Dove-Hunting Action

Dove-Hunting Action

All over the state, California dove hunters have a lot to look forward to this season. (September 2009)

Dennis Petersen of Signal Hill shot a mixed bag of white-wing and mourning doves over a fallow wheat field near Brawley.

Photo by Jim Niemiec.

Why would 65 hunters get up at the crack of dawn, drive hundreds of miles and stand in line for hours?

This was the scene last season at the Department of Fish and Game dove-hunting site in the Imperial Valley as hunters waited for the fast-flying birds to pass by. Normally, we Californians are impatient, but apparently not when it comes to dove hunting here in the Golden State!

Doves are the No. 1 sought-after game bird in California and the rest of the country as well. There are more shotgun shells shot up on the opening day of dove season than on any other hunting day of the year.

From the mountains to the foothills and all throughout the desert areas of California, dove hunters persistently pursue the "gray ghost" in hopes of finding a limit.

Here in California, the most popular species of dove are mourning doves and the white-wing doves. But we have a new intruder: the Eurasian collared dove. This bird is causing a bit of a problem for our state biologists. They have no idea what the impact of this new dove will be on our mourning or white-winged dove populations.

There have been a few studies on the East Coast that suggest there is very little or no effect there at all. California biologists are waiting for some sort of a negative sign before launching a study of their own.

In the meantime, to keep numbers of these newcomers in check, hunters have no bag limit on Eurasians, as long as you take them during the regular dove season.

So, why did all those hunters wait in line for a chance to shoot these particular birds? Perhaps it's the challenges that doves present. They're unpredictable, difficult to hit, and hard to retrieve whether you drop them in heavy or light cover. Even finding where to dove hunt can be a test of your perseverance. You need knowledge of their flight patterns, as well as their feeding and drinking habits.

Unless you live in a southern part of our state where doves are plentiful, you'll have to get out and look for them. Scouting areas in advance of opening day can require some real sleuthing. Luckily, doves are creatures of habit and usually stick to the same flight pattern day after day while in an area. They usually fly in pathways along tree lines, fences and sloughs. They like to rest in trees near water. If you live in a dry area, you can seek out small ponds or riverbeds as likely spots.

You'll get ahead of the game if you can find an area where doves are likely to feed. Doves will fly up to 8 miles in search of food, and they prefer certain weeds and seeds. They favor not only grains in planted fields, but also wild thistle, ragweed and foxtail.

On the Central Coast, we have California thistle and a plant commonly called turkey mullein or dove weed.

According to Paul Roberts, an avid hunter in the area, dove weed is key.

"Once these plants have ripened, you won't need a shotgun. You can get a limit of doves with a dip net," he said.

It pays to find out where this particular plant grows near you.

However, just when you think you've got your area properly scouted out, the gray ghosts can vanish.

A few years ago, I did some extensive scouting the week before the season opened. The day before the opener, I happened onto a cut oat field that had some dove weed and thistle growing, and there were thousands of doves feeding. I felt as though I had hit the mother lode and looked forward to a great day of shooting the following day.

After getting permission from the landowner, I decide to camp out near the field that night to avoid an early-morning, two-hour drive. I was so excited I could hardly sleep.

I was awakened long before dawn by my Labrador, Hunter, who seemed to be sharing my anticipation. In the dim light, we took our place near an old abandoned pump house and waited. As daylight broke, I looked around and was shocked to see only empty skies and a vacant, lonely field.

Still, I had hope because the doves had been there at 10 a.m. the day before. So, we waited. The morning dragged on, and I looked with disbelief as a mere handful of birds arrived.

I harvested only four doves that morning.

As for blending in with the background, it's not only important for the dove, it's important for you as well. You'll have a better chance of luring birds into shotgun range if you're wearing camouflage clothing and concealing your gear properly. These birds have excellent eyesight and are easily spooked. As in other hunting situations, you always need to make sure other hunters know exactly where you are to avoid accidents.

DECOYS

Another way to get these savvy birds into range is to use decoys. A few years ago, I hunted with a guy I thought might just be a bit crazy. He would tie an automotive spark plug to one end of a 30-yard cotton kite string, and a dove decoy to the other.

Then, he swung the spark plug end around his head to gain enough momentum to throw the plug over a 30-foot-high power line, allowing him to pull the decoy into a sitting position on the wire above. I thought this was a creative plan but remained skeptical of its effectiveness until I saw the results.

This guy stood motionless next to the power pole only 10 feet away from his decoy. Birds started coming in and were so focused on the decoy on the line that they didn't even notice the hunter standing below. As you can imagine, this hunter's bird-to-shell ratio was impressive, and it took him no time at all to bag a limit.

This unconventional method is not one I would choose to use unless I had no other choice. Since that time, I have been introduced to the battery-operated moving dove decoys and am blown away by their effectiveness. Not only will these gadgets bring the birds closer as they come into a field or water hole, but they can even bring in birds that were headed someplace else. I'll stick my neck out and guarantee that you will have more birds come within gun range when you use a motorized decoy than without one.

Last year, I placed a motorized decoy on the shoreline of a stock pond I hunt every year. Because I was familiar with the flight pattern of the birds at this particular pond, I positioned myself 30 yards from the decoy in the direction the birds were coming from. This made my shots more challenging than if I were positioned closer to the decoy, but that's the option I chose. I scored a limit within 45 minutes.

If you want to avoid the rigors of scouting, there are places you can go to reliably find dove hunting. There is great information on the improved DFG Web site at www.dfg.ca.gov. You'll find dove-hunting locations with descriptions of number of hunters allowed and requirements for permits, as well as types of crops that are grown in the fields.

In the Imperial Valley alone there are more than 15 sites. Doves are much more prevalent in the southern part of the state because of the higher temperatures. All locations designated A and B on the DFG maps require a permit, which can be obtained by mail or online beginning about one month before the season opener on Sept. 1. All the other fields are on a first-come basis.

The DFG uses some of the funds generated by upland bird stamp sales to lease property, and in some cases, plant a number of fields with grains attractive to doves.

Of course, hunters also want to know exactly what to expect for an upcoming season, and that's something the DFG is not willing to predict. According to Karen Fothergill, a DFG environmental scientist, it's difficult to make predictions because doves are at the mercy of weather extremes and habitat availability. She points out that the average life span of a dove is between 1 1/2 and 3 years, and to maintain their species, they have to be very prolific breeders.

The breeding season is between February and October, and they produce only two eggs at a time. The eggs hatch out in as little as 15 days, and within 30 days the young are on their own.

That's why you sometimes hear hunters say, "The birds sure are small this year."

After 85 days, the offspring are ready to reproduce. Both males and females incubate the eggs. It's possible for one pair to breed several times in a year, making it difficult to assess what the bird count will be, said Fothergill.

It seems that as much as 60 percent of the dove population doesn't make it through one season. Hunters are only responsible for between 10 percent and 15 percent of the mortality. In addition to habitat and weather, predators, disease and accidents take their toll on the overall population as well.

With all these unknowns, you can see why the DFG is reluctant to predict numbers for upcoming hunting seasons.

However, year after year there is very little change, so I think it's safe to say that we can expect just about what we had last year.

Last year, at many of the check stations in the Imperial Valley, biologists were surprised to find that hunters were bringing in a mixed bag of half white-wings and half mourning doves. This hasn't been the norm for the past decades -- mourning doves usually outnumber white-wings.

It seems that mourning dove numbers were slightly down from previous years, but more white-wings than usual moved in and kept the numbers in balance, making it possible for hunters to bag limits of birds.

When I asked about the declining numbers of mourning doves throughout the West, Fothergill said the DFG did not know yet why it is happening, but it is a concern and they're working on it.

CLUBS

In addition to DFG grounds, many private clubs offer good dove hunting. There's even one club -- Raahauge's Pheasant Club in Dunnigan -- offering hunts at no cost at all.

Owner Terry Raahauge said he doesn't charge for dove hunts because any hunter who visits his shooting club "will be impressed enough to want to return for a pheasant hunt."

He added that bird numbers aren't very good in the first part of the season. But the second season can be great for hunters whose aim is on target. Call Raahauge to make a reservation at (530) 724-0552 or visit www.lincraahauges.com.

Some good private clubs that are known dove magnets can be found in almost any part of the state.

In Northern California, there's Thunder Hill Pheasant Club in Willows. Melissa Oden said the three-day dove hunt is $150. They allow only 35 hunters per day. They have a diverse natural habitat at this club and hunters usually limit out easily. Call (530) 943-2146 for more information.

On the Central Coast, in the Santa Ynez Valley, just above Santa Barbara, there is a small private dove hunt. Rodney Jacobsen limits the number of hunters to 150, assuring success as well as safety to all who are lucky enough to get a spot in his hunt. It's an afternoon-only shoot. An excellent barbecue is included in the $100 price tag. Call (805) 689-6507.

Dave Whitehead, owner of Antelope Valley Sportsman's Club in the Lancaster area, said his 1,200-plus acres of hunting land also include a great deal of natural dove weed and thistle that grows around his planted grain fields of barley and sunflowers.

He allows 100 hunters at a time and charges $85 per person, which includes breakfast.

"The guys who can shoot get a limit," he said. "The others struggle a bit, but have a heck of a good time trying!"

Call (661) 724-1291 or visit www.avschunt.com.

The best bet for getting a limit is to hunt in the evening. The very last thing a dove does before retiring to the roost for the night is to get a drink of water.

If you're fortunate enough to know of a watering hole of some sort in your area where doves like to get their evening drink, get ready for some fast and furious shooting. For about 15 minutes before the sun goes down, the doves will pour into their favorite place by the hundreds.

If you've never hunted one of these ponds just before dark, you're in for an experience -- you just can't load your gun fast enough. After a shooting frenzy, you'll have spent shells all over the ground around you. What a fabulous end of a day for a dove hunter.

It's this kind of a reward that keeps us fascinated and ever hopeful as we look forward to each season seeking to outwit the gray ghost.

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