Sooner State Dove Outlook

Sooner State Dove Outlook

Opening day of Oklahoma's dove season is a date that thousands of Sooner shotgunners anticipate with sincere pleasure. It looks like this year's opener may well be another great one!

By Bob Bledsoe

Hallelujah!

That long dry spell that follows Oklahoma's spring turkey season is over. It's time to dust off the scatterguns, pull some camouflage out of the closet, and go shoot some doves.

Hallmark should make a card to commemorate the opening day of dove season. There are legions of hunters who anticipate that day more eagerly than a youngster anticipates Christmas. It's the first real hunting day after several months of closed seasons.

A shotshell manufacturer's public relations man once told me that more shotshells are fired on Sept. 1 - the traditional opening dove season date in several states - than on any other single day of the year.

That probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has taken part in a dove hunt around a huge feeding field where 100 or more hunters were burning up several boxes of shells apiece in the first couple of hours of daylight.

I took part in such a hunt near Bixby, just south of Tulsa, a few seasons back. A landowner had prepared a big field, about 320 acres, for doves, and was charging $20 a gun for access on opening day. He told me later that morning that he had 114 paid hunters, plus a few youngsters he let in for free, along with a few friends that didn't pay. In all, we probably had 125 or more hunters ringing the field. A half-dozen or so hunters were stationed out in the middle of the field beneath some tall cottonwood trees, but most of us were seated along fencerows or beneath pecan trees that bordered one edge of the field.

Hawk Bledsoe, the author's son, scans the sky for more incoming birds. He has a great setup here: cool camo, a comfortable stool to rest on between flights, and a handy roundbale to hide his form and to offer a little welcome shade from the hot sun. What a combo! Photo by Bob Bledsoe

I know that may sound like an overload of hunters, but, in actuality, we could have used a couple of dozen more. There were still places in the field that weren't covered by anyone. There, doves could fly in, land and feed, then fly away without getting shot at by anyone - anyone within range anyway.

Anyone who could hit the broad side of a barn got a limit that morning. When shooting hours arrived, there were so many birds flying into the field that it was almost impossible to concentrate on picking a single bird to shoot at. I'd raise my gun to shoot at one bird and before I could get it mounted to my shoulder, two more would catch my eye.

I'd shot up nearly a box of shells and had killed only four birds when it dawned on me that I was wasting ammunition. I had plenty of easy shots to take, so why was I shooting at the hard ones and the ones that were only marginally within range?

I began shooting more conservatively and killed my next 11 birds with fewer shells than the first four had required.

I got my shears and a paperback out of my bucket seat and began cleaning birds as I watched others shoot. By the time I was finished cleaning my birds, a large number of hunters were packing up and walking back to the road.

I would bet there was an average of three boxes of shells shot per hunter in that field that morning. I watched a couple of guys who probably shot closer to five boxes. I did the math and saw that well over 4,000 shells were fired at doves in just one field in a couple of hours. There were a couple of other fields within earshot of ours where it sounded like similar "dove wars" were raging.

It's no wonder that shotshell companies love mourning doves.

WAYS TO HUNT
But enough about that hunt. Hunting big feed fields with big crowds is one way a lot of Oklahomans hunt doves. But there are others. Some hunters hunt smaller feeding areas with smaller groups. There are those who hunt solo or in pairs around isolated watering holes, and those who stake out a roost and pass-shoot as birds are leaving or returning.

There are lots of methods that work. A hunter who knows how to scout can usually find one kind of spot or another that will provide good dove shooting action. And that's true in any part of the state.

There's probably not a county in Oklahoma that doesn't offer at least some excellent dove action at the right times. Even in mountainous Southeastern Oklahoma, where there are few crop fields, doves gather in clearcuts and open areas, where they can be hunted. In the western half of the state, including the Panhandle, just about anywhere wheat is grown doves will be feeding. Although Oklahoma wheat is typically harvested in May and June, any wheat spilled on the ground or knocked loose during harvest likely will be found by doves later in the year. A wheat field in which stubble has been burned, or in which the ground is turned in late summer, can attract thousands of doves by opening day.

In northeastern Oklahoma, fields of milo or meadows where hay crops are grown can be dove magnets. In some years, when milo crops are ready to harvest early, just about any field cut will almost immediately begin to attract doves. In many years, though, most of the milo isn't quite ready to harvest by opening day, so recently mowed hay fields may be a better choice. As an added bonus, the hay bales give hunters good places in which to hide and ambush doves.

In years when the milo harvest takes place later in September, keep an eye on the areas being harvested. Sometimes it is possible to have a tremendous dove shoot later in the season. The problem with hunting such places after opening weekend or opening day is that there usually aren't enough hunters to keep the birds stirred up.

Out in our more arid western counties, water hole hunting is a very popular dove-shooting technique. Eastern Oklahoma hunters also do it at times, but not as much as the hunters out west.

Not just any old pond or stock tank will do for good dove hunting. Doves don't like to water at ponds where tall grass or other vegetation grows right up to the water's edge. Instead, they prefer a pond that has some broad, bare banks where no predators can hide within pouncing distance of where the birds will be dipping their bills in the water.

I've killed numerous limits of doves at clay-banked ponds with flat, bare shorelines. But ponds with sand or gravel banks are, I believe, preferred by doves whenever and wherever they can find them. Doves can "gravel up" - ingest bits of grit that helps grind the f

ood in their craws - from a sand or gravel bank. That way, the birds don't have to make another stop elsewhere to gravel up before or after watering. Then they can return to their roosts and digest their most recent meal.

In Eastern Oklahoma, where water is plentiful in all but the driest years, hunting ponds is often not as productive as hunting feeding areas. The abundance of ponds, creeks, springs and other water sources in the region gives doves lots of choices about where they can drink. The particular pond a hunter stakes out might not get visited by all that many doves on a given morning or afternoon.

But out west, where water sources are scarce, pond hunting is often the best choice a dove shooter has. That is especially true in a drier-than-normal year. Last fall, it was too dry. A friend who has a favorite water hole for opening day of dove season in Ellis County found that pond completely dry by the time dove season rolled around and so had to hunt elsewhere.

Most of Oklahoma is a few inches below normal on rainfall for the year. Of course, that can change in a matter of hours. Scouting your hunting area in the last few days before you hunt, though, should tell you the condition of the watering holes you want to hunt, as well as the usual food sources, be they crops or wild vegetation.

I've already mentioned wheat and milo as major sources of food for doves migrating through Oklahoma. But there are many non-cultivated plants on which doves dine. A variety of sunflowers yield seeds that are favored by doves. There are also three or four varieties of croton, also called "dove weed," found throughout the state. If you can find concentrations of croton, mark the spots in your memory. It may not be the best spot for opening day, but it could attract doves later in the season.

PUBLIC DOVE SHOOTS
There are often some excellent dove-hunting opportunities on public lands in Oklahoma. Some of the land managers who oversee the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's public hunting tracts manage sites specifically to attract doves. Food plots are grown on the wildlife management areas and may be harvested at a time when doves are migrating. Select areas that are managed for other species also benefit doves.

Probably one of Oklahoma's best public areas for dove hunting in recent years is in southwestern Oklahoma: Hackberry Flat. That WMA, near Frederick, has a little over 7,000 acres of part-time wetlands and upland vegetation. I believe that every year since Hackberry Flat opened, back in the mid-1990s, it has provided some topnotch dove-shooting action in the early days of the season.

The Sandy Sanders and Packsaddle WMAs and Black Kettle National Grasslands are three more western public areas that produce great dove action each September.

The Hal and Fern Cooper WMA, near Fort Supply, and the Canton WMA, at Canton Lake, are likely spots to try if you're looking for public-land dove shooting in the northwest counties.

I'm hesitant to mention it, for fear a couple of my buddies who hunt there will call and chew me out when this magazine hits the stands, but some of the public lands around Kaw Lake, on the Kaw WMA, also yield some good dove shooting. The upper end of the area, near the Arkansas River east of Chilocco, is one spot worth checking.

I've also had some darned good dove hunts at the Fort Gibson WMA in years past.

WHY PAY TO HUNT?
Another option for many hunters is a fee hunt.

In many counties there are landowners or lessees who prepare fields for dove hunting, then charge hunters for access. Some charge one price for the entire season; some charge by the day. Where I have hunted, several fee operations give hunters access for all of Labor Day weekend, or opening weekend, for one flat fee. I've had some good hunts for which I paid $25 for a day or for the weekend.

I know hunters who refuse to hunt on such spots. Paying a fee doesn't set well with them. But I've spent far more than $25 on gasoline, not counting my time, driving throughout several counties looking for doves and begging permission before some dove season openers. I contend that a fee in that range is very reasonable if a landowner has some property that attracts doves - and if he doesn't let too many hunters hunt on small fields.

I've also hunted on a couple of places that charged $100 or more per day for dove shoots. But to be honest, I've had hunts just as good, if not better, on the $25 areas. I don't mean to imply that the higher-priced areas aren't good, only that some of the lower-priced areas are just as good.

Many Sooner State hunters are lucky enough to own land or have friends or relatives who own land where good dove hunting is available. I would suggest that those lands, and the friendships that make those lands available, should be cared for carefully. Sometimes managing property for good dove hunting costs a landowner money. He may leave grain for dove food, grain that could be harvested and sold. He may time the mowing of hay or the harvest of crops to benefit hunters, even though it's not the most logical or convenient time to mow or harvest.

Many hunters don't know enough about farming practices to notice when conditions have been manipulated for their benefit. But when land is managed with hunters in mind, even on a fee-hunting operation, hunters should express their appreciation.

As decades go by, we will rely more and more on properties that are managed specifically for hunting. As hunters, we should let the landowners and managers know we appreciate their efforts.

BEFORE YOU GO
If you're bound for the dove fields this season, don't forget that you'll need to carry a Migratory Bird Hunter Information Program survey while you're hunting. If you buy an annual hunting license in Oklahoma, you probably completed that survey, which is on your license form, when you purchased the license. However, sometimes the clerks who sell the licenses don't ask the survey questions because they don't want to take the time. It's your responsibility to see that your form is completed on your license.

And if you are a lifetime license holder, you'll have to make it a point to stop by a hunting license vendor and fill out the form and carry it with you.

Also, don't forget, if you're hunting doves on any of Oklahoma's federal wildlife refuges, you'll need to use non-toxic shot only. Lead shot is prohibited on those areas.

And no matter where you're hunting, if you have a pump or autoloader shotgun, you'll need to make sure the magazine is plugged if it holds more than two shells. Shotguns can carry only three rounds, including the one in the chamber, if used for hunting migratory birds.



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