Nail a Limit
Score big on doves with these indispensable tips
Some hunters might be surprised to hear that doves are considered the leading game-bird species among U.S. hunters. Annual harvest estimates run from 20 to 70 million birds.
Perhaps doves are targeted because they’re so populous throughout the U.S., the seasons typically occur in September (before most other hunting seasons), and their breeding cycles are prolific. The species consistently sustains its population, even when subjected to tremendously high kill rates, because they can nest up to six times a year, with each brood consisting of two young. That impressive reproduction rate results in an estimated U.S. dove population of 350 million birds.
But, the mourning dove’s large population and widespread distribution don’t necessarily mean they’re easy to harvest. Anyone who’s ever hunted them will point out that with a flight speed up to 60 mph, a dove can be extremely difficult to hit. Additionally, their superb eyesight and erratic flight patterns only increase that difficulty. But, knowing the dove’s habits and having a few hunting tips to fall back on will help you put some doves in your game pouch.
Location, Location, Location
Success comes from hunting the right area. For that reason, pre-hunt scouting is essential. Simply put, you can’t shoot a dove if none are in the vicinity.
To locate doves, you first must understand their daily habits, which are essentially made up of four basic activities: roosting, feeding, watering and picking gravel for their digestion. Their days begin by leaving the roost as the sun first breaks over the horizon and heading to water, which could be located several miles away in some instances.
After that, they quickly head to a feeding area, which typically consists of oats, corn, wheat, millet, barley, canola, sunflower or other grain crops. A dove’s legs are short, which makes it difficult for them to move around in higher vegetation, so they prefer feeding areas that offer at least some open, bare ground.
Once their appetite has been satisfied, the birds will instinctively begin to seek a gravel source for their gizzards. Like chickens, gravel is necessary for the birds to digest their food. Once established by the hunter, these locales can be excellent places to ambush doves. Or, as an alternative, there could be fly-by shooting
opportunities located between those areas.
Once the need for gravel has been satisfied, doves often seek out an area to roost and while away the midday hours before the whole process begins anew in the afternoon. Studying these habits will allow you to position yourself for action.
Using Calls and Decoys
While I’ve shot many doves simply by recognizing their flight patterns and lying in wait for pass-shooting opportunities, you can often increase your odds of success by strategically placing a few decoys.
Dove decoys can benefit hunters in two ways. Obviously, the birds will spot the decoys and join them, giving you a shot. The second and possibly even more important benefit of decoys is that the bird’s eyesight and attention will be on the decoys rather than on you.
Dove decoys come in two basic styles: stationary and motorized. While both can be effective, the motorized models can capture the attention of birds from far greater distances than stationary varieties. I frequently use a combination of both when hunting: employing a single motorized decoy like a Mojo Voodoo Dove as a long-range attractant, and strategically placing a few stationary decoys like those produced by Hard Core on the ground or in nearby trees. Hard Core decoys have a built-in clip, making them easy to fasten to tree limbs. Or, they can simply be placed on the ground as if feeding or picking gravel. Keep in mind, however, that a decoy does no good if it cannot be seen. Position them on the ends of tree limbs or somewhere lacking vegetation.
When I hunt with a motorized decoy, I usually place it a bit farther away from my shooting position than I do the stationary decoys. I generally place the motorized fake somewhere around 35 or 40 yards away from my location and the non-motorized versions about 25 to 30 yards away.
Personally, I don’t use calls for dove hunting. While in some situations it might attract them, calling doves generally isn’t nearly as important as it is when hunting waterfowl. If nothing else produces, though, a call will give you something to do while you await the doves’ arrival.
“A common dove-hunting joke is that most hunters expend far more weight in shells than they harvest in dove meat.”
Due to the keen eyesight and natural wariness all doves possess, it’s imperative that you remain hidden until you’re ready to shoot. Wear some form of camouflage and tuck into natural foliage. Unfortunately, not all areas of the country allow camo while hunting. In those cases, you must rely on natural concealment, or you may opt to use a portable commercial blind.
Firearms and Ammo
Other than possibly using a few decoys, no specialized equipment is needed for dove hunting. Sometimes a backpack is nice to have when packing in to the hunting area, but it certainly isn’t required. For a shotgun, any upland-bird gun will work, even a 12 gauge. I personally prefer one of the smaller gauges like a 20, or even better, a 28 gauge.
Doves are extremely fast and erratic fliers. That said, a quick-swinging and pointing shotgun will produce the highest degree of success. If you set up properly, your shots should be at moderate range, and sometimes even one or two pieces of shot will bring them down. Unlike many other game-bird species that have an impenetrable layer of heavy feathers during hunting season, a dove’s feathers are light and easily penetrated. The upper limit in shot size would be No. 7 ½, but 8 or even 8 ½ will work just fine. Moderately open chokes, like modified or improved cylinder, are generally considered optimum.
“… with a flight speed up to 60 mph, a dove can be extremely difficult to hit.”
The Way I See It
In many parts of the country, dove season precedes other hunting opportunities, and most often takes place in warm weather. Based on those points alone, I simply can’t think of a better way to become a proficient bird shooter than to head afield for some fast dove action.
While dove hunting can be great fun, it can also be quite humbling at times. A common dove-hunting joke is that most hunters expend far more weight in shells than they harvest in dove meat. A dove’s typical dipping-anddodging tactics can make them extremely difficult to hit, and for that reason, misses frequently exceed hits. If we only hunted for the meat, it would be far cheaper to simply head to the grocery store and buy it. Somehow, I don’t think that would be as much fun.
(top) In some jurisdictions, hunter orange must be worn while hunting, even for birds.
PHOTO BY HOWARD COMMUNICATIONS
(opposite) When there’s a lack of natural vegetation in the immediate area, author Thomas Tabor erects a simple and easyto-construct ground blind. PHOTO BY THOMAS C. TABOR
(top) When available, a fence is an excellent place to position a decoy. This is a natural location for a dove to sit, and the decoy is visible to any birds passing by.
(opposite) A dove’s outward appearance might be one of beauty and innocence, but when it comes to hunting, doves can present some of the most difficult shots.
(top) The mourning dove is an attractive bird, but also a very difficult target to hit in flight.
PHOTO BY THOMAS C. TABOR
(opposite) Motorized decoys like this Mojo Voodoo Dove work as an excellent attractor and, in many cases, a distractor, since the birds focus on the decoy rather than on the hunter. PHOTO BY MOJO OUTDOORS