After downing a limit of doves last Saturday at your family’s traditional opening day dove hunt, you feel confident you’ll get another limit this coming weekend.
After setting up in a favorite spot near a dead tree in the early afternoon, you wait for groups of doves to come into the field. Instead, a swift gray bird comes in from behind at a 45-degree angle. You raise your barrel, swing and fire, not puffing a single feather on the dove that quickly swerves away, out of danger.
After an hour of firing three shots and missing every bird, you wonder if you accidentally bent the barrel of your shotgun. You couldn’t miss a bird on opening day and now you cannot hit one to save your life.
Those slow, naive doves of opening weekend are gone until September 1, 2013. After opening weekend, doves smarten up. The birds that flew close to your spot on opening day are now flashes of rosy grey, coming in high and fast to the field. Trying to hit hunted, smart doves are some of the hardest shots in wingshooting, but also the most rewarding.
Many dove hunters simply react to doves entering a field and give little thought to how they swing a shotgun. They just aim and shoot.
You can hit the easy birds on opening day with this approach, but you must learn the proper techniques of swinging a shotgun to connect on the hardest dove shots or waterfowl. Two main methods dominate shotgunning: the swing-through and the sustained lead.
“I’ve shot thousands of shells and hit many birds and I use the swing-through method,” said Rocky Pritchert, migratory bird coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “I swing the barrel, blot out the bird and pull the trigger.”
Pritchert said this method automatically establishes lead, no matter the speed of the bird. “The gun speed compensates for the lead in the swing-through method,” he explained. “You move the barrel at the speed of the bird for an automatic adjustment.”
An aid in remembering the sequence for the swing-through method is “butt, belly, beak, bang.”
The sustained lead method works well for many shooters. In the swing-through method, it is really easy for a shooter to stop swinging the shotgun once they hear the shot and feel the recoil. They will miss the bird behind.
“Think of your sight as a paint brush,” said James Charas, of Lexington, an excellent wing shooter. “Swing through and paint across the bird as you pull the trigger. This will ensure good follow through because you are thinking about moving the barrel as you pull the trigger.”
With the sustained lead, you start the barrel out in front of the bird and keep swinging. Imagine the bird smoking a long cigar and you are trying to shoot the ash off it.
Mastering one of these methods will help bag more doves as the close shots of last weekend morph into some of the more challenging shots in wing shooting.
If you set up under a dead tree and birds come in high overhead, the swing-through methods works well. Start the gun barrel at the dove’s tail feathers and swing through the bird. Pull the trigger when the barrel blocks the bird.
Many dove hunters can’t hit birds coming in fast at a 45-degree angle, or quartering, into the field. The tendency is to shoot over or behind the dove. Aim for the inside wing tip and don’t cover the bird with the barrel. Keep the bird over the gun barrel and keep swinging.
Some wingshooters struggle with a dove flying straight away from them, but this is one of the easiest shots in the dove field. “Blot out the dove with the barrel and shoot,” Pritchert said.
Doves often strafe a field later in the season by flying as fast as they can across it, often in doubles. They seem uninterested in landing in the field. These birds are extremely hard to hit, but placing the barrel in front of the bird, sustaining the lead and not stopping the gun swing should down a few. This shot is one often missed by all but the best wingshots.
As the days shorten and nights lengthen in fall, long passing shots are often the rule.
“Because doves are so small and fast, when they are at long range most hunters overestimate how far away the birds are,” Pritchert said. “Most shots are less than 40 yards, even though they look much longer.”
Pritchert recommends a modified choke, not full like many hunters use, for these long shots. “Choke science has come a long way,” Pritchert said. “I still use modified for these shots, it gives the shooter more room for error.”
Treat long pass shots like crossing shots, but with a longer lead on the dove. These shots demand a high quality load. The cheap 100 packs of shotshells available Labor Day weekend at department stores won’t cut the mustard for long pass shooting.
Spend the extra dollars and get a quality heavy field load. The cheap loads have just 1-ounce of shot in 12-gauge while heavy field loads hold 1 1/4-ounces. The difference amounts to 87 more pellets of 7 1/2 size shot in the 1 1/4-ounce load versus the 1-ounce load. The extra shot also reduces the chances of crippling birds.
Wear head-to-toe camouflage for these challenging hunts, especially a wide-brimmed camouflage hat. Sunlight reflects off the skin oils of your face as you tilt your head up for a shot, making the doves flare away from you. Some dove hunters wear mesh camouflage face masks for further concealment.
The dove hunting season doesn’t end with Labor Day, but the shooting grows more difficult as the leaves change. Use these techniques to extend the season and hit some of the most difficult dove shots.
Author Lee McClellan is an award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.
Image courtesy Kentucky Fish and Wildlife