Our 2009 Dove Outlook

With opening day fast approaching, here's what Missouri shotgunners can expect when they hit the dove fields this month. (September 2009)



Dawn was but an idea in my mind as Maude and I climbed the hill to the tabletop dove field. My partner Maude was a young black Labrador retriever, wild as a March hare, starting her second hunting season.

The air was warm, almost hot, and typical of Missouri's opening day of dove season. Only one other vehicle was in the parking lot, yet I knew more hunters would follow shortly.

Maude ghosted in front of me hunting both sides of the mowed trail to the dove field. I let her run to wear off some of her energy. The managed dove field held mowed strips of sunflowers and was large enough to handle a whole host of dove hunters. I called Maude in to heel. Another dog announced his presence from the end of the field. Maude responded in kind.

We snuggled down in the middle of the field in head-high uncut sunflowers, about 60 yards from an old phone line and 100 yards from the field edge. There we would await the dawn and Missouri's opening day of dove season -- and of fall hunting.

A dozen or so hunters joined us, settling into the field as the light in the east spread. I loaded my Browning 20-gauge side-by-side with two No. 7 1/2 field loads in anticipation of the season's first dove.

I heard shooting down in the valley in one of Missouri Department of Conservation's bottomland dove management fields, followed shortly by a shot behind me, near the field edge. Three doves flashed over and quickly out of range, too quick for me to locate and get off a shot.

More hunters joined us and doves began flying into the field in singles, groups of twos and threes, and that occasional flock of 10 or more. Shooting was almost continuous for the first hour, and I watched my first box of ammunition empty with little to show for my efforts. Only two doves and Maude was getting bored. She'd only retrieved two birds.

For me this was a typical dove opener, one of 35 I've attended. When I first started dove hunting in Missouri, it was on private lands. However, all that changed when Missouri began managing doves on public areas.

And my shooting hasn't improved. First, I'm the world's worst wingshot; the ammunition companies love me. And second, after the long layoff from the quail season 10 months before, I was rusty. Boy, was I rusty.

By the end of the season's second hour, I was well into my second box of shells as other hunters began to leave with their bag limits. I'd added three more birds to the pile. The odds of me reaching a full bag limit of 12 birds were slim, yet I felt a great deal of satisfaction as another hunting season gathered momentum.

Maude was just plain bored.

To kick off the 2009 dove season and learn where Missouri Game & Fish readers might find the best dove hunting, I visited with John Schultz, the Missouri Department of Conservation resource scientist who is responsible for dove management and dove research for our state.

I'm glad to say he's one of the nation's leading dove researchers. I hoped to learn where to find the best dove fields and regions, what the future of Missouri's dove management might bring, and how Missouri stacks up when compared with other states with dove seasons.

I visited John in his comfortable office at MDC's resource science building in Columbia. I've known John for more than 20 years and have been impressed with the length and breadth of his knowledge about upland bird management and what the future might bring. Perhaps most important, he makes one think.

His bookshelves are lined with books on wildlife management and philosophy that at first blush seemed at odds with each other. Yet, as I listened, I realized wildlife management goes far beyond simply monitoring animal populations and kill rates. It also sits on the cutting edge of people management. John's at the forefront of dove research in the United States, and Missouri's dove hunters benefit greatly from his knowledge and interests.

Join me to learn where to hunt and what to expect for the 2009 dove season.

WHERE TO HUNT

Let's tackle the most important question our readers want to know: Where should they hunt doves this September?

"You know that even if we had data to pinpoint all of the hotspots," Schultz replied after a moment to gather his thoughts. "I couldn't tell you where to go or whether or not this year will be outstanding or just average."

We talked in early summer.

"Even if we had satellite data and could count all of the doves on our public areas, all I know is that Missouri's dove management areas are going to have the best available dove management efforts of just about any place in the United States."

That sounds exceedingly reassuring, to say the least!

Schultz says that a couple of weeks before the season, all available data will be available on MDC's Web site, www.mdc.mo.gov/hunt/fall.htm. The information will show location of dove management fields, sunflower fields or wheat fields, and site maps also will be available.

"You may be able to just show up on opening day to hunt, or on some areas, you may have to apply to hunt," he said.

"That's on our public areas. On private areas, the sky's the limit. If you have a farmer cutting corn, or have actually planted sunflowers to attract doves, those options will also be available this fall.

"MDC provides a wide range of hunting opportunities for dove hunters -- from areas where you will stand shoulder to shoulder like at our trout parks, to areas where you may have a very nice field all to yourself. It all depends on where you want to hunt." That being said, Schultz had one last thing to say about the subject. "You can't beat our public hunting areas."

"I understand that we're talking early in the year and current information isn't yet available," I said. "Can we look at last year's or previous years' information and have a good idea where Missouri dove hunters can find good to outstanding dove hunting?

"The short answer is yes," Schultz replied. "Columbia Bottoms over by St. Louis, and the Reed Area near Kansas City, year in and year out produce outstanding dove hunting.

"For example, in 2007 on the Bush Area near St. Louis,

832 hunters killed 1,069 doves; on Columbia Bottoms near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, 1,150 hunters killed 4,925 doves. On the James A. Reed Area, near Kansas City, 1,712 hunters (in 2006) killed 7,815 birds, and in 2007 they killed only 2,470 doves. Opening day was rainy."

Schultz explained weather could play an important part in how many hunters visit an area, how successful hunters are, and how many doves visit the managed field. Local weather conĀ­ditions can play an important part in the numbers of doves visiting an area. Rainy days and weeks produce fewer hunters and fewer birds, and fewer doves killed. Schultz explained that this was the reason for the reduced kill at the Reed Area in 2007. That is true for all managed dove areas.

Most doves using managed dove fields are young-of-the-year. The large flocks consist of mostly young birds. Doves migrate south each year, usually during the first serious wet, cold spell. This is another reason the most important hunting period is the first week of the season. Schultz points out that most hunters hunt doves only one or two days.

Schultz also says Missouri dove hunters kill more doves "proportionally" than any other state, even Texas. I asked what he meant by proportionally.

"For example, Texas probably kills more doves than does Missouri," Schultz explained. "But of the birds here in Missouri, we kill a larger proportion of the available doves. Missouri dove hunters harvest between 18 and 20 percent statewide."

Schultz doesn't monitor dove-hunting pressure on all the many managed dove-hunting areas scattered around the state. However, he does on 12 areas for his research. His 2007 research report is telling: During September 2007, 7,181 hunters killed 29,548 doves on only 1,528 acres. And this was a 37.5 percent decrease from 2006 in numbers of doves killed.

I'm not sure how this compares with other states, but to me it looks like the MDC's dove management program has to be one of the best, if not the best, in the nation, and dove hunters in 2009 can expect similar dove-hunting opportunities on managed dove fields.

"Mourning doves are the most important game bird in North America," Schultz said. "They are the most heavily hunted and harvested game bird, migratory or non-migratory. They provide more hunting opportunities than any other game animal in North America. Doves generate more Pitman/Robertson tax dollars for wildlife management than any other critter in North America."

Schultz's research ends this year. "What's going to happen in 2009 is the culmination of all of those research activities. In the future, for the first time ever, our harvest management decisions will be based on analytical data. We will be in the current season framework for the next five years.

"In the next five years, dove management will transition to a much more robust analytical framework for dove management."

HOW DO YOU STACK UP?

I know I'm a bad shot, but that doesn't stop me from hunting. It just makes me carry more ammunition.

After reading Schultz's 2007 dove report, I find I'm average -- maybe even slightly above normal. Where do you fit in?

Schultz found that for every bird killed, hunters used 5.1 shots. Hunters reported crippling rates of 16.5 percent in addition to the harvest; they traveled between 3.5 miles and 50 miles to hunt managed dove fields, and most hunters (78 percent) only hunted one day.

Last year, I hunted more days (five), but only killed doves on three of them. This fits with about 36 percent of the hunters in the survey who didn't kill a dove on a hunting day, and the 16 percent who killed only one dove. Only 10 percent reported killing a daily limit of doves.

I seldom kill a limit. That's because I usually run out of shells before I reach a limit. This year, Missouri dove hunters will be able to kill 15 birds daily, with 30 in possession, and according to Schultz, most likely this season framework will continue for the next four years.

How'd you stack up?

SELECTING A DOVE FIELD

As Schultz pointed out, you can't go wrong hunting one of Missouri's dove management areas. However, having said that, do some homework before the season opens, especially if you hunt one of the lesser-known dove fields.

All dove management fields are not created equal; it all depends on the efforts of area managers. If a manager doesn't have the time or equipment, or interest, to plant sunflowers and manage mature flowers before the season opens, some fields will not attract many doves. I've experienced both extremes.

Dove management on the MDC's managed areas involves planting sunflowers in the spring, and then mowing or disking strips through the fields in July and August to attract doves. The best managers disk several times to create open areas, areas free of weeds or old sunflower stalks, with plenty of open ground. Doves need open ground with seeds. Done right this management approach pays huge dividends for dove hunters.

Before opening day, visit MDC's Web site and print maps of the dove management fields you're interested in hunting, and then visit the fields in the morning to see if they're attracting doves. Correctly managed, those fields should be attracting lots of doves.

For a starting point in your search, check out the dove management areas Schultz used for his research. Odds are very good they will be well managed and have some great dove-hunting opportunities the first week of the season.

Private lands also offer dove hunters great opportunity. However, you have to do the legwork. A couple of weeks before opening day, drive back roads in the morning or evening and look for doves sitting on wires near old wheat fields with stubble or that have been freshly plowed. Or look for corn fields being cut for silage.

A wildlife biologist once told me that for every perched dove you see on wires, there are 10 or more in adjacent fields. Once you locate a field being heavily used by doves, visit with the landowner and ask permission to hunt. Most willingly allow a few dove hunters access.

And here's a handy hint: Take your young son or daughter with you when you ask permission. Trust me, it helps.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The 2009 dove season is shaping up to be a great one. Most area managers do a great job of planting and managing sunflower fields. And, as John Schultz points out, Missouri dove management areas are outstanding, and managers have gained a reputation for proving great hunting opportunities.

After the third hour of shooting, and with only six doves in my bag, Maude and I walked out of the field knowing we would be back the next day. So, this year if you see an old, rotund hunter with a black Lab, shooting lots of holes in the sky with little success, tip your hat a

nd wish him well. He's having a ball.

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