Sooner Dove Outlook

Sooner Dove Outlook

Where is the shooting likely to be hottest during the opening days of our 2004 dove season? Check out any of these prime locations to get the answer.

By Mike Lambeth

I fumbled for shells as the gray ghosts winged their way toward my location. I had emptied my autoloader as the acrobatic doves winged by my position, and now I tried frantically to reload as more approached.

Nestled below the dam of a small watering hole, I presented a leafy camouflage-clad silhouette that probably resembled a pot-bellied tree. Nevertheless, I tried to remain still as the squadron of doves neared.

Like a mirage, the doves had appeared out of nowhere and now were flying past, taunting me as I clumsily tried to tag one of the avian escape artists.

My semi-auto barked three more times as I managed (more out of self-defense than anything else) to ground a dove. As I stumbled from my shooting location, I tripped over the massive pile of shotgun shell hulls that littered the earth near me. To be honest, I have seen active trap ranges with fewer hulls.

Adding the dove to my bag, I mentally kicked myself for not having spent more time at the shooting range prior to opening day. In any event, I slid three more shells in my gun and scanned the horizon for more birds.

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

Mourning doves are native to Oklahoma and - providing the first big cool snap of fall doesn't come early and send them southward - concentrate in high numbers every Sept. 1. So what does this fall hold in store for Sooner dove enthusiasts?

Mike O'Meilia, our migratory bird expert with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, believes that this season should have a lot to recommend it. "Generally, by July you can have a pretty good idea, based on the numbers of doves around, what the upcoming season will be like," he noted. "I am the eternal optimist, and I believe this season should be as good as last year's."

Photo by Steve Carpentieri

Last season an estimated 72,899 Okie hunters harvested an estimated 1,797,987 doves statewide. That's a lot of little gray birds!

Once again, it's time to break out the shotguns, don some lightweight camo and find a good dove field or waterhole near home for some fast bird action. One piece of advice: Bring plenty of shells. Averaged out nationwide, the ratio of doves bagged to shots fired is 1:7. The action should be both hot and rewarding as the gray ghosts signal fall's arrival.

Mourning doves have a preference for agricultural areas in which a variety of seeds likely can be found. According to O'Meilia, doves eat a variety of crops such as croton ("doveweed"), pigweed, sunflower, maize, milo and wheat. When you're looking for a hunting spot, keep in mind that they also eat small amounts of gravel, which are retained in their crops and are necessary for them to digest grain.

"Ninety percent of our doves are resident birds," said O'Meilia, "and we normally estimate that doves have a 60 to 70 percent turnover each year." On average, he added, a dove's life span is 1 to 1 1/2 years.

Later in September and early in October, as temperatures drop in the northern parts of the U.S., doves migrate south, traveling through Oklahoma before wintering in huge concentrations in Mexico.

PUBLIC DOVE HOTSPOTS

Most of Oklahoma's land is privately owned, and, since most of the better property is leased by sportsmen or hunting clubs, finding a decent dove-hunting spot can be tough. However, there are some public lands available, and at these, dove hunters can generally expect to take a limit of the birds.

The ODWC manages several public hunting areas that offer tremendous hunting opportunities free of charge to licensed sportsmen. Scattered statewide, most of these PHAs host respectable complements of doves.

In the northwest, 8,812 dove hunters surveyed took 200,271 doves last season, which breaks out to nearly 23 doves apiece for the hunting season.

Beaver River Wildlife Management Area, which lies in the Panhandle next to the town of Beaver, is a good bet for finding quite a few doves. The 17,700-acre area is a mixture of grasslands with sagebrush and buffalo grass, flood plain and river bottoms. Here, the ODWC has focused on fostering native dove foods like sunflowers and small agricultural plots.

I've hunted Beaver River and found it to be a great spot, prime for dove hunting. This WMA receives considerable hunting pressure, but the abundance of doves here translates to a wealth of worthwhile shooting sites.

Beaver River isn't the only area that the northwest has to offer.

At Cooper WMA - 16,080 acres of mixed-grass prairie and sagebrush near Woodward - management strategies include planting croton and sunflowers, two favorites of doves.

Packsaddle WMA lies near Arnett. At the peak of the migration, many doves will be found across the area's 15,000 acres, which comprise rolling sandhills and river bottoms. According to ODWC sources, weedy fields, sunflower patches and watering areas are the WMA's primary attractions for doves.

Ellis County WMA, also near Arnett, is smaller, with 4,800 acres of tallgrass prairie and riparian habitat. The ODWC supplements the area with small agricultural fields that are planted annually.

Another northwest Oklahoma spot, this one closer to Oklahoma City, is Canton WMA. Near the towns of Canton and Longdale, this area is made up of 14,877 acres of grassland and river bottom habitat. The grasslands feature several types of grasses and seeds that the area's doves feed on daily. Hunting near a Canton watering hole during an evening hunts can prove very profitable.

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

I went on my first serious dove hunt at Black Kettle - and it was truly memorable. One opening morning nearly 27 years ago, my brothers Ronny and David and I converged along with Mike Darnold on a grassland spot near a windmill water tank. The four of us took stands on the vast field.

The doves poured out of an oak motte roosting site as dawn broke. I managed to take a limit, even thoug

h my shooting was poor (I expended nearly five boxes of shells in the effort). When we met back up at the windmill that evening, each of us was able to contribute a limit of the fast-flying doves when we made a pile of our day's take.

Black Kettle does absorb considerable hunting pressure, but given its 30,710 acres, it can always offer someplace at which to find dove action.

Last season 13,779 hunters took 443,481 doves in the southwest, according to ODWC telephone surveys, equaling 32 doves for the season per queried hunter.

Two additional public picks recommend the region to dove enthusiasts. Sandy Sanders WMA, lying between Mangum and Sayre, is one of the likeliest-looking places for rattlesnakes that I've ever seen in Oklahoma; in fact, three species of rattlesnakes live in the 19,100-acre area, according to the ODWC. But it's a prime spot for fall dove shooting, too. In this rocky, dry area interspersed with grasses and mesquite trees, the scenery changes from a mesquite savannah to a mixed grass prairie; three running creeks are used as watering sites.

Sited near Fredrick, Hackberry Flat WMA - "Hack," as the locals call it - is excellent for setting up to ambush migrating doves, but as it's only 7,120 acres in area, hunting pressure can be heavy there at times. Made up of agricultural fields, native grasses and forbs, Hack is dotted with a variety of trees, among them hackberry, from which the area derives its name.

South-central Oklahoma boasted a kill of 217,094 doves by 9,132 hunters surveyed last season - an average of nearly 24 birds apiece for the season. Most dove hunting in this part of the state is done chiefly on private land, but of the few WMAs here, one is worth mentioning: Love Valley.

Lying in the south part of the state located near the Red River arm of Lake Texoma, Love Valley WMA features 7,746 acres of bluestem grasses with bottomland hardwoods, and has been enhanced with large agricultural fields, which attract migrating doves. The Addington Bend section of the area offers some of the most worthwhile dove action.

Overall, the dove hunting in far southeast Oklahoma is spotty at best. Although this section of the state reported the lowest harvest of doves, 104,974, if you spread that total out over the 3,365 hunters surveyed, then shotgunners there averaged just over 31 doves apiece for the season - not bad for a region not traditionally known for dove hunting! Heavily timbered, the far southeast offers little habitat conducive to holding large concentrations of doves, but it does contain two of the state's largest WMAs.

Honobia Creek and Three Rivers WMAs are managed by the ODWC but owned by timber companies; to access them, you must pay a yearly $16 fee. These vast stretches of largely wooded wilds are better suited to the pursuit of deer and turkeys, but do provide wingshooters with a limited number of doves during the peak of the migration.

The northeast part of the state had the highest dove harvest last season - 16,823 hunters killed 465,911 doves, for 27 doves apiece - and features some good WMAs. I'll name a few of my personal top choices.

Keystone WMA, covering 16,537 acres near Mannford, has both the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers flowing through, and thus can boast riparian habitat along with its crop fields and grassy uplands. The doves, which 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 smart choice for dove shooting is Fort Gibson WMA, which spreads out over 21,799 acres comprising hardwoods and upland tallgrass prairie near Wagoner. Enhancing the area's attractiveness to the many doves to be found here during the season are 2,700 acres of agricultural fields.

The north-central region of the state - the last in our review - produced 366,256 doves per 20,988 hunters surveyed, or an annual yield of just over 17 doves per hunter. As is the case in most of the state, a large part of the choice dove spots in north-central Oklahoma are privately owned or leased by sportsmen. However, there is a fantastic public-hunting opportunity near Ponca City: Kaw WMA.

Kaw's 16,254 acres of bluestem grass with hardwood bottoms and agricultural fields generally host some tremendous dove shooting. After the native birds move on, replacements usually come in from up north 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 that range from $50 to $150 per day; these 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 doves regularly with this guide service, rates the operation as spectacular.

Another source for finding a pay hunt: print media. Look in the classified ads under "Sportsman's Items" in Oklahoma City's daily The Oklahoman or, in Tulsa, in the "Sporting Goods" section of the Tulsa World's classifieds.

HUNT IN COMFORT

Dove hunting apparel should match the terrain amid which you're afield and be lightweight for maximum comfort. Mesh camouflage suits work nicely, particularly as they can be worn over work clothes for hunts before or after work.

Doves have keen eyesight, so hunters should strive to stay well hidden. A bucket with a swivel seat represents a fine means of sitting and enjoying a dove hunt - and then provides an easy way to tote home those tasty dove breasts.

A fold-out chair, such as is available at most variety stores, will also work nicely to accommodate the hunters during lulls in the activity.

September temperatures sometime soar to near 100, so to help avoid dehydration and heat stroke, hunters should make sure to bring a bottle of water.

TUNING UP FOR DOVES

A visit to your local range for some sporting clays or trap shooting will help sharpen your eye and save you money in spent shells. The national average of shots expended for birds bagged is high, so pre-season practice can pay dividends.

Two sporting clays ranges in the Oklahoma City area are Siler Leaf Shooting Sports - (405) 282-2787, in Guthrie - and Oklahoma Sporting Clays - (405) 396-2661, in Arcadia.

In the Tulsa area, sportsmen can visit Woods & Water - (918) 266-5551, near Catoosa - or Longshot Shooting School - (918) 633-5736, run by sporting clays world champion Doug Fuller.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

In Oklahoma, the bag limit is 15 doves daily. The season runs from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31. (Season dates on public lands may vary, so check hunting regulations for details.)

Doves are migratory, so hunters using pump or semi-automatic shotguns must plug their firearms so that they are 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 luring doves to your shooting location. Decoys can be purchased at sporting goods stores or easily made at home. I made mine by drawing and cutting out a silhouette on gray cardboard and then gluing on a clothespin, which I painted gray also. 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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