July 25, 2022
Mourning doves can frustrate even the most experienced wingshots. They're fast. They're small. They're hard to hit.
Most hunters are happy if they can connect with a third of the shots they fire at these little gray speedsters.
Doves aren't like quail, grouse, woodcock or other upland birds that hunters typically walk up or hunt with pointing dogs. Instead, doves are hunted from a stand—a spot on the ground where the hunter can remain well hidden yet able to see all the doves that fly within shooting range. The birds come to the hunter—or don't—depending on how wisely the nimrod chooses his or her position in the shooting field.
Ideally, you want to select a stand site where: 1) most passing doves will fly within shotgun range, typically 20 to 35 yards; 2) doves will slow their flight speed as they get ready to land or take off; and 3) doves will be flying in a direction (right to left, left to right, straight on, etc.) most suited to your shooting preferences.
For these things to happen, you should closely examine the landscape of your hunting locale so your choice of a stand will offer as many of these benefits as possible.
1. FIELD STRUCTURES
Why They Work: Doves like to follow easy-to-recognize flyways related to specific terrain features or field structures. If you can determine what those structures are in the field you are hunting, you can choose a stand that offers plenty of shooting opportunities.
For example, birds often will enter a field and zip straight down a row of sunflowers or millet left standing after the rest of the crop has been harvested. Or they will home in on a bare rise in the middle of a field where they can light and check their surroundings for danger before feeding. Knowing these things, you can observe and pattern birds, either while you are shooting or prior to the start of your hunt, to greatly improve your stand selection and shooting success.
How to Hunt Them: Take a few minutes before each hunt to determine where most doves are entering and exiting the field and what landscape features they follow. In doing this, I like to think of doves like largemouth bass. Their movements into, across and out of a field are directed by structure, just as bass orient to creek channels, points and other types of bottom structure when moving from one area of a lake to another.
For example, a low spot or gap in the trees along a field edge may be a busy travel lane for doves. Field corners frequently funnel doves in and out. Overgrown fence lines and borders between stubble and plowed ground often guide birds as they zoom in to feeding spots. When your observations indicate numerous doves are flying near such features, you’ll have zeroed in on potential hunting stands and can take advantage of the situation.
If you connect on more shots when swinging from left to right, then try to take a stand where most doves will pass from your left to right. If you prefer shots at doves slowing and fluttering to the ground, get set up near the end of a flight path.
2. PERCHING SITES
Why They Work: Mourning doves are very cautious creatures. They like to alight on wires, fences or dead trees to look for signs of predators or other danger before flying down to eat or drink. Often, too, they’ll sit on power lines or bare branches to preen or simply loaf around. If you find it difficult to hit fast-flying doves, you can look for perching sites such as these and set up nearby for shots at slower-moving birds either coming to the perch or leaving.
How to Hunt Them: Safety and ethics dictate that you don't shoot birds actually sitting on a wire or even a tree limb. But if you can determine which direction most doves are coming from as they approach, you can take your shot at the point where the birds start slowing to land. When they extend their feet, or look like they are about to, shoot.
3. WATERING SITES
Why They Work: Most hunters pursue doves in feeding fields where sunflowers, millet, wheat and other favorites foods were grown. But action at dove watering sites also can be gun-barrel hot. Doves usually drink twice daily—once in the morning before or after feeding and again in late afternoon before going to their nighttime roosts.
Hunters who find well-used waterholes often can limit out on birds coming and going at these times of day, even in areas where there are few or no crop fields to attract the birds. Look for ponds and shallow mud holes that have wide, level swaths of open ground along their banks. It's easy for doves to land in such spots and easy for them to flush when disturbed. The best sites also have perching spots like dead snags or power lines nearby so the birds can preen, loaf or look for threats before flying down.
How to Hunt Them: Every productive waterhole has doves coming and going in the same directions day after day and around the same time(s) each day.
To take advantage of that routine, scout each area for at least a couple of hours early in the morning and late in the afternoon and try to determine the birds' come-and-go schedule. That way, when you hunt you can be sure you’re on site and concealed from view when the first doves arrive.
While scouting, you should also try to determine how birds enter and leave the watering area so you can position yourself properly to intercept them. Avoid taking a stand beneath tall trees or you’ll find it hard to get shots at birds flying over.
Instead, look for patches of tall grass or bushes that will help hide you from sharp-eyed birds, and wear clothing that matches the landscape to conceal yourself even more. Setting up a small open-top ground blind like the AmeriStep Throwdown is a good idea where natural cover is sparse.
When hunting by ponds, most shots will be at slow-moving birds at close range, so I prefer shooting an open-choke shotgun with No. 8 or No. 9 field loads. Pick your shots carefully so doves don’t fall in the pond. Dead doves float, but unless you have a boat to retrieve them, you’ll be wasting game.
4. GRAVEL PITS
Why They Work: A mourning dove's gizzard, a muscular portion of its stomach, grinds and crushes food the bird eats. The smaller particles, then, are more easily broken down as they pass through the digestive tract. The birds consume little bits of grit and gravel each day, which pass to the gizzard to help with this grinding process. That’s why you often see doves standing in gravel roads and on the shoulders of highways. They’re eating grit. That's also why they flock to the many abandoned gravel pits found throughout the South.
There's plenty of grit to eat in these old quarries, and there’s no traffic to disturb the birds while they’re getting it. Gravel pits often provide prime watering and perching sites that attract doves, too.
How to Hunt Them: You’ll need landowner permission to hunt gravel pits, which usually are on private land. But if mining activities have ended, obtaining consent usually isn’t difficult. Once that task is completed, you should scout the pits to determine the birds’ activity patterns.
Watch where doves fly over and where they come into the pit. Take a stand accordingly, hiding in the edge of timber or some high weeds. Camouflage clothing is important to help you remain undetected, and a few decoys set on bare branches or at the edge of the water will help attract passing doves.
Spinning-wing decoys really seem to draw birds in. One of those visible to doves flying past will have them pitching in like crazy, and you’ll get lots more opportunities to shoot.
Regardless of where you choose to hunt, it’s important to continue scouting right up until your visit. Doves' activity patterns may change due to adverse weather conditions, changes in feeding field conditions and other factors, especially early in the season.
To have the best opening day hunt possible, follow the Boy Scout motto and be prepared. Identify several potential hunting sites. Visit them often. Watch doves throughout the day. Determine when and where they’re flying. Doing these things increases the odds you’ll bag some doves—assuming you can hit them, of course.