Our Best Dove Hunts

See what these lightning-quick little birds have in

store for Show-Me State hunters this fall. (September 2007)

Photo by Mike Marsh.

Approximately 40,000 Missourians will go afield on Sept. 1 in order to participate in what has to be one of the state's most distinctive outdoor sports. We -- and I use the word "we" because I'll be among that 40,000 -- say that we're going dove "hunting," but our actual hope is that we're going dove "shooting." And there's the rub.

As any veteran Show-Me State dove hunter knows all too well, locating enough doves on private land for even a small group to enjoy a barrel-heating shoot can be about as easy as downing an afterburner-powered left-to-right crosser at an honest 45 yards. It's not that the former (to say nothing of the latter) can't be done: I've enjoyed some private-land dove shoots right here in central Missouri that would (nearly) equal the sort of action that traveling hunters claim to find in northern Mexico. But that said, my friends and I have also trudged back to our vehicles at sunset with our shell bags full and our game bags empty when the corn-stubble field that our chief scout (truthfully) claimed had been "chock full of doves" on Aug. 31 contained nothing but field sparrows on Sept. 1.

Enter the Missouri Department of Conservation. As a result both of his own research and of his having taken part in a multiyear, multistate dove project, MDC resource scientist John H. Schulz has reached some surprising conclusions (surprising to me, anyway) about the best means of managing Missouri's doves. During a recent interview, I asked him point blank why the MDC's dove management programs seemed to be directed solely toward helping hunters kill the quarry as opposed to providing it with habitat, such as is the case with most other species.

"Doves are such habitat generalists that everything is dove habitat," Schulz replied. "Therefore, there's really nothing much we can do to create more year-round habitat specifically for doves. That leaves hunting as the only effective dove management tool."

According to Schulz, approximately 90 properties owned or leased by the MDC will have some acreage managed so as to concentrate doves for readier accessibility by hunters. Almost without exception, the technique used involves mowing and/or disking strips through sunflower fields in order to give doves open ground on which to feed while affording hunters adequate cover from which to shoot. The results can be amazing.

Or, at least, they can be -- if several diverse elements come together. First of all, conservation area managers are given considerable leeway in setting priorities for their areas. As might be expected, the relative importance of maximizing the potential of whatever acreage is allocated for dove management varies. That's a roundabout way of saying that, in the case of all hunting venues apart from time-honored dove producers (such as those mentioned in this article), a late-August scouting trip can save a carload of opening-day frustration.

Then too, the best-laid plans of area managers may be frustrated by spring and early-summer weather patterns, which can have a significant impact on a given CA's ability to attract large numbers of doves. Sunflowers, a difficult crop to grow under the best of circumstances, must be planted as early as possible in order to be fully ripe by the end of August. A soggy spring followed by a parched early summer (not an uncommon combination in Missouri) can wreak havoc on sunflower production. Nevertheless, year in and year out, the Missouri CAs best managed for doves do an amazing job of producing exciting action no matter what nature dishes out.

Truth be told, "pre-loading" a CA's sunflower fields with doves just prior to Sept. 1 is the easy half of the equation. The other half --managing dove hunters -- is far more complex. Described in its simplest terms, the MDC's goal is to limit the dove harvest to a sustainable level while allocating the best public-land dove shooting among the state's hunters in a manner that's both fair and safe.

Doing so begins with an understanding of the Missouri dove hunter's psychology. Although the state's dove season opens on Sept. 1 and closes either at the end of October or early in November, most dove hunters are convinced that the season closes at sunset on Labor Day. This becomes an overwhelming majority by, at the latest, Sept. 15. Obviously, the strict rules on hunter numbers, hunter placement, and/or shooting hours that are essential during the first few days of the season are far less so later on, and area managers respond as changes in hunting pressure permit. (Author's note: Public-land dove hunting regulations vary widely from one CA to another and are subject to changes unavailable at press time. Contact the area manager of the CA you intend to hunt several days prior to Sept. 1 to obtain the latest information.)

Non-toxic shot was a hot regulatory topic early in 2007. Use or possession of lead shot is prohibited for hunting in designated areas of 21 CAs (a list of which can be found in the Missouri Code of State Regulations at 3 CSR 10-8). Despite rumors -- and actual discussions -- to the contrary, no plans to extend the ban on lead shot to include dove hunting on all MDC properties were known to exist as of press time.

Dove hunters at the state's best CAs need to be prepared to take part in the Adaptive Resource Management program, whose object is (as stated in Schulz's 2006 dove report) "to evaluate the effects of different hunter and harvest management strategies on the goal of maximizing hunting opportunities." Those strategies consist in various sorts of limitations on shooting hours, total hunter numbers, and hunter placement. The individual hunter's role (in addition to checking in and out of the area) is to record data, including number of doves killed, number of shots fired, hours hunted, and the number of doves shot but not retrieved.

There's more than one way to rank Missouri's best dove hunts: driving distance, number of doves killed last year, number of hunters. Nothing's wrong with any of those approaches, but experience has convinced me that the best way is to compare the number of shots fired per hunter. After all, it's impossible to bag a limit of doves without at least a limit's worth of shooting opportunities.

PONY EXPRESS LAKE CA

Pony Express Lake CA is the hands-down winner of 2006's shoot-'em-up contest. The 784 hunters who participated in the ARM program there fired 25,979 shots -- an astounding 33.1 shots per hunter. The total dove harvest was 5,115.

To reach Pony Express Lake, drive nine miles west of Cameron on Highway 36, north on Highway 33, and then a mile on Route RA. This CA is farther from any of the state's major population centers than any of the

other CAs highlighted in this article. However, as its statistics dramatically prove, the hunting here is worth the drive. During the month of September, those looking to shoot doves must check in at area headquarters and obtain a Daily Dove Hunting Tag prior to hunting.

TEN MILE POND CA

Ten Mile Pond CA was another super dove shooting spot in 2006. The 336 hunters who sampled its pleasures fired 9,569 shots: 28.5 shots per hunter. The total bag was 2,599.

Southeast Missouri dove hunters definitely should give Ten Mile Pond serious consideration. Be advised, however, that dove hunting during the first two weeks of the season is conducted as what the area brochure calls a "managed hunt." Contact the area manager for the latest information.

J.A. REED MEMORIAL CA

J.A. Reed Memorial CA took its perennial place among Missouri's best last year, its 1,425 hunters firing 39,599 shots for a more-than-respectable 27.8 shots per hunter. The total dove harvest at Reed for September 2006 was 7,426, approximately 6,000 of which were killed on opening day.

In recent years -- check to make sure that 2007 is no different -- dove hunting at Reed CA has been a Monday-through-Friday noon-to-sunset affair with no dove hunting allowed on the weekend. Both the total number of hunters and the total number of hunters per field are limited, so veterans arrive several hours early to make sure they'll get their favorite spots. For these hunters, beating the crowd is part of the fun, but super-early arrivals aren't necessary, since the area seldom fills out. In fact, the area could use more dove hunters from about Sept. 10 on.

COLUMBIA BOTTOM CA

This CA almost undoubtedly held more doves in 2006 than it did when Lewis and Clark visited the area. The area's 1,338 hunters fired 31,998 shots for a shots-per-hunter average of 23.9; killed were 7,179 doves.

Waterfowl have been, and still are, the No. 1 priority at Columbia Bottom -- and that's as it should be. The area does, after all, adjoin the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Even so, as the just-noted figures indicate, doves are anything but a byproduct here.

Unfortunately, this magazine will arrive too late to help hunters unfamiliar with Columbia Bottom's unique approach to dove hunter allocation. Hunters apply for a permit to hunt during the first 10 days of the season in July, and the lucky applicants (only 50 permits per day are issued) are drawn in August. Permittees enjoy a high-quality hunt, to be sure, but hunting later in the season can be nearly as good. Besides, beginning on or about Sept. 11, no reservations are needed, and no limits placed on the number of hunters.

BOIS D'ARC CA

Here, 729 hunters fired 15,197 shots -- an average of 20.8 shots per hunter -- to rack up a total kill of 2,521 doves.

Bois D'Arc is the place to be for Springfield-area hunters looking for rewarding dove action close to home. This CA offers one of the few morning hunts (from a half-hour before sunrise through to noon) among the state's best dove CAs. Hunters must check in and select a specific hunting area during the first week of the season. After Labor Day, hunting pressure drops dramatically. Dove numbers often decline as well, but the birds will be back in a few weeks.

OTTER SLOUGH CA

Only 110 dove hunters visited this CA in 2006. Firing 2,264 shots (20.6 shots per hunter), they killed 607 doves.

I'm at a loss to explain why so few chose to shoot doves at Otter Slough last year. Unless things change this year, the area's early-season special regulations are no more onerous than those at any other intensively managed CAs. This one's a sleeper for early-season hunting, and could be a super hotspot in October.

OTHER OPTIONS

In fairness to the other 84 CAs slated to have portions of their acreage devoted to doves in 2007, the just-discussed properties were selected on the basis of the statistics available through the ARM program to back up their claims to fame. But be that as it may, these CAs are not the only "best" dove hunting action Missouri's public lands have to offer. In fact, Schulz mentioned during my conversation with him eight other CAs that he rated as "second-tier" dove producers: Bilby Ranch in Nodaway County, Davisdale in Howard County, Eagle Bluff in Boone County, Nodaway Valley in Andrew County, Franklin Island in Howard County, Overton Bottoms in Cooper County, Platte Falls in Platte County, Shawnee Trail in Barton County, A.A. Busch in St. Charles County, and R. E. Talbot in Lawrence County. Any of these is worthy of an up-close-and-personal look-see.

Still haven't seen exactly what you want? Contact the appropriate MDC district offices in the part of the state you'd like to hunt. You'll find that every d.o. manages one or more CAs with good-to-excellent dove hunting potential. What's more, if you can't help but bristle at regimentation, most of these lesser-known potential dove hotspots are governed by statewide regulations without added provisos.

This article's obvious purpose is to identify Missouri's best public-land dove hunting. Even so, I hope you'll have noticed that, while the statistics used to back up my choices technically were based on hunter success during the entire month of September, they were as a result of declining hunter participation based on the first few days of September.

So don't make the same mistake that most of your fellow dove hunters are making. True, doves may shy away from heavily hunted fields both public and private for a week or so after the opening weekend barrage, but not only will the local survivors return to the best food sources, but they'll be temporarily joined by flocks of migrating doves as well. Far more often than not, actually, some of the dove season's best shooting takes place in early-to-mid October.

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