By Jeff Samsel
“Coming from behind you!” a voice calls from across the field. You snap your head back just in time to spot a fast-moving bird that is about to go over your head. You shoulder your shotgun, track the bird and fire, dropping the dove in front of you.
“Nice shot!” the same voice calls out.
“Thank you,” you respond, thanking the man across the field both for the affirming words and for the call on the bird, which you never would have spotted in time to have made a shot. You don’t know the other hunter, but he is your friend that day, as are several other dove hunters who are scattered along the field’s perimeter.
Dove hunting, without question, is more of a social affair than any other kind of hunting. Many sportsmen shoot doves around the same field year after year on opening day, often with a group of friends or family members who have shot doves together for years – as have their fathers and grandfathers before them. However, even newcomers to established shoots or strangers shooting around public fields tend to unite during the course of the shoot, helping one another spot birds and exchanging cheers or jeers as occasions arise.
Dove hunting, second only to deer hunting in popularity in the Palmetto State, is also highly social in regard to the event that surrounds the actual shoot. Opening day of dove season brings out hunters who rarely pick up a gun through the rest of the year, but who would never miss the dove opener. Additionally, big barbecues often accompany shoots on opening day and on subsequent weekends.
South Carolina’s dove season, which is slated to kick off on Saturday, Sept. 4 at noon, is broken into three major segments. The season framework recommended by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources was Sept. 4 to Oct. 29, Nov. 20-27 and Dec. 21 to Jan. 15, with only afternoon hunting permitted the first three days of the first segment (Sept. 4-6).
Seasons are set each year by the SCDNR under a framework of regulations and timetables issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal framework had not been issued when this issue went to press, but no big changes from recent seasons were expected.
Good dove-hunting opportunities exist in all parts of South Carolina. A large population extends from the mountains to the coast, and birds are apt to be flying over any field that offers good habitat. The Pee Dee Region, which has more row-crop agriculture than other parts of the state, may have a slight edge over other regions; however, good opportunities always exist in all areas.
Actual season forecasts are difficult to make, according to Billy Dukes, SCDNR Small-Game Project supervisor. “It is all dependent on the weather,” Dukes said. “Last year’s cool, wet weather negatively impacted the hatch. However, even in a very poor hatch year, there are plenty of doves, and most hunters probably wouldn’t notice the difference. It’s more like a difference between excellent and good.”
Doves are highly prolific, and their hatching season extends over much of the year. Therefore, it’s virtually impossible for weather conditions to wipe out the entire hatch.
“You might be looking at a difference between six million doves and five million doves,” Dukes said. “That’s a 20 percent difference, so it is significant – but it still is a lot of birds.”
In a typical season, 50,000 to 60,000 dove hunters kill approximately 1 million doves. The daily harvest average typically is 5 1/2 to six doves per hunter. Most birds killed in South Carolina (upward of 80 percent, based on past research) are hatched in state.
While many South Carolina hunters shoot around privately owned fields, the SCDNR offers abundant first-rate shooting opportunities on public dove fields throughout the state. Approximately 50 fields are managed for public dove hunting in a typical year. Many are on state-owned wildlife management area lands. Some are on national forest lands, while others are privately owned and are leased to the state for use as public dove fields. All are considered wildlife management area lands for the purpose of dove hunting, so a WMA stamp is required for hunting.
The actual list of open fields is never finalized until late in the summer, and each year it is a bit different from the year before, partly because of private landowners adding fields to the program or taking their fields out. Additionally, if crops fail in a WMA field or it otherwise does not seem like it is going to produce good shooting opportunities, the SCDNR might not list it as a public dove field.
A few special regulations govern hunting on the public fields, all of which are intensively managed to provide the best possible opportunities for hunters. No hunters may enter the fields until noon; each hunter is limited to 50 shells; and all shooting ends at 6 p.m. during the first segment of the dove season.
“The regulations are designed to serve a few different purposes,” Dukes said. “First, they are intended to reduce crippling by limiting shooting hours to good light and encouraging hunters to select better shots. The regulations also provide the doves some opportunity to feed in the late afternoon, and they tend to spread out the opportunity, providing chances for more hunters.”
Dukes noted that with a 50-shell limit, hunters will get in, make their shots and get out, whether they get their limit or not. That allows other hunters to fill in behind them and get their opportunity to shoot the field. Hunters should also keep that in mind when fields are crowded and prime locations are taken. Instead of taking bad shots when few doves are flying nearby, hunters are better off waiting for the fast-action spots to open up.
Public fields are open only on designated days, which typically are inclusive of opening day, plus one or more subsequent Saturdays. Some fields include weekend and weekday dates and extra opportunities during later segments of the season. In recent years, two dove fields, the Evans Property field in Anderson County and the Draper Tract in York County have been open to a limited number of hunters, with hunters having been selected by drawing from applications submitted prior to the season.
The most productive fields vary substantially from season to season, depending on crop success, management of neighboring lands, weather conditions and other factors, Dukes said, noting that every field in the public field program
has the potential to produce very good shooting. However, some fields do tend to provide fast action more often than not, so they stand out as likely hotspots.
“Of course, we don’t know at this point exactly which fields will be in the program, but these have been good fields in the past,” Dukes said.
Two of Duke’s picks, not surprisingly, are the two quota-controlled fields, the Draper Tract and Evans Property. Others he recommended are Lake Wallace in Marlboro County, the Atkinson Tract in Lee County, fields on the Manchester State Forest in Sumter County, Donnelley and Bear Island WMAs in Colleton County and Santee-Cooper in Orangeburg County.
Dukes stressed that shooting over public dove fields is like any other type of hunting in the sense that hunters need to spend some time scouting. He noted that many hunters seem to think the only field in the state is the one closest to home or the one they hunted the previous year. “By looking at a few fields or making calls to area managers, hunters can get a good idea of where the most birds will be,” he said.
Beyond finding out which fields have the most birds flying over them, hunters can prepare themselves for shoots by spending time scouting. They can see how fields are laid out, and pick out areas that they think would provide the best vantages for getting the best shots, whether based on how the field is planted, its layout, or where trees might provide concealment. Just knowing where parking is and how to get to different parts of a field can provide a big advantage on the day of the shoot, when trucks and hunters are everywhere.
Most hunters also can improve their success significantly by spending time shooting skeet prior to their first dove hunt of the season. Many hunters never pick up their shotgun between dove seasons, and they spend half their allotted shells getting re-acclimated during a shoot. Quality hunting opportunities are somewhat limited, so hunters should practice ahead of time in order to make the most of actual days afield. Investing time practicing and selecting shots wisely also reduce the potential for crippling birds.
While the vast majority of WMA dove hunting takes place around fields managed specifically for the purpose of providing dove-hunting opportunities, hunters who are perceptive and who get to know public lands around them might find other places to shoot where there won’t be big crowds (or any crowds, for that matter). Doves may be hunted at any time during open seasons on most WMA lands that are not designated as dove fields.
Dukes noted, for instance, a recent clearcut that has pokeberry growing in the opening is an example of an area that is likely to attract doves. He could not specify a particular field or WMA, but he suggested that hunters who know of a clearing that has a good food source in it take time to look at that field periodically, just to see whether doves are flying in and out of it.
Any hunter who does discover such a location has found a site for a private dove shoot on public lands. Action may not be as fast as on a planted field, but even a modest number of birds moving in and out can serve up decent shooting, especially when hunters have their complete choice of shooting locations. A handful of hunters who go out together can surround such a field effectively and enjoy a good afternoon shoot.
Dukes also said that dove-club membership is an option for hunters who don’t have private-land invitations, but who want more opportunities to hunt. Clubs, which commonly are advertised in local newspapers or by fliers on bulletin boards, pool resources to lease farmers’ fields, often assisting with the management.
Similar to deer clubs, most dove clubs function under mutually agreed-upon rules, often regarding when the fields can be hunted and whether guests can hunt with members. Most clubs shoot fields once a week or every two weeks, giving the fields some chance to rest so the birds will continue using them.
For the past couple of seasons, a handful of public fields throughout South Carolina have been open only to adult/youth teams on opening day or another selected early-season date. Eight fields fell under this management plan last season, and Dukes expects a similar number of adult/ youth opportunities this year.
“Dove hunting is very popular with hunters of all ages in South Carolina,” Dukes said. “A dove shoot is a very good activity for youth hunters. There is a lot of action on a dove field. We have been able to provide quality dove hunts for many years, so this seemed like a good way to provide quality experiences for youth.”
To participate, an adult of at least 21 years old must accompany one or two youths between the ages of 5 and 15. The teams stay together on the field and take turns taking shots. Only one hunter in each team may have a loaded gun at any given time. Space is limited on most of the fields, so pre-registration is required. Slots for some adult-youth hunts are assigned through a drawing.
“These have been very good events,” Dukes said, “and the feedback from hunters who have participated has been very good.”
South Carolina dove hunters should keep an eye out for jewelry on the birds that they kill. The SCDNR is in the second year of a three-year large-scale dove-banding study, which is actually part of a larger banding effort that is taking place in 26 different states. No large-scale banding effort had been undertaken in more than 20 years prior to this study.
Through much of the 1990s, the SCDNR participated in research efforts that examined age- and cause-specific mortality of mourning doves. That information, when combined with results from the current banding survey, will improve biologists’ abilities to effectively manage doves at regional and even national levels.
In South Carolina, biologists are seeking to learn about return rates, which is important for accurately determining harvest rates, population trends and other important data. Doves have been banded at sites throughout South Carolina during July and August for the past two seasons. Last year, birds were banded at 54 sites. For the research to provide good information, it’s important for hunters to report the number on any banded birds they kill.
“We are relying on hunter participation for the success of this study,” Duke said.
To report banded birds, hunters can simply call (800) 327-BAND, which is printed on every band. During hunting seasons, the phones are manned 24 hours a day. Hunters also can report banded bird harvests on-line at www.pwrc.usgs.gov and select “Bird Banding Lab.” Hunters get to keep the bands, and when numbers are turned in, they also get a report on the bird’s age and when and where it was banded, plus a certificate from the Bird Banding Lab.
In addition to a hunting license, dove hunters need a free Migratory Bird Permit, which is available at all license dealers. For publ
ic dove hunts, a hunting WMA stamp also is required. Dove hunting regulations and seasons are printed in a migratory bird regulations pamphlet, which is separate from the general regulations pamphlet.
The Web site also provides a list of public dove fields, including details on open days for each, special regulations that apply and directions to the fields. The list also can be attained by calling (803) 734-3886 or by writing to Public Dove Fields, SCDNR, P.O. Box 167, Columbia, SC 29202.
Dove hunters also need to understand laws pertaining to legal field preparation and should look at any fields they plan to hunt, asking questions as needed. Hunters, not just landowners, are responsible if they are shooting over a field that is considered “baited.” Another SCDNR publication, Dove Hunting Guide, explains the law and provides practical guidelines.
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