6 Tips For Improving Your Dove Hunting
September 08, 2002
Bag more birds with fewer shells to improve your dove hunting: no kidding.
Dove season's opening day is, in many instances, something of a social event. That means that spaced around the field will probably be some of your best buddies with a few others you really care considerably less about. All of this is forgotten when the first wave of gray darters puts in an appearance only to leave you with an empty gun and a solitary tail feather spinning slowly to earth. You no longer wonder how a gladiator felt when he stepped out into the arena because you're sure that every eye is focused on you. At least doves don't bite.
Many years back, someone wrote that an average of four shotshells are fired for every dove brought to bag. Judging by the number of empties lying around the perimeter of a busy field shortly after the end of festivities, either somebody took over the limit or the average might well be somewhat higher than that, a fact that appeals to few who do not own stock in an ammunition company.
The truth is that on opening day when there are plenty of young and semi-dumb birds around, there is little excuse for anyone with even modest physical skills not to shoot around 50 percent. Before you break out the boiling tar and bags of feathers, let me explain.
Doves do not have the option of scaring you like a covey of quail bursting out around your bootlaces or that rooster ringneck that bounced, clacking like mad, from the cover you just walked past. The good old American mourning dove shows up in plain old open air and gives the gunner plenty of time to get his pet smoothbore into position most of the time. With that established, let us see what needs to be done on the shooter's end of things to put meat in the pot rather than a lump on your cheekbone and a shoulder with all of the colors found in a Texas sunset.
LIGHTEN UP/OPEN UP
Doves are small, have a light and easily broken bone structure, and require very few small pellets to drop them cleanly. Why then do some hunters insist that they need a medium to heavy load of shot and pellets no smaller than a No. 7 1/2? I have one friend who swears that he needs the same 1 1/4 loads of No. 6 shot that we used on decoying ducks back in the "good old days." He also sticks doggedly to his full-choked 12 gauge under the misguided rationale that because he feathers so many birds, he needs more punch. The idea that he scratches a bird with a single pellet from the edge of his pattern just won't soak in for him.
Check with the guys who regularly drop their limits with a box of shells and you will find, with precious few exceptions, they are using open chokes, usually improved cylinder, although you will find some skeet bores, and their shot size preference will never be larger than No. 7 1/2. Because doves are not hard to knock down, select a combination of bore constriction and shot size that gives you a suitably dense, even pattern out to 30 to 35 yards. If the pattern shows that any bird within a 30-inch circle is going to absorb four pellets or more, you have plenty of firepower.
No, this is not in reference to the paper you signed your name on at the gun shop. Gun control here means doing something more with the muzzle than sticking it skyward in the general direction of a dove and pulling the trigger. Unless you just enjoy hearing things go "Bang!" you will not reap a very great reward shooting this way.
To begin with, think about your shotgun the way you would think of a garden hose. Somewhere along the line, all of us have squirted someone and if you hit a running kid with the stream of water, then there had to be some lead involved. Point the nozzle straight at a moving target and your liquid "pattern" will inevitably wind up behind the target. You have to get in front to establish a lead, and then keep swinging to make it effective.
How much lead? This is a question that rears its ugly head on a regular basis. With the exception of a few serious shooters, I doubt that many of us can accurately answer it. On paper, a shot that is on the money at 40 yards requires a different lead than the same result at 20 yards if the target is moving at the same speed and along the same angle. Just to confound the Number Lovers, no it doesn't. The "apparent lead" that your eye sees increases as the distance gets greater, but the angle does not change. Confused? Don't be.
Going back to the garden hose, think of it this way. When taking a passing shot on a dove, regardless of the direction it is moving past the gun, swing from behind the target and when you see daylight between the muzzle and the bird, pull the trigger. Because the muzzle is moving faster than the target you will (a) establish the necessary lead and (b) be less prone to stop your swing. Even for the shooter who wants to put the muzzle out X number of perceived feet ahead of the target (yes, it can be done effectively), the follow-through is critical to dove-shooting success. Stop your swing before you see the bird start to fall and you can count on a miss.
Incoming and outgoing birds are the easiest of all. Black them out with the barrel when they come toward you and clear them with the barrel as they go away.
This very basic tenet of shotgunning is one that regularly is overlooked or plain forgotten when the shooting heats up. If your head is not down on the stock in its proper position, you will consistently shoot high. If your cheek is not snugly tucked against the comb of the stock, side-to-side swings will be erratic, plus when taking an extreme angle shot you can wind up with a lump on your jaw that looks as if you recently had a molar extracted by a drunk orangutan.
THE NUMBERS GAME
"The secret to being a good doubles shot is making sure that you hit the first bird before you shoot the second," my grandfather told me roughly half a century ago, and it holds just as true today. No matter how many doves come boiling across a field toward you, select one, and shut the rest out of your mind. When you see the selected dove wilt under the shot charge, you have plenty of time to pick a second choice. If before you kill the first dove, you're looking at the next one you want to shoot at, or even thinking about looking at it, you'll miss the first dove and get neither bird.
If possible, have your shooting location selected before time to put the guns to use. Even if you don't have a chance to actually see the flight paths used by doves coming to feed, you can take notice of hills, power lines, trees (especially those around the field with bare branches) and other places that naturally have the majority of winged traffic. If you really want to show off in terms of your shooting average, pick a place where most of the shots taken will be incoming and outgoing.
You can hedge your bet even more by putting a few dove decoys on fence wires, bare limbs or anywhere else they can be seen by flights of birds coming into the feeding area. Camouflage color and pattern? You can wear a bright pink tutu and a diamond tiara and won't flare most birds outside shotgun range if you break your outline and do not fidget around.
With the aid of a friend or two, set up so that you can safely throw and shoot birds that come in, go away, and cross your front from both sides. Make safety your first priority, of course. Alter distances as you shoot, and by all means, use the chokes and shot sizes mentioned earlier. This is a good time to try different guns, too. A light, gas-operated 20 gauge, properly handled, will take birds mighty handily and is a delight to use because it won't knock you around. Of course, if you insist on using Grandpa's fixed-breech 12 gauge and the ammo he had left from the 1965 waterfowl season, it's your shoulder.