Like many other southerners, I love dove hunting.
In fact, in my neck of the woods in Texas, the traditional September 1 dove season opener is a can't-miss affair, complete with good friends, great food, plenty of laughs and some memorable wingshooting.
As long as I can shoot straight, you can expect to find me kneeling somewhere in Texas shortly after sunrise on the opening day to admire the gray plumage of a mourning dove that flew by a bit too close to my hunting spot in a harvested grain field or near a parched waterhole.
With a little luck – and plenty of pre-season work – that will hopefully be the start of a red-hot wingshooting session. And not the start to a morning spent swatting a few mosquitoes and pesky fire ants while looking at empty skies.
Hoping for a similar good start? Then keep in mind that success in early September, no matter what part of the country you live in, actually begins with a little sweat equity in late July and August.
With that in mind, here is some sage pre-season advice from four dove hunting gurus that I've encountered over the years.
Be sure to take their advice to heart before you head to your favorite dove hunting field this fall.
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Start Shooting Again
Put simply, being a deadeye wingshot in September actually starts in the dog days of late July and August. How so? By grabbing your shotgun, a few boxes of upland loads, and a supply of clay pigeons for a late summer practice session, or two, or three.
That’s the advice of Steve Hollensed, a Tom Bean, Texas, wingshooter and Orvis fly fishing guide who has more than four decades of wingshooting experience behind him with his trusty Remington 1100 autoloader.
“(A dove hunter’s) first shot each year is (often) at a live dove,” said Hollensed. “That’s probably a mistake. That shot needs to be at a clay target or two to get the muscles and eyes conditioned to shooting effectively again after a long layoff over the summer.”
If shooting practice is the first key to a good September hunt, then the second one is probably an August scouting trip or two to find solid concentrations of dove.
So says Jay Roberson, the man who was for many years the wildlife program leader and head dove biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in Austin.
“You have got to have birds to have a good, successful hunt,” agreed Roberson. “That's the first thing that has got to happen.”
To ensure that happens, Roberson said that dove hunters need to get their binoculars out, drive back country roads and find out where and when the dove are flying, watering, eating and roosting.
And if the birds are using fields that you don’t have permission to hunt, it’s then time to start politely knocking on a few doors.
The bottom line is when the first of September rolls around, you want to be grinning ear-to-ear as you remember the mantra of a good real estate man: "Location, location, location!" A saying that is never more true than when it applies to a spot you are hunting while hoping for a good September dove shoot.
Solid Setup in the Field
Shooting practice and ample scouting time isn’t all that’s necessary to ensure that you’ll have a red-hot wingshooting opening day experience, however.
A few years back, Brownwood, Texas, dove hunting outfitter David Davis instructed me that once scouting chores are complete, a successful dove hunter must then set-up properly in the right spot for a good hunt to ensue.
How do you do that? Simple; think back to your spring bass fishing trips.
“They’ll follow terrain just like a fish does,” said Davis. “Doves will use bridges, valleys and other types of structure just like a fish.”
Because of that tendency for dove to fly by or land on objects in their flight paths, things like power poles, tall trees off by themselves, dead snags, H-braces in a fence line, a drainage ditch or even an old rusty combine can all be good places for a sizzling dove shoot.
My old high school pal and hunting partner Mike Bardwell, himself a crack dove shot, has reminded me more than once that the best spots can and do change from day-to-day.
For proof, Bardwell points to a treeline that produced an epic hunt for him a few years back. The next day? Not so much.
"After watching a few inbound dove fly elsewhere, it quickly became apparent that we needed to make haste to a small island of brush in the middle of an old grain field," said Bardwell.
Make haste if he and his pals wanted a limit of mourning dove, that is.
After relocating to the new spot, it wasn't long before Bardwell and his buddies were plucking limits of dove as the sun began to slip below the western Texas horizon.
They also were searching for their favorite recipe to prepare these tasty birds, all because they refused to stay married to what had worked so well the previous day.
Find the Right Waterhole
While I’ve enjoyed many good dove hunts in a feeding field or along a prime flyway, my most memorable hunts for this rocketing gray ghost almost always seem to occur around a waterhole.
But remembering previous lessons learned, it has to be the right waterhole, the preferred one that dove are using for a last drink of water before heading off to roost.
Keep in mind that not just any old pond will do. Most of the time, the right watering spots will be smaller stock tanks or farm ponds that are clean of any high growing vegetation that might hide a lurking predator.
They'll also often be located near an evening roost spot and while not being too far from a preferred feeding location. Sometimes, they’ll even contain a dead snag or two where doves can fly in and perch for a few minutes while searching for any potential trouble below.
When such a spot is found, it can be pure wingshooting gold.
Take the triple-digit September hunt I enjoyed with my good hunting pal Steve Lewandowski a few years back.
By the time the day was done, Lewey and yours truly had wiped plenty of sweat from our brow and consumed plenty of Gatorade that day as the thermometer soared to a record-breaking 111 degrees.
But we also heated up our gun barrels to the point of melting, finishing one bird shy of a limit in no time flat on a scorching late afternoon hunt.
Why one bird shy of a limit? Because somebody miscounted and I'll give you one guess who that someone was.
But we really didn't care because we were hunting the waterhole that every dove in the country was wanting to fly into that evening. Or so it seemed.
And when you're only one bird shy of a two-man limit, there can be few complaints.
Employ this formula of late summer shooting practice, pre-season scouting, setting up properly at a hunting spot and finding the right waterhole to hunt and the guess here is that you'll enjoy such a red-hot September wingshoot in just a few weeks.
Provided that you can count right, that is.