Doves In Droves

With newly arrived Eurasian doves on the wing, shooting in Imperial County is fit for a king. (September 2007)

A mixed bag of mourning and white-winged doves is a common take for dove hunters in Imperial County. And each year, there seem to be more Eurasian doves as well.
Photo by Mike Dickerson.

During opening day last year, I hunkered down in a grove of small citrus trees and was up to my nether regions in doves. However, there were a couple of problems with this seemingly ideal scenario.

First off, I had scant cover behind the skinny little plants. Despite my head-to-toe camo, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Second, a powerful wind came up, and the Beretta 20-gauge over-and-under I clutched was, at that moment, equipped with open chokes.

Swarms of birds were smoking past, dipping, darting and mostly flaring out of range of my open patterns of target-grade No. 8.

My ratio of shells fired to birds bagged shall remain confidential, however. Suffice to say that it reaffirmed the reason why shot-shell manufacturers love dove hunters.

Rather than make the long trek back to the truck in the 100-plus-degree heat to change tubes, I stood my ground.

About the time I began to entertain thoughts of clubbing myself with the gun, I managed to execute a classic double on a pair of fast-stepping, hard-turning, right-to-left crossers.

In that moment, all was suddenly right with the world again.

IMPERIAL MAGIC

Welcome to dove hunting, Imperial County-style, where such magical moments are the norm rather than the exception.

This extreme southeastern corner of California may be forbiddingly hot, dry and dusty. But it's world-famous for annually producing some of the wildest dove shooting north of the Mexican border.

Encompassing nearly 4,600 square miles, the county borders Mexico to the south, Riverside County to the north, San Diego County on the west, and Arizona and the Colorado River on the east. It is a mecca for dove hunters, and has been for decades.

Each Sept. 1, a group of those I refer to as "the usual suspects" and I make an annual pilgrimage there with what approaches religious zeal.

We've yet to be disappointed.

As good as the area is -- and as difficult as this may be for some to accept -- it's only getting better in the minds of many dove shooters.

That's because its patchwork of agricultural lands harbor tons of mourning doves. And in years when unseasonably cool temperatures and monsoonal thunderstorms don't chase birds south, it shelters considerable numbers of white-winged doves.

There's also a new element in this equation which elevates the region to triple-threat status in my book.

EURASIAN INVASION

That's the arrival of the Eurasian collared dove. An invasive species, the Eurasians did not count against last year's daily bag and possession limits in California.

The DFG basically winked at the notion that hunters could shoot them at will. Add to this happy circumstance the fact that mature Eurasian collared doves are considerably larger, somewhat slower and arguably dumber than either mournings or white-wingeds. That's a situation tailor-made for some fast and furious scattergun action.

That's especially true in Imperial County, where the Eurasians are showing up in increasing numbers.

Some hunters fear this "Eurasian invasion" may displace native doves. Because the birds have spread so quickly, the jury's still out on that point. Other hunters take the viewpoint of "The more, the merrier." The fact of the matter is, these birds are probably here to stay.

Across the southern U.S., Where the invasion has been heaviest, most states have set either no bag or possession limits -- or extremely high ones. Arizona, for example, allows hunters to shoot 25 Eurasian doves per day. That's in addition to the standard bag limit of other species.

As this issue went to press, California was reportedly considering a "default" recommendation to the Fish and Game Commission that Eurasian collared doves simply be counted as part of the daily bag limit of 10 birds -- a recommendation likely to be met with considerable disagreement from concerned sportsmen.

This is just one of several possible recommendations. The Commission is not likely to act upon any of them until shortly before the season opens, so be sure to check the regulations before you head out for your dove shoot.

SCOUT FOR SUCCESS

Finding productive areas to hunt in Imperial County is usually not a problem. To locate concentrations of birds, savvy hunters dispatch a scout to the area a day or two ahead of the season opener.

Such scouting can pay big dividends. One year, for example, pre-season scouting located a field where droves of white-winged doves flew out from a nearby orange grove. On another occasion, scouting revealed that a previously productive field had been plowed under and held no birds.

In recent years, the region around Niland near the Salton Sea has become a very productive area, thanks to the efforts of volunteers from Desert Wildlife Unlimited and Quail Unlimited. Using funding from the Upland Game Bird Heritage Program, the volunteers work with the state to plant vacant fields. More than 20 of these large fields, encompassing more than 2,700 acres, are typically planted with milo, wheat, safflower, barley or sunflowers.

The fields are open to the public at no charge. Limits or near-limits are common for opening-day hunters.

You can download a map at www.desertwildlifeunlimited.com, as well as from the DFG Web site.

In some parts of Imperial County, such as the area around Winterhaven, it's possible to stand in one spot, shoot three doves, and have one fall to earth in California, another land in Arizona and the third fall on Indian reservation land. It's entirely possible that one could be a mourning dove, the second a white-winged dove and the third a Eurasian collared dove.

In this area,

the state border is not a straight and well-defined line as most people imagine. Rather, it zigs and zags like a drunken sailor, requiring hunters to possess the appropriate maps and licenses for both California and Arizona -- and, to be on the safe side, the Quechen Indian Reservation.

Our group has always found it well worth the investment. We like to move around and find concentrations of the different species in different areas. I can't recall a single day of hunting in the area when this strategy failed to produce limits of birds.

OTHER HOTSPOTS

Other hotspots include fields near the Holtville and Palo Verde areas, and farming areas west of the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge.

The Brawley, Calipatria, Calexico and El Centro areas also typically produce good numbers of birds, when you find the right spots.

When you're on the lookout for those right spots, you need to think about the doves' four basic habitat needs: food, cover, water and gravel, or grit. The best shooting doesn't always occur where doves happen to be feeding, resting or taking a drink. Rather, it happens when doves are traveling between such sites. When you find an area offering all of these habitat elements, you'll likely find lots of doves traveling along established flyways on their way to feed, drink, roost -- or loaf away part of the day picking at gravel.

Fields most heavily used by doves are characterized by an abundance of small seeds scattered on the surface of relatively bare ground, often with little horizontal cover.

Studies indicate that the presence of bare ground may be as vital as the availability of specific foods or seed types. Modern farming practices often create these exact conditions.

While it's certainly possible to find good hunting around water sources, roosting sites and the like, the heaviest hunting pressure tends to be focused on feeding fields because that's where you'll typically find the most consistent action.

KNOW YOUR DOVES

Wherever you hunt, make sure you can tell the difference between species of doves, since some -- such as the ground dove, ruddy dove and Inca dove -- are protected by law.

Eurasian

The Eurasian collared dove is larger and heavier than mourning or white-winged doves, though still slender. It has a long, square-tipped tail with white corners. A distinct black line or "collar" runs across the back of its neck, but doesn't extend all the way around the throat.

It's relatively easy to distinguish in flight, being considerably larger and a bit slower than other doves, and it typically flashes an almost solid white or very light tan color from its underside. It is --in my experience, at least -- less prone to recognize danger from hunters or to take drastic evasive action.

The first Eurasian collared doves in North America were introduced to the Bahamas in the early 1970s as a replacement for ringed turtledoves. They quickly multiplied and escaped from the islands, making the jump to Florida.

From there, the prolific breeders spread across the Southern states, reaching Texas by the mid-1990s, and continue to expand their range.

I had my first encounter with them in Imperial County last season, and it was a memorable experience. In flight, the birds look larger than other doves. Their swooping flight patterns are distinctive, as is the flash of white from their undersides. These big doves will definitely get your attention, and you'll likely recognize one the first time you see it.

White-Winged

White-winged doves typically start flying around 9:30 or 10 a.m., much later than mourning doves. A white-winged has a small, black crescent below the eye. But the best way to distinguish it in flight is by its dark gray wings with broad white stripes, from which the bird takes its name.

The tail is shorter, less pointed than that of the mourning dove, and has white corners.

The white-winged's flight is characterized by somewhat slower, steadier wing beats than those of the mourning dove, and it tends to steer a straighter course.

Assuming you're in range and equipped with the proper loads and chokes, white-wingeds are generally easier to hit than mourning doves.

Mourning

The mourning dove, the most numerous and widespread game bird in North America, needs little introduction to most wingshooters.

While it may sing a mournful dirge in your backyard tree, those encountered out in the country are the master aviators of the three species -- especially after they've been shot at once or twice. They're capable of mid-air acrobatics that can make a champion clay-bird shooter look like a rank amateur. I've seen it happen.

Hunter surveys tend to support my belief that the mourning dove is the most-missed game bird in the nation.

FAST-PACED SHOOTING

In Imperial County, I do most of my shooting on mourning doves with a 20-gauge over-and-under, choked improved cylinder and modified. This is a great choice when the doves are flying fast and furious, for you can afford to pick your shots and target only those birds that offer reasonable opportunities within range.

There are times when modified and improved modified tubes are better choices, and I know some hunters who pursue doves with nothing less than a full-choked 12 gauge.

If you're shooting a single-barreled shotgun, it's hard to go wrong with a modified choke.

Most of my shots at white-winged doves have been at somewhat longer range. The birds seem to recognize danger once hostilities commence, and their defense is to scramble for elevation.

If I'm fortunate enough to find an area with lots of white-wingeds, I'll often switch to modified and improved modified chokes. I've seen times when improved modified and full would not be out of order.

Semi-autos and pump-action shotguns are traditional favorites of dove hunters, and it's hard to argue with the virtues of having that third shot available without having to reload. However, in areas where the bird populations are as high as they often are in Imperial County, that third shot can actually be detrimental to your enjoyment of the hunting experience -- unless you like the idea of limiting out in 10 minutes.

It pays to hold off and pick your shots, especially if it's early and you're still waiting for the white- wingeds to fly.

There's no reason to throw anything heavier than size 7 1/2 shot at doves. I prefer the greater pattern density of No. 8, which is further enhanced by the fact that I shoot nothing but target loads.

The harder s

hot used in target loads deforms less upon traveling through a barrel, resulting in more uniform shot patterns downrange.

If you don't think that makes much difference, you've never seen a lone dove blaze, twist and turn its way past the muzzles and through the shot patterns of dozens of gunners in a single pass.

WEATHER

The major factor impacting hunter success in Imperial County is the weather. Whether you call it the Southwest monsoon, the Mexican monsoon or the Arizona monsoon, beginning about July, the Southwestern U.S. experiences increased rainfall in the form of scattered thunderstorms.

These summer storms sometimes linger into mid-September. In some years, the region can receive half of its annual rainfall during the months of July, August and September.

Sometimes, such storms will temporarily drive doves from localized areas. That's yet another good reason to scout the fields just prior to the season.

The birds have to go somewhere. And if they haven't yet fled into Mexico, as white-wingeds will sometimes do, chances are they've simply moved to a nearby favorable area that the thunderstorms missed.

While camo-clad dove hunters will never become poster boys for PETA, they're likely to receive a warm welcome in Imperial County.

When dove season arrives, some communities pull out all the stops to make hunters feel at home, complete with banners strung across main streets proclaiming, "Welcome, Dove Hunters!"

This isn't hard to understand when you consider that the county's sporting and tourism-related businesses have been hit hard by the Salton Sea's long-term decline in water quality.

By most estimates, dove hunters pump well over $1 million into the county's economy each fall.

For many small businesses, dove season doesn't just make their day, it makes their entire year.

Communities display their appreciation for this economic boost by rolling out the red carpet.

Be forewarned, though -- don't count on rolling into town at the last minute. In some communities, hotel rooms are booked a year in advance.

If you've not yet made reservations for an air-conditioned room -- an absolute necessity in an area where temperatures have been known to reach 120 degrees -- start hunting down a reservation, pronto.

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