Standing at the back door the other evening, it was hard not to chuckle.
Because once again, what the weatherman says usually doesn’t happen in my home state of Texas—late August rain and cooling wind—was happening, nonetheless. And with every raindrop that fell, to the tune of 2 ½ inches of rain in a little more than an hour, my hopes of September dove hunting success at a nearby waterhole seemed to evaporate by the minute.
Watching the wind howl, the lightning flash, and the rain quickly pond its way into sheet water across the farm fields near my vantage point, all I could do was shake my head and mutter "Yup, dove season is almost here again."
With more than 30 years’ experience chasing mourning doves—and in recent years, more and more birds near my Red River Valley home—late summer rainstorms aren’t something I’ve grown to annually expect.
After all, in many years, Texas is as high and dry in late summertime as Death Valley. But drought-busting—or drought-denting—rainfall is also a common enough occurrence that I’m never surprised by a party-crashing thunderstorm as summer prepares to slowly transition into fall.
The severe storm the other evening—and on many other late August afternoons down through the years—serves as a poignant reminder to heed the words of a dove-hunting expert I once knew, the late Steve Stidham of Wolfe City, Texas.
A dog trainer before his untimely death in 2009 at the age of 57, Stidham had a well-deserved reputation for figuring out North Texas dove flights near his Hunt County home. That kind of reputation is strengthened when you come home with an opening day limit of doves for more than 20 straight years.
In Stidham’s mind, aside from solid shooting skills exercised in the field itself, a big key to his consistent dove-hunting success was proper scouting. As long as that scouting was at just the right time.
Put simply, when dove hunting in a region that is marginal for mourning dove flights, it’s as big a sin to start scouting too early as it is to start scouting too late. To find those fabled power lines sagging under the weight of doves waiting for the evening feeding flight, check the calendar before climbing into the pickup truck.
"Scout before the season to find the birds and then obtain permission to hunt," said the late Stidham. "We generally start looking about 10 days before the season. If you find a good field the first or second week of August, that’s all well and good, but the chances are high that the doves will have cleaned that field out and have moved by the middle of August."
Stidham had a preferred date on the calendar that he would wait for before his annual scouting chores began with any serious effort.
"We start scouting about the 20th of August and scout hard and heavy from that point on," the late wingshooting expert said. "Historically, the majority of the dove in this part of the world are on milo. I think that’s because most wheat has been plowed under."
While milo is often still the preferred food source for doves here in North Texas, it’s as much a result of the timing of the local agricultural harvest as it is anything else. Why is that? In all honesty, doves are quite adaptable, having a number of different food possibilities around the country. Because of that, they’re generally going to use whatever seed or grain kernel is most readily available while they are winging their way across the countryside.
"Mourning dove feed mainly on hard-coated seeds, which must be present on the surface of the ground because dove will not scratch or dig for food," notes the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. "This means that land owners who wish to attract doves to their harvested grain fields should not immediately till the fields. White-winged dove also feed on fruits (mast) in addition to the seeds that mourning dove prefer."
What’s a would-be dove hunter to do? Simple—find the preferred food source for the region that you hunt in. Maybe that’s milo, perhaps it’s leftover wheat, maybe it’s corn. Or in the absence of waste grain in an agricultural setting, look for native, natural foods that your local birds are using, including sunflowers, croton (dove weed), snow-on-the-mountain, western ragweed, switch grass, etc.
"They love sunflower and dove weed when there is clean understory with it," said the late Stidham. "But that generally doesn’t mature out in this part of the state (Texas) until mid-September at the earliest."
Keep in mind that if the area you hunt is suffering from a scarcity of H2O, then be on the lookout for a well-used watering spot. For good dove-hunting waterholes, you’ll want to find dwindling stock tanks that aren’t too big to effectively cover, along with a lot of bare ground around the water’s edge.
Why is that? Because doves don’t like to fly into anything with a lot of understory since such natural fluff can contain all kinds of predators. If there’s a dead snag or two around the pond for the birds to fly into and use as an observation post before a drink, all the better.
If knowing when to look and where to look are two key components in the art of successfully scouting for pre-season doves, then it also pays to know how the weather will affect the birds and their daily flight movements as the Sept. 1 opener approaches in many states.
When I interviewed the late Stidham a few years back, it was one of those August seasons where the heat wasn’t terribly severe and there was more rain and mud than one might usually expect in the final days of summer. In a word, it was unsettled.
"This showering around makes the doves very flighty," said Stidham. "It does several things. It keeps them from concentrating up like they would in a normal, stable August weather pattern.
"It also messes up their flight pattern. If we’ve been watching a field with a lot of doves with typical hot, 95 or 100 degree weather, then you can almost set your watch by the time that the first birds will come into the field.
"But when it rains (in late summer), that whole schedule gets screwed up. You’ll have some coming in at 1 o’clock, some at 4 o’clock, and some at other times."
What does that mean for dove hunters hoping to shoot a limit? Simply this—you’ll need to scout earlier and drive father to find more than one sure-fire option that is loaded up with birds.
But as the Sept. 1 dove season opener nears—a virtual holy day for wingshooters in many states—all of that hard work is worth the effort and the windshield time.
Especially as you’re walking out of a field before sundown, carrying a hefty limit of doves in the back of your hunting vest.
That’s what the late dove hunting expert Steve Stidham specialized in and his advice is as timely now as ever. I know I plan to be following it this upcoming season and so should you.