August 16, 2022
To say I'm fond of waterholes as a hot-weather hunter is a bit of an understatement.
Water attracts game. I've tagged a couple of really good antelope bucks with my bow while guarding a waterhole from a nearby double-bull blind on a blistering-hot afternoon. One of the first outdoors stories I ever wrote was about a Pope & Young state-record whitetail taken at a North Texas waterhole on a triple-digit early archery opener.
Waterholes play into my outdoorsman's wheelhouse as every fall approaches since it usually serves up some of the best dove hunting imaginable when a hot Texas breeze and mourning doves arrive in September.
Red-hot summers like the one currently unfolding between the Red River and the Rio Grande mean that doves, including mourning doves, white-winged doves, and invasive Eurasian collared doves, can't resist dropping into a pond in which a bullfrog might have trouble hiding.
As the doves drop in on a muddy, cattle-tracked shoreline, they can be easy pickings, even for an outdoors writer whose shotgunning skills could be considered questionable.
With extreme heat and drought conditions baking a good portion of the country as the opening day of dove season approaches, now is a good time to re-examine the principles of a good waterhole dove shoot.
Here are seven keys to effectively hunt doves around water.
1. Pick the Right Weather
There's little doubt that waterholes can lure in flighty mourning doves on any given hunt during any given fall. But there's even less doubt that the best seasons for waterhole hunting—tank shooting, as many Texas wingshooters call the practice—take place when the landscape is wilting under daily heat with little, if any, rainfall.
Doves don't need a lot of water to survive and can make do with water from just about anywhere. But when daily highs are pushing 100-plus, there hasn't been rain for weeks, and a hot wind is blowing, smaller stock tanks will dry up, leaving less choices for doves to seek an evening thirst-quencher. In this case, the less, the merrier.
Truthfully, if a quick look at the U.S. Drought Monitor map shows lots of yellows, oranges, reds, and crimson colors, you're in business for a good run of waterhole hunting, as long as you get a few other keys right.
2. Find the Right Water
When I first started dove hunting as a high-schooler back in the 1980s, Texas was going through a wet cycle of years and stock tanks were bank-full most Septembers, leaving me to swat mosquitoes and wonder where all of the doves were.
As it turns out, doves don't like a lot of water, not for the liquid refreshment it can provide, but for the dense vegetation that during such damp years can grow all the way to the water's edge. A thick collection of grass, weeds, and brush that can hide all sorts of dangerous surprises.
My late guide friend J.J. Kent helped me understand this, pointing out that smaller was better and less was more.
"I've found over the years that ponds that are somewhat barren with a dirt bank between the water's edge and the end of the vegetation usually are the best to hunt," said my friend, a late Mossy Oak pro staffer.
"That's because the birds like to circle, look things over, make sure there's no nasty surprise like a predator in the vegetation, and then land on the bare dirt and walk to the water's edge," he added.
"They feel safer in such spots, and if they feel safer, you've got a lot better chance of seeing them fly into shooting range."
3. Locate the Right Hiding Spot
Selecting the right waterhole is only one part of the equation, since you've also got to locate the correct hiding spot.
My friend J.J., who built a successful outfitting business over the years an hour north of Dallas, was a master at doing this, learning through trial and error.
"Typically, I try to pick a tree at the pond so I can sit under it in the shade because it can be hot during a September hunt," said the late Kent. "That tree can also help keep you camouflaged a bit as the birds fly in for a look-see.
"And I also look for such a tree on the west bank of the pond so that I'm looking due east and away from the setting sun. That's the most ideal situation."
I'd also add that having a nearby dead snag at the water's edge, or a fence post or barbed wire fence running along the tank's edge never hurts since doves like to find such spots to fly into, land and survey the terrain for danger, and then drop in for a drink.
4. Arrive at the Right Time
Right off the bat, I'm going to note that during really hot weather—the kind of miserable summers that Texas has suffered through in years like 1980, 1998, 2011, and now, 2022—doves are likely to drop into a watering hole at just about any time of the day in an attempt to slake their thirst.
But in general, the best times are early and late, right after the early morning feeding flight and just before sundown as the birds are heading back toward the roost after a late-afternoon feed in a local cut agricultural field or sunflower patch.
If you can only hunt one time during the day, however, make it the evening hours when the day's heat is starting to slip away as the sun slips towards the horizon. Get there with a couple of hours to spare and you'll enjoy the temperature becoming more bearable, the winds beginning to die down, and likely have a few warm up chances on a few early birds before the main show starts in the final hour of shooting light.
5. Use the Right Choke and Shotshell Combination
In my mind, this one is the easiest topics in this story because waterhole hunting is usually a close-quarters affair, where birds suddenly appear, and the shooting is quick and difficult, and you'll need some margin of error.
Unless the tank you're hunting is a bigger one where shots may be longer in nature and a modified or full choke and # 7 ½'s are more advantageous, select a scattergun on the other side of the equation, one sporting an improved cylinder choke and shot sizes in the #8 or #9 range. For this kind of shooting, give me a 20-gauge over-and-under, or even a vintage American side-by-side with open chokes, and not the heavyweight cannons I may choose for late-season goose hunts or spring turkey.
6. Wear the Right Clothing
When I started chasing September doves, the right clothes were the 100-percent cotton duds that the local sporting goods stores carried. They were heavy, hot, and miserable to wear on a 100-degree day, but they were all that we had.
Today, high-tech hunting clothes protect a hunter and his or her skin, while keeping them as cool as possible.
One example is the new Sitka Gear Equinox Guard collection (including hoody and pants), even though the original target market was spring turkey hunting. It's also perfect for western big-game hunting, early season whitetail hunting (especially in the southern Great Plains, where fall is always hot to begin with), and even on the trout-rich White River in northern Arkansas as caddis flies are hatching. Weighing mere ounces, this is indeed lightweight, along with being moisture-wicking and breathable, and coming in the dove hunting-friendly Subalpine camo pattern. Best of all, the garment’s built-in Insect Shield protects human skin from a variety of buzzing, crawling and biting insects. Add in sun-shielding capabilities, and this is a lightweight camo hoodie and bombproof pants choice that pulls double-duty in a variety of outdoor settings, some in the woods, some on the water, and some around a dove hunting honey-hole.
Other great lightweight camo duds are made by Simms, Orvis, Duck Camp, KUIU, Mossy Oak, Realtree, and more.
7. Shoot Straight!
Preparation before letting ammo fly down-range allows you to make an accurate shot when mourning doves whip into a wet spot for an evening drink. If you're like me and don't shoot regularly in the offseason, spend a weekend or two working on your shooting skills before dove season starts. Practice makes perfect.