2009 Lone Star Dove Outlook

With opening day of another dove season fast approaching, here's what Texas shotgunners can expect when they hit the fields. (September 2009)

The most important things that Texas dove hunters need to know as the new season opens are available on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Web site: www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

Before you plan your hunting this season, check the TPWD Web site for season dates and bag limits because, as this is written, it seems very likely they will have changed statewide.

As is the case with other migratory species, the federal government annually sets season frameworks and overall bag limits, which individual states then apply to their own situations. Texas is part of the Central Management Unit, and a March meeting set in motion the changes that are likely to (1) expand the season in Texas' North Zone and (2) modify bag limits in the state's Central and South zones.

"These changes are part of what's called an adaptive management approach," said Corey Mason, TPWD's Dove Program Manager. "We'll be gathering data during and after the season, and we'll use that information to evaluate the resource annually and adjust as necessary."

Last season, for example, hunters in the North Zone had a 60-day season with daily bag limit of 15 doves. Central and South Zone hunters had a 70-day season with a 12-bird daily bag. After the March meeting, TPWD recommended to the commission a 70-day season with a 15-bird daily bag limit statewide for 2009.

"We took that to the commission," Mason said, "and it was published in the Texas Register before any action." Nothing is final as this is written — thus, the need to check the TPWD Web site for the season and bag limit in effect where you'll be hunting.

That being said, it appears as though the 15-dove daily bag limit will apply to 70-day seasons that will open Sept. 1 in the North and Central zones. Mason said the changes also include a slight tweak to the framework for the South Zone opener.

"The South Zone dove season has traditionally opened on the Friday nearest Sept. 20," he said. "The only change to that is that the South Zone season will not open earlier than Sept. 17."

About the only other change hunters could see this season involves whitewing doves and collared doves. The latter, Mason noted, are not classified as game birds and, as of this writing, do not count toward hunters' daily bag limits.

"We're seeing the ranges of whitewings and collared doves expand north of San Antonio," he said. "They move into urban/suburban areas. Since they're colonial in nature, hunters should expect to see them in neighborhoods with live oaks, for example.

"Our banding data shows that whitewings in particular are expanding beyond their traditional habitat in South Texas to the north, and spreading east and west. They're an interesting species, and their numbers continue to increase. I know this story — and our hunters' interests — is focused more on mourning doves. But the white-wings and collared doves are moving into new areas, and they will provide a new resource to many hunters as they move into Central Texas and on north."

Traditionally, whitewings have been living in South Texas, especially in the southwestern corner of the state. And even with a relatively small range, they account for upward of 2 million birds in the annual harvest.

That's a lot, but it's only about 28 percent of the annual Texas dove harvest. Of the total 7 million birds, roughly 5 million are mourning doves, and they represent the species most Lone Star hunters will be after this month.

Make no mistake — dove hunting is a major attraction for Texas wingshooters. The opener is as much about family gatherings and fellowship as it is about hunting.

"The Texas dove opener is a traditional 'event' statewide," Mason said. "Families get together and spend time in the field. They get out and enjoy time in the field together. We also know that dove hunting provides a 'window event' that has introduced many people to hunting over the years."

Simplicity plays a major role.

"Dove hunting really is pretty simple," Mason said, "and we know that's a reason it continues to attract so many hunters and remains such a family-oriented tradition in Texas. Folks can just go out to a water hole or sit on the edge of a field and enjoy some great hunting. They can do day leases, or they can visit one of the public fields we lease around the state. It's wonderfully simple, and that makes it very attractive and popular."

TPWD annually leases some great acreage for dove hunting — and it's just part of the more than 1 million acres leased around the Lone Star State annually to provide public access.

"Our leasing program began in 1994 as a pilot project," said Linda Campbell, the state's Public Hunting Program director. "The program has grown substantially since then to those million acres last year.

"We had 141 units in 51 counties totaling slightly more than 50,000 acres for dove and small-game hunting last season," she added. "We are always interested in leasing acreage that will provide hunting access close to our major urban areas — Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio."

Campbell said that 74 percent of those 141 units dove hunters used last season were located 100 miles or less from major urban areas around the state. She noted that hunters wishing to enjoy some of these public-hunting opportunities — or those for other species that encompass the full 1 million acres — must add a $48 Public Hunting Access tag to their regular license.

"Some landowners are committed to staying in the program with us over the long term," Campbell said, "but the program is dynamic because we see some parcels dropped and others added every year. We're always looking to expand the acreage, and those landowners who are willing to do habitat improvement as part of the program are really welcome."

That can mean planting crops specifically for doves — milo, wheat and sunflowers, which biologists have referred to as "dove candy" in interviews I've done about the resource over the years.

It also means shredding some crops in the field for the doves, and leaving some rows of crops standing, not harvested. I have seen landowners who not only leave crops standing for the doves, but also to provide really good cover along field ed

ges for hunters. Doing that makes for great natural hunting blinds.

When it comes to Texas dove habitat, moisture is the biggest variable. And, like many states throughout the U.S. Central Management Unit, the Lone Star State has been dry.

"We had a dry summer last year, and that was followed by a dry winter," Mason said.

"We had some rain early in this year, but we definitely can use more."

By the time you read this, you'll know how weather has played out across the state this season, and whether dove production has suffered amid another dry year or reveled in good precipitation at just the right times.

Mason said the counties in the Central Zone have been as dry as they've been in quite a long time, and that definitely could affect dove production heading into the new season.

"The central area of the Central Zone traditionally is our most productive for doves because the terrain is fragmented and there are plenty of ponds — when they have water.

"The mix of ag fields and cover provides doves with the bare-ground access they need and with nesting habitat. The farther east you travel in the region, the more the good habitat decreases. The western half of the zone is the most productive.

In the North Zone, topography lends itself to the same buffering effect seen in the best parts of the Central Zone.

"We have significant areas in the North Zone that offer mixes of riparian habitats and good brushy cover," Mason noted. "Areas like these are generally very productive for doves."

Ranches predominate in the South Zone, and they provide plenty of brushy cover. "There also are plenty of ponds in the South," Mason said, "and they are responsible for spreading out the water resources doves use — again, when there is water in them."

With more than 90 percent of the state's hunting lands privately owned, Mason said TPWD biologists in every county continue to work with landowners on habitat improvements that will benefit doves and all wildlife.

"We are happy to work with private landowners because doing so is the way we will see the most significant habitat improvements for doves and other species," Mason said. "When it comes to doves, we work with them (landowners) to enhance water access and bare ground access on their properties.

"Our biologists visit with landowners annually in their counties, and they help with habitat plans that meet the landowners' interests. We help them to identify locally adaptive species to plant for habitat improvement, among other things."

As mentioned earlier, some landowners also are willing to — and do — effect habitat improvements in crop fields as dove season approaches.

"Part of it involves leaving some of the crop standing as you described," Mason said, "but landowners also will shred some of the standing crops for the doves."

Both steps make for plenty of "air traffic" into fields come opening day. That usually makes for some great action. "During the first few weeks of the season, we have plenty of birds visiting dove fields throughout the state," Mason said. "They do start moving around as a result of the hunting pressure.

"The bulk of our annual harvest occurs during the first couple of weekends of the season," he added. "That's also when we see most of the hunting pressure. Folks go on to doing other things after the early part of the season."

That's actually good news for those hunters who choose to enjoy the later weeks of the campaign because, although birds can be tougher to hunt as they get "educated" by pressure, that pressure decreases a great deal. Those who choose to spend time around water holes or at the edges of dove fields later on in the season won't have a lot of other hunters to deal with.

Later on in the season, Texas' significant population of resident birds also welcomes an influx of migrants from the northern region of the U.S. Central Management Unit. By late September, states to the north are beginning to experience the first of the season's cold fronts, although they generally aren't nearly as severe as those that will drive migrating waterfowl south in the weeks ahead.

Doves still do react to the changing weather, and Lone Star hunters see their fair share of visiting doves if they venture out later in the season.

"Our resident birds are moving around later in the season, and there definitely are numbers of migrating doves from the north," Mason said. "Together, they can offer some good hunting for those who like to pursue them late in the season. We know, however, that much of our annual harvest occurs during the first couple of weeks, so there just isn't the interest in dove hunting later on in the season."

Hunters who do venture out later on should concentrate on areas with water, which can be at a premium, and on those fields that still are providing good forage to doves in the area. Action early and late in the day often will be fast and furious.

It also will pay to have some options when it comes to hunting locations. Because a vast majority of the doves have experienced at least some hunting pressure by then, they're definitely going to be moving around. Successful hunters move with them.

All of this leads us back to the biggest unknown heading into this or any other dove season — whether there's been enough precipitation to really enhance habitat, forage and, as a result, dove production.

"Moisture is always the big unknown when it comes to predicting a new season," Mason said. "And of course, there are some years when we get the storms moving in from the tropics that seem to park over Texas and drop a lot of rain at times when the doves just don't need it.

"They don't build very significant nests," he said. "Anyone who's seen a dove nest knows it's generally just a few sticks thrown together and isn't very strong. They won't withstand strong storms and heavy rains, and that can definitely have a negative impact on production."

So will a lack of rain at the right times.

"Production also depends a great deal on getting the kind of precipitation that provides plenty of seeds and insects for our doves," Mason explained. "Annual production hinges on the condition of our female birds heading into the nesting and hatching seasons. The better shape they're in, the better they will be able to take care of the young birds they produce."

Available forage plays a big role, as does the availability of quality nesting habitat.

By now, hunters across the state should have a pretty good idea of prevailing conditions, and whether the resident populations of doves they plan to hunt enjoyed good production. If so, this could be another great season for Lone Star dove hunters.

Remember to check the TPWD Web site to confirm season dates in the Dove Zone you plan to hunt, and to verify daily bag limits.

Mourning doves remain the bread-and-butter of Texas' resource, but the other species' ranges are expanding, so some hunters likely will encounter them for the first time this season. Mason said ongoing research suggests that the three species don't really compete with each other for food and cover — at least, not yet.

"Over the long term," he said, "we'll be able to get a better idea of competition among the species. Right now, the research we've done shows that they typically aren't competing with each other, so that's not a problem right now."

The bottom line is that wingshooters most likely will find plenty of doves across Texas' three zones as the season opens. They should have more days to hunt them in the North Zone, and slightly larger daily bag limits in the Central and South zones. Hunters in the state's major population centers also should have plenty of public-access areas within relatively short drives of home.

Everything is shaping up to enable followers of one of the Lone Star State's most popular hunting traditions to enjoy another successful season. Make sure you're a part of it!

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