August 31, 2023
In the South, mourning dove shoots tend to be big social affairs with a dozen or more nimrods positioned around a single field. Multiple wingshooters are needed to keep doves flying in large fields. Otherwise, the birds will settle at the far end, feed, then leave.
On a typical hunt, participants spread out from their initial meeting point and each person takes a stand in a brushy fence line, a still-standing row of grain, beneath some trees or even in the middle of a field. Shooting starts sporadically, but if the hunting locale has been chosen well, gunfire will eventually become so steady you won’t be able draw a full breath between shots. Hundreds of doves pitch into the field, shotshells pop like strings of firecrackers and birds fall.
While the shooting is going on, it becomes apparent that some hunters are getting far more shots than their companions. And if you pay attention, you’ll notice who limits out and leaves the field well before the others.
This is rarely a matter of coincidence. One can’t just sit in some random spot and expect lots of doves to fly by within range. Instead, the hunters leaving first with limits of doves usually have taken steps before and during the hunt to make sure they’re properly positioned and prepared to kill as many doves as possible.
Here are some ways they accomplish that—methods you, too, can employ to kill more birds the next time you go dove hunting.
SCOUT IT OUT
If you know where you’ll hunt and have the landowner’s permission, it can be very helpful to scout a field before your actual hunt. Move from one spot in the field to another, using your eyes and binocular to determine the flight paths of doves as they enter, cross and exit.
- Are most doves pitching into a corner or a certain area mid-field? Taking a stand near that hotspot should increase shooting opportunities.
- Are birds landing on a bare snag or power line before dropping to the ground to feed? You may be able to set up nearby and get shots at slower moving birds coming to or leaving the perching site.
- Are there other dove attractors that might draw larger numbers of birds throughout the day? A nearby pond with an open shoreline can be a center of activity near sunrise and sunset, and a rural road or river sandbar could be a magnet for birds seeking grit to grind seeds in their gizzards.
Noting landmarks like these can help you key-in on active fly zones. These are aerial highways doves use when moving from one activity center to another. That is, the path from the field edge to a central feeding spot, for example, or the route a dove might fly when leaving the field to get a drink or to roost. With a few minutes of observation, you should be able to determine the fly zones and set up properly to take advantage of this knowledge.
Remember, however, that dove activity patterns may quickly change due to adverse weather conditions, changes in field conditions and other factors. To have the best hunt possible, identify several potential hunting stands and use one where dove numbers remain high when you’re in the field.
On occasion, I’ve scouted areas a day or two before hunting them and found numerous doves. Then, a big storm would come through and the following day the birds would be gone. It’s unpredictable, for sure, but scouting just before your hunt is the best way to find a first-rate stand.
On some hunts each person may draw a number and be assigned to a corresponding stand. Others have a first-come, first-served way of doling out hunting spots.
In the latter case, you may be able to set up in a better spot if you arrive earlier than other hunters. Be sitting in your pre-scouted spot and ready to go while others are still gathering their gear and walking to their stands. Or take a few minutes before the field becomes disturbed to see where the most doves are flying, then set up appropriately. The early hunter gets the most birds.
Pay special attention to choke points when watching how doves enter and exit a field. These are narrow openings through fence line timber or between field structures that funnel doves. For example, a turnrow used by a farmer to bring a tractor into the field might create an opening that’s also used by doves. Tall weeds on one edge of a harvested crop field also direct the flights of incoming birds. Taking a stand near one of these choke points can give you shots at birds that might slip past you otherwise.
Sit so you’re comfortable with most of the shots you’ll be taking. Let’s say, for example, you hate “coming-at-you” shots but are better than average when swinging right to left. If you determine doves are passing through a choke point on the field’s edge, be sure to sit on the proper side of the choke point, facing the proper direction, so that most birds pass you from right to left.
Doves like to drink in the morning and afternoon, providing additional hunting opportunities around ponds, seeps and mud holes surrounded by open flats free of tall vegetation. Here, again, you want to watch for patterns as birds move from one activity area to another. For example, one pond on a property I hunt has a tall, dead tree on one end. Birds that drink there usually land on the snag’s bare branches and preen before flying down to the pond edge. I hide in tall cover between the tree and pond and get easy shots at slow-moving doves that drop in to quench their thirst.
Every productive waterhole has doves coming and going the same directions day after day. Take time to determine activity patterns at the site—when and where doves are flying—and you can enjoy fast shooting.
ADD SOME DEKES
Placing a battery- or wind-powered spinning-wing decoy in front of your hiding spot can double or even triple the number of in-range shots you get. The flickering of the spinning wings convinces doves that others of their kind are landing in a spot where they feel safe and secure. So, they’ll head toward that spot to join the flock. You’ll be waiting there in ambush, and if the decoy is set up at a distance equal to your comfortable shooting range, you’ll know exactly when to take a shot.
These spinners can be placed on a pole or stand just a foot or two above the ground, or they can be elevated on a longer pole or a dove “tree” for greater visibility. The tree-type stands allow the placement of several decoys (both spinners and non-spinners) close together but up to 8 or 10 feet high, so they’re more easily seen.
It’s a good idea to place several static decoys on the ground around your spinner and several clip-on dekes on nearby fences or dead trees. Fence decoys should be about a foot apart on the top strand of wire. Tree decoys should be placed as high as possible.
When hunting doves at watering holes, place several decoys on bare ground along the water’s edge, plus a few more on nearby perching sites. Face all decoys in the same direction—into the wind. Doves take off and land into the wind and quickly spot phony birds that have been positioned improperly.
LOADED FOR DOVES
- Choose the right gun, choke and shotshell.
A good all-around choice for dove hunting is a 20-, 16- or 12-gauge autoloader with screw-in choke tubes. Pumps, side-by-sides and over-unders work fine, but because doves are fast and difficult to hit, many hunters prefer autoloaders, which allow three quick shots before a bird gets out of range.
Always remember, however, that repeating shotguns must be limited to holding only three shells (that is, they must be plugged) while dove hunting. Federal regulations require it.
Perhaps the best all-round shotshell is a 1- or 1 1/8-ounce load of No. 7 1/2, 8 or 9 shot. Fiocchi’s Field Dynamics Dove Loads are a good option. Heavier loads allow longer shots, but you may go through several boxes during a single hunt, and your accuracy could suffer if you start flinching due to a sore shoulder.
Rarely is a full choke a smart choice for dove hunting. If you pick a good stand where birds will come by you at close range, an improved cylinder should be your first choice. If you’re mostly pass-shooting at fast-flying birds a bit farther out, change to a modified tube.
- This article was originally published in the South edition of September 2023's Game & Fish Magazine, now on sale at newsstands. Click to subscribe.