Hotspots For California Doves

Golden State dove hunters may be looking at a banner year, but with opening day falling on a Thursday, you might have to -- cough! -- call in sick to hit one of these hotspots.

Shawn Fliehman of Yuba City and Al Silva and son Mathew Silva of Hayward (right to left) pose with limits of doves they shot at Graylodge SWA on opening day of the 2004 season.
Photo by Marvin D. Bibby

The dove opener falls on a weekday this year. Bummer. But that could mean fewer hunters on public lands, right? So, take the day off, grab your shotgun and give one of these spots a try. It could be the best season in years!

It was hot and dry during the September opener for dove last year. In fact it was very hot and very dry for much of last September. That may have made up for the unfavorable rains and left over budget problems which reduced the planted acreage on many state wildlife areas, because for the most part, we enjoyed fairly good shooting throughout the state for the first half of the dove season. While we will not know this season's weather until it gets here, we do know that the state's wildlife areas have planted up a storm for 2005. Upland Bird Stamp money was made available to most state wildlife areas to purchase seed, fertilizer and diesel fuel. And most areas were able to get a good crop in. So, if the weather holds, the season should be great as there is a lot of safflower on prime shooting areas.

California Game & Fish talked to biologists and area managers throughout the state to locate the best picks for unattached hunters. But a word of caution: Conditions on any given shooting area can change quickly. Scout them first, before you decide where to go. Nothing compensates for good scouting. It's part of the hunt.

SACRAMENTO VALLEY

The Upper Butte Basin State Wildlife Area west of Gridley, shot about a three-bird average on opening day last year, says Jerry Bradley, assistant manager. He told California Game & Fish that safflower fields are located in the same general area as last year, and again, the Little Dry Creek area was not planted, although it will be open to dove hunting and some of the bull thistle along interior roads will be mown. Howard Slough has planted 45 acres of safflower in plots along the west side of Butte Creek north of the check station and just north of SR 162 near Butte Creek out of Parking Lot No. 2. A third section has been planted five miles north and east of the check station in the Upper Bronner area. So if you don't mind a walk, this may be worth checking out.

Self-registration and maps will be available at the check station. Llano Seco will have a manned check station again this year on opening day. Expect to find 55 acres of safflower between the check station and Parking Lot 2 and another five acres planted near the northern boundary of the area out of Parking Lot 3. Register and get a map at the check station on Seven Mile Road before walking into the plots.

"It was a good opening. Hunters took close to seven birds each," reports Mike Womack, area manager of Graylodge SWA. "In the years I've been here it's the second best opening we ever had." A lot of hunters would agree. I shot out of Parking Lot 9 last year and the birds were there until late morning -- lots of birds and lots of hunters, forcing me to a secondary spot out in the weeds, trying to short stop them on the way in. But it was still a great hunt and most of us left happy. Tabulations by Graylodge staff indicate that 462 hunters bagged 1,116 doves for a 2.42 dove/hunter average over the course of the early season.

This year Graylodge has planted close to 280 acres of safflower, roughly split between the east side and west side shooting areas. But Mike won't tell us where. "You need to scout if you want to find them," he laughs. That's part of the Graylodge hunt. Expect to find the area crowded the weekend before dove season as experienced hunters search them out.

Some safflower has been planted on the Oroville SWA, but the majority of hunting is for passing birds looking to roost or working small patches of turkey mullion hidden among the oaks and dredger tailings along the Feather River. This area has not been staffed since 2003, so reporting on last year's harvest did not occur. But, this year, safflower has been planted in portions of the Thermalito Afterbay section. Maps are available at all of the main entrance signs.

On the 11,000-acre Spenceville SWA east of Wheatland in the Sierra Nevada foothills, 200 hunters bagged almost 1,000 birds for a 4.7 birds/hunter average on opening day last year. This was a significant improvement over the 2.2 bird/hunter average for the previous year, reports area manager, Tim Caldwell.

This year the area has more than 100 acres of safflower/sunflower planted, and though the sunflower may not help with the doves, it sure helps with the scouting. Sunflower is much easier to spot and helps to locate this year's crop of safflower. Look for plots on both sides of Waldo Road, south of Spenceville Road, and around Horseshoe Pond. Caldwell says that an additional 180 acres of fall crop had some safflower mixed in and a portion of this acreage will also be cut before the opener.

If the weather holds and the foothills are your choice, Spenceville could be a good bet. Don't forget to pick up a map at the information board kiosk, because finding all of the plots is never easy.

Just across the Yolo Causeway from Sacramento, the Yolo Bypass SWA had an estimated 100 hunters bag just fewer than 200 birds for a 1.9 bird/hunter average on opening day in 2004. This year, area manager Dave Feliz reports that almost 150 acres of safflower were planted on the 16,000-acre area.

Look for small plots next to Putah Creek south of parking lot G and just east of the spaced waterfowl blinds, north of parking lot F. The largest planting, 100 acres, is scattered around the 2,000-acre Tule Ranch section. Accessed out of parking lot G or I, it's a long walk out there -- at least a mile and a half -- unless they get the new parking lot finished -- and don't count on that by dove season. A map of the area is available at the front entrance, or at the checking station during registration.

DON'T GIVE UP
The traditional Sept. 1 opening day of dove season attracts more hunter -- 100,000 plus -- than any other single hunting day of the year. Two days later, many good fields are empty and no one is hunting. Folklore has it that doves leave after the first day of hunting. But folklore can be wrong. The birds may have just changed their habits.

For sure, a severs cold snap sends a lot of birds south, but birds from points farther north come in behind them, at least that s

eems to be the consensus of managers California Game & Fish has talked to over the past few years. Most believe that there are still birds on their areas for most of the early season, even in the Central Valley.

Steve Myamoto at North Grasslands notes that huntig after opening day requires a different approach. "Walk around," he suggests. "See where the birds are coming in, and hunt the treelines where they get out of the sun."

For years I was one the hunters who gave up after the second day of the season. But three years ago, after a miserable shoot o opening day, I tried a different shooting area the second day. There I bagged some birds in the morning, took some more in the afternoon and still more on thethird day. Now I hunt well into the second week of dove season. If the birds are not on one wildlife area, I try another. It takes work and scouting to figure it out, and it is different kind of hunt, but for those who preserve doves can still be found long after opening day.

If all else fails, you can always follow the birds south. Leon Lesoika of Desert Wildlife Unlimited claims that both seasons were good in the Imperial Valley last year, noting that one hunter, who happens to be a game warden, shot a limit of doves on the season's last day. -- Marvin D. Bibby

SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY

Although a reservation system with an Aug. 12 deadline for application (see July California Game & Fish) is used for the opening day(s) of dove season on special hunt properties in the San Joaquin Valley, several are open to walk-on hunters for the balance of the early season, according to Douglas Bowman, San Joaquin Valley coordinator of the Game Bird Heritage Program.

Maps to the areas can be obtained by accessing the DFG Web site

www.dfg.ca.gov, calling Wing Beat News at (559) 243-4005, ex. 132 or 133, or by writing: San Joaquin Valley Dove Hunts, Department of Fish & Game, 1234 East Shaw Avenue, Fresno, CA, 93710.

Forty-five acres of safflower are planted near the town of Huron on land managed by the DWR. Restricted to reservations on opening day, it shot an 8.1 bird/hunter average in the morning and a 5.5 average in the afternoon in 2004.

Another 45 acres of safflower is planted on Bureau of Reclamation land three miles northwest of the town of Tranquility. Accommodating 40 hunters selected by draw on opening day, the hunt posted a 4.7 bird/hunter average in the morning and 4.9 average in the afternoon.

Sixty acres of safflower are planted 12 miles west of Mendota at Pilibos. Limited to reservations on both Sept. 1 and Sept. 2, last year's opener shot a 10.0 bird/hunter average in the morning and 9.3 in the afternoon. On the second day it was still hot, shooting 8.0 in the morning and 8.5 in the afternoon. So if you don't hunt until the weekend, this may be the place to try.

"Last year wasn't bad," says Steve Brueggemann, area manager for the 12,000-acre Mendota SWA, noting that only 81 hunters showed up on opening day. Split between parking lots 21 and 22 on a first-come, first-served basis, 41 hunters shot a 7.2 bird/hunter average on the Traction Ranch section, while the rest of the hunters spread out on the free-roam area and managed a 4.8 bird/hunter average. Safflower has been planted on both the Traction Ranch section and the free-roam area this year. If you can't find time to scout, or don't make the draw for Traction Ranch, ask staff at the check station which patch is the best. They can help.

"It was a poor year at O'Neil, but Los Banos did OK." Reports Roger Wilbur, assistant manager of the Los Banos SWA, adding, "It wasn't crowded at all.

O'Neil Fore Bay found 84 hunters knocking down 53 doves for .63 bird/hunter average. While at Los Banos, 156 hunters bagged 1,161 doves for 7.89 bird/hunter average. This year, more than 100 acres of safflower have been planted in 5- to 15-acre plots on both O'Neil Forebay and Los Banos in places that have shot well in the past. Hunters can obtain maps of the area at the Los Banos headquarters check station.

Steve Miyamoto, manager of the 6,335-acre North Grasslands SWA, reports close to 80 acres of safflower planted. Seven miles north of the city of Los Banos, the Salt Slough Unit will require a reservation on opening day morning. Divided into three sections, A, B and C, each planted with safflower, hunters will be assigned to sections at check-in dependent upon conditions and bird usage at the time. But at noon the area opens to walk-on hunters for the rest of the early dove season.

Last year, 344 hunters took 1,073 doves for a 3.11 average over the course of the early season, with an opening day average of 4.5 doves/hunter.

Half-way between Newman and Gustine, the China Island Unit provides hunting space on a first-come, first-served basis for 300 hunters. A popular place that is always crowded on opening day, over 55 acres have been planted to safflower/sunflower and some sections shot an 8.0 birds/hunter average on opening day last year. Maps of the area can be obtained at the main check station.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

"We hope that hunters respect the owner's property and pick up their trash," says Leon Lescika of Desert Wildlife Unlimited, a nonprofit group based in Brawley that uses money from the Upland Game Bird Heritage Program to lease over 2,700 acres of private land around the town of Niland in Imperial County that DFG plants with safflower and wheat. Last year over 3,500 hunters took advantage of the free access to this private land to hunt doves.

"If you could shoot you got a lot of birds last year," Lescika laughs, estimating that the acreage shot at least a 7.6 bird/hunter average. Hunters who did not get limits reported the birds were there -- they just couldn't hit them. He further notes that last year's hunters were the "most courteous group they had ever hunted around."

This year promises to be even better. With a little more acreage and a lot more enthusiasm by local businesses, opening weekend looks like it will be an event of major proportions. Field sizes range from 35 to 160 acres and, best of all, the acreage is open to the public -- with no charge and no sign up.

Get a map of the area, obtain hunting information and find local accommodations and amenities on the Desert Wildlife Unlimited Web site at

www.desertwildlifeunlimited.com. Maps and hunting information can also be obtained on the DFG Web site, at the SOCO Service station in Niland, or the Calipatria or Brawley Inns.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

The early dove season runs Sept. 1-15, with a 10-bird limit. A resident license ($33.35), an Upland Game Bird Stamp ($6.85) and a migratory bird stamp (free) are required. Be sure to fill out the HIP survey -- not all vendors remember to ask.

Hunting and Other Public Uses On State and Federal Areas and Wing Beat News are publications of the Department of Fish & Game that provide information on the state's public shooting areas. Contact Department of Fish & Game offices, by calling (916) 653-7664 or go online to

www.dfg.ca.gov.

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