Dove Hunting: Getting Started
In August, take a look around stores that sell shooting supplies. Most are stocked heavily with shotgun shells, clay pigeons, and hand-trap supplies. Why? August is the month hunters use to sharpen their wing-shooting skills in preparation for Sept. 1 — the opening day of dove season.
More shells are spent on dove hunting than on any other game bird. On a good hunt, doves often fly in so fast and in such numbers that it is difficult to keep your gun loaded. Barrels heat up from the quick shooting. Doves dip and dive and turn with incredible speed. Downing one dove for every three shots ranks you as an expert shot. Interested in trying this action? Here are some tips.
A Little Biology
Three species of doves are legal game during Missouri’s dove season: mourning doves, Eur;asian collared-doves, and white-winged doves. The Eurasian collared-dove is an introduced species, escaped from captivity, and is currently expanding its range across the United States. It is larger than a mourning dove, with a distinct black collar and a squared-off tail. The white-winged dove is native to the south;ern United States, but occasionally shows up statewide. This species has a white wing stripe and a squared-off tail. Where the birds coexist, mourning doves typically far outnumber both collared-doves and white-winged doves.
Mourning doves are native and occur all across the central and eastern United States. They are one of North America’s most common birds, with fall populations averaging between 350 and 500 million birds. Why so common? Doves are prolific breeders. In Missouri, pairs produce up to five broods a year, with broods consisting of two to four young.
Settlement of North America improved habitat for mourning doves. Open terrain provided by small towns and cities, surrounded by crop fields, provide doves with everything they need. Towns offer the scattered trees and open woods mourning doves require for nesting habitat. Crop fields provide what have become three of the four staples in a dove’s diet: corn, wheat, and milo. The fourth staple, foxtail, is a common grass species that grows along the edges of grain fields and other areas. Doves relish foxtail seed.
The daily habits of doves are fairly predictable. Shortly before dawn, doves leave their roost areas and travel to where they feed. Cut grain fields are favorite spots. The birds feed for a couple hours, then often move to places that offer chat for their gizzards and a place to drink. Mid-morning, doves rest in trees. Mid-afternoon finds the birds feeding again. Shortly before dusk, doves fly to favorite roosting areas for the night.
Mourning doves are migratory, but their migration is a complex affair. Adults birds, particularly males, are often permanent residents and live their lives where they bred and raised young. Young typically migrate within two weeks of having left the nest. Cold fronts push birds south, with other birds moving in from the north.
Equipment for a dove hunt is fairly simple. For concealment, camouflage clothes help but are not necessary. Any dull-colored clothes will do. Shotgun type is a matter of choice. A 12 gauge is tough to beat because it throws a lot of shot. Shotgun choke is a matter of choice, too. The larger pattern of an open choke, such as skeet or improved cylinder, will help you hit fast-moving targets. A full choke will allow you to take longer shots. Pick a choke that fits your level of shooting skill.
Most hunters choose shot size of 7.5 or 8, which gives you lots of shot in the air and the energy needed to cleanly bring down doves. Bring plenty of shells. Two boxes is often a minimum. Shooting can be that fast.
Dove season opens when mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers are still active. So include insect repellent with your gear. Since the weather is often warm, bring along drinking water.
To carry your gear, stores that handle hunting supplies often stock camouflaged buckets with cushioned lids that make for comfortable sitting and convenient carry-all.
With proper gear gathered, it is time to put together a good dove hunt. As with any hunt, the key is putting yourself where the game is at, at a time when they are active. Locate grain fields that have been recently harvested. It often takes doves five days or so to start using newly harvested fields in large numbers. Look for small grain fields less than 20 acres. In bigger fields doves can spread out and are more likely to evade hunters.
If you plan to hunt in the morning, set up before first light. When doves start flying, pay careful attention to flight patterns. If the birds are not flying where you set up, move to their flyway. Look for a spot that offers some concealment to break up your outline, such as a brushy fencerow or clump of vegetation. Also, if possible, set up so the sun is to your back, which will keep the sun out of your eyes and make you more difficult to see.
Doves often land on the bare limbs of dead trees along the edge of grain fields before flying to the ground to feed. Sitting up next to these trees often offers close shots as the birds come in to land. Power lines also serve as a favorite place for doves to land. Don’t shoot doves off power lines. Shot can damage the lines.
Learn how to judge distances. This will let you know when a dove is in range to shoot. If you are using an open-choked shotgun, your shots should probably be closer than 30 yards. If you are using full choke, you can likely take shots out to a little more than 40 yards.
Gain skill at judging distances quickly by practicing at times other than when you are hunting. In your yard, guess how far away you are from a tree or a clump of grass, then walk it off and see how close you were to your estimate. You can do the same when on a walk or at the mall or at practically anytime you are in a large area.
Doves are frequently missed because hunters shoot too far. Also, doves are missed because hunters raise their shotguns to shoot before doves are in range. Doves see the movement and flair before they get close enough to shoot. When you see a dove flying your way, hold absolutely still. When the dove is in range to shoot, then raise your shotgun. This way, when the dove flairs, it’s already close enough for a good shot.
When you down a dove, rivet your eyes to the spot where you saw the dove fall, and while walking to the spot, keep your eyes on that spot. Doves are relatively small birds and are easily hidden in tall grass and other vegetation. They also blend in well among corn or milo stalks. Even if other doves are flying in at easy gun range while you walk to a downed dove, resist the urge to take another shot. Keep your eyes on the spot where your bird fell, retrieve it, then get back to hunting.
A well-trained retrieving dog can prove invaluable to finding downed doves. If you have one, make sure you bring along plenty of water to keep your dog cool. Better yet, set up close to a pond or creek so the dog can take a dip to keep cool. If temperatures reach into the 90s, leave your dog at home. The risk of your canine hunting partner overheating is too great.
On most days when you hunt in the morning, dove activity will be over by 9 a.m. or so. If you hunt in the afternoon, action often starts around 3 and ends at sundown. If while you are hunting, doves fly into a field in large numbers and land, it’s often a good idea to walk them up. Otherwise, they will feed, get their fill, then fly off to pick chat or get a drink.
To keep doves up and flying, it helps to hunt with a few friends. Hunters can then position themselves around a field in a way that keep doves flying. If hunting private ground, be sure to ask the landowner if bringing along a few friends is all right.
Learn more about hunting doves and other upland game birds at mdc.mo.gov/node/3607.
How to Clean Doves
Doves are easy to clean. With poultry shears or a pair of scissors, clip off the head and wings. Where the lower tip of the breast ends, insert your thumb, and pull the breast away from the body. Peel the skin and feathers that cling to the breast, rinse carefully in cold water, and the job is done.
In the Kitchen
Doves can be cooked a number of ways. The following recipe is easy and makes dove meat taste like fine beef steak.
- Fillet the meat off the breastbone with a sharp knife. You will have two pieces of meat off each breast.
- Brush one side of each breast with olive oil, then sprinkle the side with a liberal quantity of Greek seasoning.
- Wrap each piece of breast meat with a third of a strip of bacon and fasten with a toothpick.
- Prepare a hot charcoal fire, one where if you place your hand close to the grill, you must pull it away after only a second. Place dove breasts on the grill, cover, and cook for two or three minutes a side or until the bacon is crisp. The bacon should be crisp with the dove meat medium rare and juicy. This is important. If you overcook dove meat, it will be tough and dry.
You can use this same recipe but make kabobs with bacon-wrapped dove meat, peppers, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, onions, and pineapple.