When the Sept. 1 dove season opener rolls around each year in the bird-rich state of Oklahoma, expectations are normally pretty high.
And for good reason, too, since there are usually plenty of native mourning doves either side of Interstate 35. Add in a few white-winged doves pushing across the Red River every year from the south and some invasive Eurasian collared doves, and there usually is no shortage of little gray ghosts rocketing about on a southerly breeze.
That being said, some dove seasons are better than others in the Sooner State. And this year, the dove season outlook from Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation migratory game bird biologist Josh Richardson appears to be leaning toward the leaner side of the equation.
“For doves, I'd say to expect a fair to average season," said Richardson as hunters get ready for a Sept. 1-Oct. 31 first split and a Dec. 1-29 second split.
“We definitely have had some struggles during the summer as far as bird production goes, thanks to all of the stormy and rainy weather we had earlier in the year. There are still birds around, but not as many as you might normally expect here in late August.”
After unprecedented storms and rainfall sent Oklahoma lakes, rivers, and stock ponds over their banks in the late spring and summer months, boating and fishing weren’t the only outdoor activities impacted by the inclement conditions.
In fact, all that wet, stormy weather also conspired to keep Sooner State doves from successfully nesting in the numbers that Richardson expects to see most years.
But the biologist also notes that all hope isn't lost for this season.
”Dove production for local birds was certainly hampered, but then again, it was not an outright failure either," said Richardson. "And since doves nest multiple times throughout the spring and summer from late April, through May, and on into the months of June, July, and even early August, I'm hopeful that their re-nesting efforts will pay off this fall.”
All that biologist-speak leads Richardson to forecast an average dove hunting season across the Sooner State this year — a C on the pre-season report card — partly due to the lesser production referenced here and partly due to habitat that was left dead and brown by the heavy rainfall and flooding that occurred earlier in the year.
Which simply means that dove hunters north of the Red River will have to work a little harder than normal for an early season limit, especially during the first week or two of September.
“Yeah, you might not go through two boxes of shells as fast as you usually do, but still, with a little scouting effort, you should still not have too much trouble coming up with a limit of birds either," said Richardson. "That's especially true if you do your homework, are in a good spot, and take your time and pick your shots.”
What tips does Richardson have to give Sooner State dove hunters on the cusp of the 2019 campaign?
“For most of the state, I'd say that waterhole hunting is not a great option this year," he said. "Out in western Oklahoma, that hunting technique is still a workable concept since it hasn't been as wet recently.
“But for the rest of the state, try to find where birds are grouping up and feeding. That's probably not in the typical fields you've hunted in past years. Many of those fields are unavailable this year for various farming and management techniques.”
Richardson says that in many cases, the food that will be available to doves this fall will be native stands of seed-bearing vegetation and waste grain in some late planted fields.
But the lack of good habitat and scarcity of food for doves also carries a silver lining for hunters.
”In other more normal years, when you have a lot of waste grain and native food available to doves out in fields, the birds will shift around quickly and move to another source as hunting pressure increases," he said. "But this year, if you find a good feeding field in your scouting efforts, the odds are you're probably going to see more dove utilizing it over the course of the season since food resources are more limited this year.”
Richardson is also hopeful that for those wingshooters willing to get out later in the season, more doves will be arriving with each passing cool front.
"Migrant doves in late September or October, it's fairly typical for some good hunting to occur for those migrating birds coming down from the north, and even on into our December season," said Richardson. "Some of our local birds will move on, of course, but they will be replaced by birds from the north.
"Of course, there's a human side to all of this since even though we have 90 days of dove hunting on the calendar, most people do the bulk of their dove hunting the first seven to 10-days of the season each year. After that, participation really drops off.”
But for those willing to keep going afield, the late season this year could produce some superb hunting in parts of Oklahoma.
"Yeah, for the guys that stick it out, especially as we get more cool fronts and some of this year's later planted fields get cut, there can be a chance for some good hunting," said Richardson.
”For those who will stay persistent and use the season dates that are available, they should still get some pretty good shoots through September and on into October.”