Oklahoma's 2008 Dove Outlook

Doves are flying; soon shotguns will be popping. And Soonerland wingshooters can expect to get into some stirring action when they hit the dove fields this year. (September 2008)

Several years ago, when I was attending a national conference of outdoor writers, I was shooting clay birds with a representative of Remington, the firearms and ammunition company, who told me that more shotgun shells are expended on Sept. 1, opening day of dove season in most states, than on any other day of the year.

I found that interesting -- but not surprising.

That may be because I'm one of those guys who shoot a lot of shells on opening day. Many a day I've been into my third or fourth box of shells before I bagged my limit of doves. And I've been on hunts where companions shot five or six boxes without limiting out.

But I've always said that a good dove shoot is about as much fun as you can have with a shotgun.

I've hunted just about all of North America's upland birds and have even had the pleasure of shooting whitewings farther south and shooting driven pheasants in England and Scotland. But a good ol' Oklahoma dove shoot, when the birds are plentiful and flying low, is as exciting and challenging as any kind of bird shooting you can name.

Last year was very disappointing for many Oklahoma dove hunters. The local weather patterns throughout the spring and summer were just the opposite of what is needed for good dove recruitment. The spring and early summer was rainy, stormy and windy. Two pairs of doves nested in trees in my front yard and the eggs and hatchlings in both nests were blown to the ground, on different days, by strong winds.

Doves, as you may know, build the sorriest excuse for a nest. Their little tangles of twigs aren't very durable.

And the weather north of Oklahoma stayed warm and dry in late August, and so did not push big numbers of migrating birds down to the Sooner State in time for opening day.

I didn't fire a shot on Sept. 1. My son fired two shots at some birds only marginally in range. Of the 20 or so hunters who hunted on the 3/4-section of land where we were, only one party had any action to speak of. They worked at it. The three guys in that party set up blinds and had a couple of those motorized, spinning-wing dove decoys that seemed to draw birds within range.

I've hunted ducks with the aid of "wingers" on several occasions, but have not purchased a motorized dove decoy. By opening day this year, though, I may be the proud owner of one.

I talked with a dozen or more hunters after last year's opener. None of them had the kind of action they wanted. Most came home empty-handed or with only a bird or two or three.

That isn't typical of most opening days in Oklahoma. In the past 10 years, I've had at least seven opening days on which our entire groups got a limit within a couple of hours, and a couple of openers where we bagged nearly a limit in the morning and then finished it in the afternoon.

My son bagged his first opening-day limit when he was 10. That summer I enrolled him in one of the one-day shotgunning clinics conducted by Ed Cunnius at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. I worked with Ed when I was with the Wildlife Department and I watched him start many youngsters off on the right foot as wingshooters. His basic instruction paid off. My son, with his younger eyes and reflexes, quickly became a better shooter than I.

This is a little off the topic of dove hunting, but if you have youngsters who are taking up hunting or even clay-target shooting, I encourage you to seek out one of the Wildlife Department's Shotgun Training and Education Program (STEP) shooting clinics and enroll your youngsters in it. It is amazing how quickly they learn with just a few basic instructions. When I was involved with that program in its early years, I saw many young shooters surpass their dads' skills in a matter of hours or days -- all because they learned the basics of proper stance and gun mounting and establishing leads on moving targets. Also, many youths take instruction more readily from a stranger than from their dad or brother or uncle.

The clinics are usually free, and even in the case of those affiliated with other events or organizations that charge a fee, the cost is very minimal.

But let's talk doves.

In Oklahoma, doves can be hunted in every part of the state. Often, in my estimation, more of the gray birds are to be found in the central and western counties than elsewhere in the state. But I live in the east, near Tulsa, and some of my best shoots have taken place even farther east.

Southeastern Oklahoma is the toughest part of the state, I believe, to find a good dove-shooting spot. Yes, plenty of doves live there, or migrate through, but the mountainous terrain and the thickly forested landscape aren't the easiest places to set up for dove shooting.

The shortgrass prairies and pastures out west, the tallgrass prairies and crop fields in the central counties, and the farm fields north and south of Tulsa, are where it is easier to find good places to set up and ambush doves coming to feed or water or flying between roosts and daily activity areas.

It's sometimes hard to know what the conditions will be for this year's opener, but the odds are in our favor. It has been rare for us to have two consecutive dismal opening days.

So where do you go to find good dove shooting in Oklahoma? Let's look at some promising scenarios.

First is to key the hunting to feed fields. Oklahoma farmers grow a lot of wheat and milo and a fair amount of corn. All three types of fields can provide topnotch dove action.

If weather conditions are good, many of the milo fields are ready to harvest by late August. If you can find a spot where the combines are working from about August 20 or later, you may see doves flocking to those harvested fields in increasing numbers every day. The grain that is spilled during harvest can draw thousands and thousands of doves to a single field. They'll come winging in at first light, even before legal shooting time (One-half hour before official sunrise, until official sunset.) begins.

As the light grows brighter, the numbers of incoming doves increase. By sunrise, it may sound like a major battle is raging; shotguns popping from every direction and hunters yelling "Behind you!" or "Over your head!" or "Here come four!" and the like.

When the act

ion gets really intense, you hardly have time to reload. Indeed, I've had mornings when I got my entire limit in just a few minutes. And I'm not that good.

A wheat field can be good too. Wheat is harvested in May or June in Oklahoma and the farmers may leave the stubble, disc it into the soil, or even burn it. Whatever they do, there is often a fair amount of wheat kernels left on the ground to attract doves. If the stubble is left standing and the field isn't plowed or harrowed, the grain may get lost beneath new vegetation or may get eaten during the summer. But tilling or burning can expose the grain and make it easier for doves to find.

Corn is often harvested later, but some fields may be cut before opening day and that will attract big numbers of doves.

I've also had some excellent shooting over hay meadows. Depending on what kind of hay crop is being grown, there may be quite a few seeds on the ground that will draw doves in significant numbers.

Feed fields are often the best choice for big groups of hunters. If you sign on with one of the outfitters who advertise in the newspaper classifieds for pay-by-the-day dove shoots, you'll probably hunt over a grain field of some sort.

Another potentially great option is hunting over water holes. Doves typically leave the roost in the morning and go find food. Then they'll usually go to a dirt road or a sandy spot and swallow a little sand or grit or gravel that their craw uses to help grind the grain into digestible food. Then they'll go to get a drink of water before returning to the roost for a few hours of rest before repeating the same cycle again.

One of my most memorable dove shoots was back in the early 1980s on one of those terrible opening days. Four of us hunted all morning and we bagged exactly two birds apiece. There was just nothing flying where we were. We could hear heavy shooting far in the distance in a couple of directions, but there were few doves for us. We even walked the roost areas around noon, hoping to jump a few birds out of the trees, but to no avail.

That evening, we decided to try hunting around three small ponds. I chose a tiny pond hardly 40 feet across in any direction. It had some bare, sandy, flat banks -- just the kind doves like. I sat there from 4 p.m. until the sun was very low in the west, shooting only a couple more birds.

Then, suddenly, it was as if someone flipped a switch. During the last 45 minutes or so before sunset, there was hardly ever more than a few seconds when I didn't have doves diving in to land on the shorelines -- all within easy range. I bagged the rest of my limit in five minutes and could hear my buddies blazing away at the other two ponds. Our shooting stopped well before sundown. Everyone finished his limit quickly. But the birds continued to drop in. I believe I could have killed 100 birds in the last half-hour of legal time, if the law had allowed it and I didn't run out of shells.

Often, in my estimation, more of the gray birds are to be found in the central and western counties than elsewhere in the state. But I live in the east, near Tulsa, and some of my best shoots have taken place even farther east.

That was one of the most exciting pond shoots I've ever had, especially at the end of a long, hot and unproductive day. But I've enjoyed many other great pond shoots during midmornings, late-afternoons and evenings since then.

If you want to shoot doves around water, choose a pond that does not have steep shorelines or lots of trees and vegetation growing right to the water's edge. Doves like to have a few feet of bare shoreline around a pond, and soil that contains grit or gravel if they can get it. Find such a spot, and you may be in for a really great dove shoot.

In August and September, the water levels in many of Oklahoma's tens of thousands of farm ponds are lower than normal. That's good because it leaves some exposed shoreline on which doves can land.

I don't like to hunt over large ponds, although if you have two or three hunters to station around the edges you can hunt larger impoundments. If you try to hunt a large pond by yourself, you may find that the majority of the doves land out of range on the far shoreline. And I've never had much luck hunting the edges of lakes. On a big lake, the doves have too many places to land, so you may never get large numbers of doves to land, or try to land, near your position.

Feed field and pond shooting are often the most productive choices for Oklahoma dove hunters, but shooting in the flyways near roosting areas or between roosts and feed fields also can be productive.

I grew up and went to college in northwestern Oklahoma. That's wheat farming country and many towns there have grain storage elevators. That term sometimes confuses people who aren't from this area, but grain elevators are those tall, usually white, structures you see throughout wheat country where harvested wheat is stored until it is shipped away for making food elsewhere. Around elevators there is often a lot of spilled grain. Doves and pigeons flock to those areas to eat.

One of my friends and I noticed there frequently were doves flying back and forth across a county road about a half-mile from an elevator. We figured out that they were roosting in a belt of trees along a creek, and going to the elevators to eat.

In late afternoon, we would set up beneath a couple of trees near the road and pass-shoot birds flying overhead. We were far enough away from the elevators that we weren't hunting over bait, which would be illegal. But we would bag a few doves each afternoon just sitting beneath their flight path.

You don't have to have a grain elevator, though, to find a flyway. Doves tend to fly the same basic routes daily between a food source and their roost. So even if you can't get permission to hunt a given feed field, you may be able to find a place nearby where you can get some shooting action.

Many dove hunters hunt only the first day or two of the season. That means that by the second week of September or so, you'll usually have little competition. When there are fewer hunters in the field, it's easier to find a productive spot to hunt.

That's especially true for public tracts. At many state wildlife management areas, crowds of hunters crowd in on opening day and on the first weekend in September. But after that -- at least until deer archery season opens in October -- it's not unusual to have the whole of a large WMA practically all to yourself.

I've had some excellent public-land shoots at Canton, Keystone, Fort Gibson, Oologah and Eufaula WMAs. My good Oologah hunt was in a patch of wild sunflowers in early October. The flowers were wilted and drooping and the seeds were dropping to the ground. The doves had found the area and were flying in to dine every afternoon.

If you hunt public lands, check the ODWC's regulations for your particular area. Some areas are closed to other kinds of hunting duri

ng the fall deer seasons and so you may not want to hunt doves when there are bowhunters perched in trees in your vicinity. You can check WMA regs online at www.wildlifedepartment. com, or pick up a copy of the current regulations booklet at your local hunting license vendor.

Don't forget, too, to make sure that your autoloaders and pumps are plugged to hold no more than three shells, including the one in the chamber. And, if you haven't done it yet, get your migratory bird hunting permit (a.k.a. "HIP permit") and carry it along with your license while you're in the field.

Oh, yes -- and buy lots of shells!

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