3 Best-Bet Public-Land Dove Picks

Our state's DNR offers sportsmen plenty of chancesto bag their limits of mourning doves on public land. (September 2009)

Hunting over sunflower fields on any of our state's fish and wildlife areas is a great way to bag your share of doves this season.

Photo by Tom Berg.

Hunting for mourning doves has been extremely popular in the Hoosier State for many years. It's easy to see why. Doves are fast, maneuverable, and very hard to hit. They are also exceptionally wary birds, and they have great eyesight. If you are not wearing camouflage, they will usually spot you and head the other way! But that just adds to the fun and excitement of the hunt!

One of the keys to a successful dove hunt is to find areas where doves are feeding on a regular basis. Mourning doves love to feed on a variety of seeds and grain, but one of their favorite foods is sunflower seeds. Managers at our Department of Natural Resources (DNR) properties know this, so they make it a point of planting sunflower fields in an effort to draw in doves for hunters.

Among the state-owned properties, fish and wildlife areas (FWA) provide many opportunities for dove hunting. Property managers will plant fields of sunflowers and take the necessary steps to keep them weed-free. Keeping the fields as weed-free as possible makes it easier for the doves to feed on the seeds as they fall to the ground, and in the end it attracts more birds.

With these thoughts in mind, Indiana Game & Fish magazine has identified three public hunting areas where Indiana bird hunters can expect to find excellent numbers of mourning doves this year. Read on to see what these properties have in store for hunters on opening day.

WILLOW SLOUGH FWA

Willow Slough FWA is in Newton County in the northwest part of the state. This property consists of nearly 10,000 acres of varied habitats, including wetlands, fields, woods and a 1,200-acre lake. It's a great place to hunt waterfowl, but since it always ranks at or near the top in terms of dove harvest, it's also one of the best places in the state to hunt mourning doves, too.

Last year, Willow Slough was again the top public-land producer of doves in Indiana for the fourth year in a row. In 2008, 3,026 doves were harvested at the property, and although that number is down from 2007 when 4,949 doves were bagged here, it is still better than all of our state's other FWAs and reservoirs.

Willow Slough FWA participates in the state's reserved dove hunt, so the first two days of the season are set aside for those lucky hunters who were drawn in the reserved hunt lottery. After that, property managers hold a daily draw at 11 a.m. for the other hunters who show up at the property.

Mike Schoonveld is the assistant property manager at Willow Slough; he knows that the dove hunting will likely be good there again this season. "If we have good weather during the summer and leading up to the dove opener on Sept. 1, we'll have plenty of doves at Willow Slough," he said. "Hopefully, it will be hot and dry all summer, with no late-August cold fronts."

According to Schoonveld, the excellent harvest numbers at Willow Slough are no accident.

"Good husbandry is one of the keys to our success," he said. "We plant lots of sunflowers and we keep the fields weed-free. We also plant sunflowers on our satellite areas and our game bird habitat areas. Our satellite areas include fields that are planted on The Nature Conservancy's nearby Kankakee Sands property."

Willow Slough typically has about 15 sunflower fields planted for the use of dove hunters, but that number can vary yearly. Some of the fields are on the main FWA property, while others are on satellite areas. "Our satellite properties are managed differently than the fields on Willow Slough," reported Schoonveld. "We don't hunt them every day, and we put fewer hunters on them." Because of that, hunters commonly shoot limits on the satellite fields right through the end of September.

Although hunters at Willow Slough were allowed to use lead shot on certain fields in the past, this September things will be changing.

"This year all dove hunting at Willow Slough will require shooting with non-toxic shot," said Schoonveld. For more information, call the headquarters at (219) 285-2704.

KANKAKEE FWA

Kankakee FWA is a 4,095-acre property located along the Kankakee River, right on the LaPorte County/ Starke County line. It is almost due north of the town of North Judson. It is also a dove hotspot, ranking right up there in harvest numbers with Willow Slough. In fact, Kankakee FWA ranked second to Willow Slough in 2008 by only five doves!

Mike Schoof is the assistant property manager at Kankakee FWA, and he keeps a close eye on the dove program there.

"We have a good local population of doves because of the excellent habitat that we have here," he said. "My experience is that doves like the riparian area along the river. We grow a lot of doves along the levees out here because there is good nesting habitat for them."

Schoof and the other Kankakee FWA workers ensure that those resident doves stick around by planting plenty of sunflowers.

"We actually only plant three fields each year," he said, "but each of those fields are about 25 acres in size." That's significant, especially when you realize that most fields on other properties are much smaller.

"Our fields are 25 acres apiece, and they extend up to a mile in length, depending on the field setup," he continued. "So they are pretty substantial."

Big fields are easy for flying birds to find, and that is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the continued success here.

"If you put out 75 acres of sunflowers, you are going to pull in an abundance of birds from a lot of different areas," theorized Schoof. It's hard to argue with success. In 2008, 3,021 doves were harvested at Kankakee.

As you might expect, plenty of hunters flock to this property to get in on the good wingshooting. Kankakee FWA also participates in the state's reserved dove hunt, but anyone who wasn't drawn can show up for an on-site draw to fill any no-show slots.

"After the first two days, we hold an open draw at 11 a.m. every morning," said Schoof. "We typically fill up every day for the first 10 days."

Kankakee FWA has required non-toxic shot exclusively for several years now, and that will not change

. "We require steel shot because a lot of the areas where we plant our sunflower fields can be flooded in the fall for waterfowl use," explained Schoof.

For more information about Kankakee FWA, call the property office at (574) 896-3522.

BLUE GRASS FWA

Not all of the best dove hunting in the state takes place up north. Blue Grass FWA in southern Indiana's Warrick County is also a big producer of mourning doves. This 2,532-acre property features reclaimed strip-mine land, and includes 28 strip pits and lakes, as well as upland areas that attract a wide variety of wildlife.

According to Nate Levitte, the property manager at Blue Grass FWA, the local dove hunters in his area have been very successful recently.

"We've had a couple of pretty good years," he admitted. "We finished up with slightly fewer birds in 2008 than were harvested in 2007, but we still did alright."

The harvest numbers were actually good, since hunters here took 2,118 birds in 2008.

The 2008 hunt at Blue Grass was very good, especially because Indiana's youth had a chance to get involved.

"For the second year in a row, our youth hunt was on opening day," said Levitte. "In the past, we had a youth hunt and then two days of drawn hunts. After that, everyone got a chance."

Since the dove opener falls on a Tuesday this year, the youth hunt at Blue Grass will be on Saturday, Sept. 5, so that the kids can participate.

Another change for this season will involve the daily drawings. Levitte is planning to have drawings for the first five hunts.

"In an attempt to make this a quality experience, we are planning to extend the draws for five days," he said. "I really think that's going to increase our overall take. With any luck, that will result in good hunts for five full days and we will have a pretty high kill-per-effort."

Levitte typically likes to plant five or six fields with sunflowers every year.

"If we get six fields planted, and then one of them fails for some reason, we still have five fields that we are happy with. Last year, we had one field that we weren't so happy with, but we had five good ones."

Blue Grass FWA will also require non-toxic shot in its dove fields in 2009, so hunters should be prepared and bring the right ammunition with them. For more information about hunting here, call the office at (812) 789-2724.

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