2011 Texas Dove Forecast

Some kids count down the number of days left until school is out. Others keep a running tally of how many days there are until Christmas or their birthday. My son keeps a countdown of how many days there are until dove season.

Who can blame him?

As early as April or May the questions start: "How many more days until dove season, how many more days until dove season, how many more days until dove season?"

We go through a few cases of shotgun shells in the hottest part of the summer getting prepared (the little sucker actually outshot me on opening day last year) for what is undoubtedly one of the best times of the year.

In Texas, September first is like Christmas, your birthday, and the last day of school all rolled into one. It's the first hunting season of the year and the only day my son knows he'll get to skip school with my permission.

The group of hunters we share every September with is an eclectic group made up of firemen, law enforcement officers, construction workers, retirees, men who work with their hands and men who sit behind desks. But we all have one thing in common, the love of dove hunting. The badge of honor in our hunting party is a limit of birds, never mind how many boxes of shells you have to go through to get it.

Apparently we're not alone in this infatuation with the diminutive, yet abundant, dove. Based on information gathered from the Harvest Information Program, more than 300,000 hunters take to the fields of Texas every September chasing doves. That would be like the entire population of Corpus Christi taking off to go hunting. That's a lot of hunters!

According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Dove Program Leader, Corey Mason, all those hunters have plenty of birds to shoot at. Annual surveys estimate there are around 23 million mourning doves calling Texas home each spring. And those numbers can easily double once hunting season rolls around. That doesn't even count the white-winged dove population, which adds another 10 million birds to that total each hunting season. Keep in mind that those population numbers include just the native birds and don't take into account the migrating doves that blow through our state as the season progresses.

Of these 45-million-plus doves available to hunt on opening day, Texas hunters typically take home more than 6 million (a combination of mourning and white-winged doves) throughout the season.

Here's a little tidbit that I found interesting: 64 percent of the birds shot in the North Zone and 60 percent of the birds shot in the Central Zone are taken in the first two weeks of the season. More than 80 percent of the birds harvested in those zones are shot in September, meaning that in spite of having a 70-day season, we do a lot of shooting in the early part of the season before many migrating birds make it down here.

That's enough with historical numbers. No doubt you're reading this because you want to know what to expect for this upcoming dove season. Instead of just giving a generic prediction, I asked some of TPWD's district leaders from around the state to look at their region and give a specific forecast for how they think the season would be in their respective areas. Let's start at the top of the state and work our way down.

PANHANDLE

It's no secret that the first part of 2011 was dry — really dry. Much of the Panhandle started out with less than one third of its typical rainfall for the first quarter of the year. While that's not ideal, it is not as detrimental to the dove population as you might think. TPWD District 2 Leader Calvin Richardson advised that due to their migratory nature, doves will go find food even in bad years.

"Doves certainly are more productive when seeds are abundant, but they are migratory and can move large distances to find food," Calvin advised. "And they may select nesting areas depending on food abundance (in other words, may move on to better areas). However, doves are not impacted by drought in the same way as many other bird species that are dependent on insects, such as quail. Insect abundance is greatly influenced by moisture and the presence of green plants. Unlike doves, nesting birds that rely on insects are directly impacted by drought, as are chicks that rely completely on insects for the first 8 to 10 weeks of life."

So don't let the drought worry you. There will be birds in the Panhandle, but you might have to change your tactics slightly to locate them.

"Despite the weather," Calvin added, "it always seems there are plenty of birds every year."

That's true as long as you know where to look. Luckily, Calvin passed along three things to look for this year to improve your chances of shooting a limit.

First, find a place with plenty of nesting cover. "Mesquites, hackberries, shelterbelts, even the dreaded salt cedar can support some excellent dove nesting," he advised.

Second, with drought conditions persisting, find a waterhole with clean banks and a few dead trees nearby. Doves prefer to land on clean banks without grass and will use the dead trees to light in before coming to water.

Last, find a few fields of wheat, sorghum, or sunflowers where the farmer is doing traditional agricultural practices that leave some seed in the field, making it attractive to feeding birds. Keep in mind that it is legal to hunt fields where these traditional agricultural practices spread seed, but it is illegal to just go out and spread seed or manipulate crops solely for the purpose of attracting birds.

With all that said, expect the 2011 dove season in the Panhandle to be very similar to the 2010 season.

CROSS TIMBERS

When you call yourself the Dove Capital of Texas you had better be prepared to back it up. Every year Hamilton County does just that. For the past four decades Hamilton has hosted a festival celebrating the dove. It includes everything from a parade, pageant, arts and crafts, music, food, and even a 5k run. Oh, and they have a few doves to shoot at too.

The Cross Timbers region is where we take our annual Sept. 1 pilgrimage, and so I'll give a little historical data based on my own experience before getting into the real data provided by TPWD. The past few years have been a hit-or-miss proposition. I'm not talking about my suspect shooting abilities, but rather the dispersion of birds throughout the area. There will be doves; you just have to locate the right combination of food and resting areas to concentrate them. One of the best hunts we ever had was in a sunflower field in the middle of a pecan grove. Limits were had in 15 minutes, but do not expect that to be a standard hunt. Typically in this region you can shoot a limit, but it might take you all day to do it.

Just like in the Panhandle, rain has been hard to come by in most of the Cross Timbers. That isn't anything unusual for this area of the state, but the difference this year has been the heat. Starting very early in the year it got hot, really hot, and windy, which is a bad combination for retaining moisture vital for growing food for doves.

This doesn't mean there won't be any birds, only that they will be concentrated on the few areas that did receive, and retain, some moisture. District Leader Kevin Motes points that out: "Typically, migratory birds such as dove move to areas of more favorable conditions."

The best illustration of that point is when the first cool fronts of the year pass through and all the birds seem to disappear overnight simply because they have the option of moving if the need arises. Find the right conditions and you'll find the birds.

The good part about hunting birds in this region is that they are plentiful; the bad part is that they can be unpredictable and respond quickly to pressure. As Kevin puts it, "Doves are so highly mobile and fickle that even a half-inch rain shower or a weak cool front can turn your favorite hunting spot sour overnight."

From my experience, hitting a field more than once a week will run the birds off in a hurry as well, so let your best areas rest and you can have birds all season long instead of just the opening weekend.

Kevin summed it up best when he said, "Doves will be here; only time will tell where the greatest concentrations will be found."

That's it in a nutshell.

HILL COUNTRY

You'll notice a pattern throughout this article, and that is it's been a dry year throughout most of the traditional Texas dove hunting areas. However, that isn't always a bad thing. Mike Krueger, District Leader for the Edwards Plateau Wildlife District, points out that his area also received less than normal rainfall throughout the first part of the year, and while this might have some effect on the dove population, he doesn't expect it to be devastating for several different reasons.

When asked about how the drought affected dove in his area, Mike responded, "Doves, like all wildlife, can be negatively impacted by the lack of quality and quantity of herbaceous plants needed for food. Cover requirements (woody nesting cover) are probably not affected one way or another since woody plants typically don't undergo the same ebb and flow of growth as herbaceous plants do in response to moisture, or lack thereof." In general terms, that means the roosting cover will still be there but there may be less food due to the lack of moisture.

The good part is that if you receive any rain at all during the drought then you are ahead of the game in terms of food production.

"When a drought does break," Mike continued, "the herbaceous plants that typically respond first are the annual weeds, which are the ones that typically provide the best seed sources for dove. So while a drought is not good, doves can be some of the first wildlife species to benefit after a drought breaks. While wet years may produce lots of food for doves, the corresponding lush herbaceous vegetation and lack of bare ground can make much of the food inaccessible to doves."

So wet years produce more food, but it's not very accessible to doves; drought conditions produce less food, but makes the limited amount of food easily accessible due to a lack of ground cover.

When asked to give a prediction about this year's dove season, Mike advised that he believed that 2011 would be slightly below average, but this is more a result of habitat in other areas of the state than a reflection on the drought in the Edwards Plateau.

"Even in good production years,' he said, "the Edwards Plateau has relatively low dove production. Since doves are migratory, we in Central Texas typically benefit from doves that were produced in areas that are more productive than we are — as such, local habitat conditions may not have much bearing on hunter success in this region of the state."

SOUTH TEXAS

I know what you are thinking; South Texas is for deer hunting. For the most part, you're right but this land of monster bucks is also home to outstanding wingshooting. Besides, except under special regulations, you can't hunt deer in September.

Remember what I said earlier about a drought? Well the southern part of the state isn't faring any better. Through March much of the region had received less than half an inch of rainfall. While the area isn't known as a rainforest, a half an inch of rain in three months is just ridiculously dry.

While from the outside this lack of rain might seem bad for dove hunting, David Veale, TPWD District Leader for the South Texas Wildlife District is optimistic about this season.

"Dove numbers during the hunting season the last couple of years have been good," he said, "and we think there will continue to be good numbers of birds in South Texas this fall. Where exactly they are going to be and what concentrations they will be in is the key."

I may be overstating the obvious here, but habitat conditions are very moisture dependent and the area just has not had enough. However, there always seems to be one or two spots that get a little bit of rain even in the driest seasons. Find those spots and you'll find the birds.

"On native range, doves will likely be spread out and spotty," David advised. "This is the kind of year when managing your habitat for doves specifically will make all the difference." If you put in the time early in the spring and summer to make your property more appealing to doves, you should reap the benefits more than usual this year.

"The lack of sunflowers, croton and other forbs will likely limit concentrations to the few areas that have water and food in September. Shooting will be best over managed agricultural fields and water sources. Traditional shooting fields and reputable day leases should still be strong."

Another area David hit on was to point out the amount of public land  — not only in his region but also throughout the state — that is available to dove hunters.

"Don't discount TPWD's Annual Public Hunting program where $48 buys you access to some great dove hunting, particularly south and east of San Antonio," he added.

I can attest to the fact that very good hunting can be found on these public spots, especially if you have the opportunity to get out and hunt them during the week when everyone else has to work.

One of the last points David made is that without scouting, nothing else matters. You can have the best looking field in the state but if the birds are two miles away, it doesn't do any good. Get out right before the season and locate the birds. You'll be much more successful on opening day.

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