Best Public-Land Dove Hunts

Across Tennessee, public-land fields offer great opportunities for hunters to enjoy fast action for doves.

By Larry Self

As good as taking a big gobbler is in April, as good as busting up a covey of quail is in October, and as good as gunning at mallards is in January, none of these time-honored traditions can compare to shotgunning doves in September for nonstop action.

The action that comes with shooting a limit of mourning doves in the South is unparalleled for heating up the gun barrel. Few of us hit a majority of these silver-gray bullets when a field is notably hot, but it's pure excitement just trying to keep the gun loaded.

Hot fields and good hunts have been hard to come by in recent years, but opportunities appear to be improving, with more and more public-land opportunities becoming available. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) increased their budget for acquiring lands for Volunteer dove hunters.

As you'll see, the planning starts long before opening day and continues after the season. From wildlife management areas (WMAs) to leased fields, the hunt is on for doves. Let's see where you can start in each region. Opening day is looming, and hunters are ready to fire up the grill as well as the shotgun.

MANAGING FOR DOVES

If you're looking to get a head start on some vacation cash for next year or even Christmas money this year, the TWRA is leasing dove fields from landowners for its Public Dove Field Program. Farmers can earn up to $2,600 for preparing a dove field for public hunting. The process actually begins early in the spring.

The TWRA said it began its leased dove field program in the late 1980s, and the program has been very successful in providing quality hunting opportunities for hunters. In addition to leased fields, many public dove fields are provided on wildlife management areas in each TWRA region.

In Tennessee, about 118,000 hunters harvested more than three million mourning doves last year.

Photo by Steve Carpentieri

The TWRA leases three types of dove fields: Spring-leased fields, improved silage fields, and traditional fall-leased fields. Spring-leased fields are planted in grain (sunflowers, millet, wheat, etc.) and managed specifically for doves; no grain is harvested. The landowner plants the field and mows it before the season opens. These fields will be available for a minimum of three priority hunt dates in September. The rates for spring-leased fields are $100 per acre for a maximum field size of 25 acres. The total maximum paid per contracted field is $2,500.

The standard fall-leased field is a harvested grain or hay field to which TWRA leases the hunting rights. Rates paid to landowners for traditional fall-leased fields will be $40 per acre for a maximum field size of 40 acres for a total contract of $1,600 per field.

Improved silage fields are harvested silage fields with some additional grain left to attract doves. The TWRA will lease 40-acre harvested corn silage fields for $40 per acre (up to $1,600). The farmer will also be paid $1,000 to leave four acres of grain standing in the field. Total maximum payment per improved silage contract is $2,600 per field. The farmer agrees to cut or mow the standing corn two weeks prior to the opening day of dove season (as directed by the regional small-game biologist).

Dick Conley, TWRA's Region III small-game biologist, said the funding and support for the public dove-hunting opportunity has definitely become a priority. Each regional office has over $20,000 allocated just for leased fields. He added the leased fields have become very popular with hunters and the increase in funds is helping provide opportunities.

TWRA Region IV small-game biologist Doug Scott said the spring-leased program hasn't drawn as many landowners as it's capable of, but the benefits are real. The landowners get an opportunity to receive up to $2,500, and the agency nails down good fields for the fall. Scott said the success of the fall leasing program has undoubtedly improved, and it's a "cause-and-effect" situation - the success of the program is directly related to the availability of more money for fields.

The number of fields increases hunter opportunity, but doesn't necessarily increase the number of doves out there. The 15-bird dove limit is also based on what an average hunter can kill on a reasonable hunt. It's a limit Scott said a fairly good shot can obtain occasionally. He also confirmed the life expectancy of a mourning dove as around 18 months. A 1-year-old dove is considered an adult dove.

Dove populations can fluctuate annually due to crop harvest production and the nature of the bird itself. Scott said doves build flimsy nests that aren't really weather resistant and can be easily destroyed by high winds and spring storms. To aid the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in monitoring dove populations, the TWRA does an annual coo count. Scott said the same person generally drives the same route at the same time each year performing the count in each region.

Hunters hitting corn fields and other dove hotspots this season may be greeted by something many of them have never seen. Several of the erratic flyers will be sporting a little extra weight in the form of leg jewelry, so take a second look at the legs of doves you harvest this season.

Birds are marked with metal leg bands containing a unique number and an 800 telephone number that hunters can use to report the band. In return, wildlife managers receive important information on the location and date of harvest, which can be used to estimate survival rates, harvest rates and distribution of harvest.

Last year, the TWRA assisted the feds in banding mourning doves to get a better assessment of dove numbers and harvest rates. Conley said the USFWS' three-year banding study began because the service is of the opinion that dove populations are declining. He added it's a statewide effort with a certain number of officers assisting in the study in each region. Conley said he estimates 1,000 doves were banded in Region III alone last year.

It's expected that more than 85,000 doves will be banded during the next three years in 26 states. Mourning doves are captured in wire ground traps baited with grain or sunflowers. Doves frequent agricultural fields, bare earth or gravel areas to obtain food and grit. These locations make excellent areas to capture doves. Doves are removed from the traps and their age and sex determined, based upon color and patterns of feather replacement and wear.

Just as in similar studies involving ducks and geese, hunters are the critical link in this mourning d

ove banding study. If you harvest a banded mourning dove, please call (800) 327-BAND (2263) to report it. Operators are on duty 24 hours a day during hunting seasons, Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. otherwise. Banded birds may also be reported online at www.pwrc.usgs.gov. Select "Bird Banding Lab." Hunters can keep the bands and will be provided a certificate identifying the age, sex, date and location the bird was banded. There's also word that some of the bands are "money bands" for which the hunter is rewarded after reporting the band.

REGION I

Wildlife managers in Region I tend to lease wheat fields in the spring and as many silage fields in the fall as they can find.

Don Miller, one of Region I's small-game biologists, said the lack of dairy farms in their area make it tough to lease silage fields. To be honest, there are not enough silage fields available to meet their needs. Miller said that means they lean heavily on sunflowers or wheat.

Miller called the leased fields near Spring Creek off Hwy. 70 N one of the more popular hunts - it is usually overwhelmed with hunters from Shelby County. The silage field is just inside the Fayette County line near the Wolf River.

In the fall, most of the public hunts, especially WMAs, will feature wheat. Miller also said that, with the exception of silage fields, many farmers do not put their fields in the program. Corn silage is where farmers get their best return for what they give up. With silage they still get the profit from harvesting most of the crop and then more dollars per acre for leasing their field, while agreeing to leave five acres of corn standing.

There are several WMAs in Region I that hold respectable and often heavily attended dove shoots. Miller said White Oak in Hardin County should feature four or five wheat fields this year; Wolf River in Fayette County will also have about 35 acres in wheat; Shelby Forest in Shelby County will have a lot of wheat fields along with a planting of millet in the field along the river; and sunflowers are planned for the John Tully WMA in Lauderdale County.

Most of the fields have traditionally been in sunflowers, but Miller said they're planning on burning the areas and relying on wheat this season. The burning is good for the soil and when sown with wheat afterward tends to be a good draw for doves.

REGION II

Russ Skoglund, a wildlife manager in Region II, said the dove field leasing program there has also started happening in the spring.

Region II's traditional hunt successes are usually over corn silage fields or crop fields sown with a winter cover crop. Skoglund has found that fields prepared year after year tend to do the best. He has found that corn silage fields tend to create good hunts, as do wheat fields that have been burned, but not harvested, prior to opening day.

For hunters looking to take advantage of what Region II has to offer in the way of public dove shoots, Skoglund mentions the WMAs of Percy Priest Unit I near LaVergne and AEDC in Coffee and Franklin counties as traditionally good hunts.

Other WMAs, like Cheatham Lake in Cheatham County, Haynes Bottom in Montgomery County, Laurel Hill in Lawrence County and Williamsport in Maury County, also have designated fields for dove hunting.

REGION III

Dick Conley in Region III said public dove hunt opportunities are slowly but surely increasing. Two years ago, the agency had six very good leased fields for public hunting in Region II and increased that number to seven last season.

Of those seven, six were very good again last season. That's not bad odds for producing shots at September doves. He looks for things to improve even more with the increased funds allocated to the cause.

From his observations, Conley believes wheat and corn silage fields seem to do very well for attracting doves. When it comes to WMA public dove hunts, Conley said the Hiwassee Refuge (formerly the Blythe Ferry WMA) in Meigs and Rhea counties is one of the best.

Other WMAs to put on your scouting list in Region III include the Bridgestone/Firestone WMA in White County, Catoosa in Cumberland and Morgan counties, Prentice Cooper in Marion County and Yuchi Refuge at Smith Bend in Rhea County. Many of these WMAs have seasons that are very similar to the statewide dove season.

Come September, Conley expects that each regional office gets upward of 200 calls per day from hunters trying to locate leased fields. One step that began to alleviate the deluge of phone calls was the TWRA's move to post the leased fields on the agency's Web site. Posting the leased field sites, hunt dates and directions on the Web page has been a big help to Conley and those manning the TWRA phones.

REGION IV

Doug Scott, TWRA biologist in Region IV, said the public dove hunting opportunities remain strong there. The Lick Creek Bottoms WMA in Greene County has turned into one of the better public opportunities, with several fields set aside for dove hunting. Steel loads or nontoxic shot are no longer a requirement on all dove hunts.

Although there are some excellent leased fields that crop up each year in Monroe and Loudon counties, Scott said the Region IV leased fields program would be a bust if it weren't for the several fields in Greene and Washington counties.

Greene and Washington tend to be dove success mainstays, but Scott said the Chuck Swan WMA in Campbell and Union counties is definitely a sleeper. Better known for its deer history and turkey draw hunts of late, Chuck Swan's dove fields at the forks of the river featured some quality dove shoots last year. Scott said other WMAs to keep an eye on include Buffalo Springs in Grainger County, Kyker Bottoms Refuge in Blount County and the McGhee-Carson Unit of the Tellico Lake WMA in Monroe County.

PRE-SEASON INFORMATION

For last-minute dove season tips, refer to the TWRA's 2004 Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide. All season regulations and dates are available there, including a full listing of WMAs per region that offer dove hunting. Guides are available at all locations where hunting and fishing licenses are sold, as well as at each TWRA regional office.

A few of the details you'll want clarification on as far as dove hunting on WMAS include specific dates and hours. Not all WMA hunts are the same as the statewide season, and many of them have hunt hours restricted from noon until sunset. There are a few WMAs that have reduced bag limits as well. Many dove fields on WMAs are open as posted and some do require the use of nontoxic shot.

That posting may also limit the number of hunters per field. In some case, hunters are placed at staked positions and are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis or drawn randomly. In those cases, a position becomes available after the initial hunter retires from the field. Ke

ep in mind hunters participating in a WMA hunt will need a WMA permit or a Sportsman License.

Just before opening day, the TWRA will also post the site locations and directions for public leased fields in each region on their Web site at www.tnwildlife.org. The contact numbers for each region office are listed below.

Region I, (800) 372-3928; Region II, (800) 624-7406; Region III, (800) 262-6704; Region IV, (800) 332-0900.

Good luck dove hunting this year, and have fun, whether you hunt public fields or private fields.



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