that animal likes to eat. Doves eat a wide range of seeds—like corn, millet, safflower, and sunflower. A good hiding place on the side of a sunflower field has always brought me good luck. Doves tend to fly to food and water in the morning and evening hours. If you can get a good spot that is right between a seed field and a stock tank, you might have a very successful day.
Doves do not fly in a straight line. As soon as you jump out from cover and the bird sees you, it will tend to zigzag away from you. Remember to practice often and to “brush” the bird by swinging your barrel with the flight of the bird. At close range, there is less need to lead your target. More difficult shots where the bird is flying perpendicular, and at longer range may require a great deal of practice to master, so don’t get discouraged. Only engage birds that are inside of your shotgun’s range. Most hunters consider a long-range shot to be around forty yards. Patience is key, and if you are a novice, you will get better with time. I once saw my old man wait for a dove to fly almost overhead, take the shot and catch it in his hand—no kidding.
As far as birds go, mourning doves are not exactly the Einsteins of the bird community. Decoys work very well to attract doves near their food or water sources. Remember to put them where other doves can see them—elevation is key. It is hard for doves to see decoys on the ground and in the middle of a tall, grassy field. If you must put them on the ground, use a clearing with little cover that contrasts the color of the decoys. Watch your decoys carefully. However, I have had other hunters take a shot at my well-placed plastic birds, and I didn’t find it amusing.
Whether you are a bird-hunting novice, or a seasoned veteran, dove hunting can be one of the most rewarding outdoor experiences you can participate in. It is a great way for new hunters to become acclimated to the outdoors, and it tends to offer a lot more shooting time than deer or other large game hunting. Remember a few simple rules and you will be sitting at home with a sore shoulder and a full belly in no time.
For more on dove hunting, read these articles:
- Dove Delicacy: How to Clean and Cook Dove
- Dove Hunting Basics, Part 1
- Dove Hunting Basics, Part 2
- Give Dove Hunting a Try
- September Dove Season
Tell us about your dove hunting experiences in the comment section.
This article originally posted on August 10, 2011.