My friend and I were standing in the parking lot on the west side of the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in St. Charles County at 11 a.m., and the temperature was already approaching 100 degrees. It was opening day of dove season, and I was fortunate enough to have a hunting reservation.
We checked our supplies before leaving our vehicle. My backpack contained some snacks, a gallon and a half of water and two boxes of steel shot shells for my side-by-side shotgun. I knew I would need the water because the temperature was forecast to be near 105 degrees by mid afternoon.
Because of the excessive heat, I had left my Labrador retriever at home. I couldn’t possibly carry enough water for myself and an 80-pound dog that insists on wearing a heavy black coat, no matter what the weather. Besides, he is such a sloppy drinker that I knew he would waste most of the water.
I don’t like hunting without my dog. It seems unnatural and lonely. We are a team and he is a good companion, although I seem to do most of the talking when we sit down for breaks together. I’d just have to retrieve my own doves today.
Dove hunting on Columbia Bottom is traditionally excellent. Hunters must apply for a reservation in advance, and hunting begins at 1 p.m. Access to the area is by foot or bicycle only.
We began our walk and saw other hunters heading out to partially mown sunflower fields, where a combination of seed and bare ground attracts doves. It was a 3-mile walk from the west side of the area to the Mississippi River on the east side, where most of the managed dove fields were located. But there were plenty of doves flying by the first sunflower field that we came to, so we stopped there and hid ourselves in the tall, unmown sunflowers.
I loaded my gun with two steel shot shells. Nontoxic shot has always been required for dove hunting on Columbia Bottom Conservation Area.
The Nontoxic Advantage
During a typical dove hunting season on Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, hunters will shoot about 32,000 shells, each containing an average of one ounce of shot. That works out to 2,000 pounds (or a ton) of shot deposited on the ground each year.
Studies have shown that up to 6 percent of the doves feeding at Columbia Bottom could die from lead poisoning each year if nontoxic shot were not required for hunting.
The nontoxic shot regulation also helps waterfowl. In coming years, many of the dove fields at Columbia Bottom will be restored to wetlands similar to those that were common along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers before the construction of levees and conversion to agricultural fields. Because of the nontoxic shot regulation, there won’t be any lead shot to threaten waterfowl that visit the restored wetlands.
Nationally, most shot shells sold for hunting are expended on doves. That means a lot of lead rains down on dove fields each dove season.
Because doves migrate during the hunting season, the birds have an opportunity to ingest lead shot each time they stop to feed during their journey. Research suggests that the loss of doves from lead poisoning may equal or exceed the legal dove harvest.
Doves and waterfowl are not the only birds affected by lead shot. Recent studies revealed that 31 species of birds, including game birds like ring-necked pheasants and northern bobwhite quail, can fall victim to lead poisoning. Avian scavengers, including eagles and hawks, that consume dead or dying lead-poisoned birds also risk death or sickness from lead ingestion.
The first dove whizzed by in front of me. I raised my gun and shot twice, missing both times. It takes me a while to get into the groove on the opening of dove season.
Like many hunters, I tend to shoot behind a flying bird, especially if I am not alert and prepared. I think steel shot gives me a little extra edge because of its speed.
Four more birds flew by before I got my first one. It was a good thing I’d brought two boxes of steel shot shells, but even that was not going to be enough for a limit if I didn’t shoot a little better.
There were about 100 hunters out on the area the day we hunted. Dove hunting is popular in Missouri with about 35,000 to 40,000 hunters harvesting 700,000 to 750,000 doves annually. Conservation areas are important to dove hunters because they are convenient places to hunt, and they have good dove habitat.
The Department of Conservation promotes dove hunting by managing fields especially for doves on approximately 90 areas around the state. It even posts maps of field locations on its Web site.
The Department of Conservation recently expanded the requirement for nontoxic shot on 21 conservation areas to include all hunting with shot and shotguns. The regulations go into effect March 1, 2007. These conservation areas have extensive wetland habitats and concentrations of waterfowl and shorebirds in the fall and spring. All hunters using a shotgun for turkey, dove, rabbit, squirrel or other upland game hunting on these areas must use nontoxic shot and may not possess lead shot.
Twenty-nine additional conservation areas are being reviewed for possible designation for nontoxic shot only, bringing the statewide total to nearly 50 of the 1,100 areas that we manage. Most of these conservation areas are located along the Missouri River, where periodic flooding makes spent lead shot available to migratory waterfowl, or the areas are near urban centers that have high hunting pressure for many types of upland game. Also in 2008, if approved by the Conservation Commission, all dove hunters on Missouri’s conservation areas must use nontoxic shot.
The proposed nontoxic shot rule changes will apply only to lands administered by the Conservation Department.
No Substitute for Labs
My shooting picked up, and I was approaching a limit. I decided to only shoot at birds that approached me from behind and flew out in front, this forced me to be more alert and challenged my shooting skills.
My hunting companion had a limit of doves and was sitting on a bucket next to me. It was a good thing he was done, because I had used up all of my shells and was working on his. He also would run out into the field to retrieve my birds for me with nearly the same enthusiasm as my Lab.
By late afternoon, I finally got my last dove and we began our walk back to the parking lot. We chatted with other hunters who had also finished up and were making their way back. Almost every hunter had taken a limit of doves that day.
I drank the last of my water just as the truck came into sight. The flying doves were thicker than when we started hunting several hours earlier. My friend and I had a memorable and unique hunt, but I have to say that I still missed my dog.
Hunters and Nontoxic Shot
The mandatory nontoxic shot regulation was established for hunting ducks and geese in Missouri in 1990 and nationally during the 1991–92 waterfowl hunting season.
Fifteen years have passed since nontoxic shot was required for duck and goose hunting. In that time, not only have hunters adjusted to the different ballistics of steel shot, but more alternatives to lead shot have become available. Many are composed of different metallic alloys, including some that provide performance similar to lead.
Studies of waterfowl hunters have not documented a sustained increase in crippling loss due to the use of nontoxic shot.
In addition, guns are now equipped with barrels that will not suffer from long-term use of the harder steel shot.
The price of nontoxic shells also has come down, especially for 12- and 20-gauge shells. Hunters can even load their own nontoxic shot shells to save money or to improve performance.