The upland hunting season is fast approaching and it kicks off in early September with fast action and challenging shooting. The day that many hunters anticipate after long months of hiatus from the field is the opening day of dove season.
The temperatures are hot but so is the action. If you’ve not tried it before, kick off your upland hunting season with dove. You won’t be disappointed. But don’t confine your hunting to opening day, because they are migratory they provide excellent shooting opportunities throughout the season.
There are plenty of birds out there
One of the main reasons for the popularity of dove hunting is their numbers. Where ever you hunt them in their native range there are huge numbers of birds. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) which manages all migratory birds, the mourning dove is the most widely distributed birds throughout North America.
It varies from year to year but population estimates for mourning dove put their number at about 350 million birds.
Add to that millions of their cousins, the white-winged dove, in the southwestern U.S. and you begin to see why hunting them is so popular.
And the bag limits are usually liberal!
Most states allow hunters to take up to 15 birds daily throughout the season.
The USFWS estimates the annual harvest at only 11 million dove, so their numbers are stable and targets are plentiful.
The dove season
As migratory birds, the dove season is overseen by the USFWS which sets a dove season within the season. Then states set opening dates and specific season dates.
Traditionally that opening date is September 1st each year with many states starting the dove season on the first Saturday in September.
The first part of the season usually continues into October with the full season running into January in southern states.
Depending on the state, the opening day can start at sunrise, with some states starting the season at noon on opening day followed by a sunrise opener the rest of the year. Many southern states offer split season with a long opening period to hunt local birds follow by a later season during the winter months to allow hunters to take advantage of birds migrating south.
Again, hunters need to check state game regulations for opening dates and times.
Traditions are part of dove hunting
Since hunters have languished over the hot summer months the opening day of dove season is sometimes as much a social event as it is a hunt.
Family and friends gather prior to the hunt for lunch near the field and then move to pre-assigned shooting positions followed by a gathering over cold drinks and sharing experiences after the hunt is complete.
Some of these social shoots have been conducted for decades hosted by a farm family or shooting club. Sometimes things aren’t that elaborate but just a gathering of hunting friends over a field as a way of recognizing the beginning of the upland season.
How to hunt dove
To understand how and where to hunt dove it helps to know their daily routine. Dove roost in trees at night to protect them from predators. Sometime around sunrise they get the urge to feed and fly out of the roost to a nearby grain field where they land, gather scattered grain or seed, and then fly back to the roost.
They spend most of the day lounging in the cool shade of the tree and then will return to the field mid to late afternoon to feed again prior to roosting for the night.
For that reason, most dove shooting action is early in the morning until about 9 a.m. or starts mid-afternoon about 3 p.m. The action can be hot and heavy. Some dove fly into the field in singles or pairs.
But it is not unusual to see flocks of 10 – 15 birds flying into a field to feed. So if the season allows, hunters need to be in the field before the sun comes up. Enjoy the hot action for a couple of hours. Like the dove, take a midday break for lunch and escape the heat. Then return to the field for late afternoon action.
Where to hunt dove
There are typically two options for hunting dove – private land or public fields prepared by state game agencies.
The private land option is sometimes just a gathering of like-minded hunters wanting to kick off the season over a harvested grain field. It also might be a private club that prepares a field in advance for the opening day shoot.
If you get an invitation to join one of these shoots, jump on it!
Organizers have planned for the shoot and have good confidence the field will provide hot action.
Sometimes it pays off to cruise country roads looking for dove on power lines near grain fields and stopping at farm houses to ask permission to hunt the field when harvested. Although many farmers may hunt other game, dove are plentiful and they may willingly give you permission to hunt.
Sometimes their field may have a shoot organized and you will get an invitation to join in on the action.
If you don’t have private land available don’t lose hope. The public land option is open to all hunters in the state; with one consideration.
Most state game agencies work hard during the spring and summer months to prepare fields for dove hunting on managed lands. These can vary across the state in size and type of grain provided.
All things considered these can provide fast shooting action just like a private land shoot. There are a couple of things to keep in mind if hunting public land.
First, sometimes because of the limited size of a field or its location close to large population centers the state may limit the number of hunters allowed on a public field. This is usually done through a permit system where hunters apply through a lottery prior to opening day or purchase an available permit through a license agent. When researching this option be sure to apply or purchase in advance. Many times the permits are all full prior to opening day so don’t wait until the last minute.
Second, even with a limited number of permits there are “hot spots” in the field that everyone wants to hunt. Scout the field several days in advance to find those places. On opening day plan to arrive at the field well in advance of legal shooting time to get a good spot. If there is no permit required but it is just open to all shooters get there several hours prior.
So just what is a dove field
The short answer to that is that dove really like recently cut open grain fields. Those can range in size from 5 to 15 acres. Open primarily for the security it offers and its visibility from a distance as they fly in. Although dove nest in trees they are ground feeders and like to eat small grain and seeds.
Depending on your region of the country that may vary.
In the south many times that means a recently harvested corn field. It is very fortunate that the opening day of dove season usually coincides with the harvest. But all cut corn fields aren’t equal. Some harvest methods cut the stalk down near ground level leaving very little grain in the field. Scouting ahead will let you know how actively dove are using a field.
There are other harvested grains dove like such as wheat or alfalfa. But if you find a field with sunflower in it you have probably hit the jackpot.
First, the large yellow head on a sunflower is easily seen by dove while in flight so they are attracted to them.
Second, sunflower seeds dropped on the ground have a lot of nutritional value.
Many managed fields for club or private shoots will have strips of sunflower planted with cut rows of alfalfa or corn in between.
Is there a best place to be in the field?
As in any other hunting situation that requires a stationary position or stand, like duck or deer hunting, there are “hot spots” in any dove field.
Sometimes getting that spot is beyond your control.
This is more likely if you attend a private shoot where shooting positions are staked out and usually assigned by some random method.
But if you do have a choice of positions here is what to look for. Dove have habitual flight patterns when coming into a field to feed and you can take advantage of that.
Power lines running through a field are a dove magnet. Birds use them as a reference for flying into a field. Once in the field, many times dove will land on the lines prior to selecting a place to feed. This is particularly true in a larger field. Having a stand at the base of a power line pole will provide hot action.
Next to a power line, a lone tree in the middle of a large field will also attract birds. Like a power line, it is a point of reference during flight and also a place to land prior to dropping into the field to feed. There is one disadvantage here. Early in the season the tree will be full of leaves and your vision will be restricted in at least one direction. Position yourself on the side of the tree from which most birds approach.
Rise in terrain
Another feature that might attract dove, particularly if there is no other reference like power lines or trees is a slight rise in terrain. Few fields are perfectly flat. A slight rise in terrain may provide your best option. Again, this is a point of reference in flight and also the most secure.
Hunting a dove field usually means shooting position spread around the perimeter of the field. Again, dove have predictable flight paths when coming into a field so not all of those positions are equal. Scouting a field the day before hunting will quickly show where those perimeter spots are that provide the best shooting opportunities.
Fields aren’t the only option
Although hunting around an open grain field is most popular, there may be other options for hunting dove. These may not offer the hot action of the field, but can still get you a limit of birds. All of these require some pre-season scouting to locate.
As mentioned earlier, dove have predictable flight paths while flying between roosts and feeding locations. Sometimes stationing yourself along that path can offer some challenging shooting. And it is different than a field. Expect birds to be flying higher and faster than in a field. Tighter chokes and higher velocity loads will be needed.
Dove need water just like they need grain. Their favorite watering holes are small farm ponds with open area around them and a gentle slope to water’s edge.
They will land adjacent to the pond and walk down the slight slope to waters’ edge. You can either set up a small blind close to the water hole or use the terrain to conceal your position to catch birds as they come in to land.
Dove roosts in trees at night, typically in the same location if not the same tree. This is usually late afternoon and dusk action, catching birds as they come into the roost after their afternoon feeding session. Like hunting a water hole, birds will be flying low and slow as they approach the trees and can provide some good shooting.
Dove hunting gear: as heavy or light as you want
At its basic, all you need to hunt dove is a shotgun and several boxes of shells (more on that later). There are some things you should consider that will both improve your bag limit and improve your comfort in the field.
Decoys – Dove are communal in nature. They like to be with other birds. Putting decoys on the ground in a scattered pattern 25 – 30 yards in front of your stand will attract birds to your location. To go one step further, add the Mojo Voodoo Dove decoy to the spread. Dove are attracted to motion. This battery powered decoy with spinning wings is mounted above the ground and simulates a dove landing in the field.
Stool or Seat – Typically you will spend up to four hours in the field during your hunt. Something to sit on during lulls in action (and there will be some) will keep you fresh and improve your shooting performance. There are a lot of options. Many companies sell dove stools that vary in design. Some are plastic buckets with a padded seat. Some are aluminum frames with a cloth seat that folds for easy carrying. Most all of these come with some storage capacity for shells and other accessories.
Camouflage – Camo clothing is not essential on opening day. Dove are determined to get into a field and aren’t yet shy of humans or gunfire. That changes quickly. Dove have excellent eyesight and detect movement easily as well as irregular shapes. After opening day dove have been shot at and their wariness increases. Wearing camouflage clothing and making slow movements reduces your risk of being seen by approaching dove.
Water and food – Early September in dove country is hot. You will need some water to stay hydrated. It’s also a good idea to have some snack bars to help maintain your energy level. You might be surprised how quickly you can tire sitting in the hot sun for several hours.
Guns for dove
Ask five experienced dove hunters which is the best gun for dove and you will get five different answers.
One general rule of thumb is “shoot the gun you are familiar with” whether it be a semi-auto, pump, or break action. One thing you do need to consider is recoil. You will be pulling the trigger a lot. A gun with a lot of felt recoil will be uncomfortable and cause you to flinch as the day wears on.
Because of that, many shooters prefer a semi-auto because of the reduced recoil and the advantage of a third shot. Next most popular in the dove field will be the pump, again because of the third shot advantage.
You will see some over/under and side by sides in the field but they have their disadvantages. Obviously you can load only two shells at a time which may lead to missing shots at incoming birds as you reload. Second is the increased felt recoil.
But again, familiarly with the gun can overcome either one of those issues.
When it comes to gauge selection, without doubt 12 and 20 gauges predominate in the dove field.
The 12 gauge has the obvious advantage of more shot volume with anything from 1 to 1 1⁄4 ounce of shot. This increases your change of hitting a bird on the edge of the shot pattern.
The 20 gauge offers a little less shot but also offers the advantage of lighter weight and less recoil.
Choke selection is pretty easy.
Opening day dove are usually pretty close, offering shots inside thirty yards. Improved cylinder will serve you well but you may want to have the Modified in your bag if conditions change. Late season is a different story. Migratory dove are high flying and fast moving, having been shot at and aren’t as easy a target. Switch to a Modified choke to start and you may have to step up to Full if the birds are flying high.
Choose the right load to improve your shooting
Opening day of dove season is a big boost in income for shotshell manufacturers. The average dove hunter shoots five times for each bird in the bag. If they daily bag limit is 15 birds that means they’ll shot three boxes of shells each.
With hundreds of thousands of hunters in the field that’s a lot of shells. Many of them produce low cost dove Loads knowing the average hunter doesn’t want to spend a lot of money on ammo.
But all shot shells are not equal.
There is a reason those shells are low cost; they are made with inexpensive components.
That can lead to missed birds and actually increase the number of shells it takes to bag a limit. Inexpensive lead shot deforms quickly and can leave holes in your shot pattern at 25 – 30 yards, your typical dove shot.
With a bird flying fast and erratically many a dove has flown through that hole.
If you want to improve you shot to bird ratio, the answer is hunt with a quality dove load. B&P Cartridge Dove & Quail loads offer options to do that.
Early in the season, with birds flying low and slow, Improved cylinder chokes with 7 1⁄2 or 8 shot provides the right combination.
Later in the season, tighten up the choke to Modified and step up slightly in shot size to 6 or 7 1⁄2 to reach high flying birds. Go after dove with a quality load and you will see your performance improve.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Along with low quality shot shells, the other reason many hunters miss birds is lack of practice at the range before the season starts.
They grab their gun on the way out the door, first time they have picked it up in months. Dove are small, fly erratically, and can increase their speed rapidly.
You can reduce your frustration with missed birds by spending some time on the sporting clays range the month prior to hunting.Focus your shooting on two things.
- Typical dove shot – Shoot those stations that replicate shots you will experience in the field. You are most likely to see high overhead going away, high incoming, and both right to left crossing shots. Most sporting clays courses offer some or all of these at different stations and will more than gladly let you shoot those stations you select. If a sporting clays course is not available, practice on crossing shots at a skeet range, stations, 3 – 5, will provide some good practice.
- Low gun – Dove can come out of nowhere and surprise the hunter. Practice shooting with a low gun, butt even or close to the waistline. This will better prepare you for that sudden shot that appears suddenly over your decoy spread. Even though your dove hunt will be over an open field with plenty of visibility this will occur more frequently than you think. Starting with a low gun helps you prepare to raise the gun, mount it, and shoot in one smooth motion.
Safety in the field
As with any hunting situation, safety is important to both a successful and enjoyable hunt. There are two things important to a safe dove hunt.
First, remember there are a lot of other hunters in the field. Make sure your stand or position is far enough away from other hunters. If positions are not marked in advance, look around when you enter the field for locations of hunters that have already arrived. You should choose a stand about 40 yards from the nearest hunter.
Don’t shoot at low birds!
One of the flight tactics of dove is to dip into the feeding area just before landing. That bird may only be 5 – 10 yards off the ground when it’s inside your range. This presents a hazard to other hunters in the field that may be at the other end of your shot pattern.
The rule of thumb to follow: Don’t shoot at bird less than 45 degrees below the horizon. Even with that you will still have plenty of shooting to keep your barrel warm.
Upland season is here.
As we grow impatient waiting for the early autumn days to pursue grouse, woodcock, or dove let’s not forget there’s another wing shooting opportunity to enjoy time in the field while you wait.
Mourning dove provide fast action to get you ready for the rest of the season.
Comment this post