Sooner Dove Outlook

Sooner Dove Outlook

Another dove season will be starting any day now! Here's what Oklahoma shotgunners will have to look forward to when the happy day arrives.

Photo by Mark Romanack

My son Evan and I scanned the horizon and soon found a distant line of doves winging their way toward us from the south. Propelled by a gusty wind, the avian speedsters dipped and dived as they zeroed in on the sunflower patch in which we waited.

As a rite of passage, Evan was on his first upland hunt, armed with my trusty 20-gauge single-shot, which I'd handed down to him. With doves rapidly approaching, we eagerly awaited our chance to get the new hunting season started.

Soon I gave the "Take 'em!" call, and Evan and I rose to fill the air with a barrage of No. 8 shot. Unfortunately for us, we failed to knock even a single feather from the doves -- which seemed to taunt us as they flew by.

We quickly reloaded before resuming our vigil, reasoning that more lead was needed for the next flight. A short while later, after expending what amounted to a small mound of brass and only toting home six doves, we vowed to improve our shooting skills at a nearby trap range.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my time in the field with Evan. Although doves can be downright frustrating for a young hunter to bring down, the hunting fraternity gained a new member that day.

What more can I say? Oklahoma dove season brings out the best and worst in wingshooters everywhere.

The small, acrobatic doves are native to Oklahoma and concentrate here every summer, their numbers peaking in September and early October -- providing, of course, that the first real cool snap of fall doesn't come early and send them southward.

So what does this fall hold in store for Sooner dove enthusiasts? Jeff Neal, assistant migratory bird biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, believes this season will be another good one.

"The season will no doubt be controlled by the weather conditions as opening day approaches," he said. "Most of the doves that Oklahoma hunters will take the first few weeks are native doves. As the season progresses, and the weather up north gets cooler, flocks of migrating doves will pass through Oklahoma and give hunters additional opportunities."

Neal dispelled a myth that some dove hunters believe to be factual. "Most hunters believe the doves that migrate into the state from Kansas and other states are larger than our birds. But actually, those non-resident birds are larger because they are older, and ours are smaller because they are younger."

Dove hunting, which typically is enjoyed by all ages, signals summer's end and fall's approach. For all of the hunters who have been itching to take to the field and bust a few birds, the time has arrived! So break out the shotguns, don some lightweight camouflage, and find a good dove field or waterhole near you for some fast upland bird action. One piece of advice: Bring plenty of shells. Averaged nationwide, the ratio of doves bagged to shots fired is 1:7.

DOVE FACTS

Mourning doves are one of the most popular game birds in Oklahoma. They're found statewide, usually near agricultural areas where ample seeds can be found. Many even congregate around backyard bird feeders in residential areas.

According to Mike O'Meilia, ODWC migratory bird biologist, doves eat a variety of wild and crop seeds in Oklahoma such as croton, dove weed, pigweed, sunflower, maize, milo, and wheat. They also eat small amounts of gravel to help digest the grain.

"Ninety percent of our doves are resident birds," he said, "and we normally estimate that doves have a 60 to 70 percent turnover each year. Doves have a naturally high mortality rate, and average living 1 to 1 1/2 years."

Later, as temperatures drop in September and early October, doves migrate south through Oklahoma before wintering in huge concentrations in Mexico.

NORTHWEST WMA DOVE HOTSPOTS

While most of the state's land is privately owned, finding a good dove spot can be tough. Most good ground is being leased by hunting clubs. The ODWC lands largely are overhunted, leaving game numbers spotty at best. However, here is some good news: There are some very serviceable public lands at which dove hunters can generally take a limit without having to drive too far.

The ODWC manages several wildlife management areas in the state that offer tremendous hunting opportunities free of charge to licensed sportsmen. Found statewide, most of these WMAs contain good numbers of doves.

Some of the best bets in the northwest lie within several large areas of public land. These tallgrass prairie areas offer good dove habitat, and seem to have huge numbers of birds traveling through our western corridor.

Beaver River WMA in the Panhandle is a good bet for hunters wanting to find large numbers of doves. Beaver River WMA is located next to the town of Beaver, and spans 17,700 acres. The area is a mixture of grasslands with sagebrush and buffalo grass, flood plain and river bottoms. The ODWC has focused on producing native dove foods there, such as sunflowers and small agricultural plots.

I've hunted Beaver River and found it to be a great spot that's prime for dove hunting. Good numbers of doves generally are available. This WMA receives surprisingly heavy hunting pressure, but with the ample amount of acreage and an abundance of doves, good shooting is usually available.

Other worthy choices in the northwest are Hal and Fern Cooper WMA, Packsaddle WMA, and Ellis County WMA.

Cooper, near Woodward, covers 16,080 acres of mixed grass prairie and sagebrush. Management efforts to improve this WMA include planting croton and sunflowers, two favorite dove foods.

Packsaddle and Ellis County WMAs, sited near Arnett, total 15,000 acres. Both areas consist of rolling sand hills and river bottoms. At peak migration, good numbers of doves are usually present. According to Orin Patton, a landowner in Leedey, weed fields, sunflower patches and watering areas are some of the better areas for dove hunting.

Ellis County WMA is smaller in size, having 4,800 acres of tallgrass prairie and riparian habitat. The ODWC supplements this area with small agricultural fields planted annually to attract doves.

Like Beaver River, these areas also hold good numbers of doves and annually attract a numb

er of hunters.

Another northwest Oklahoma hotspot closer to Oklahoma City is Canton WMA. Situated near Canton and Longdale, this WMA is made up of 14,877 acres of grassland and river-bottom habitat. The grasslands feature several grasses and seeds that the doves feed on daily. Hunting near a Canton watering hole during both midmorning and evening hunts can prove very profitable.

In Western Oklahoma, the obvious first choice for dove shooting is Black Kettle WMA. "The Kettle," near the towns of Cheyenne and Reydon, spreads out over several miles of Roger Mills County.

I've hunted doves at Black Kettle several times, and never failed to get into plenty of doves -- usually enough for a limit. As might be expected, Black Kettle does receive considerable hunting pressure but its 30,710 acres practically guarantee that there's always a place providing both dove action and escape from the crowd.

In the northwest, the 9,146 hunters surveyed took 181,926 doves last season, representing an increase in hunters from 2003, but a decline in doves harvested. That figure, though slightly lower than the previous year's, works out to nearly 20 doves per hunter.

SOUTHWEST WMA DOVE HOTSPOTS

In the southwest, there are two good WMA choices for dove enthusiasts: Sandy Sanders and Hackberry Flats.

Sandy Sanders WMA, between Mangum and Sayre, is one of the most likely-looking places for rattlesnakes that I've ever seen in Oklahoma -- according to the ODWC, three species of rattlesnakes are present in this refuge -- but it's also a prime spot for dove shooting. This WMA spanning 19,100 acres can be described as a rocky, dry area punctuated by grass and mesquite trees. The scenery changes from a mesquite savannah to a mixed-grass prairie. Three running creeks are available as watering sites.

Near Fredrick, Hackberry Flat -- "Hack," as the locals call it -- is a prime spot for migrating doves. However, at only 7,120 acres, it can feel heavy hunting pressure at times. Hack's made up of agricultural fields, pastures of native grasses and forbs that are interspersed with a variety of trees including the hackberry, from which this WMA derives its name.

Louie Holstead, a lake manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says that some good dove shooting can be had near Waurika Lake -- a water-supply and flood-control reservoir for the community of the same name in the southwest part of the state.

Last season, 11,973 hunters (slightly down from the previous year's figure) bagged an estimated 399,939 birds (also a decline from last season). The average season bag total increased from last season to slightly over 33 doves each.

2004 OKLAHOMA DOVE HARVEST BY REGION
RegionHuntersHarvest
North-central19,456461,468l
Northwest9,146181,926
South-central9,811275,565
Northeast15,465181,926
Southeast3,326104,100
Southwest11,973399,939
Total69,1771,759,578

SOUTH-CENTRAL WMA DOVE HOTSPOTS

Most dove hunting in the south-central part of the state is largely on private lands. There are not many WMAs available, but one's worth mentioning: Love Valley.

In the southern part of the state near the Red River arm of Lake Texoma, Love Valley WMA features 7,746 acres of bluestem grass with bottomland hardwoods. This area has been enhanced with large agricultural fields that attract migrating doves. The Addington Bend area of the refuge offers some of the best dove hunting.

Of 9,811 hunters surveyed (up from last season), 275,565 doves were harvested (also representing an increase), which gave the average hunter an increased season bag total of just over 28 birds.

SOUTHEASTERN WMA DOVE HOTSPOTS

Dove hunting in Southeastern Oklahoma is spotty at best. As a result, few dove hunters flock to the area.

This area reported the lowest harvest of doves, with 104,100 for 3,326 hunters surveyed. Amazingly, hunters there averaged just over 31 doves apiece for the season. Not bad for an area of the state that's not known for dove hunting!

This heavily timbered region offers little habitat for holding large concentrations of doves, but it does contain the state's two largest WMAs: Honobia Creek and Three Rivers.

Honobia Creek and Three Rivers WMAs are both owned by timber companies and managed by the ODWC. They require a yearly access fee of $16 from each hunter. Combined, these vast wilderness areas span 625,000 acres, but are far better spots for hunting deer and turkeys. However, limited dove shooting can be fairly productive during peak migrations. A side note: Be on the lookout for black bears when you visit these areas.

NORTHEAST DOVE HOTSPOTS

The northeast part of the state was a great spot for dove hunters last season, with the 15,465 hunters surveyed taking 336,580 doves. That comes to nearly 22 doves per hunter for the season (slightly down from last year's estimates). The northeast also features some good WMAs.

Keystone WMA, near Mannford, is a smart choice. Both the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers flow through this 16,537-acre WMA, which features riparian habitat and crop fields along with grassy uplands. The doves that show up there every fall in decent numbers seem to prefer the manipulated or recently plowed fields, which yield the high-protein grain essential to their diets.

Another good pick for dove shooting is Fort Gibson WMA near Wagoner. This WMA encompasses over 21,79

9 acres consisting of hardwoods and upland tallgrass prairie. There are also 2,700 acres of agricultural fields that enhance Fort Gibson WMA and attract big numbers of mourning doves.

NORTH-CENTRAL DOVE HOTSPOTS

Last but not least is the north-central region, which produced 461,468 doves for 19,456 hunters surveyed -- a yield of nearly 24 doves per hunter.

As in most of the state, a large part of the choice dove spots here are privately owned or leased by sportsmen. However, there is a fantastic WMA near Ponca City called Kaw WMA. Made up of 16,254 acres of bluestem grass with hardwood bottoms and agricultural fields, the area features tremendous dove shooting that's usually available early. After the native birds move on, enough replacements usually come from the northern states to keep the action fast and furious.

PAY HUNTING

For a nominal fee, hunters can hook up with some high-grade hunting opportunities in Oklahoma. Several outfitters offer reasonably priced dove hunts (ranging from $50 to $150 per day) that are conducted over well-used feed fields and near waterholes.

An outfitter I've used is Rush Creek Guide Service -- (580) 655-4690 -- in Reydon. Danny Pierce guides hunters each fall to limits of doves near the Oklahoma-Texas border in Western Oklahoma.

Another worthy possibility is Burnt Barrel Hunts -- (580) 922-5306 -- in Seiling. Burnt Barrel is owned and operated by Steve Combs and Brian Bensch. George Moore of Edmond, who hunts regularly with this guide service, rates their hunts spectacular.

Another way of finding a pay hunt is to look in the print media. Check out the classified advertising section of major city newspapers to find a place to hunt doves by the day.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

In Oklahoma, the bag limit is 15 doves daily. The season runs from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. However, season dates on public lands may vary, so check the current hunting regulations booklet for details.

Doves are migratory game birds, and so hunters using pump or semi-automatic shotguns must plug their firearms to render them incapable of holding more than three shells. Recommended shot sizes are Nos. 6, 7 1/2, and 8.

Dove decoys can do a tremendous job of luring doves to a shooting location. Decoys can be purchased at sporting goods stores or easily made at home. I make mine by drawing several silhouettes on gray cardboard, cutting them out and then gluing on a clothespin, which I paint gray. The clothespin allows easy attachment to a barbed wire fence or dead tree.

A Harvest Information Permit (HIP) -- obtainable at local license dealers -- is required before hunting. Hunters on federal wildlife refuges must use non-toxic shot, as lead shot is not legal in those areas.

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