Magnolia State Dove Preview

Fall is approaching, along with the dove season. What will the shooting be like this year? Let's take a long look.

By John J. Woods

The worst thing a parent can do to a child is to get him or her a .410 shotgun - especially if the goal is to teach the youngster the art of wingshooting doves - and then, heaven forbid, to complicate the training process further by making it a bolt-action shotgun! This combination is a terrible impediment to learning about successfully engaging speedy birds in flight. This is particularly the case with likes of mourning doves, which often entice the shooter into making follow-up shots regardless of how fruitless the attempt is likely to prove.

I know this to be the case firsthand, because this is exactly the strategy my dad used to teach me to shoot doves. On my very first dove hunt at the age of 8, I could barely wield the hand-me-down Stevens bolt-action .410, much less hit anything flying across the sky like a Roman candle fireball. I might get off the occasional shot in the general direction of a dove, but I could never negotiate a second shot while fumbling with that clumsy bolt.

I wasted a lot of paper hull shells back in those days, all without so much as a single dead dove to show for my efforts (except for adding an unbecoming black-and-blue tinge to my shoulder). Unfortunately, my dad's solution was to get me a 20-gauge replacement - but again with bolt action.

However, the one thing I did learn from those early hunts was the fun of an organized dove shoot. These days around Labor Day, similar scenes are played out on dove fields all across Mississippi. In fact, dove shoots have virtually replaced quail hunts as a primary social gathering among hunters as an official kickoff to the annual fall wing-shooting seasons.

ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF A DOVE SHOOT

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks estimates that around 76,000 resident and non-resident hunters take part in the dove seasons in the Magnolia State. During the usual three seasons from September through mid-January, hunters harvest over 1.6 million birds. On average, each hunter spends about 3.2 days afield. Their success rate hovers around the 90 percent mark, with each shooter taking an average 22 doves each year.

Federal authorities regulate the sport of dove hunting, because mourning doves are considered to be migratory birds just like ducks and geese. Therefore, the season dates, bag limits and specific regulations are set each year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Most, if not all, of the doves we shoot at in Mississippi during the first season and into the second shooting session are resident birds that have been in the state all year long; hunters refer to them as the "local birds." The migratory doves usually don't show up in Mississippi until several cold fronts pass through the state later in the year. These frigid northern blasts push the doves down south.

One question that hunters face each fall: How can you keep the resident birds in place until the shooting starts? The other: What's needed to ensure that, when the waves of migratory birds arrive, the transients stay through the January season?

The answer to both questions is relatively simple; however, taking the necessary actions is sometimes easier said than done. Doves lead rather simple lives. They need shelter, food, and water. Mississippi doves can usually find ample shelter everywhere in the state in the abundant tracts of hardwood forests they use for nesting and roosting. They gather around small open bodies of water to drink and browse for bits of the gravel that they must ingest in order to digest grains and seeds.

The food requirements for doves are generally quite varied, but include virtually any type of grain or seed, whether of the cultivated variety or from a wild source. Mourning doves seem to favor rice, corn, sorghum, milo, soybeans, and sunflower seeds. These birds frequent pastureland, hay fields, and overgrown prairie lands - any terrain thick with weed and other natural seed resources.

The secret to really good dove hunting is the location of these three critical attractant elements in relatively tight proximity. As a young dove shooter, my favorite place was a fallow weedfield with alternating plowed rows prepared for dove shoots. The dove field was boxed in on three sides by a line of heavy oak trees. Smack in the center of the field was a 1/2-acre pond glistening in the sun like a mirror.

This setup drew in the doves like a magnet. Placing shooters at all the corners of the field and across the open end produced sufficient shooting action to keep the birds stirred up. Once a flight of doves came over the treeline or into the open end, they headed for the pond. Then it was all up to the shooters to do their jobs. Shots popped like corn in a microwave oven.

The Right Field

It's quite common in the South to use standard farming practices for the express purpose of planting fields for dove shoots. This can be the expensive part of the sport, as a field of sunflowers can be cost to plant. Cornfields work well, too, if the corn harvest happens to commence just before the dove season opens. Residual grain left over from the harvesting process is a great dove attractant - and perfectly legal. Mowing weedfields is also a quick way to create a dove field.

Some landowners plant several fields at different dates to stagger their maturity, thus providing a food source to last over a longer span of time. After the initial season is over, some forage - like sunflower fields - may be virtually barren as the doves pick them clean. Shooters have to switch to other crops harvested later in the year, like soybeans or corn.

Dove hunters looking for public lands also find that many wildlife management areas have planted fields for dove hunts.

Weather often can make an impact on the success of dove shoots. During the early season in September, the usual concern for hunters is the heat. However, thunderstorms can wreak havoc on dove shoots, as can torrential rains and lightning. Windy days do not seem to deter doves, although wind gusts only add to the dove's ability to fly like a twisted pretzel on fire.

The Shooting

The most effective time to dove-hunt has characteristically been early in the morning and again late in the afternoon. Though it is legal to hunt all day, seldom do you find many hunters still afield after midmorning.

But that always depends on the doves. If they keep flying, hunters will continue to show up on the field as well.

With a daily bag limit of 15 birds, really good shooters can max out their limit in a fairly short time; excellent shotgun-pointers may fill their bag limits in an hour or less. But for most of us, a limit of doves is a full day's pursuit. Personally, I've never had the problem of limiting out early. In fact,

with my usual 25:1 shot-shell-to-dead-dove ratio, I'm usually one of the last shooters in the field.

DOVE HUNTING IN MISSISSIPPI


For more information on the locations of hunts on public land this season, visit the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Web site, at www.mdwfp.com. Follow the links for Hunting/Wildlife, then Wildlife Management Areas.



To obtain details on commercial dove hunts at Fowl Mood Guided Hunts, call Rob Heflin at (662) 247-1540.



To reach George Mayfield regarding his pay-to-shoot dove operation, call his lodge at (205) 373-3147.

 

PUBLIC-LAND DOVES

Many hunters are pleasantly shocked to learn that Mississippi has so many wildlife management areas with available dove-hunting options and seasons of one kind or another. The Magnolia State had 23 of its 42 WMAs - 55 percent - offering dove hunts during the 2003-04 season.

Dave Godwin, small-game program coordinator for the MDWFP, observed, "Many of the WMAs had successful public dove hunts last season. The MDWFP will be offering at least one public dove hunt on WMAs in each district, while some districts will host several WMA dove hunts."

Godwin suggests that hunters keep an eye on the MDWFP Web site as the season approaches to determine which WMAs will be offering dove hunts this year. He also recommended a call to individual WMA area managers to find out if the doves are using the designated fields open for the hunts.

He also mentioned that the MDWFP again would be trapping and banding mourning doves prior to this season in every region of the state for research purposes. Hunters harvesting banded doves are encouraged to report the kill by calling the contact telephone number on the band.

One bit of knowledge that can be gained from looking over the list of WMAs offering dove hunts is the fact that they are clustered together. That is because some areas in the state historically provide better dove hunting. Thus, public tracts in those regions are good places for planting dove fields.

The three primary clusters are in the northeastern prairie section of the state, the heavy agricultural Mississippi Delta region, and the central plains area. On these lands a variety of hunts are offered with differing dates. Some are youth hunts, while others are for the general public.

PAY-PER-DAY OPTIONS

Commercial dove hunts are becoming big business in Mississippi. For many hunters seeking some wingshooting for mourning doves, the hassle-free pay-per-day hunts are appealing. Do these hunts produce reasonable results for the fees charged? It usually depends on the field, the weather and other conditions.

Rob Heflin has been hunting and guiding near his Mississippi Delta home in Isola for many years. For the past three years he has been organizing dove hunts through Fowl Mood Guided Hunts. He cultivates an 18-acre field of sunflowers and offers shootings for doves in each of the three annual seasons. During his 2002 Labor Day opening day, shooters grounded 300 birds in just 90 minutes.

Last year Rob hosted 68 hunters on Sept. 1, and after the smoke cleared, they had harvested nearly 800 birds. Almost 50 of those shooters filled their bag limits. Even the hunters that did not get bag limits ended up shooting an average of 100 shot shells each.

"The second and third seasons saw good shooting as well, but the numbers of doves dropped off," Heflin noted. "This year I am planning on scaling back the number of hunter slots during the first season in hopes of retaining more hold over local birds for the other seasons. We will offer 24 hunter stations for 2004. Our goal is to provide good shooting opportunities for each of the three separate dove seasons not just the opening day."

Another traditionally good dove hunting region in the state is the northeastern prairie grassland counties. The Roost, operated by George Mayfield, has been putting together one of the more popular dove hunts near Macon in that region for several years. Held over specially planted dove fields or harvested agricultural croplands, fields have a reputation for having lots of birds for plenty of shooting action.

"Every opening dove season we do something a little different at The Roost," Mayfield explained. "We have enough good shooting fields to safely accommodate a large number of dove shooters for both the traditional early morning hunt as well as the afternoon hunt. That evening we host a huge barbeque at the lodge. Everyone is invited as part of the hunting fee, and the turnout is tremendous. This event has grown into a major annual social event for all the hunters in the area and their families. We take care of all the details and the hunters just have to enjoy themselves."

Dove shoots are social occasions in Mississippi. The sport kicks off the annual shooting seasons and gives hunters a chance to warm up for all of the other hunting opportunities in the Magnolia State. Fortunately, with our abundant WMA fields and plenty of commercial private shoots, it is never hard to find a place to get into the midst of this Magnolia State tradition.



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