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SPEED Wears Feathers

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Mourning doves are one of Missouri's most popular game birds. They are sleek and fast flying and require little more than a shotgun and shot shells to hunt. No dogs, boats or decoys are required. Hunting is often close to home, and some of the best spots are on public lands managed by the Conservation Department.

Another reason for their popularity is that they are devilishly difficult to hit. An average shooter may require six or seven shots to bag one bird. Some of this is due to the fantastic speed at which doves can fly--up to 40 miles per hour. Tons of bird shot fired at doves each September sails far behind the target. I once shot at the lead bird in a group of four doves; the third bird in line fell in a puff of feathers.

I watch these beautiful gray birds with their salmon-colored tints all summer in town. They sit on the wires in front of my house, chase through the trees in the neighborhood on mating flights and delicately pick gravel off the street. But somehow, flying in from who-knows-where across a river bottom field shimmering in the heat on September 1, they are transformed into stunt pilots with wicked speed and the ability to turn on a dime.

Hunting doves is a traveling game. Hunting, except under circumstances where a field is actually planted to attract doves, is rarely good in the same field from season to season. A hard-bitten dove hunter will drive many miles on rural roads in search of harvested grain fields that hold large numbers of feeding doves. One or two doves sitting on a power line at the edge of a field do not a hunt make. You need lots of birds concentrated in a not-too-large area. After all, if you have to shoot at seven of them to bag one, you want plenty of opportunity.

Mourning doves are plentiful in Missouri. Most hunting takes place in the northern, western and southeastern portions of the state. Shooting in Missouri's Bootheel is legendary. River bottoms with grain fields are often good, as are uplands in row-crop country. Doves like crop fields bordered with trees and fields with solitary trees. They use the trees for roosting and nesting, and they want to be able to fly out into an open landscape.

Most hunting takes place early and late in the day, when the birds are on the move. Dove hunting is a tradition in the southern states where, almost without exception, it is an afternoon sport. Missouri hunters, though, are as likely to take to the field in predawn darkness. September mornings are refreshingly cool, and there is something magical about ghostly gray birds flying out of break-of-day fog at breakneck speeds.

There are hundreds of millions of doves in the United States, figures that make them about as populous as starlings, according to one researcher. There are so many because the birds are so productive. One pair of doves may nest as many as seven times in a season that runs from March to August, rearing two young each time. Incubation requires about two weeks, and about two weeks later the young doves are flying free. The loss of hedgerows in farming country, however, may be causing a dip in dove numbers.

When it comes to shotguns for dove shooting, there is no single choice. I have a foot in both camps--small gauge and large. I like shooting small-bore shotguns because they are easy to handle and fun to shoot, but I also like a solid 12-gauge because I down more birds with it. I have companions who consistently shoot 12s for doves, but I have also hunted with someone who shot a side-by-side double .410. All of the gauges work for doves, but the bigger ones generally require fewer shells in the hands of a good shot.

You can shoot an ounce of shot in a 20-gauge, or you can shoot an ounce of shot in a 12-gauge. Which is best? The larger gauge has a shorter shot column because of its increased diameter. The shorter column means fewer shot are deformed on their way out of the barrel. A 1-ounce shot column in a 12-gauge is .690 inches long, but in a 20-gauge it is .968 inches long. In a .410 that column stretches all the way out to 2.175 inches.

Smaller gauges do not throw smaller patterns, but the 20-gauge pattern, because there is more deformed shot, will probably be thinner. This means it includes more gaps, places where doves flying at startling speed, twisting in flight to boot, can slip through with frustrating regularity. A friend who hunts with a 28-gauge takes three boxes of shells on a dove hunt; most 12-gauge hunters are set with two boxes.

Good shot sizes for doves are 7H or 8. The "dove loads" that usually fill discount store shelves just before the season are usually 8s. There are 410 pieces of size 8 shot in a one-ounce load. Of course, it matters little how much shot is there if you are putting all of it two feet behind the target.

Across the country, state conservation departments attract doves to public hunting lands by planting commercial sunflower and wheat crops for them. This draws plenty of birds, but sometimes results in a situation where hunting is excellent for two days but then comes to an abrupt halt. At the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area near Columbia, wildlife managers are experimenting with rotating sunflower fields and afternoon hunting only--a management plan that can spread out the hunting pressure and hold birds well into the season.

If you would like to hunt on public lands in Missouri but don't know where to go, contact a Conservation Department office in August and ask about public areas that have sunflower fields for doves. At wetland areas like Eagle Bluffs, hunters must use steel shot, which is now available in small sizes for hunting upland game on restricted sites.

Dove hunting comes two ways--pass shooting or walking them up. Most hunters prefer pass shooting. You stand in one place, shooting at birds entering and exiting the field you are in. These birds are usually flying fast and offer challenging shooting. You also can walk up doves, flushing them off the ground, much as you would quail. Most sedentary Americans, of course, prefer sitting on a pickle barrel in the shade while taking their chances with passing birds. Either way is grand shooting.

Why is dove shooting so tough? Most upland birds are shot going straight away or at modest angles, so too, are most of the clay pigeons we practice on. Sporting clays is an exception. But doves in a busy September grain field come from all directions and at all speeds and angles. Their only consistency is inconsistency.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

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