A Bird In The Hand . . .

A Bird In The Hand . . .

. . .Is worth two in the bush. We've compiled a list of our state's dove hunting hotspots, along with a few tips to make sure that you're on top of the action this fall. (September 2008)

A cloud of feathers drifted against the deep blue September sky. I caught the drift because I first heard the report of a 12-gauge shotgun from Dian's direction. She downed her very first dove, and the dance was on as she brought the bird to hand.

Cheers from all the guys surrounding the cut cornfield in Mississippi County gave Dian reason to celebrate. She had shown the guys that she, too, was a bona fide dove hunter.

As my wife found out, dove hunting quickly becomes addictive. There is not a more challenging bird species that flies the Missouri skies. Ask anyone who pursues the little gray rockets and they will honestly tell you that they have eaten their share of humble pie when it comes to gunning for doves.

Almost 40,000 Missourians will join us afield on Labor Day, Sept. 1, for the dove opener. Private and public lands alike will be crawling with hunters looking for that pie-in-the-sky dove hunt. With almost 90 percent of the land in Missouri in private ownership, it goes without saying that the majority of doves harvested will come from private properties. I have been fortunate enough to hunt lands where the dove shooting matches that of south Texas or Mexico, with the exception of the bountiful limits allowed in Mexico.

On the flip side of the coin, I have also enjoyed spectacular dove hunting on some of the Missouri Department of Conservation's managed dove fields. The second-best dove hunt of my life occurred on a 50-acre burned wheat field on an MDC area. Legwork and my inquisitive nature uncovered this unadvertised dove-hunting gem. Perhaps most of the best dove-hunting spots on MDC areas are listed online at www.mdc. mo.gov, but I positively guarantee that not all the areas are listed. If you have an MDC area near you, check with the area manger. Ask the manager directly if he plants wheat, sunflowers or other foods that are attractive to doves. If not, encourage him to do so. Expressed interest sometimes creates opportunity. If there are planted foods on an area near you, happy hunting. Enjoy the fruits of your extra effort.

It is no secret that dove numbers have been in decline for several decades. No one knows for sure what the cause is for the declining populations. Most biologists agree that it is most likely a combination of several factors influencing dove reproduction. Across the Midwest, the dove harvest was down 30 to 40 percent last year.

MDC research scientist John H. Schulz has participated in multi-year and multi-state dove studies. His findings are unusual as far as management of a species goes.

"We know how to specifically manage for turkeys, quail and pheasants," Schulz began. "We know what their habitat needs are. Doves are a different story. They are habitat generalists. In other words, everything is dove habitat. So, there is little we could do to improve dove habitat."

That leaves hunting as the only effective dove management tool, according to Schulz. "Our goal is to limit the dove harvest to a sustainable level, while allocating the best public-land dove hunting in a fair manner."

This fall, dove hunters can expect to find roughly 5,000 acres of planted dove management areas broken up among 150 fields on 90 conservation areas spread across the state.

"Dove management fields do not help to increase the dove population," Schulz said. "They do, however, help concentrate birds for hunters, if everything goes right.

A number of factors must fall precisely into place for the superb dove hunting on opening day that everyone wants to come to fruition. Weather is a key factor in dove reproduction, according to Schulz. "Doves will begin to nest as early as February if the weather is mild," he said. "Nesting usually peaks in May, but an early start will add numbers to the overall population."

Managers of CAs are given lots of leeway when it comes to managing their allocated acres for dove fields. Most tend to plant sunflowers, a preferred dove food. However, much is left to the whims of Mother Nature. Temperamental weather patterns in early spring and summer often foil the best-laid plans. Sunflowers have to be planted early to be fully grown by late August.

Then, there is the fickleness of doves themselves. More than one dove hunter hascursed the air blue because he scouted a dove field a few days before season and found it teeming with birds, only to find it vacant on opening day. Two fields equally attractive to doves may not both hold doves on any given day. The birds move around a lot. Dove hunters understand that birds may be here today and gone tomorrow.

Despite their ability to move so quickly, Schulz said that 93 percent of the doves banded in Missouri are killed in Missouri. So scouting ahead of time and having a couple of backup plans just in case your number one hotspot isn't so hot on opening day might be a good idea.

Schulz was quick to point out some of the very best dove hunting hotspots in each quadrant of the state. As a disclaimer, however, he stated, "Although these are some of the hotspots in each part of the state, they may not necessarily be the hottest spots in their region come opening day."

Even a research biologist cannot predict exactly what dove hunting will be like on any given area on opening day. However, if you are a gambling dove hunter, place your bets on these MDC areas.

This 3,290-acre CA in northwest Missouri's DeKalb County is about as far away from any major population center as any in the state.

Dennis Browning, the area manager, indicated that Pony Express has been a consistent attractor of doves. "We plan to have about 100 acres of sunflowers available for dove hunters on opening day," he stated. "We will shred some of the sunflowers and leave some standing both to attract doves and provide some cover for hunters. The standing plants are usually on one side of the narrow field to keep most of the hunters on one side. That makes for a safer field when the shooting begins."

Browning indicated that there would be another 40-acre field of burned wheat available as well. "Timing is everything when it comes to burning wheat," he said. "The burn has to be almost perfect to get the desired effect. Ideally, we like to burn off all of the duff. Doves like bare ground. However, we don't like to burn the seed. It just needs to be caramelized. Then we hope it doesn't rain. If moisture comes, the wheat seed will sprout quickly, rendering it unusable by doves."

For the month of September, dove hunters must check in an out at area headquarters on Lake Site Road. Hunters will be asked to fill out an Adaptive Resource Management survey after hunting. The information helps biologists determine management practices to maximize hunting opportunities for the future.

Browning mentioned that safety signs are posted all over the area to remind shooters to watch for other hunters and avoid taking shots at low-flying birds. Last year, hunters safely averaged 27 shots per trip while bagging six birds.

Pony Express Lake CA is nine miles west of Cameron on U.S. Route 36, north on state Route 33, then one mile on state Route RA.

This 4,866-acre area in Stoddard County is a prime destination for southeast Missouri dove hunters.

"We will have 100 acres of sunflowers in our dove fields this year," area manager Tommy Marshall stated. "We can accommodate about 75 hunters. That insures both a safe hunt and a quality hunt."

With the dove opener on Labor Day this year, hunters will face a draw at 5 a.m. at area headquarters. During the two weeks following opening day, hunters can check in and out at area headquarters without going through a draw. However, hunting is allowed only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from sunrise until 1 p.m. After the first two weeks, hunters may then hunt every day from sunrise until sunset.

Non-toxic shot only may be used at Otter Slough. "No. 7 steel shot is readily available in the area," said Marshall. "It runs about $6.99 a box. Too, it has proven to be very effective on doves."

Otter Slough is west of Dexter on U.S. Route 60 and then 10 miles south on state Route ZZ.

Southeast of East Prairie on state Route 80 and then five miles south on state Route 102, this 3,755-acre CA is definitely the primary dove hunting hotspot in southeast Missouri and arguably the best in the state.

I grew up within a stone's throw of Ten Mile in the 1950s and '60s. I knocked off more doves with a slingshot and BB gun than most hunters in their 30s have killed with a shotgun. Our farm attracted doves by the thousands.

After I received my first shotgun, a .410, dove hunting became wingshooting and I was hooked for life. My first 12 gauge, an old Remington pump full choke, accompanied me on every dove hunting trip for a couple of decades. My accuracy improved over the years due to the fact that I shot the choke out of the full barrel.

"With opening day being on Labor Day, some hunters can be expected to be turned away from the morning draw," area manager Rob Vinson stated. "We can accommodate about 150 gunners."

"We have a farming contract for 150 acres of sunflowers," Vinson continued. "The shooting is usually good, and we hold a draw when we expect a lot of hunters. Hunters can hunt from sunrise until 1 p.m. the first two weeks of the season and from sunrise until sunset the remainder of the season. And everyone must use steel shot."

Thousands of acres of croplands lay between Ten Mile Pond and the Arkansas border. All of it is prime dove-hunting territory. Scouting these areas well before opening day and approaching landowners for permission to hunt is a good backup plan in case you don't get drawn at Ten Mile. Too, you may find private property that offers better hunting than the CAs.

If you aren't opposed to dropping a few greenbacks for a dove hunt, I would suggest Kyle Dekriek's Flyway Hunting Club. I have enjoyed some of the best dove hunts of my life on his properties near East Prairie. Dekriek noted that birds were down in 2006, but stated "All 42 hunters on my place limited out on opening day of last year."

Check out Dekriek's operation at www.Flywayhuntingclub.com or call him at (573) 472-4140. He indicated that he'll have his cell phone with him on opening day, so if you don't get drawn at Ten Mile Pond, give him a call at (573) 380-1030. He plans to have several new farms leased up this year.

Columbia Bottoms CA in St. Louis County consists of 4,318 acres at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. St. Louis-area hunters would do well to check out the dove hunting potential of this area. However, hunters must have filled out an application in July to be eligible for a draw that covers the first 10 days of the season at Columbia Bottoms.

Area manager Tom Liefield indicated that hunters can anticipate hunting over 100 acres of sunflowers and 50 acres of wheat. "We scattered these plantings into a number of small fields rather than all in one large field," he said.

"We have been doing the random draw for a number of years and it works well," Liefield continued. "We draw 50 hunters per day. Each of those hunters is allowed to bring another hunter along."

After the first 10 days, the draw is over and hunters may hunt from sunrise until sunset. However, each hunter must check in at area headquarters. Only non-toxic shot is allowed while dove hunting at Columbia Bottoms.

Schulz recommended that Springfield-area dove hunters look to the Bois D' Arc and Talbot CAs in Greene and Lawrence counties. Both are heavily managed for doves and see a lot of pressure in the first week of the season.

Dove hunters planning to go to either of these CAs may want to call ahead of time to see what shape the crops are in on the sites. Early spring floods may have hampered plantings. Area personnel were not making any predictions in early April.

The above-mentioned areas are among the best of the best public dove-hunting spots in the state. However, a dove-hunting forecast is no match for up-to-date and last minute scouting of potential hunting sites.

Retired National Park Service Ranger Bill Terry, of Jadwin, is an avid bird hunter. "There is nothing I enjoy more than watching a flock of dipping, diving and careening doves come zooming into a field at sunrise," he said. "Doves can humble the best of shooters in a hurry -- but, oh my: Is it ever fun to shoot to your heart's content trying to down a limit!"

Terry often frequents the White River Trace CA (eight miles west of Salem on state Route H) on the opening day of dove season. "About 50 guys normally show up there," he stated.

Other hotspots to try to include: Eagles Bluff in Boone County, Nodaway Valley in Andrew County, Franklin Island in Howard County, and Overton Bottoms in Cooper County.

Join the opening day dove-hunting hurrah at one of Missouri's prime conservation areas. You'll be among the other 39,999 dove hunters who hope to have a bird in hand.

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