In Missouri, mourning dove season opens September 1. For me it is one of the most exciting opening days of the fall. I grew up hunting doves and have great memories of some unbelievable hunts. But to get these hunting opportunities, I was even more fortunate that my father was a conservation department biologist. He too looked forward to dove hunting, so as a kid it took a while to understand the amount of work he put into making sure we had good shooting.
Of the many things he taught me, one of the more important was the annual ritual of driving the back roads of Missouri’s farmlands finding cut corn, silage, and mowed wheat or hog lots (these are mostly gone now). There were no public areas for doves back then. It was always a full afternoon of crisscrossing gravel roads and county roads until we would see birds on the electric wires or on the road. This was always a sure sign birds, as he put it, were “working the area”. There must have been an unwritten number of birds to get his attention as even today when I drive the back roads I just have a sense that something is around to draw enough birds. So my first attempt at providing some advice is to get in the car (good gas mileage is a plus) and start driving. Look for doves either in the morning or in the evening a good couple of weeks before the season. Because of the current drought, I have started the hunt almost a month early and birds are few and far between but fields are cut. I even found a farmer combining clover that was otherwise dried up.
My father never left me in the car, he always took me with him. That meant that one of the most difficult parts of dove hunting was something I quickly got first-hand experience with: the act of asking for permission. If there is one thing I have learned in my many years of hunting, it is that farmers love to talk. I am there to listen, be respectful and when the time is right, ask for the right to hunt. Maybe once or twice I’ve been refused and that was due to the ever-increasing movement toward leased lands. Most could care less about my dove hunting as long as I do not shoot towards the cattle, hogs or their house.
Of all the aspects of hunting, this is the one that I both struggle with and enjoy. I hate to interrupt a farmer when they are working, but one time I waited at the edge of field for at least an hour and half and finally he drove over in his combine at the end of the day with a very lovely lady riding in the cab. I immediately introduced myself and said, “ I see your daughter is helping you today!” She blushed and he told me that was his wife. Many years later I drove up to the house to ask him if I could hunt that year (yes, always ask every year) and she was standing there next to him. Before I could even say anything she said I could hunt. We visit every year and they have been great friends to my dove hunting. I try to drop off a small gift basket during the holidays to show my appreciation.
Between mid-August and early September, there was only one thing I hated more than school and that was a cold front. I knew birds would be pushed down in early August with a cold front, but I also knew right before the season a major cold front would mean the dove hunting was going to be tough. I would actually lie in bed and try to wish away any cold front to ensure good dove hunting. This was especially true after having driven what seemed liked thousands of miles and finding the dove hot spot. We knew they were there and, weather permitting, a limit of doves was in the forecast.
I remember one trip in which I noticed what looked like a black cloud over a freshly-cut silage field. My dad thought it was black birds, but closer inspection revealed that it was thousands of doves using that field. It was all too easy to ask the farmer and we quickly had permission for that weekend. But a darn cold front spoiled everything and when we arrived to hunt, the doves were gone. Weather plays a role; the hotter and drier the better. Look for ponds, too, especially the ones with dirt banks clear of vegetation. Dead trees are also a positive.
I do not hunt public areas. I see their value, but too many hunters can spoil the experience, especially for a young hunter. Most areas now practice sunflower production and mowing to attract lots of doves, but it is just not for me. I am also very much aware of folks that will spend $10,000 to $20,000 a year to legally grow sunflowers and harvest them with silage cutters, but do not use a wagon to collect the seeds. Sounds easy, but it is not and lots of laws have to be followed. This is another topic altogether.
For us in Missouri, hunting begins before sunrise and goes to sunset. Another thing I have learned that goes along with public hunting is that if the doves cannot come into the field unmolested, they will vacate. I typically only hunt a morning, skip that evening, skip the next morning and hunt that evening. As long as I am the only one hunting the field, it could last several weeks depending on the weather. Many times I also find fields that the birds did not react to cold fronts and because of plentiful food and minimal pressure they stick around.
This also reminds me that party hunting of doves is not for me either, even though keeping the doves moving in a large field can be a challenge. I might take one person with me and if at all possible it will be my daughter. We enjoy the time together and she is a darn good shot.
As for some final tips when the season begins, try to the get the sun at your back and try to get something to create a silhouette other than yourself. Back up to a tree, fence or anything that will conceal your presence. I built a dove tree out of re-bar and put maybe a dozen static doves and a movement dove in the tree. Put this in the fence row and you have a great attractor. Be still when doves are approaching. They can see movement as well as any bird I hunt. Keep your head down and your face shaded and only look out under the bill of your cap. The flash of your skin or gun barrel in the sun will certainly flare birds away. Nothing is harder to shoot than a flaring dove. And of all the things I know about dove hunting, mark your birds. Shoot them and walk to them and pick them up. Keep your eyes on the spot and start walking until you get to the bird. Do not rely upon your memory to take you to the bird if you don’t hunt with a dog. They can be ridiculously hard to see even on bare dirt. Be respectful of a farmer’s fields if you’re looking for birds in standing corn or beans.
Hope you have a great dove season in 2012.
Images copyright David Vaught