Whether you hunt solo or go the social route, this Texas dove shooter has some tips that will put more birds in your bag.
Charlie Fernandez met me at the front gate to his family's South Texas ranch and made no bones about me being late.
"The birds are flying down the creek right now," said Fernandez. "We've got about two hours of legal shooting time left, so let's get with it."
We were hunting on one of the family's three South Texas ranches. On that afternoon in mid-September we loaded up Fernandez's truck and headed off into a distant wide-open pasture that had doves flying all over the place.
"These are mourning doves feeding out here in this tea weed field," he advised. "As they leave the field they will come right down the middle of an old creek draw that leads to a watering hole on an adjacent ranch."
He parked the pickup under a spread of old mesquites and oaks.
"Don't forget to put your snake boots on," he said with a grin. "We've been seeing some pretty good sized rattlers out here. And when you go to pick up a bird, make sure there's not a snake nearby."
We pulled on snake boots, loaded up with guns and ammo and headed out.
"The best thing to do is to spread out," he said, "and when the birds really start flying move to their flyway and get ready for some excellent shooting."
Pass-Shooting at Its Finest
It didn't take long before an endless stream of mourning doves was zipping over, around, and into the oak and mesquite trees. It was pass-shooting at it's very finest. And with 15 minutes of shooting time left, the birds quit flying like somebody had turned off a switch.
"That's usually the way it happens down in this creek draw," said Fernandez, who has been hunting those ranches south of San Antonio for more than 40 years. "Let's clean these birds and head on back to the house. We'll hunt on a goat weed field tomorrow morning. The birds have been swarming over there."
We had quick limits that first afternoon, thanks to some great scouting by Fernandez.
"Dove hunting out here can be feast or famine," he said that evening as we cooked chicken fajitas over an open fire. "If we get just a little bit of rain during July and August it'll usually be enough to grow plenty of weeds that drop a lot of seeds. That's the big draw for doves."
We made one more hunt the following morning. As Fernandez had noted the night before, it was on a goat weed field on the far east side of one of their small ranches, down the road from the main ranch house.
"This should be a good morning hunt," he'd predicted over coffee at daylight. "We'll get out and set up beside a few of the oak trees out there and wait for the birds to come in to feed. I scouted that area yesterday morning and it was bringing in some good flights from about 8 'til 10 in the morning."
We were in for another great hunt. Fernandez unlocked the gate and as we rolled across the cattle guard, the birds were already coming in to feed.
"This is going to be very different shooting than what we had yesterday," he said. "Instead of pass-shooting, we'll ambush the birds as they glide in to feed. It'll be a fun shoot with plenty of easy shots. Just stick close to a tree and step out when the birds are in range."
Classic Shoot with Easy Limits
There's nothing like having a good friend with a good "dove ranch" in South Texas. We set up on portable stools under small oak trees, loaded our guns and proceeded to burn up some shotgun shells. It was an all-time classic shoot with easy limits.
"The big thing about being a successful dove hunter in South Texas is having a lot of land to work with," says Fernandez. "We run a cattle operation out here so we have plenty of just about anything a dove could want â€” water, food and trees to roost in."
Some of the Fernandez family's best hunts are around the scattered tanks the cattle use for water. After feeding in the open fields, the birds will come to the tanks for water and to hang out in the surrounding mesquite trees.
"It's funny how some stock tanks will draw lots of doves, and others are just so-so," observed Fernandez. "A good example is the little tank that's no more than a few hundred yards from the front door of the ranch house. It's a tiny pond, but has big mesquite trees surrounding it. And it's adjacent to a tea weed field. Doves can feed, and then come to the tank for water. It's a great place for a quick afternoon or morning hunt."
But the go-to place for the most dependable hunts is an old creek draw that's about a half-mile long. There are lots of trees that the doves like to set up in.
"That old creek draw is the cat's meow for dove hunts," Fernandez pointed out. "It's a long draw that holds lots of birds. It's also a natural for wildlife like deer, pigs and turkeys. It's a good place for a lot of hunters to use. But it offers some challenging hunts. When the birds come down that draw with the wind they are moving on. It'll definitely give you lots of tough shots. When the birds first start flying down the draw they are hooked up and moving fast. But as we near sunset they will choose certain trees to land in. The trick is to find those trees and you can put down a limit of doves in no time flat."
Fernandez considers pass-shooting at fast-flying doves to be the most challenging sport.
"I shoot a 20-gauge over and under with either 8 or 7 1/2 shot," he says. "A 12 gauge is fine, but a little too much kick when you get into the birds. A 20 gauge is the perfect gun. It's lightweight and comfortable to shoot. Most of the time I'll be using 2 3/4-inch shells with 8 shot. My favorite chokes are modified and improved-cylinder. At times I'll go to a full choke when the birds are flying high."
Scouting for doves and knowing when and where they will be in a certain area is the key to having steady hunts.
"I work on our ranches and see where doves are flying," says Fernandez. "They can be all over a field one day, then gone the next. They won't stick around when there's a lot of shooting pressure. If we hunt a field and have a good hunt, I'll let that area rest. Scouting is the absolute best way to stay on shootable numbers of birds."
A lot of Texas dove hunters hunt in the afternoon, but you might be surprised at how good the morning hunts can be.
"We have some outstanding hunts from about daylight 'til 10 in the morning," says Fernandez. "That's when it's a lot cooler than afternoon hunts. One thing that I have found out is that morning hunts are unpredictable.
"What I'll normally do is drive from one area of a ranch to the other looking for early flights of birds coming to fields to feed. Last season we were having some slow hunts in what was a pretty productive field. I did a little scouting and found out what the problem was. All the birds had moved to a goat weed field in the middle of nowhere. I mean there were hundreds of them! The next morning we had an excellent hunt.
"When scouting, I look for doves on the high wires and in trees. If I see just a few doves on a high line I know there are plenty more on the ground nearby. If I see a single dove landing in a field I'll go check it out. Where you see one dove you'll likely find lots more.
"During September we will begin to have cool fronts moving through. They can deliver lots of birds overnight. But they can also move doves out as well. That's why scouting is so important."
The best way to stay on doves is to be mobile.
"I do a lot of walking on just about every hunt," says Fernandez. "Doves are totally unpredictable on just about every hunt. You've got to make adjustments and move to where the birds are flying. I wear a pullover shooting vest that holds lots of shells, water and back bag that holds the birds. But the most important thing I wear are snake boots.
"It's no secret that South Texas is rattlesnake central. I've never been bitten, but I've killed plenty of them. Wearing snake boots is one way to take the risk out of getting hit. I'm always on the lookout for rattlers, especially when I'm picking up a bird. We've found rattlers nest to trees and fence posts."
While hunting with Fernandez a number of years back, we were putting lots of birds on the ground. I had my retriever along â€” Big Nose Kate. I dropped a bird about 20 yards out in a goat weed field. I lined Kate up and sent her out for the retrieve. She circled the dove and came back without the bird. I sent her back out and she did the same thing. Frustrated, I walked out to get the dove and it was right beside a 4-foot rattler. Talk about a wakeup call! I'm sure Kate thought that was hilarious.
One more tip from Fernandez centers on using dove decoys. "I never used a dove decoy up until a couple of seasons ago," he says. "The battery-operated dove decoys with the twirling wings are deadly. I've actually had doves land within a few feet of a decoy. You can use one, but two or three in one area will draw doves in like a magnet."
And that's the point of so many successful dove shoots in South Texas. Get them in close!
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