I was asked to cover the 10 best lessons I have learned about dove hunting and shooting in the last 50 years, here goes!
Dove hunting and dove shooting are very different things. In the US, we go dove hunting. That means, by the definition of the terms, that we ‘hunt’ doves. If we find a bunch of them and they hang around long enough, we go on a dove shoot. ‘Dove shooting’ implies there are enough doves in the area you are ‘hunting’ that you actually get to shoot something, not just look at blue sky. Unless you know someone, do proper scouting, get the right permissions and are prepared for the ‘hunt’, you probably won’t have a ‘shoot’. Actually, here in the US, even if you do know the right people, scout the right areas, and make the proper overtures, weather can change your ‘shoot’ to a ‘hunt’ in about one quick bout of cold rain. In Argentina, you go dove shooting – they are a pest and there are millions of them. In places like Argentina, and it used to be Mexico, you go dove ‘shooting’. Argentina has no limit on the little crop depredating plague and Mexico used to have a limit of 25 white wings and 50 mourning doves.
Doves are those fast little gray things with very little knock down areas, and lots of air around them. Doves are by far the most challenging of birds to shoot. People will argue high pheasants, driven grouse on the moors, ducks zooming over the decoys, wild quail flushing under your feet, and probably other species that the arguers (is that a word?) want to present. I respectfully submit that all the birds mentioned above, including the quail, are larger than the dove and I also submit that a pheasant in a 20 mile an hour wind, hauling butt away from you, over you, or by you, is still a much bigger target than a dove in each of the scenarios I have outlined. Same distance, same speed, harder target – argue that one. You cannot shoot ‘at’ either one. You have to shoot where they are going to be when the shot gets there and you have to decide where they are going to be in a nano second.
The kill area on a dove is smaller than your fist if you have small hands. It is half that size if you have big hands, unless, of course, you break a wing or hit him in the head. ‘Wing breaking’ is easier and more likely than head shots on a head the size of a quarter flying at 30 to 50 mph in an erratic flight pattern. Think about it for a minute, you’ll understand. For a dramatic representation, take an 8 ½ X 11 sheet of paper and draw a flying dove on it. Draw the body on the short side and put the wings on the long side. Color it in completely, one dark mass of an outline. Now, if possible, get a 10’ rod, or use an 8 or 9 foot fly rod. Attach the paper flying dove the top of the rod. Set it up in the furthest point of your yard. Step off 10 good strides and turn around and look at it. That is a dove at about 10 – 12 yards (remember the Pythagorean Theorem). Now step off 10 more, and turn and look – dove at 20 – 23. Keep walking in 10 stride increments to 30, 40 and 50 yards, and you get a real perspective on how small a dove is, even when he is flying, and especially when he is flying ‘fast’. Get your shotgun and practice (without shells of course, your neighbors would complain) mounting the gun on the dove silhouette at 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 yards, and I’m willing to bet your perspective about distance will change.
If you want to be successful with doves in the US, you have to do some real work. When I was a boy and gas was less than a dollar a gallon, I covered quite a few miles scouting for doves (my Dad told me to stop wasting the gas for that, but he loved shooting too, so he overlooked the expense). Many, many, many times I spent a lot of time and gas to find no good places to dove ‘shoot’ within any reasonable distance. There are always places where there are no doves where you can ‘hunt’, but that isn’t what I generally go for – to sit in the blazing hot sun to see nothing and then meet at the truck to complain that there aren’t any doves. Please read the difference in ‘dove hunting’ and ‘dove shooting’. If I was fortunate enough to find a ‘mess of doves’ (Southern expression, like ‘mess of greens’, meaning ‘a lot’), I still had to find out who owned the land and get permission to hunt. Even 40 or 50 years ago that wasn’t easy. Not everyone wants you, or you and a friend, or you and two friends making a bunch of noise shooting shotguns, maybe endangering life and livestock, and leaving spent shells, mashed down fences, and empty hulls on their land. Farmers relied, and probably still do rely, on ‘your word’. If you tell them you will take care of their land, fences, gates, and livestock, and you do, you will probably be welcome again. If you don’t, not only will you not be welcome, the game warden will be alerted as to who you are and what kind of person the farmer thinks you are, fair or not.
Find the people who have doves and make friends with them. You scout, and drive, and scout, and drive, and come up empty. So now what? You get out your trusty phone and start calling people, every friend who you have hunted with, every farmer you know who might know someone else in case he doesn’t have any doves, the local sporting goods store, the outdoor writer at the local paper, everybody. Once you find out who has the doves, endear yourself to that person – I bought a turkey one year for a farmer for his family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Turkeys were on sale, so it wasn’t much, but for as long as that farmer lived, I had access to his farm and usually some insight into the best area for a good ‘shoot’. What did it cost me – $20 bucks a year? That’s a small price to pay for good dove ‘shooting’. A Christmas card is a small thing that goes a long way, like a smile, a hand shake, a thank you, a limit of cleaned doves as a gift; okay, a bottle of good scotch, bourbon, or gin works too. The point is this, with dove hunting, as with life, little things go a long way – period.
If you are shooting doves in the US, practice before the season. In fact, practice all year long. I read somewhere that the national average for opening day doves was one bird for every seven shots – 1 for 7. Frankly, that’s pathetic. At $3 to $5 a round of skeet, find a skeet range and shoot some rounds. Start with two rounds, 50 targets and work your way up to 100. Get some lessons, too, from a competent teacher. Tell him/her you want to be a better field shot. Don’t pre-mount the gun. Start with the gun off your shoulder and really concentrate on the ‘bird’, the clay pigeon. Learn about gun mount, gun fit, target focus, ‘swing through’, ‘pull away’, ‘sustained lead’, how to stand, where to focus, know your gun – practice, practice, practice. Make it your goal to kill a limit of dove, 12 or 15 these days, with a box of shells, and practice until you are confident you can do it. Speaking of skeet, many of us (myself included) got into skeet shooting to be better field shots. Skeet is really good practice on birds 21 yards or less, where, you will find, most of your birds are shot in the field, whether coming, going, or crossing. Shoot some sporting clays as well which will give you a different perspective on shooting birds in the field.
It isn’t the size of the gun, it is the man behind the gun that counts. I have killed limits of doves with .410’s, 28’s, 20’s, 16’s and 12’s. For volume shooting I won’t shoot anything bigger than a 20. It is just too much punishment. If you know your gun and know your distances, you can shoot a limit of dove easily. It isn’t the gun, it is the man behind it. I had the great privilege of shooting with Anthony Matarese, one of the top five shooters in the world, while in Argentina a year or so ago. Anthony at about 6’3” took one of the stock guns from the rack at the lodge, taped some mole skin on the cheek so it fit him a little better and promptly went out and shot 93% on 1,000 shots – every kind of shot, from 10 yards to 50 yards, right, left, coming, going, with the wind, against the wind, high, low, quartering in or out, you name it, he shot it. Yes, Anthony is gifted, and Heaven knows he has practiced, but that isn’t the point. Anthony understands ‘bringing the gun to your face’, keeping both eyes open, concentrating on a particular part of the target, being smooth, being focused, ‘letting the shot develop’, ‘reading the line of the target’. These are familiar terms if you hang around the clay target venues and once you learn them, understand them, and experience them you will be the most feared dove shot in your area, too. People like Anthony, and my good friend, and wonderful shot, Tom Knapp know this basic principle – “Everything you need to become a world class shot yourself is in the roughly six inches between your ears. Master that and you will master yourself, and all you pursue.”
Camouflage works, sometimes. I am pretty much convinced after 50 years of doing this, that doves see movement more than they see colors. I have had guys show up in white shirts, literally, to shoot doves, and while the doves certainly don’t fly to them, they don’t really seem to avoid them until the guys start to move the gun. It is that motion that seems to trigger the evasive maneuvering that we are all so familiar with. Camouflage helps. Anything that makes you look like more of the landscape helps – drab browns and greens, and floppy hat or camo ball cap, or in my case, a face mask (to cover up my flowing white beard that announces my age). A good blind helps too, something in front of you to break up your human outline. But being still and making a slow deliberate move to the bird helps about as much, and a quick jerky move to the target almost always invokes the evasive flight of this miniature F-18. Camouflage in the US is a business, so whatever pattern you think will help hide you from doves entering the field is certainly available. When I used to go to Mexico, camo was a no no, so we wore browns and greens, hunkered next to a cactus (ouch) or a thorny bush (ouch) and did just fine. In Argentina, you pretty much stand in the open, with some sort of make shift blind in front of you, and usually trees behind you, but with literally tens of thousands of birds flying, you are going to get some shooting even if you stood in the middle of the field buck naked, and no I am not kidding. That is an ugly thought, let’s just wear some camo and fit in with the rest of the group.
If you want to be a crack dove shooter, go where the doves are.
In the US, it isn’t the numbers, it is the event. Thirty years ago I would get psyched every year to drive all the way from Arkansas to South Carolina for the opening of dove season. One year, 18 of us from all over the country descended on Camden, South Carolina for the opening of dove season. We literally took over the local bed and breakfast, had a couple of catered meals, got lost opening day when our ‘convoy’ got mixed up with another group of hunters (never fired a shot that morning), and sat around in the B&B in the cold, rainy evenings (while the birds flew to Florida) singing to some pretty decent guitar pickers in attendance and consuming various quantities of beer, wine, and hard liquor as were peoples’ choices. It was wonderful – and we hadn’t even fired a shot. I’m sure that scenario is played out many times in many states each year. If you are at a big ‘shoot’ and the birds show up, then after the hunt, everyone pitches in to clean birds and have a great grilling experience with dove breast wrapped in bacon, or stuffed with jalapenos, or marinated in Italian dressing, or skewered with vegetables – the recipes are endless and all very tasty. Once again stories of great and humbling shots are told, future great shooters (your children, their children) are introduced; certainly someone’s future heir shot his first dove that day; someone’s son or daughter got their first limit; someone made a spectacular shot on a bird on oxygen; someone’s retriever was flawless; someone’s retriever needs a lot more work – retrieving every bird he saw fall no matter whose it was, and so on.
I have been to dove shoots where the farm owner flew in in his own helicopter, and the pre-shoot snacks were served by guys in white coats standing beside flatbed farm wagons decorated with pumpkins and corn stalks and flowers and linens. We all had a good time. And I have been to shoots where 12 to 15 of us picked spots in a really good looking field and sat for hours in the hot South Carolina humidity to shoot – with nothing to show for it. But we would make trips to other people’s blinds to see what they weren’t doing, laugh, tell stories of how we thought this was going to be a ‘barn burner’, and retire to the back of the pickups and have a beer after three hours of sun tanning to talk about our next adventure. We all had a good time. I have been to a very, very few shoots where my then 11 and 12 year olds got a limit, my then wife got a limit, I got a limit, my friends got a limit; heck, I think everyone got a limit. It was great. We all had a good time.
Dove shooting is a social event. That is why it is so popular. It is the kickoff of hunting season like the first Saturday in September is the kickoff of college football. And yes, I have had guys in the dove field with their radios in their pocket and the headsets on listening to the game while shooting doves. For them, that must be Heaven. Dove hunting is about getting together to celebrate the great sport of hunting, and shooting, and to catch up with old friends, and make new friends, and laugh, and talk, and relax. If you shoot some doves so much the better, but it isn’t the numbers here in the US, it’s the event.
Once you experience volume dove shooting, you will never be the same. While in the US, dove shooting isn’t about the numbers, it is about the event, in Argentina, dove shooting is about the numbers. In Argentina, it is dove ‘shooting’, not dove hunting. There will be doves. In my 21 years of going, I have yet to have a bad dove shoot. In fact, my worst dove shoot in Argentina, or Colombia (before the drug lords), or Mexico (before the drug cartels) was better than my best dove shoot in the US and I have had some very good dove shoots in the US – but you always had to quit at 12, or 15 depending on the state. In Argentina, where there are so many doves they are considered a pest and eat 20% to 30% of the grain crop, there is virtually unlimited shooting. You are limited only by your physical strength and the level of tolerance for your shell bill.
The agricultural areas of the countries I mentioned above and especially Argentina lend themselves well to the proliferation of the crop depredating doves. The winters are mild, there are excellent nesting areas with dense thorny vegetation to protect the birds and their nests, and they breed three to four times a year – starting in August and finishing up in February. When it comes to doves, Argentina has them by the millions – with an estimated population of 50 million in Cordoba Province alone, and there are many other provinces with high numbers of doves as well. We are so programmed here in the US to limits that when someone says the shot 1,000 doves in one day, most people think that is crazy, a wanton slaughter of wildlife. Well, not so fast my friend! Grain export is one of, if not the top, business in this South American country. Grain production is king, and because the government taxes their farmers to death (kind of like this country), farmers are into getting as much grain off their land as possible. Doves, pigeons, and those cute little parakeets you see in the pet stores, are responsible for the great production loss. Here truthfully are the farmers’ choices – sell the hunting rights to various properties and offset their losses with income from those sources, or contract with the government to poison roosts and crops to prevent damage. That is pretty much it. Poisoning works. In fact, it works so well, it kills all the birds – doves, pigeons, parakeets, song birds, birds of prey, scavengers, and many small animals as well. American and European hunters spend a small fortune on lodging (which benefits the outfitters), shells (which benefits the government), licenses (which benefits the government), and gun importation fees (which benefits the government). From a financial point, who stands to do the best either way – the Argentine government.
I am more into controlling the crop predators with heavy and accurate shotgun fire myself. All my life I have wanted to be a better wingshooter, and in Argentina, for sure, is the place to ‘practice’ my, or your, wingshooting in the best environment available on the planet today. We call it ‘volume shooting’ because it is not unusual to shoot 1,000; 1,500; 2,000; or more shells each and every day you are there. In fact, the norm is 500 shells in the morning and 500 in the afternoon, or 1,000 shells per day average. Once I started going to Argentina I found that shooting 3,000 to 4,500 shells per visit satisfied my shooting desires until the next time I could go to this marvelous wingshooter’s paradise. While I love the relaxed, Southern tradition of ‘dove hunting’, I also know there is a place where I can go where I can shoot all I want to shoot, and I am helping the farmers when I do so. If you want your blood boiling and your shotgun melting, you will never be satisfied until you go to Argentina. Once you experience volume shooting, you will never be the same.