September 18, 2023
Pity the recent hunter education graduates this month, brand new hunting licenses in their pockets and gleaming new shotguns on their shoulders. Many were over-ready to use both in the dove seasons that opened in 41 states on Sept. 1.
Why should you pity these particular humans? Because dove season, which may send more American hunters into the field on opening day than any other day of the year, is so fraught with expectation and disappointment that few new hunters come out of it unaffected.
For some, the fast action and communal spirit of wingshooting cements a lifelong passion for hunting. But for other beginners, it’s just too chaotic for their liking, and they associate all other methods of hunting with the cacophony and undirected energy of a dove field.
In this way, doves are a good framework to examine how to introduce a hunter to the field, and to combine our euphoric celebration of the return of hunting seasons with the larger perspectives of how and why we hunt. Plus, it’s just a really good opportunity to celebrate doves, those aerobatic little winged darts that we love to hate, when we miss, and love to eat, when we hit.
Dove season, especially the opener, is many things—county fair, homecoming, dog field-trial, shotgun test venue—but it’s mainly a chance to hunt an abundant game species in shirtsleeve weather without making a big investment in access and gear. Maybe that’s why some 750,000 hunters were expected to hit the field opening weekend.
There are several reasons why a day of dove hunting can be the single best moment to teach a new hunter.
- Ample Shooting Opportunities: New hunters want to pull the trigger and in a good dove field, they’ll have plenty of opportunities. Make sure you have the lightest field loads available, and don’t worry about the ratio of misses to hits. Missing, and then recognizing why it was a miss, is a necessary stage in the evolution of a hunter. But so is celebrating the hits.
- Low Risk, High Reward: Where there are a few doves, there are usually lots of doves. That abundance means the missing that inevitably follows new hunters is simply an opportunity to work on the important details of wingshooting: mounting the gun, seeing lead, following through and recovering to make a follow-up shot. Unlike with some big-game hunts, a miss hardly ruins the season.
- Predictable Situations: Where I live, in northeastern Montana, the upland season also opens in early September. Sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge are favorite game birds, but I wince as I prepare young hunters for this season. It’s hot, and there’s a lot of walking. But there are also rambunctious dogs, unpredictable footing, erratic birds and large parties of hunters. In short, it’s a nightmare for young, tentative hunters, and it can be worse for young, overconfident hunters. Dove season, on the other hand, is much more manageable. You can sit on a bucket or chair at the end of a field, the birds come to you, and you don’t really need a dog.
- Food Value: Doves are delicious, especially when they’re wrapped in bacon and grilled over open flame. Keep your bounty cool and clean, and dress the birds with care. There’s nothing like honoring new hunters, and cementing their value, than thanking them for feeding the family.
- Socialization: A good dove shoot is like a combination of a backyard barbecue and a school play. There are people around, they’re having a good time, and while everyone should know their role and their stage directions, there’s usually plenty of time for fun exchanges. You are obligated to make fun of your buddy for missing easy shots, but you know you’ll get the same right back when you inevitably miss. There are few other hunts with this festive lightness.
You knew it was coming. Here’s why a dove shoot can be the worst time to introduce hunting to a new shooter.
- Distractions: If you’re mentoring a new hunter who can’t focus during range sessions, let alone among the myriad peripherals of a dove shoot, then maybe a full-on public dove field isn’t the right venue. Find a place where you can control the variables, from other hunters to the general direction of incoming doves. Put down your own gun, and devote your full attention to your young hunter. There’s plenty of time for you to shoot once you get the newbie focused.
- Discomforts: It can be stiflingly hot, mosquitoes can be intense, and if you’re wearing the wrong gear, it can be downright uncomfortable in a September dove field. Effective mentors will be prepared with extra water, sunscreen, bug dope and shade. And more than a few snacks.
- Sloppy Gun Handling: As much as you try to control the variables, doves never get the memo. They come zigging over wood lines and zagging across open fields. The erratic flight of doves can delaminate beginning hunters who only have an abstract idea of zones of fire and safe-shooting scenarios. It’s not a bad idea to start hunters with a single-shot model or have them load just one shell in repeaters. Too often a new hunter will forget there’s a round in the chamber and will point the muzzle around like it was a flashlight.
- Recipe for Frustration: Doves simply don’t act like clay targets, and even beginners who have gun-safety rules nailed and are focused on the target can look like chumps. It’s not their fault; doves make experienced hunters look like rank beginners. Unfortunately, the more a beginning hunter misses, the more that hunter keeps missing. This can be especially galling if a buddy is hitting every bird and celebrating each success. Be aware of this dynamic and take frequent breaks. Set up in a spot with a different flight pattern or away from other hunters, especially that obnoxious crack shot.
If you do it right—and probably even if you do some of it wrong—doves are the perfect gateway to a lifetime of hunting. The worst thing you can do, whether you’re a beginning or a veteran hunter, is to miss this best of all opening days.