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Five Ways to Be the Top Gun in Your Dove Field

Dove hunting is nearly here. Here are key things to consider for wing shooting success

Five Ways to Be the Top Gun in Your Dove Field

Being a top gun in a September dove hunting field means that a wingshooter has likely put in some pre-season training time, practicing their shooting skills in the days leading up to the fall season. That can certainly help when the hot breeze is kicking and rocketing gray ghosts are putting on aerial maneuvers and displaying afterburner speed that would make a Top Gun naval aviator smile with envy. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

Like millions of others, I was an eager movie-goer this summer to watch the Tom Cruise blockbuster film, Top Gun: Maverick.

And yes, some hard-earned dollars of mine are a part of the film's $1.35 billion box-office haul, because I saw it more than once.

After all, it's the sequel to one of the classic films of my youth in the 1980s. And it's a feel-good story with in-your-face F/A 18F Super Hornet flying scenes where the red, white, and blue is still good, a lost relationship is restored, good triumphs over evil, a flawed character finds redemption in the end, and in this case, that character flies away into the sunset—in a classic P-51 aircraft, no less—with the love of his life.

Dove Season Opens
While Hollywood may never make a film about a top gun wingshooter in a dove hunting field, there are ways that dove hunters can increase their chances for success, even if they aren’t a shotgunning ace with plenty of naturally born ability to rely on. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

Makes you think of dove hunting, right? Well, it does for me because that's a topic I'm often thinking about in the late summer living in the dove-rich state of Texas. And soon, I want to be smiling big—and maybe even behind a pair of Ray Ban Aviators—at the tailgate pickup on a September evening, the wingshooting hero of the day that found a way to be top gun in my dove-hunting field.


While Hollywood will never make a movie about it, it would be nice to have a September shooting run where a few "atta boys" are given out after having taken a limit of fast-flying mourning doves, preferably inside a box. So, with apologies to Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell and the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program—the real life Top-Gun school—here's five ways you  can be the top wingshooter in your hunting spot come September:

Get Some Practice In

In general, you're only as good at most things in life as you are in practice. And that includes wingshooting, especially when the bogeys flying through the air are winged marvels known as mourning doves.

But keep in mind that it's not enough to just to grab your shotgun, a box of clay pigeons, and spend a leisurely afternoon burning through gunpowder as you pulverize a few cream-puff targets. Instead, you need to have someone put you through the paces with a target thrower, working on the shots that you typically struggle with.


If that's a hard right crosser that comes unexpected, work on that. If it's a surprise overhead shot from behind, spend a few primers there. And if it's the creampuff shot flying on your nose right at you, well, don't go into a dove field this fall without having burned some gunpowder on that ghost in your shotgunning closet.

Because as legendary NFL football coach Vince Lombardi once said, "Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."




Shoot a Better Box of Ammo

Years ago, my longtime hunting pal Jim Lillis of Sherman, Texas—who coincidentally wears Aviator sunglasses, even though he's never flown and wasn't in the Navy—passed this tip along to me: buy better ammo to find more dove hunting success. Lillis, now in his mid-70s and still as spry and active as anyone I know, is not only an enthusiastic dove hunter, but also a passionate sporting clays guru who lives on weekend courses with a variety of shotguns tailor-made for him. Put simply, he's an expert wingshooter and he has a few trophies to prove it.

Ammo for Doves
To be a better ace in the dove hunting fields across the U.S. this fall, shoot a better box of ammo, whether that’s a high quality trap or target load or the so-called Heavy Dove loads like those shown here. With better components and construction, you're likely to shoot a little better with higher grade shotshells, something that can make a difference in getting a limit or coming up just a few birds short. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

He's also an engineering type, one who is always tinkering, always figuring out how something works, how it can work better, and the steps to get there. When he started looking at how shotshells are constructed, he quickly concluded that the better components of higher-priced target loads—and even the Heavy Dove Loads offered by some manufacturers--performed better in the field than the bargain basement loads many dove hunters buy.

So even though the price of gasoline and inflation are causing a lot of us to pinch pennies, don't let that be in the shotshells you choose this fall. It could be the difference between a limit and going home a few birds short.

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Scout Your Hunting Spot Well

At first glance, this might not seem to have much to do with shooting success in a dove-hunting field. But actually, it often has everything to do with such success.

Case in point was a red-hot dove field my two sons and I hunted a few years back. Getting them there after school proved to be a challenge, so we were left with leftover spots to hide in upon our arrival. And even though thousands of mourning doves and white-winged doves flew by on that hot September afternoon, several hunters had far better luck than we did because they were able to arrive early, scout for a few moments, identify the flight paths into and out of the field, and pick out the proverbial "X." As a result, they limited out in short order with shooting that was unbelievably good.

So even though you may not be like Maverick and Rooster and have a military grade computer layout of where you're hunting, spending a few moments looking the field over the evening before or just before the dove hunt actually begins can help you identify the top flight paths into and out of the field, something that can pay off with you being in a premium spot that is covered up with gray ghosts rocketing by.

Hide Well

If you want to be successful at hunting doves, you need to remember that we're not talking about an afternoon of football on the beach, or a corn-hole game at a college football pre-game tailgate party. Doves are as wild as the September winds they ride. They get wise in a matter of minutes when the primers start going off And they are quite a challenging game bird to bring down because they have good eyesight that alerts them to potential danger.

For me, that means two things here, the first being camoing up before heading into a dove field. Now I'm not saying that you need the most expensive camo duds to successfully bag a limit, because every year, in a red hot dove field in Texas or somewhere across the South, some dead-eye wingshooter bags a few limits wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

Wingshooting for Dove
To find yourself a wingshooting top gun in a September dove hunting field, a little extra shooting practice in the pre-season and careful scouting attention to where the best spot is in a particular field can go a long ways in putting a limit of bacon-wrapped doves on the grill. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

But for the most part, you'll do far better with shooting chances if you're wearing camouflage that blends in well with your surroundings. Whether that's Mossy Oak, Realtree, Sitka Gear, KUIU, or even the brown and beige patterns offered by the likes of Simms, Huk, and Orvis to name a few, up your camo game in a dove field. With lightweight sun hoodies and pants available, they can even help keep you from getting sunburned, help keep mosquitoes and other bugs at bay, and will help you stay cooler than the old-school days when we were wearing BDU pants and heavy-weight cotton shirts.

Dove Decoy in Sun
Like little boys dreaming of being a Navy fighter pilot, OSG writer Lynn Burkhead dreams of being a dove hunting top gun in harvested agriculture and wild sunflower fields around his Texas home.  While he readily admits that he’ll never be an ace when it comes to natural shotgunning skills, over the years, he’s learned a few tricks to September wingshooting that can help push a dove hunter towards the top when the birds are flying fast and furiously. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

Also, be sure to keep hiding well until the bird actually gets in shooting range. More good shot opportunities—for me, at least—get spoiled because a hunter moves or raises up to shoot too soon and spooks the dove, who then heads for the next county with the afterburners kicked in.

To help combat that tendency to get antsy, I usually measure out the edge of my shooting box in a dove field, placing a few rocks or other natural markers to help me see visually when a dove is approaching the edge of my effective shooting range.

Hunt Doves One at a Time

This last tactic is something I've learned the hard way over the years because I'll be the first to admit that I'm not all that great when it comes to wingshooting. I enjoy it, but it's a challenge that I have to work at to overcome.

And for me, that means to realize that I may never be a wingshooting ace, instead steadily plodding my way towards a limit by taking shot opportunities one at a time and ignoring the pressure to double, and even triple, in a hot dove hunting field.

That means focusing on one bird as a flock moves in. It also means focusing hard on the easy single birds, trying to get the barrel in front of their beak as they move into shooting range.

Field Tips for Dove Hunting
To be a successful dove hunting top gun this fall, avoid the temptation to focus on sizable flocks of birds and chances of aerial wingshooting glory with doubles and triples. Instead, focus on individual birds and don’t take your eyes off of them after the shot until they have been successfully retrieved to hand. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

And it means if a bird flutters and falls on my shot, locking eyes on the dove, avoiding the temptation of swatting at other doves flying by, and walking straight to the downed bird without ever taking my eye off its location until I've retrieved it to hand. In the end, this hunt them one at a time approach saves time, reduces the number of lost birds I’ve downed, and reduces cripples because I tried a risky snap-shot that averts my attention from what’s at hand.

On that latter point, if you have a well-behaved retriever or bird dog that can take the heat and deal with the loose feathers of doves—many hunting dogs don't like the birds for that reason—that can certainly help cut down on lost birds and time spent searching for a downed dove that the drought-cracked ground seems to have swallowed up.

In the final analysis, being top gun in a dove field doesn’t come down to having the best equipment, like a fifth generation fighter plane, but being the best pilot, or wingshooter in the box.

And that comes through experience, time spent in the field learning and growing, and a willingness to do the basic little things better than anyone else.

Do that in September, and you'll likely walk out of a dove field with the game vest heavy and you smiling big behind the Ray Bans.

Even if you don't have a cool nickname like Maverick.

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