Hotspots for Opening-Day Doves

Hotspots for Opening-Day Doves

Several DFG wildlife areas are planted with dove-attracting crops to help provide you a successful dove hunt. Get in on the fun at one of these locations!

By Marvin Bibby

There was not a cloud in sight or a whisper of wind when I loaded my truck in the wee hours of the morning the first day of September a year ago. I just stood there in my shirtsleeves, grinning, not believing my luck. The hot days and warm nights had held for the opening day of dove season.

The grin grew wider when I turned east out of Wheatland onto a narrow county road leading up into the oak-studded foothills. I grinned because of the weather. I grinned because the fall bird season was about to begin. And I grinned because I knew where the doves were - perched in oak trees around a mown safflower field, awaiting dawn.

The grin began to fade at Camp Far West Lake while I sat at a stop sign waiting for the road to clear. The grin was gone by the time the road turned to dirt, a pall of dust announcing that a lot of trucks were ahead of me. And then I found them. The road was choked with vehicles - parked in the weeds, in the ditch, blocking the road - they stretched for a quarter-mile in each direction.

Twenty minutes later I stopped at my safflower patch. Somewhere between scouting it two days ago and my arrival, an army had claimed it. The chatter of conversation and the glow of flashlights covered the 20-acre field. The oaks along the hillside offered the only chance for me to squeeze in. The army could have the safflower. No flashlight beams answered mine, so I turned up the hill. Ahead, between two huge valley oaks, a dark patch against the gray promised a rock to sit on and a place for my pack.

Two paces away, the rock groaned and sat up. "Time to shoot yet?" Hand held out to shield my flashlight beam, a young man squinted up at me. "Hell, it's still dark. Why did you wake me?" he asked, flopping back down on his back in the weeds. Moving up the slope 100 yards, I squatted down beside a small white oak and looked nervously around, trying to spot other hunters.

Photo by Marc Murrell

A half-hour later, the sky lightened, and the field came alive with scattered pops and bangs; these soon became constant, like the staccato sound of a packet of firecrackers going off, as 100 guns tried to claim the flitting shadows of incoming doves. I slipped down into the bottom of a gulch and worked my way up a rock-strewn channel away from the madness, hoping that the snakes were still asleep. When the gulch opened up, I found myself alone. The birds were scarce and the shooting was difficult, but I did not have to compete with others for every shot.

I would like to say that I did well, but I cannot. Five birds when I quit at noon - which proves that even if you scout early, the weather holds and the birds are there, the sheer mass of hunters on a given safflower patch can result in there not being enough birds to go around. Hunters can improve the odds by scouting for secondary spots, hunting flight lines in and out of the feeding areas and hunting in the evening, rather than at dawn.

To aid you in your scouting, California Game & Fish talked to wildlife managers and biologists about state wildlife areas in the Central Valley. This is what we found: The Sacramento Valley has a number of state wildlife areas open to hunting during dove season, each with a loyal group of hunters, each with planted crops that encourage doves to hang around, and none requiring a reservation or fee to hunt on them. The downside is that they can be crowded on opening day morning. For detailed descriptions and maps, call (530) 743-5068 and request a copy of Wing Beat News and a wildlife area map pack.

Upper Butte Basin SWA - Just above the town of Gridley, the Upper Butte Basin SWA has three separate sections covering 9,208 acres strung out along Little Dry Creek open for dove hunting. Steve Cordes, area biologist, tells us that the largest section, Little Dry Creek SWA, will not be planted with safflower this year because the crop has not done that well in the past. He notes that although some doves can be found around patches of bull thistle and in the trees flanking Little Dry Creek, the other two sections of the area have larger concentrations of doves.

Howard Slough SWA - Hunters can pick up a map of the area at the checking station off Road ZZ, one mile north of SR162 and 11 miles west of SR99, when they check in. Last year an estimated 75 hunters bagged 375 birds for a 5.0 bird/hunter average on opening day. In 2003, expect to find safflower planted on the same 45 acres as last year.

Llano Seco SWA - Register and get a map of the area at the check station on Seven Mile Road before walking in to the shooting area where 85 acres of safflower have been planted. On opening day last year, 90 hunters checked out 556 birds for a 6.18 birds/hunter average. Always crowded on opening morning at this popular shooting area, hunters may want to try for an evening shoot, instead. Generally, weather willing, there are still good numbers of doves available in the evening on opening day.

Oroville SWA - Covering 11,871 acres, this riparian rockpile of oaks and dredger tailings follows the Feather River downstream to the Thermalito Afterbay just east of U.S. 99. Divided into two units, this wildlife area produced 2.0 birds/hunter last year, says Andy Atkinson, area manager. This year, hunters will find 80 acres of safflower planted in three- to 15-acre plots. Atkinson reports that a new twist has been added for 2003 - small patches of safflower are scattered amongst the dredger tailing rock piles. Pre-season scouting is essential to locate both them and the doves, but it should help alleviate crowding. Pick up a map of the area at the main entrance signs to aid your search.

Gray Lodge SWA - With a bird/hunter average under 1.0, 2002 was not a good year for dove shooting at Gray Lodge. "We had maybe three areas planted," reports area manager Mike Womack. "So it was a bad year." But 2003 should be different. The Mule Deer Foundation donated enough seed to plant 200 acres of sunflowers and safflowers this year. With 10 separate plots ranging in size from a half-acre to 25 acres, planted between both east side and west side shooting areas, hunters should be able to spread out and find good places to hunt.

Scouting is always the key to success at Gray Lodge because it is up to the hunter to find the plots. Pick up a map of the area at the check station on Pennington Road to help in the search. "All of Gray Lodge has doves on it," notes Womack. Although hunters "shoot a big percentage on opening day, there are always a few left around." With 6,000 acres available to hunt and with this much crop planted, Gray Lodge may be the top pick after opening day - if

the weather holds.

Feather River SWA - The Sutter County Fish and Game Commission has begun to develop a 700-acre section of the Nelson Slough Unit of the Feather River SWA under the Highway 99 bridge, notes Dale Whitmore, DFG biologist in Marysville. This year, over 100 acres have been planted to provide habitat for upland game. With small patches of safflower scattered in 10 to 12 different spots, the chances for hunters connecting with doves have been greatly improved.

Spenceville SWA - Located 15 miles east of Marysville in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Spenceville SWA posted a hunter success ratio of 2.7 birds/hunter on opening day last season. This year, 90 acres of safflowers had been planted by the second week in March, says Andy Atkinson, area manager. Scattered in one- to 25-acre plots throughout the 11,387 acres that comprise the area, they are planted in different spots than last year, notes Atkinson, "because the land will not support planting in the same area." He cautions hunters to scout the area if they expect to locate one of the plots before opening day. Hunters can pick up a map at the information board kiosk to aid their search.

Yolo Bypass SWA - Just across the Yolo Causeway west of Sacramento, on the south side of I-80, 125 hunters took 275 birds for a 2.2 birds/hunter average on opening day last year. And that's not the whole story. Doves continued to work this area well into the following week.

I took four doves in a mown safflower field just north of Parking lot G on the Monday evening after opening day, and would have done a lot better if there had been some other hunters to keep the birds flying. Doves would simply set down on the far side of the field and not move.

In 2001, the Yolo Bypass SWA acquired 13,000 new acres, according to area manager, Dave Feliz. It is now 16,000 acres in size, and those new acres will be converted to hunting and wetlands over the next few years. Although a lot of the land is still leased to private farming, this actually helps the dove hunting.

This year, 100 acres of safflowers and sunflowers are planted in two adjacent fields on the south side of Putah Creek and an additional 20 acres of safflowers has been sown in small plots in areas north of parking lot G and south of parking lot F. A map of the area is available at the front entrance, or at the checking station during registration, to aid your hunt.


California hunters dodged a bullet this past spring.


A bill introduced into the California Legislature by Assembly member Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, would have designated doves as songbirds in California. In short, Nation's bill would have banned all dove hunting in California.


Backed by the Animal Protection Institute and a coalition of animal-rights groups, the bill proposed to remove Western mourning doves and white-winged doves from current designations as game birds, migratory game birds and upland game birds.


More than 100,000 hunters take to the field each year to hunt doves, generating some $3 million dollars in license and bird stamp fees, and tens of millions more in purchasing shotguns, shot shells, camouflage and other sporting equipment. Passage of this bill would have eliminated this revenue from the Department of Fish and Game -- revenue that is used to maintain and develop all of California's fish and wildlife resources, including those of non-game species.


While hunter pressure helped kill the bill in committee, hunters are keeping a wary eye for the next attack. Animal-rights groups and politicians friendly to them believe hunting and hunters are fair game these days. -- Marvin D. Bibby


Although a reservation system with an August 8, 2003 deadline for application (see California Game & Fish, July 2003) is used for the opening day(s) of dove season on many of the state wildlife areas in the San Joaquin Valley, all of these areas are open to walk-on hunters for the balance of the early season, according to Douglas Bowman, San Joaquin Valley coordinator of the Game Bird Heritage Program.

Maps to the areas can be obtained by accessing the DFG Web site <>, calling Wing Beat News at (559) 243-4005, ex. 132 or 133, or by writing: San Joaquin Valley Dove Hunts, Department of Fish and Game, 1234 East Shaw Avenue, Fresno, CA, 93710.

Huron - Near the town of Huron, on land managed by the Department of Water Resources, 60 acres of safflowers have been planted. Hunting is restricted on opening day to 50 hunters drawn, 25 in the morning and 25 in the afternoon.

Tranquility - Three miles northwest of the town of Tranquility on Bureau of Reclamation land, this area is planted with 60 acres of safflowers and will accommodate 50 hunters (25 morning, 25 evening) who are selected by draw for opening day.

Bakersfield - Fifteen miles west of Bakersfield, 60 acres of safflowers are planted on Kern Water Bank Authority land in a long, linear strip. The area has a quota of 70 hunters selected by draw (35 morning, 35 evening) for both Sept. 1 and Sept. 2.

Pilibos SWA - Twelve miles west of Mendota and next to the California Aqueduct, 60 acres are planted in safflowers. Access is limited to 50 hunters a day (25 morning, 25 evening) selected by draw for both Sept. 1 and Sept. 2.

Firebaugh - Located off Russell Road north of the town of Firebaugh, 75 acres of leased land is planted in safflowers. On opening day the area has a quota of 70 hunters selected by draw (35/35).

Keep these hunt areas in mind even if you are not drawn. With limited hunter pressure on opening day, hunting should still be good once hunters have walk-on access to the areas - if the weather holds.

Los Banos SWA - Offering opportunities for both walk-ons and reservations, the 6,130-acre Los Banos SWA can handle 300 hunters. On opening day, 100 of those hunters will have been selected by special drawing for two restricted hunt areas. The rest of the area is open to free-roaming hunters.

Bill Cook, manager of Los Banos, indicates that about 150 acres of safflowers have been planted in five- to 15-acre plots split between O'Neil Forebay and Los Banos. Hunters can obtain maps to the plots at the Los Banos Headquarters check station. Cook reports that while shooting on O'Neil was only fair last year, Los Banos produced a 5.0 birds/hunter average on opening day.

Mendota SWA - Just three miles south of Mendota, the Mendota SWA has 11,802 acres divided into two sections where 107 acres of safflower have been planted in nine different plots, ranging in size from five to 20 acres. The Traction Ranch section is limited to 50 hunters selected by special draw on opening day, while the rest of the area will be open on a first-come, first-served basis. A map showing the location of planted crops is available at the check station.

Last season, the Traction Ranch section produced 114 doves between 38 hunters for a 3.0 bird/hunter average on opening day, according to assistant manager, Rick Knoernschild. The free-roam area handled 111 hunters, who bagged 343 dove for 3.09 bird/hunter average. And, Knoernschild notes, shooting can still be good for several days after the opener.

The early dove season runs from Sept. 1-15, with a 10-bird limit. A resident license ($31.25) and an Upland Game Bird Stamp ($6.55) are required.

Hunting and Other Public Uses On State and Federal Areas and Wing Beat News are publications of the Department of Fish and Game that provide information on the state's public shooting areas. Contact DFG offices or call (916) 653-7664.

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