Illinois'™ North-To-South Dove Hunting

Most of us hunt doves in early September, and then we find other things to occupy our time. But if you want to enjoy more good shooting, just follow the birds! (September 2007)

Photo by Mike Marsh.

Break out the coolers, dust off your shotgun and shoot a few clay targets, because Illinois' dove hunting season is near. It's time once again to bruise those shoulders while being out-maneuvered by a speeding gray blur in the sky. Oh, but what fun it is!

Dove season is always highly anticipated here in the Prairie State. Unfortunately, not everyone takes advantage of the great opportunities we have here to challenge this grand fall speedster. Most dove hunters expend most of their efforts right at the start of the season, and then participation rapidly tapers off after just a few days. However, by scouting smart and following bird movements throughout Illinois, there is much more hunting out there to be had.

Mourning doves are Illinois' most widely distributed and abundant game bird. They are a migratory bird, but increasingly, they are overwintering within this state's boundaries. However, they do still migrate and move a great deal throughout the season. Hunters who keep up with this movement can stay successful.

Illinois has good numbers of doves every year. The numbers remain stable and are actually documented to be slowly increasing over time, according to data from the breeding-bird surveys and spring mourning dove call counts. Harvest figures also show doves and dove hunting to be in great shape in the Prairie State.

Accurate kill estimates go back as far as the mid-1950s. The mourning dove harvest in Illinois generally averages around 1.5 million birds per year, with totals exceeding 2 million from 1969 through 1973. In those years, dove hunter numbers ranged between 108,000 and 130,000, while they are currently between 70,000 and 80,000. Dove hunters generally average about five trips per season and kill around 20 birds per year.

Migrating doves will usually begin arriving in Illinois in February, according to Illinois Department of Natural Resources upland wildlife biologist John Cole. Cole said the birds typically nest three times per year, with about two eggs per nest. In a good year, nesting birds will produce around four or five fledgling young during the breeding season.

Doves will begin establishing flocks throughout July and August. Bird migration will generally begin when nighttime temperatures start dropping below 50 degrees. However, Cole said their migration is not as striking or abrupt as other species. They will generally only move about 10 to 20 miles per day.

Northern Illinois hunters are at the greatest disadvantage because doves will typically begin moving out of the area by mid-September. With opening day being Sept. 1, this only gives hunters in the northern part of the state about one or two weeks with plenty of doves in the area. Federal regulations prevent the opening date being moved up before Sept. 1.

Another factor that contributes to dove movement is crop and grain harvest.

"In August and September, birds tend to be concentrated around early ripening crops planted for hunting like sunflower and millet," Cole said. "But when corn and soybean harvest begins, doves disperse over the countryside and feed in harvested grain fields. This usually puts an end to the heavy concentrations of birds around the sunflower fields."

Mourning doves make use of many different habitats and food sources. They inhabit both urban and rural areas. In rural areas, they nest in shrubby pastures, fencerows, wood lots and farmsteads. In towns, they make extensive use of landscape plantings.

They also feed on many types of waste grains and weed seeds. Spilled grains from row-crop fields are a primary draw for doves. When the fall harvest begins, doves scatter out and can be hard to pattern in large numbers. Although cooling weather moves doves out of northern Illinois, they tend to stay longer in the middle and southern parts of the state, with some even staying throughout the winter. But they can be tough to hunt after the crops are harvested, even if the temperatures remain mild.

Knowing the migration and movement habits of doves is vital to extending the hunting action. Hunters in the north must follow migrating birds southward to find good success. Then when widespread crop harvest begins, serious scouting becomes practically a necessity if you want to enjoy good shooting.

Doves usually roost in one area and then fly out to other areas for food and water. Locating these travel paths can be one key to hunting success. A hint, especially in the later part of the season, is to look between urban areas and croplands. Each fall, more and more doves are learning to roost in towns and suburban areas. In early morning, they typically fly out to agricultural areas to feed and will then return late in the evening. Hunters can often catch these in-flight birds just outside the urban limits and enjoy good shooting. Many hunters in these situations are beginning to use decoys to attract doves into pass-shooting range. Both stationary and battery-operated decoys can be highly effective at times.

Locating fall food sources is another way to score. As mentioned, crop harvest can really scatter the doves and make hunting large fields really difficult. However, by hunting smaller crop fields -- especially those with good resting trees or power lines nearby -- can lead to many more shooting opportunities.

Obviously, some of the best hunting in the state occurs on private ground. Both managed dove fields and row-crop fields can be great. Luckily, you can often receive permission to hunt for doves easier than for some other species.

Additionally, the DNR has a number of fish and wildlife areas and other lands owned or leased by the DNR that offer good dove hunting. Some 123 sites throughout Illinois offer hunter access during dove season. Many of these have managed sunflower fields and other food plots to attract mourning doves.

We mentioned that doves are a migratory bird and will typically move southward through Illinois during the season. With that in mind, we have divided the state into a northern section, a central section and southern section. The following are a few suggestions for locating public hunting ground in each of these three sections of the state. Keep in mind that there are numerous other locations besides these.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS

Based on the most recent surveys of public hunting areas, biologist Cole said dove hunters in the northern part of Illinois should target either the Big Bend State Fish & Wildlif

e Area (FWA) or the Silver Springs State FWA. Both of these areas have yielded good results for dove hunters in recent years.

The Big Bend State FWA has 2,338 acres open to hunting, with over 1,100 of those acres being open or cultivated land. Various food plots are scattered around the area, including several planted with sunflowers. Big Bend is open throughout the statewide season, although there is a hunter drawing during the first three days. The statewide bag limit applies. From Sept. 1-5, dove hunting is allowed from noon until 5 p.m. After Sept. 5, hunting is allowed from sunrise to sunset.

Big Bend is located in Whiteside County about four miles west of Prophetstown. The best access is from Van Damme Road or Banks Road. For more information, contact the site superintendent at (815) 537-2270 or (815) 537-2926.

Silver Springs State FWA is in Kendall County near Yorkville. It has about 1,300 total acres and many opportunities for dove hunters. Success has been high in recent seasons. A site permit is required during the first five days of the season. Registration occurs from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m., and hunting is allowed from noon until 5 p.m. Vacancies are filled by an 11 a.m. drawing. Hunting is allowed on a first-come, first-served basis from Sept. 6 through Sept. 30. Hunting during this period of the season is allowed from noon until sunset. There are other special regulations at this FWA, so hunters should familiarize themselves with the rules before hunting. Information is available by calling (630) 553-6297.

Several other properties in northern Illinois have good dove hunting. One of these is the Double T State FWA in Fulton County. It is open to dove hunting from Sept. 1-30, but there is a quota drawing during a portion of the season. Double T is nine miles west of Canton on Route 9. Call (309) 647-9184 for more information.

There are 32 acres specifically managed for dove hunting at the Hennepin Canal State Trail. Dove hunting is allowed at the Main Complex area where the Visitor Center is located. The season runs from Sept. 1-30, with varying regulations throughout the season. Hunters should contact the site at (815) 454-2328 to familiarize themselves with these regs and to obtain more info.

Other areas to consider are the Sand Prairie Habitat Area and the Green River State Wildlife Area, both of which are in Lee County. Information on both of these sites is available by calling (815) 379-2324.

CENTRAL ILLINOIS

Central Illinois dove hunters have several good choices. Cole said the public hunting area surveys point to three locations as being tops in this section of the state. Shelbyville WMA, Horseshoe Lake State Park and Jim Edgar Panther Creek State FWA all have been good to hunters in recent years.

Shelbyville WMA is located in Moultrie County. Both the Okaw Unit and the Kaskaskia Unit have areas that are managed for doves, as well as open lands. Regulations vary between the two types of hunting areas. Both the general hunting areas and dove management areas require you to obtain a free site permit before hunting. Additionally, hunters must be successfully drawn before receiving a permit for the dove management areas. During the first five days of the season, hunting is allowed from noon until 5 p.m. After that, hunting is permitted from noon until sunset.

Shelbyville WMA is six miles southwest of Sullivan and three miles southeast of Bethany. The site can be reached by phone at (217) 665-3112.

The Horseshoe Lake area has some great options for dove hunters, but hunting there is strictly controlled. There are a variety of specific regulations covering everything from where you can hunt to how to retrieve downed birds. A quota is used to limit the number of hunters on the area at any one time. Permits are required, as is checking in and out on the day of your hunt. Horseshoe Lake State Park is on Highway 111 about one mile west of Granite City. Although the regulations make this area a little tougher to hunt, the excellent shooting opportunities here outweigh some of extra effort required. Contact the site at (618) 931-0270 to learn more.

Jim Edgar Panther Creek State FWA has been thrilling dove hunters on a regular basis. Dove hunting has been very successful there, and with good reason. This FWA has both open lands and food plots planted especially to attract doves. There are over 10,000 acres of open land and some six different areas with food plots. Hunting is limited by drawings during a portion of the season, but the remainder is open and does not require being drawn. A windshield site permit is required of all hunters using the area.

Jim Edgar Panther Creek FWA is in Cass County between Ashland and Chandlerville. The site superintendent can be reached at (217) 452-7741.

Two other areas to consider in central Illinois are the H.B. Woodyard State Natural Area in Vermilion County, (217) 442-4915 or (217) 662-2714), and the Moraine View State Recreation Area in McLean County, (309) 724-8032.

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS

Pyramid State Park and Ten Mile Creek FWA are the two top picks in southern Illinois, according to harvest surveys. Cole said both of these areas have been yielding good success to dove hunters.

The Pyramid area is broken into five separate tracts or units. In total, this property encompasses over 19,000 acres near Cutler and Pinckneyville in Perry County. This area has all the makings for great dove hunting, because there are ample open fields, cropland, food plots, water sources and wooded areas. Each of the different units offer dove hunting opportunities, but regulations vary between the areas. A lottery drawing limits hunter access during portions of the season. There are also variations on legal shooting times, shot requirements and more.

Hunters are best served by contacting the site office at (618) 357-2574 for more information and specific regulations. A site permit is required for all units.

Ten Mile Creek FWA is in Jefferson and Hamilton counties. The property has nearly 6,000 acres and is divided into four different tracts. A free permit is required before hunting, and it can be obtained from the site office on State Highway 14 about four miles west of McLeansboro. There are around 4,000 acres of land here that are either open or used for cropland. Ample water sources and timber are also present, making this area highly attractive to doves.

More information on Ten Mile Creek FWA can be had by calling (618) 643-2862.

Another area that can offer good dove shooting is at the Rend Lake State FWA eight miles south of Mount Vernon in Jefferson County. However, dove hunting at this location is allowed only on opening day and then on Wednesdays and Saturdays thereafter. Hunter numbers are regulated for safety reasons, and a drawing will be held in the event more hunters arrive on a particular day than the area can accommodate. Dove hunting is allowed from noon until 5 p.m.

Call or visit the Rend Lake headquarters for more information at (618) 279-3110.

The Carlyle Lake State FWA in Fayette County is another good place to kill doves. The area is mostly open under statewide regulations, but there are a few variances. Hunters are required to sign in before hunting and sign out when leaving the area. More information is available by calling the Carlyle Lake site office at (618) 425-3533.

PARTING SHOT

These dove hotspots are but a glimpse at the hunting opportunities in Illinois. There are countless other public-land opportunities, as well as virtually unlimited private ground to seek out. You should always ask for permission before hunting private land, and you should be aware of any special rules while hunting on public lands.

With some diligent scouting and by taking into consideration the bird movement throughout the season, hunters can extend dove hunting action beyond just the first week or two. Of course, birds get tougher to hunt after the first few days, but that doesn't mean there isn't still plenty of action out there to be had. It takes a little extra work, but the reward is well worth it.

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