When it comes to dove hunting, I'm a bit of a fanatic. I started hunting mourning doves when I was just 12, and the fast shooting and camaraderie that accompany good dove hunts captured my heart. I've rarely missed an opening-day hunt in the 47 years since then and often hunt numerous days throughout the season.
On some hunts, I've bagged limits of these fast-flying gamebirds. On others, I've gone home empty-handed, failing to connect with even a single dove. I've tried hard to learn from all these experiences, however, and believe the things I've been taught are worth sharing so others can enjoy the satisfaction that comes when shooting is good.
Thinking back on it, my less-than-stellar days usually resulted from bad habits, and happy days with a full game bag came more and more often as veteran dove hunters pointed out my mistakes and taught me how to correct them. Perhaps sharing the tips provided by these veteran nimrods will help you take more doves home for the dinner table, too.
"You've got to focus, boy. Focus."
When I was a teenager, I hunted one day with an uncle who was a crack shot. He seemed to kill every dove that flew past, while I had lots of empty shotshells around my feet and nothing in my game bag. When he had killed his limit, he walked over to me and said sternly, "You've got to focus, boy. Focus."
He explained that when a flock of doves passed, I was swinging this way then that, shooting at multiple birds.
"If you want to kill anything," he said, "you need to pick out one dove, and one alone, and make your shot count."
It was good advice, and I heed it to this day. When several birds fly within range, I pick out a single, and concentrate on proper aim and follow-through. Trying for a double can be fun, but I don't give a second bird a thought until the first is on the ground. As a result, my shooting average has improved.
After sharing that helpful hint, my uncle did something else that helped me, too. He unloaded all but one shotshell from the Browning automatic I was shooting and said, "Try that. When you know you only have one shot, you're more likely to concentrate and make it count." It worked, and it can work for you, too.
"Keep swinging to maintain proper lead."
A few years back, I had an opportunity to work with a shooting instructor at a local sporting clays range. He observed while I shot, and I was shooting very poorly.
"You have a bad habit I see very often," the instructor said. "You're swinging on the target but stopping the swing when you pull the trigger. This causes you to shoot behind. You have to keep swinging to maintain proper lead."
He demonstrated, showing me how to swing my shotgun from behind the target, through it, then ahead of it in one fluid motion. "Keep swinging even as you squeeze the trigger," he said.
It took me a while to get the hang of it, but after hours of practice at the range, I was breaking more clay birds than I missed, and that translated to more birds killed in the dove field later that year.
Now I practice at the range every year before dove season starts, and if I'm having problems, I ask an instructor for help. It's a good thing to do, and one that helps me overcome the bad habit of poor follow-through
"Quit shooting at birds in China."
When I was old enough to afford them, I started buying heavy-load shotshells for dove hunting, thinking I'd be able to use them to kill doves at longer ranges. That strategy failed miserably one day while hunting with my uncle. Shaking his head in disgust, he walked over and said, "Dadgummit, boy, you've got to quit shooting at birds in China. I know you think those long brass shells will kill something all the way across the field, but they won't. Let the birds get closer before you shoot."
He explained how establishing the proper lead on flying doves becomes increasingly difficult with distance, causing misses on long and/or high shots even when using heavy-load shells. He also taught me that shot patterns become less effective with distance. "If you're shooting at a dove 50 yards away," he said, "the pellets have spread so much that a bird can fly through them without a scratch."
Now, before shooting, I always ask myself, is this bird within range? If not, I let it pass. That saves me lots of money on shells because I'm not wasting them on birds I'll probably miss or wound, and I can go back to shooting light loads that will easily bring down doves that aren't too far.
"Watch where the birds fly to choose a good stand."
My best friend Lewis is a deadeye dove hunter. He always seems to enjoy more shooting than anyone in the field, and he kills most of the birds he targets.
One time, years ago, we were dove hunting on a big milo field edged with timber. Lew set up across the field from me, and every few minutes, he'd kill a dove. Nothing was flying close enough for a shot where I was, so I went over and asked if I could hunt with him.
"Sure," he said, "but all you have to do is watch where the birds fly to choose a good stand. See that dip in the timber on the edge over there? When we got here, I noticed almost every dove that comes into the field flies right over that particular spot. I set up so I could take advantage of that, making sure I was positioned so doves would be flying left to right as they came close. That's my best cross-shot swing."
I know now that Lew always gets plenty of shooting because he scans a field thoroughly before taking a stand, determining where most doves enter or exit. He pays attention to structures that serve as reference points for flying doves: field corners, borders between stubble and plowed ground, fence lines, tall trees, etc.
When his observations indicate numerous doves fly over one particular spot, he knows he's pinpointed a good stand. Emulating his behavior has greatly increased my own shooting opportunities and can do the same for you.
"Watch with your eyes, not your head."
In those early days, while dove hunting with my uncle, doves often flared away before I could get a shot. I wasn't sure why this was happening. I wasn't jumping up to shoot or moving excessively, but it seemed like almost every bird saw me and altered its course before I was able to draw a bead on it. I asked my uncle for advice.
"Doves are keen-eyed critters," he said. "They can see every little movement you make, and in your case, they're seeing you looking around this way and that. Watch with your eyes, not your head. That will help."
By that he meant I should lessen the movement of my head as I scanned the sky for incoming. "Keep your noggin still. Move only your eyes," he coached. "Fewer doves will spot you."
He was right. In the intervening years I've also learned to wear a full set of camouflage clothing to conceal me even more. Like the other tips I've learned over the years, that advantage greatly improves my "doves-killed-to-shots-fired" ratio. And that makes every hunting more fun.