Our State's Best Public Dove Hunts

In September, dove season kicks into gear with a bang -- in some cases, lots of bangs. Here's a look at South Carolina's top public fields for 2005.

Photo by Mark Romanack

Rifling through the thick September sky, the single dove popped into the sunflower field like a missile.

Pop, pop, pop, in rapid succession. More bangs of gunfire. Shots continued to ring out as the dove tried to beat a hasty retreat from the field. Finally, at the opposite corner of the field, a hunter connected on his second shot. The dove tumbled earthward in an uncoordinated aerial acrobatic display.

Following the single dove 45 seconds later, a trio of gray speedsters attempted to land in the field. They were met with an equal amount of firepower, and all three hit the ground. Lucky hunters ran out into the field to collect their prizes, ever mindful of watching the sky overhead for more doves.

The doves continued to swarm into the Canal Wildlife Management Area (WMA) public dove field in Berkeley County all afternoon. The frequency increased as the afternoon progressed. Hunters began leaving the field with limits, while others left short of a limit after expending their two boxes of shells. As hunters departed, new arrivals filed into the fields and found their place amongst hunters who were busy poking holes in the sky, with an occasional dove falling from some of those holes.

When September rolls around, this is standard action on many of the state's public-land dove fields. Hunters wait all summer for these hunts, and most of them are very good, including some that have continued success after the first-day hunts.

The success of the public-land dove field program conducted by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) is bolstered by the state's strong tradition of dove hunting and its robust dove population.

DOVE POPULATION

SCDNR has long recognized the value of its mourning dove resource to hunters. As such, the agency has been involved in dove research and surveys off and on over the years. There is now a new initiative on a very large scale that is hoped to improve management of the dove resource.

"The agency has been involved in the past with Clemson University to estimate dove survival rates," said Billy Dukes, SCDNR's Small Game Project supervisor. "This information has been helpful on a statewide basis. However, a larger effort was launched in 2003 to band doves in 27 states, including South Carolina."

The objective behind the study is to band doves during July and August and determine how many are harvested during the subsequent dove seasons. By banding doves on a more national scale, wildlife biologists can obtain not only state-specific but also regional estimates of survival. From this, harvest regulations can be modified to better conserve the dove resource as well as potentially provide additional opportunity in some areas.

"SCDNR has had great success so far banding doves for this study," Dukes said. "We have met our banding quotas during the first two years of the study." SCDNR personnel banded over 1,300 doves in 2003 and nearly 1,000 in 2004.

It is too early in the effort for initial estimates, but several interesting trends are coming to light.

"There have been 179 recoveries of doves banded in South Carolina," Dukes said. "Ninety-two percent of those recoveries were in the state, and most recoveries were within 10 miles of where the dove was banded.

"Fifteen doves banded in South Carolina have been recovered outside of the state. Eleven were in neighboring Georgia, three were in North Carolina and one was in Kentucky. Only five doves that were banded in another state were recovered in South Carolina," Dukes added.

"The lack of recoveries in South Carolina of doves banded in other states combined with the high percentage of recoveries in South Carolina of birds banded here indicates that most of our harvest comes from resident birds," Dukes said. "This suggests that as long as we take care of our birds we should be in good shape."

Dukes is optimistic that dove banding will become a common management tool in future years. He said as additional data is collected, it will be used to refine population models and population estimates as well as improve the index of productivity using wings from hunter-killed doves.

To aid with the study, all hunters are urged to look for banded doves from the birds they harvest, and report bands to the (800) 327-BAND number.

BEST BETS FOR 2005

There are over four-dozen public dove fields available to Palmetto State hunters. They are a result of federal, state, county and private land partnerships in over 30 counties across the state. You should be able to find a good field not too far from where you live.

While there are all kinds of factors that determine whether a limit of doves fly over your dove bucket on opening day, a look back at the previous season can provide some help in choosing a good hunt.

"Overall, hunter success last season was down slightly from the 2003-04 season when you combine the data for all of our public dove fields," Dukes said. "The number of doves per hunter fell from 3.46 birds to 2.94."

For those dove hunters who might have a short memory, the reason for the decline is very straightforward.

"I would attribute the decline to the series of tropical storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and torrential rains that occurred in the month prior to the opening day of dove season," Dukes concluded. "The storms had the devastating effect of dispersing birds and contributing to poor field-feeding conditions for doves.

"Many crops were destroyed outright," Dukes continued. "Other crops deteriorated from too much moisture, while others were flattened to soak in fields. There were even some public dove fields that were completely underwater. Not only did these conditions happen on our fields but also private fields, which only magnified the problem of dispersing birds."

Doves prefer bare ground or ground with very little weedy growth for feeding. Short of destroying crops, the increased moisture also affected where doves could feed.

"All of the rain also prompted a secondary growth of weeds," Dukes explained. "Normally, managers could mow or disk any weeds that sprouted, but most fields were too muddy for equipment. So even where food was still available, the doves couldn't get to it to feed very well.

"It seemed everyone had doves about two weeks before the season opened, and then the rains came and the birds vanished."

A look at two perennial public dove field favorites indicates the severity of the rains. Lake Wallace public dove field in Marlboro County declined from 8.24 doves per hunter in 2003 to 2.72 during the 2004 season. Canal WMA in Berkeley County shared a similarly drastic decline, falling from 5.82 doves per hunter to 1.77.

"These two areas have traditionally supported excellent dove hunts," Dukes said. "You can see by looking at their numbers what an impact the rains had."

Hurricane Gaston dumped nearly 12 inches of rain alone on Canal WMA right before the season started.

When deciding which public dove fields to hunt this season, there are a few things to keep in mind.

"I encourage prospective public dove field hunters to get a copy of the Public Dove Field List," Dukes said. "It is available Aug. 1 on our Web site, or contact one of the department's regional offices. This should be the beginning point of any season since it lists all of the available fields, including any new ones that we might have added since the last season.

"Further, I recommend that hunters scout fields prior to hunting. The Public Dove Field List is only a list of what is available. It does not rate the quality or tell you what is planted. It should not be a substitute for first-hand knowledge. A lot can happen to a dove field in a very short time period, and hunters should make sure that they include timely scouting in their schedules," Dukes suggested.

"Dove-field planting is an agricultural endeavor, and crop production and dove-hunting success is highly dependent on growing conditions," Dukes said. "The SCDNR staff takes great pride in proper field preparation and successful hunts; however, our public fields are very much like private fields. We have some good fields, some fair fields and some poor fields in any given year."

Here are Dukes' picks as best bets for 2005.

In the northwestern portion of the state, the 25-acre Evans Field in Anderson County has been exceptionally strong the past two seasons. Dukes said hunters should be aware that hunter numbers are limited and selected by a lottery for the opening day hunt. The area is only open on Saturdays.

Moving eastward across the northern section of the state, Dukes had several recommendations. Draper WMA in York County has had excellent success. There is a 30-acre field opened to hunting for the general public, plus a 30-acre youth field. After opening day, all 60 acres are open to all hunters. This area is also a draw-hunt field on opening day. The area has been open on Saturdays during the first season and Monday through Saturday during the second and third seasons.

A new 20-acre field was created on Gaffney Board of Public Works lands in Cherokee County in 2004. Dukes said this field was the top producer at 7.34 doves per hunter in 2004. Despite its success, crowds might be smaller at this field since it is newer. It is open on Saturdays.

McBee WMA in Chesterfield County can be a hit-or-miss public dove field. Dukes said there are 20 acres planted, but there is additional huntable acreage. The area is open during Saturdays of the first season and Monday through Friday during the second and third segments. He stated the soils are droughty at this WMA, and the ability of the location to attract doves depends heavily on weather conditions during the growing season. It had its best year ever in 2004 at 5.30 doves per hunter.

Continuing to move eastward, Lake Wallace Public Dove Field is located in Marlboro County. Despite its reduced success in 2004 it remains a mecca for doves and dove hunters.

"Weather permitting, I would expect success rates at Lake Wallace to rebound in 2005," Dukes said.

Dukes suggested three fields in the mid portion of the state. In McCormick County, the 40 acres at Clarks Hill WMA near Bordeaux is the best bet in the region. He said it only supports moderate success relative to other public fields, but it is generally very consistent from season to season.

Elsewhere in the region, Dukes points to Hallman Field in Lexington County. The 45-acre area was a new field in 2004 and only had fair success last season. He expects the Saturday-only field to be better this season with more intensive habitat management. The Richland County Landfill is Dukes last pick in this region. The 30-acre area is usually fair to good, depending on growing season and field conditions. This field has only hosted hunts during the first two Saturdays of seasons in the past.

Along the coast there are five areas that Dukes suggested hunters should check out. Samworth WMA near Georgetown was his pick on the north coast. The 65 huntable acres suffered last year from the wet conditions, but Dukes said that this area, under more normal conditions, is typically a good producer. Seventy acres are available for dove hunting at Santee-Cooper WMA near Eutaw Springs in Orangeburg County. The area is only open on selected Saturdays, and Dukes said success varies but is generally good.

Just down the road from Santee-Cooper WMA is Santee Dam WMA. The dove field is located at the foot of Wilson Dam on the lower end of Lake Marion. The 137-acre field hosts a youth-only hunt on opening day but is open to all hunters on Saturdays afterward. Dukes stated the area can be very good, but given its location, it is prone to flooding and may not open in some seasons.

Canal WMA, outside of St. Stephens in Berkeley County, is a long-standing public dove field hotspot. The area has about 100 acres that is planted in several fields of various sizes. Based on past history, Dukes expects Canal WMA will rebound from last year's weather woes. This area is typically open on Saturdays.

Dukes' last pick on the coast was Donnelley WMA near Green Pond. He said the 100-acre dove hunt area is noted for its exceptional field preparation, and success rates have been good in recent seasons. Given recent hunter numbers, there were discussions about implementing a lottery for the opening hunt, so check before driving to the WMA.

Dukes reminded dove hunters that special regulations are in place on all public-land dove fields. The regulations are no entry before noon, a 50-shell limit per hunter and a 6 p.m. closure for hunts held during the first season segment.

SCDNR evaluated the use of some special regulations to improve the quality of public dove fields. Implemented on a trial basis on some WMAs during the 2001-02 season, SCDNR established the regulations on all fields during the 2002-03 season following a positive evaluation during the prior season.

"What we found was that the majority of hunters supported the regulations and that they improved the quality of the fields," Dukes said. "Hunters killed approximately the same numbe

r of doves per person but did it with fewer shots. They were taking better shots. By reducing the number of shots without sacrificing total harvest, the fields don't get burned out as fast."

South Carolina has a plethora of dove-hunting opportunities open to the public, most within an hour's drive from anywhere in the state. Grab your dove bucket and some No. 8 shot and head out to one of the fields this month.

A complete listing of all the public dove fields, including season dates and detailed driving directions, is available on SCDNR's Web site at

www.dnr.state.sc.us beginning Aug. 1. You can also get a copy by calling one of SCDNR's regional offices or Columbia at (803) 734-3886 and requesting a copy. In addition, the Public Dove Field List is available by writing Public Dove Fields, SCDNR, P.O. Box 167, Columbia, SC 29202.

The 2005 season dates were not finalized as of press time. Proposed season dates are Sept. 3 to Oct. 8 (afternoon hunting only from Sept. 3-5), Nov. 19-26 and Dec. 19 to Jan. 15, with a daily bag limit of 12 doves. Be sure to check the regulations for legal hunting dates, draw-hunt regulations, and bag limits for any WMA before you hunt. In addition to a valid hunting license, hunters on public-land dove fields need to have a WMA permit and free migratory bird permit, otherwise known as a H.I.P. permit.

(Editor's Note: Walt Rhodes is a biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.)

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