Lone Star Dove Outlook

A new dove season will be starting any minute now -- and Texas shotgunners have a lot to look forward to when the happy day arrives!

Photo by Mark Romanack

Doves weren't the intended audience when the prophet Isaiah railed against the sense of the saying "Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die." But they could have been.

Because in Texas, food and water are the two uppermost of a dove's daily concerns. And come Sept. 1, legions of Lone Star hunters stand ready to help them die.

As befits creatures as fleet as are these winged bullets -- I've clocked mourning doves dawdling along parallel to highways at 55 miles per hour -- their metabolic rate is sky-high. The first thing they need to do after flying off the roost in the morning is to eat. After feeding, they go to water. Midday is generally spent loafing in the shade of leafy trees. In late afternoon they feed and water again before returning to the roost.

Knowledge of doves' travel paths from roost to food to water to loafing cover is vital to dove-hunting success in Texas or anywhere else. Doves will fly where they want to go, and not where you want them to be. Pre-hunt scouting is the best way to be sure that the spot you pick to hunt is a place where doves want to be.

TEXAS DOVES DIFFER

The two main types of doves in Texas are the mourning dove, so called for their melancholy cry, and the white-winged dove, named for its wings' white leading edges, which flash distinctively in flight. There are some variations in the behaviors of these doves that hunters should be aware of.

Mourning doves tend to roost in the countryside, while whitewings seem to favor urban nesting sites. San Antonio, for example, is home to more than a million whitewings. These birds fly out of the city to feed in grain, sunflower, corn, or sesame fields. Choosing a hunting location with a preferred food source or on the flyway between city roosting sites and a food source can be the key to success. While it's illegal to hunt within the city limits, a dove lease located just outside the city can be a wingshooter's bonanza.

Mourning doves will take advantage of wheat, milo and oat fields when they're available, but otherwise they concentrate on wild plants such as sunflower, croton (dove weed), ragweed, or Johnson grass. If you locate an area with these food sources and see lots of mourning doves staging on dead trees or power lines in the vicinity, chances are good that you've found a hot place to hunt.

In areas with both mourning doves and whitewings -- which now includes most of Texas -- both will feed in the same types of fields. But there is a crucial difference in how they go about it. Mourning doves begin flying before it's legal to shoot (30 minutes before sunrise), but whitewings tend to be tardy in arriving at feeding fields in the morning. If you want to target whitewings, don't shoot your limit before 8 a.m. Wait for the later flights of whitewings.

Uvalde is a hotspot for both mourning doves and whitewings. On one opening morning hunt there, several members of my party got sucked into the early flight of mourning doves and so had nearly limited out before the whitewings started arriving. While the heaviest flights of mourning doves into the milo field arrived from before sunrise to about 30 minutes after, the whitewings didn't start showing up until an hour later. For the next two hours wave after wave of whitewings almost darkened the sky. Shooting was fast and furious, and even first-time dove hunters in the group managed to down a half-dozen birds or so.

Ah, but the second day was entirely different. Thinking they could capitalize on the lesson of the day before, the shooters hunkered down and let the mourning doves fly relatively unmolested, waiting for the whitewings. And they came right on schedule -- but this time they were flying so high that even a full choke couldn't push lead pellets high enough to reach many of them.

Recent research indicates that birds in general may not be quite as stupid as their tiny brains long suggested that they ought to be, and when it comes to danger avoidance, doves sure aren't dumb. Mourning doves and whitewings will be noticeably spookier and fly higher after being shot at only one time, so don't expect the easy opening-morning shots to continue far into the season.

South Texas hunters may encounter a third type of dove. White-tipped doves tend to hang out in thick brush and move about by either walking or making short, low flights. You're unlikely to see one unless you are hunting on the edge of thick cover, but if they're present, remember that the limit is two per day as part of your overall bag.

Texas hunters are seeing increasing numbers of an exotic dove, the Eurasian collared dove. First seen in northeast Texas in 1995, Eurasian collared doves may now be found in almost every county in the state. These doves seem to prefer small-town environments around grain elevators, feed stores and feedlots. At present there is no season or bag limit on Eurasian collared doves or the ubiquitous rock dove or rock pigeon.

HUNT WHILE THE HUNTING'S HOT

Both mourning doves and whitewings are sensitive to temperature changes. This can work for and against the hunter. Whitewings in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, their original range in Texas, are notorious for abandoning the area following the slightest cool front. Hunts in the special white-winged dove area are generally boom or bust, depending on the weather. If you live in some other part of the state, be sure to check the weather forecast before making a long drive to the Valley.

On the other hand, early cool fronts can push mourning doves from states farther north in the Central Flyway into Texas as fall comes on. Most doves killed at the start of the season are local birds hatched and reared in the area. A common misconception is that the larger birds often seen late in the season are northern birds pushed south by cold weather. Sometimes that's true, but often late-season "big" birds are simply late-hatched local birds that have grown up and filled out.

One of the best dove hunts of my life took place on opening weekend of the South Zone season. A strong September cold front accompanied by heavy thunderstorms had blown in the night before. I chased it south and arrived at my hunting location in midafternoon. A strong north wind blustered under cloudy skies, spitting mist and holding the temperature in the mid-50s. Mourning doves riding the wind fell out of the sky and into the croton patch that I was hunting as if they were starved; I had a limit of birds in half an hour.

In general, however, dove hunting is a hot-weather activity, especially if you're hunting over a waterhole. Doves eat a

lot of dry seeds, and they have to have water to digest those seeds. The hotter the weather, the hotter the shooting can be around a stock tank or windmill. That's particularly true during the last hour before sunset, when doves flock to water prior to heading to the roost for the night.

Doves prefer to water in places free of vegetation for several feet around the water's edge. Bare dirt offers no cover for predators and looks good to a dove. Pick a hunting spot on the edge of a pond that puts you in the shade (both to help hide yourself and to keep cool) and wait for the doves to arrive.

Perhaps the best piece of dove-hunting equipment to come along in the last decade is the combination cooler and swivel seat that uses a five-gallon bucket as the base. The bucket provides a place to keep cold drinks and to stash downed doves (in a plastic bag) until the hunt is over and they can be cleaned. If you're in fire ant territory, put the doves into the bucket immediately after picking them up. Leaving them on the ground or in the fork of a tree branch alerts fire ants to a banquet that they can't resist.

RULE 1: HUNT WHERE THE BIRDS ARE

A few years ago I decided to get smart about where to hunt doves. Almost all my dove-chasing takes place on public lands, so I pored over the harvest records in the back of the Public Dove Hunting Areas and Other Small Game Leases pamphlet published by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and identified the top public hunting area in each of the three zones. Thousands of doves had been harvested on each of the areas the year before.

To make a long story short, hundreds of miles of travel and three hunts netted me exactly six birds. The birds just weren't there. I learned an important lesson: Last year is over -- you have to hunt where the birds are this year. Scouting potential hunting areas before and during the season is the only way to figure out where you need to be. Using an outfitter lets someone else do the legwork for you if you don't have the time.

Still, your chances of finding doves will vary depending on the part of the state and the time during the season. In the Panhandle, for example, birds moving south ahead of September cold fronts can stack up and provide good shooting around grain fields or patches of sunflowers or native grasses. However, many Panhandle farmers grow winter wheat and may plow fields in August in preparation for planting, thus denying waste grain to birds and forcing them to move to other areas in search of food. The lesson is clear: Hunt the Panhandle early, and then move south with the birds.

TEXAS MOURNING DOVE HARVEST BY REGION
RegionHarvest
Pineywoods187,000
Gulf Prairie349,000
Post Oak Savannah489,000
Blackland Prairie340,000
Cross Timbers825,000
South Texas1,0005,000
Edwards Plateau728,000
Rolling Plains515,000
High Plains169,000
Trans-Pecos99,000
Statewide4,707,000

The part of Texas east of Interstate 35 was once a patchwork of small farms and native pastures that provided ideal habitat for doves and quail. Today, East Texas is a center of cattle production, and most fields and native pastures have been planted in coastal Bermuda grass. There's little for doves to eat unless farmers or hunters plant food plots or reserve areas for sunflowers and croton. Accordingly, dove hunting in the region is spotty and of limited duration at best. Sunflower and grain fields around Corsicana, Mount Calm and Hubbard are worth checking out. Milo and soybean fields around Terrell and north to the Red River can furnish good early-season hunts.

The Hill Country still offers some dove habitat, especially in the eastern counties. Rocky pastures full of the forbs important to the deer diet also provide food for doves. The main complaint I've heard from Hill Country dove hunters the last few years runs something like this: "We limited out opening morning, but the next day there just weren't any birds." Apparently that's a symptom of low resident dove numbers. There are enough birds to furnish one good shoot, but after that, they wise up and either move on or grow challengingly wary.

On the fringes of the Hill Country, the Uvalde and San Antonio areas have the most consistent shooting. Venues farther north and west in the Brownwood area are worth a look. Expect dove numbers to peak from mid-September through mid-October and to decline as the weather cools.

The Post Oak Savannah and Blackland Prairie areas of Central Texas offer some of the best remaining dove habitat in Texas, though coastal fields have made considerable inroads even there. Additionally, urbanization has taken many fields out of production, and some farmers have abandoned grain sorghum production in favor of cotton. Still, some pastures with native grasses and weeds remain, and stock ponds and clumps of trees for roosts hold on in many areas, all furnishing typical dove habitat.

The South Zone takes in most of the state south of San Antonio, and it's probably your best bet, year in and year out. George West, Three Rivers, Tilden, Laredo, Harlingen and Freer tend to offer hunting that improves as the season wears on and birds move south from farther north. Afternoon hunts around stock tanks can be particularly productive on the warm afternoons common to that part of our state.

LOCATION, LOCATION AND, YES -- LOCATION!

Most hunters won't pass up an opportunity to brag on their shooting, but dove hunting is the great equalizer. Even the most expert shooter knows -- and is unashamed to admit -- that it can be difficult to hit a target the size of a soda can flying at 60 miles per hour. Estimates of the number of shots fired for each dove downed range between five and eight.

While I've killed doves at a measured 50 yards, the odds of a clean kill are considerably higher when the maximum range is 35 yards. Choose a spot to hunt that puts you within close range of where doves want to fly. Doves will often follow a fenceline or treeline or fly over some landmark that may not be obvious to us humans. If doves consistently fly past out of range, observe what feature they seem to be keying on and station yourself closer to it. This will benefit you in two ways: Your shot pattern will have fewer dove-sized holes in it as you move closer, and shot will get to the target quicker, reducing the amount of lead or forward allowance you need to use.

Most doves are missed when hunters shoot behind them -- you may see a few tailfeathers fly, but the dove will keep on going. The simplest and most effective way I know of to decrease your number of missed doves is to shoot at closer range and double your lead. If you're knocking a lot of tailfeathers off birds, increasing your lead by a couple of feet will put the center of the pattern right on target. If you're not getting any feathers, doubling the lead should work. The sight picture won't look right at first, but you'll get used to it.

DON'T CHOKE UP

When deciding what choke to use for dove hunting, bear this in mind: Less is more. Some hunters use a full choke, thinking that it'll allow them to shoot doves at greater range. Actually, a tighter choke doesn't make a gun shoot farther -- it just holds the shot pattern together for a greater distance. If you've followed the advice offered and positioned yourself so that most shots are within 35 yards, using a full choke will result in misses on close shots unless you happen to do everything just right. The pattern from a full choke simply won't open up enough on close-in shots.

Modified is probably the best compromise choke to use for dove hunting -- but who wants to compromise? I much prefer to use improved-cylinder and pick my shots. Someone who shoots skeet regularly and can break 80 to 90 percent of clay targets consistently should be able to bag a limit of doves with less than a box of shells using a gun choked improved-cylinder.

Even when birds are scarce, hunters welcome dove season as the beginning of the fall hunting season. A dove hunt sure beats sitting at home.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

See the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Web site at

www.tpwd.state.tx.us or check the Outdoor Annual -- available where hunting licenses are sold -- for exact zones, season dates and bag limits on doves this year.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.