Every wing shooter in the state constantly scans the wall calendar for weeks leading up to the month of September. The opening day of dove season looms large in the future, but just like a distant mountain range when driving, it still seems so far away even as the days creep by. But, just like that mountain, it eventually comes within reach, and then, oh, what fun awaits.
The opening day of dove season is a great tradition here in Illinois. Family and friends gather at state or private sunflower fields, farm fields with grains or cut silage, or anywhere there’s a chance of spotting the little grey darts streaking across the fall skies. Hunters come adorned with ice chests, buckets to sit on, and maybe even an excited dog or two. For some, it’s an all-day event with camouflaged hunters spread throughout the fields while spouses and children lull away the afternoon off in the distant shade, chatting, playing washers, or maybe preparing food. Yes, it’s one of the greatest days of camaraderie in all of hunting. Here’s a look at the Illinois dove hunting forecast.
AN EXCEPTIONAL RESOURCE
Dove hunters typically have a pretty good time in the Prairie State. Illinois ranks as the number two state east of the Mississippi River for annual dove harvest. Texas and California hunters take more birds in total, but the states also have lots more hunters in the field, which means the birds-per-hunter is less. Illinois ranks first for number of doves taken per hunter, per day.
Illinois hunters often bag over one million birds per year. Back in the mid-1970s, there were close to, and sometimes more than, two million birds taken per year. Of course, there were more hunters pursuing doves then, too. For instance, in 1975, some 111,000 wing shooters took to the fields that year. Nowadays the number of hunters is half that or less.
The good news is hunters are having better success today. Our annual harvest of doves usually hits somewhere between 1.1 and 1.5 million birds. The latest available data is from the 2008 season and shows a harvest of 1,120,739 birds taken by 51,847 hunters. That resulted in an average of 5.38 birds per hunter trip. Compared to the 1975 season mentioned above, the 111,000 hunters took 1,910,000 birds. The number of doves taken per hunter trip tallied out to only 3.23 birds. So we are definitely living in the good old days as far as dove hunting is concerned.
Obviously technology and societal advancement have played a large part in our shooting success. Hunters have more access to information these days. We have better, more efficient shotguns and shells at our disposal. There is much more and better targeted management for doves by hunters and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR). More food plots, sunflower fields, and millet fields are planted specifically to attract and hold doves.
Another of the reasons for the great success here in the state is due to habitat. “Doves seem to do well in suburban areas,” said Ray Marshalla, who is the state waterfowl biologist and also oversees migratory birds for the DNR. Illinois has a lot of city areas and therefore a lot of urban and suburban area as well. Doves like to nest and breed in these areas and typically survive much better and have much better breeding success than in rural areas. Marshalla said DNR harvest data shows the counties with the best dove harvest numbers are those located closest to some of the urban areas.
Doves will usually nest at least two to three times per year with two eggs per nest. Some years, with optimal weather, doves may nest up to five times. In contrast, years of poor weather often result in less nesting and a diminished survival rate for fledging birds.
The amount of nesting success and the good habitat here in the state directly impacts the great harvest success we have in Illinois. Yes, doves are migratory birds and they do move into and out of the state annually. Nonetheless, as ironic as it may seem, most of the birds harvested annually are homegrown birds hatched right here in the state.
Migratory birds start arriving in the state about February and will disperse and start nesting as the weather improves. Doves usually flourish throughout the warm months and will start establishing flocks in July and August. When nighttime temperatures start dropping below 50 degrees in the fall, birds will start migrating southward. This movement is much slower than some other migratory species, as doves may only move 10 or 20 miles at a time. Still, that is enough movement for birds to vacate a particular hunting area, leaving those hunters holding the bag (pun intended).
Dove season begins on the first day of September. Often by the middle of the month, temperatures have already dropped enough to start birds moving out of the northernmost portions of the state. This gives northern hunters a very short window to enjoy the season on their local lands. This pattern will progress downstate as the temperature falls. To combat this loss of birds, hunters must be willing to move southward with the flow of migrating birds.
Much of the dove-hunting effort in Illinois is concentrated in the early days of the season, according to hunter participation and harvest data collected by the DNR. Hunters hit the fields hard the first few days, and then interest starts dwindling rapidly. Partly, this is due to other interests such as early waterfowl seasons, the onset of archery deer season or, perhaps, even fall fishing. Others lose interest simply because hunting success diminishes after the birds are shot at for a few days. However, if hunters will just be willing to move around some, more good days afield can still be enjoyed.
It is hard to get a feel for how hunters fared last season. Harvest data has not yet been compiled, but reports of hunting success ranged from great down to marginal. Marshalla said dove banding and age ratio data seem to point to reproduction being somewhat down last year, so he expects the harvest numbers to come in a little lower than in recent years. However, he said there were good numbers of birds in central Illinois where he hunted personally. Marshalla is an avid dove hunter and last year, he had the third-best season he has ever had.
Hopefully, doves had favorable weather and good reproduction this year and hunters will reap the rewards in the coming weeks. Regardless of reproduction, there will still be plenty of birds for some great days in the sunflower fields and other hunting areas throughout the state. For those without access to private shoots, lots of opportunity exists on public land and DNR-managed dove fields. Here is a look at some of the top spots in the state.
WORLD SHOOTING & RECREATIONAL COMPLEX
First up is a new spot for this coming season. The World Shooting & Recreational Complex, near Sparta, has offered great shooting opportunities for rifles, pistols, and shotgun sports, as well as camping and fishing. Now there will be dove-hunting opportunities, too.
Hunting regulations were still in the proposal stage as this was being written, but the plan was to have dove management fields similar to other public hunting access areas. Hunters would be required to check in and out daily, hunt only in designated dove management fields and follow other requirements as requested. To get the latest information on this new opportunity, consult the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations 2011-2012, the DNR Web site, or visit www.dnr.state.il.us/worldshooting.
HORSESHOE LAKE STATE PARK
This property almost always ranks at or near the top for numbers of birds harvested on public land. The last data available from the 2009-2010 season showed 8,441 birds taken at Horseshoe Lake State Park and another 5,158 birds taken at the Horseshoe Lake State Park Island Units. That’s a total harvest of 13,599 doves. Not bad at all for public land.
The property is located near St. Louis, adjacent to the Mississippi River. It is divided into several tracts, with some being state land and some federal. The federal portion is open under statewide regulations, while the state portion is much more restrictive.
For more information, contact the state park office at (618) 931-0270 or the Department of the Army, St. Louis District Corps of Engineers at (636) 899-2600.
SHELBYVILLE STATE FISH AND WILDLIFE AREA
This property ranked third in the aforementioned harvest data report. There were a total of 4,932 doves taken and hunting effort was 811 man/days. That is an average of a little over six doves per person, per day.
Shelbyville SFWA is divided into two tracts. The West Okaw Unit is located six miles southwest of Sullivan and three miles southeast of Bethany. The Kaskaskia Unit is four miles southeast of Sullivan, alongside the Kaskaskia River. The two tracts total 6,400 acres with most of it open for hunting.
The SFWA has both open land, which is governed by statewide dove regulations, and dove management fields that have special drawings and regulations. The property is very well managed for dove hunting and there are numerous food plots, dove management fields and natural areas that attract and hold a good many birds each year.
For more information on hunting at Shelbyville, contact Site Superintendent Stan Duzan at (217) 665-3112.
PYRAMID STATE RECREATION AREA
Perry County, in southern Illinois, is home to an expansive property that usually produces very well for area dove hunters. In the 2009-2010 season, hunters took a total of 3,675 doves on the SRA. In some years that number is even higher.
The Pyramid property is divided into five separate tracts totaling over 19,000 acres. Much of the property consists of great dove habitat and the SRA is also managed for doves. Numerous food plots and dove management fields bode well for dove numbers. There is both open hunting and lottery draws for dove management fields.
Visit the Pyramid State Park office at 1562 Pyramid Park Road or call (618) 357-2574 for more information.
By the time you are reading this, there may be some new dove hunting regulations in place. At press time, they were still in the proposal stage, but it was highly anticipated they would be made official. Hunters should obviously familiarize themselves with all hunting regulations, both old and new, prior to going afield.
One change to look for regards the legal makeup in the daily bag. Season dates, daily limits and possession limits apply to mourning doves and white-winged doves. New language in the regulations will most likely indicate there is no daily bag limit or possession limit on Eurasian-collared or ringed turtledoves. Hunters will be allowed to take as many of these birds as they like up until the point the hunter reaches a daily bag limit of mourning and white-winged doves. Once a hunter reaches the daily bag for these latter two species, he or she may not remain in the field for the purpose of taking additional Eurasian-collared or ringed turtledoves.
Another potential change involves the permit application process. The proposed new regulations are tentatively to read, “Permit applications will be accepted starting in June. Initial acceptance dates and methods for making applications will be publicly announced. A hunter can obtain up to 2 dove permits as follows: Only applications submitted by Illinois residents will be processed during the first lottery to apply for up to one dove permit. Non-residents and residents who did not receive a permit or did not apply in the first lottery will be eligible to participate in the second lottery to apply for their first dove permit. Residents will have priority in the 2nd lottery. Residents and non-residents can apply for a 2nd permit during the phone-in reservation period to be held after the lottery. Successful applicants will be sent confirmation via e-mail or can access the Reservation Inquiry System to see if they were awarded a permit.”