Every year we wish summer away. About the time someone utters the phrase, “it’s time for these kids to go back to school,” there’s a buzz around the activities we enjoy in the fall. The prowess of the football team is estimated. We yearn for a cooler weather, brown-water, oysters, and the women folk pumpkin-spice-up everything. Summer ends the third week in September, but we sign its death warrant as soon as an R-month comes on the calendar. Approaching September, the conversation turns to dove hunting. It is late summer fun that beckons the beginning of fall hunting.
A Labor Day dove hunt checks a bunch of boxes. Guns emerge from a deep rest in the safe. A good dove hunt is so much more than just shooting birds, it is an outdoorsman’s equivalent to the first day of school. Friends gather again, telling summer stories and showing off shotguns like a first-day outfit. Dove hunting is social and hunters gather just as much to shoot as they do to celebrate getting back in the field together and fellowship.
In my neck of the woods, the dove-opener means a long line of Presbyterians parking at the barn so the preacher can preach over a pig that will be picked as hunters come off the field. There’s a safety speech as three or four generations of hunters eagerly anticipate a race to find a spot to drop their buckets. The venerable old guys will be able to slowly go to their old perchs- because everybody knows they are theirs. Some folks will limit in half an hour, some will be asked to come on back to the barn as the tables are being put away and the sun is low. At the barn there will be a bunch of bullshittin’. Beer that has been patiently waiting in coolers will finally get to serve its purpose. A big ole pile of birds will be getting cleaned for tips by teen-aged boys and there will be a bucket for spent high-brass hulls to be reloaded for next time.
In the past few years, I’ve encountered questions from quite a few new hunters about getting out to dove hunt. I offer this little primer to help give a few answers with the big opener weeks away . . .
First and foremost, the question of where to hunt comes into play. Arguably, a productive dove hunt usually happens in an agricultural area that has some preparation to attract birds, whether intentionally or serendipitously. Places to hunt can range from pay fields to crops that are being harvested (corn) with a generous farmer’s permission to private land that has been specifically cultivated for a hunt. Beware of hunting over a baited field. Regulations vary from state to state, but generally if someone broadcasts seed or cuts a crop against agricultural extension guidelines, the Big-Boss man can write you a hefty ticket. This puts a real turd in the punch-bowl. (Also , be sure you have a plug in your gun.) My best advice to finding a good hunt is making acquaintance with others that might have an “in” and be very kind to them.
Doves are a migratory bird. They are sort of like yankees, most come down South for just the winter and some just decide they like it better and stay all year. For the most part doves are looking for food and good habitat as they make their way across the hemisphere. Corn, millet, sorghum, and sunflower plantings that are in seed-stage and harvest are great to hunt over. An ideal field is close to a water source, gravel roads, and has a few dead trees around- low power lines never hurt. A nice position is usually around a field that is open enough that the birds have to make a long flight pattern to the food from the tree line. Good cover on the fields edge helps- it is even better to create a blind behind a break of uncut corn or brush or a round bail of hay.
Dove hunting is a social event, it’s fun to holler at each other as birds come in the field. It’s also more enjoyable to talk about where you are going position yourselves. This helps strategically to help keep birds moving and for safety. A healthy hunt also comes with some chivalry. If you are in a really hot spot- it’s awful kind to offer to someone in a cold spot as you approach your limit.
Five gallon buckets are the ubiquitous seating of choice, preferably with a swivel cushion on top. While more comfortable, deep tailgating chairs are a little low slung and stationary to raise to action from when the shooting gets hot- or even worse if you’re stuck down in one when the the shooting is cold and you miss your one chance.
Unless there is a freakish cold snap, the dove opener is usually hot- damn hot. The romantic notion of wearing all the upland clothes or full sleeves in your closet generally goes out the window. But birds can see- well. Tan and olive clothing or any field camo pattern will do- but usually in shorts and lightweight shirt. Orange is generally not required by law. Avoid bright and shiny objects around you. Imagine if doves are curious about the flicker of a Mojo decoy, they can probably see you swigging on a silver Diet Coke can.
Guns are a personal preference. Shoot what you are comfortable with in any gauge, generally if you are shooting something besides a twenty or twelve gauge, you have a pretty good sense of what the gun you chose is going to do for you. Shot generally ranges from 7 1/2 to 8 lead (nothing fancy) fired through a modified or IC choke. If you’re a decent shot, you should be able to limit with one box of shells- take two and maybe a third one in the truck (for a friend).
In the bucket:
- take plenty of cold water and leave the cold beer in the truck for after
- Bug and tick repellent
- Copenhagen and or sunflower seeds
- Pocket knife or other shotgun “tool” for jams
- A few decoys, cheap one a on the ground, flicker ones work great
- Ear protection (or not if you don’t mind hearing the you get older)
I know we all have waited all year to eat a dove, that bloody coarse meat- so tasty that you have to marinade it for three days and wrap it in bacon to say that you loved it. No dove popper on earth is better than your buddy’s vision (or life).
- Wear eye protection
- Muzzle awareness
- Don’t load your gun until you have settled into you spot
- Finger off the trigger until you need to pull it
- Safety ON until you have acquisitioned the bird in its flight path
- Establish good spacing and be aware of other hunter’s positions
- “Blue sky” shots, only shoot upwards- well over head of other hunters
The dove field is a place where boys become a little bit more of a man in their heart. There is nothing more sacred than taking a boy hunting. Remember your behavior is being watched and modeled by young mentees. If you take a child hunting create a great safe experience for them that models the man you hope they will become. Pack in plenty of snacks and dad jokes too- and maybe sneak in a dirty one that mom will never know about.
Photos by Jamie Price for The Sporting Gent