5 Public-Land Dove Hotspots

No matter where you live in the Bluegrass State, there's likely a fine public-land area near you on which to hunt mourning doves. Here are five top picks for you to consider!

Photo by Peggy Cozart

By Norm Minch

The mourning dove is a prolific breeder, nesting numerous times beginning in early spring. Even though a dove nest appears just to be hardly more than a loose pile of twigs and sticks, built precariously thin with little twigs, straw and other lightweight materials, this species somehow turns out tens of thousands of offspring in Kentucky each year, as well as in other states.

As September approaches, many hunters start becoming more observant, scanning power lines and field edges for concentrations of doves across the rural Commonwealth landscape. Discussions with hunting buddies on where the best places to be opening day become more frequent, as we try to figure out how to put ourselves in the path of a torrent of gray wings coming at us from every direction and angle.

We hanker hard for spots where wave after wave of birds will fly in, and result in a hot gun barrel, a spectacular show of shooting ability - well, at least on one or two birds - and some high-quality dog work for some of us. If we can locate an area that offers that, well, until the day comes, we're on the edge of our seats. The excitement and anticipation keeps on building, and by the time we get out there, for some it becomes almost like a "them or us" competition. Who's going to fare better today - the birds or Mr. Remington? I'll let your experiences answer that question.

While dove hunts on private lands can produce some of the best shooting and action available, sportsmen can also find quality opportunities on some of Kentucky's public wildlife management areas (WMAs). Since doves are found statewide, we've selected a spot or two in each of the state's five wildlife regions. These are WMAs where acreage is prepared specifically for doves, so these areas usually provide good early-season hunting. Let's take a look.

PURCHASE REGION

The fact that much of the public-hunting land in far western Kentucky is generally maintained for waterfowl doesn't so much affect its ability to attract doves. These areas certainly do. However, it does affect dove hunters in that only steel shot is allowed on several areas to avoid inadvertent lead poisoning of waterfowl that come to use these lands later in the season.

The Ballard WMA is one such area. Area manager Charlie Wilkins and his crew manipulate a lot of ground on Ballard to enhance it for ducks and geese, but they also crop several acres of food for doves, too.

"We'll have about 25 acres of sunflowers on Ballard this year, and have added a second smaller field," Wilkins said. "We try to provide good opportunity for the early season, and in most years, we'll kill 600 to 800 birds here those first few days.

"Since our only restriction is using steel shot, I think hunters like it here because there aren't any other special regulations to know about. Hunters can just come in, find a spot and hunt as long as they are licensed properly and abide by the limit," Wilkins said.

Regardless of what public area you may choose to hunt, since there are rarely any "rest" days after the season starts, after the first few days of shooting, doves will scatter to other areas to feed. Sometimes hunters can return a couple of weeks into the season, after the initial rush of use has concluded, and some birds will return or others move in.

"We sometimes notice that when the season opens in the middle of the week, like this time, that hunter numbers are down a little and individuals may get a little more shooting than when we have more on the field," Wilkins said. "But we don't limit the number of hunters either way, and rarely do we have anyone who doesn't hunt safely or crowds someone else unnecessarily. Most of the time everybody can find a spot to shoot, and get a chance to take several birds," Wilkins said.

The Ballard WMA is outside La Center on U.S. Route 60. Once on the area, signs are posted to direct hunters to the dove fields. Shooting hours for doves are from 11 a.m., prevailing time until one-half hour after sunset, which is the same as statewide regulations.

As an alternate place to consider, Wilkins also suggests trying the 10 to 15 acres of dove fields in the Lower Bottoms of the Boatwright WMA, about eight miles down the road from Ballard. His staff also plants various types of dove plots on this area for gunners using steel shot.

GREEN RIVER REGION

The Green River region is blessed with an abundance of crop fields that provide a good food source for doves. Depending on how you look at it, that can be good and bad. Lots of available foods doves like to eat can sometimes scatter birds, especially if those sources all become mature and available at the same time. Doves can then find what they're after about anywhere they set their feet down.

In spots where there are many possible areas doves might use, hunters may need to scout a little harder to see what fields are attracting more birds at the time they plan to hunt. If you have access to private land as well, and want to take advantage of public land opportunities too, it is best to hunt public land first if birds are equally using both. Often, good hunting on private land extends well into October if crops are manipulated right, because these fields don't receive constant hunting pressure that can make doves change their feeding locations.

It's tough to select the top spot in this richly agricultural region, but again, one of the perennial favorites is a wildlife management area intensely managed for waterfowl. The Sloughs WMA near Henderson and along the Ohio River has offered wing-shooters ongoing dove hunting for many, many seasons. Although biologists say doves don't get imprinted to an area if they survive one season to the next, production in this area is consistently good for young-of-the-year birds. Many of these birds select the Sloughs as their primary feeding, roosting and nesting site.

"We have the steel shot restriction, as do other waterfowl refuge areas, but if you're willing to drop an extra buck or two for shells, our hunters have good success when conditions are right," Sloughs manager Mike Morton said.

There are several acres of food plots grown on this WMA each year, and as long as nothing catastrophic occurs weather-wise, a good number of birds are usually on the area come opening day.

"That's mostly what we shoot for - having things where they need to be for that first day," Morton said. "Everybody likes to be out there on the first day

."

In addition to the Sloughs, a back-up hunt spot that often has good shoots is the Higginson-Henry WMA in Union County. Manager Scott Buser sets a good table on his area too, and hunters may want to explore the opportunities there for knocking down a few birds the first day or two of the season.

BLUEGRASS REGION

Public lands biologist Bill Balda says he has two or three spots in his region where good dove hunting generally occurs, but notes that in the middle part of the state, the volume of public land is lower than in other regions from the get-go. This tends to concentrate more hunters on fewer acres, and if you select to hunt public land here, you should expect up front to have a lot of other shooters around.

Balda says his best and most consistent producer of birds annually is the Central Kentucky WMA in Madison County. One reason why this WMA seems to have a lot of birds is that the WMA is quickly becoming an island of habitat in the midst of a lot of urban development.

"We know that we're not the only ones who are out there trying to get doves in on Sept. 1 for a shoot. Lots of private landowners, who sometimes have more resources and time to devote to developing a good dove field, are working next door for the same reason we are," Balda said.

"Over at Central Kentucky, especially the last year or two, the amount of agricultural land in close proximity to the area has been altered into residential property.

"A dove is only going to fly as far as it has to for food, water and cover. Central has all that, and with habitat decreasing in the surrounding area for all types of wildlife, maybe the doves are coming there in higher numbers for lack of a better source of food and roosting sites," Balda explained.

The biologist reports that a usual harvest on the area has been around 400 birds, but that last year area manager Marcia Schroeder and staff recorded 750 birds being taken. That's a good year by any standard for public-land hunts.

"She plants anywhere from 10 to 12 acres of food plots with sunflowers, wheat and millet, and does a good job in timing those crops to be ripe for the season. We have little control over weather-related factors that largely determine how good of a yield we get, but if nothing too unusual happens, we generally have the table well set.

"We then just hope we don't get a hard cold front a day or two before hunting opens, which almost always drives the birds out of the area somewhere south and more comfortable to their thermometer," Balda said.

"I'm amazed and very pleased it produces as well as it does each year," Balda said. "Give credit to Schroeder and her staff for the job they do over there - they deserve it, even if the weather happens to kill us five months after they've started the process."

One other spot in the Bluegrass that has had improving opening day shoots is the Kentucky River WMA in Henry County. It requires steel shot use only, but biologists say it has attracted a good number of birds the last year or two. Be prepared for high hunter numbers, and remember safety and courtesy rules while afield.

NORTHEAST REGION

As you progress into the eastern third of the state, dove habitat tends to dwindle somewhat compared to the western two-thirds of Kentucky, but there is still some opportunity to be found.

A hunter's best bet will likely be to explore WMAs associated with major lakes, such as Grayson or Paintsville WMAs. Food plots are prepared on these lands, and ample water sources with cover nearby are important in the production, and ultimately the availability of doves when the season arrives. Major lake WMAs have these habitat components. As long as the deer herds don't take a tremendous toll on the fields in late summer, good numbers of birds will use these areas and hunters have as decent a chance to score as anywhere else.

In years past, the Clay WMA and very close by Fleming WMA in Nicholas and Fleming counties have offered some good hunting, but sometimes the action can be sporadic. They're a good place to check out, but pre-season scouting is recommended to see if birds are using those fields prior to opening day. When they are on hand, things can get pretty fast and furious. If not, just like any other dove field public or private, you may come home with more sunburn than birds.

SOUTHEAST REGION

The Green River Lake WMA fields offer the best dove hunting on public lands in the southeastern part of the state. This WMA lies on the line between the Bluegrass and Southeast regions, and generally offers two public fields to hunt.

The area workers use a variety of plantings to attract birds. Fields on the WMA are located on state routes (SR) 70 and 1798 and signs make them easier to find. Again, given the relatively small amount of public hunting land in this region, hunters shouldn't be surprised to find several vehicles there when they arrive.

There are no special regulations on this WMA for dove hunting beyond what is required under the statewide season laws. One tip to remember on public lands is that it is not always necessary to set up right on the edge of the planted field. Hunters who do a little scouting and notice how birds are entering the field can sometimes position themselves 50 to 100 yards off the plot itself, and kill birds on their way in, before they are otherwise shot at.

In the Southeast Region, the alternative to hunt land you don't have to get permission to be on first would be to hunt one of the KDFWR-leased fields in the region. These fields, available in all five regions, are listed in the 2004 Kentucky Dove, Wood Duck, Teal, Woodcock, Snipe and Crow Hunting Guide. You can also consult the KDFWR Web site at www.fw.ky.gov in mid-August to find out where these fields are located.

The KDFWR prepares fields for dove hunting on about 18 different WMAs, but those highlighted above have been the most consistent producers and favorites with hunters in recent years.

"I expect we will have as good a dove season in Kentucky as usual, and that hunters should be able to find birds in numbers comparable to last season," said KDFWR Migratory Bird Program coordinator Rocky Pritchert.

"We estimate Kentucky hunters take 800,000 to a million birds each year, as long as we have normal weather patterns and a good growing season for crops across the state.

"We encourage veteran hunters to take youngsters out when they are ready to learn, practice hunter safety and help keep our public lands and leased fields clean and picked up so landowners will want to work with us the following year," Pritchert said. That brings one last thought to mind for this fall.

A final opportunity on four or five public-use lands for a potentially good dove hunt would be to sign up for a Mentor/Youth hunt, usually on opening day or the first

Saturday of the season, where you pre-register to hunt with a youngster, and both adult and junior hunters can hunt. Sign-ups for these special, limited-participant hunts are usually in mid-August. If one of these hunts is within acceptable distance for you and a hunter 15 years old or younger, you may want to give a Mentor/Youth hunt serious consideration.

The idea behind these reservation-only hunts is to introduce kids to the sport. The youth doesn't even have to carry a firearm if he or she isn't quite ready, but can get an idea of what dove hunting is all about while the adult shoots. If the youngster is ready to handle a shotgun, being out there with his/her mentor should be a "blast."

For more information on public-land hunting, or dove season in general, contact the KDFWR Information Center at (800) 858-1549 any weekday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.



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