Golden State Dove Forecast

Are you ready for some hunting? The September dove opener is approaching, and hunter access to public land has never been better. But this year you'll need to scout, then scout some more.

Photo by Peggy Cozart

By Marvin D. Bibby

Finding a good place to hunt doves can be a real struggle. When I was a youngster growing up in Roseville, we could always hunt along the railroad tracks toward Lincoln or sneak into the stock ponds on the Whitney Ranch outside of Rocklin. Try to walk in those areas today, and if a golf ball doesn't conk you on the head, a security guard from the Thunder Valley Indian Casino will arrest you. Forget about taking a shotgun with you.

In recent years those of us without access to hunting clubs or private land relied on state wildlife areas to fill the gap. And Department of Fish and Game managers filled it well by providing better and better hunting opportunities each season. Not this year.

With the huge state budget deficit, not every area was able to beg or borrow enough seed to plant the same amount of acreage as last year. This means that hunting pressure on the acreage that was planted will be greater, and we may have to scout harder and explore acreage that we have not before tried.

To help your search, California Game & Fish spoke with wildlife managers and biologists statewide. This is what we found:


Believe it or not, some people hunt doves in the high desert sections of northeastern California. The 4,657-acre Shasta Valley SWA area east of Yreka is open for the September dove season. The opener, however, is usually not very good because the doves pull out in mid-August. "Something in their little biological clock just tells them to leave," says area manager Bob Smith.

Despite that, 93 hunters managed to take 230 doves for a 2.5 dove/hunter average during the first half of the 2003 season.

The Honey Lake SWA, southeast of Susanville, also allows hunting during the early dove season. Last year, 45 hunters shot over patches of volunteer sunflower and managed to bag 196 birds for a 4.4 bird/hunter average on opening day, according to Breanna Owens, a scientific aid with the DFG.


"Hunting pretty much died after opening weekend last year," reports Pete Blake, area manager at Upper Butte Basin SWA west of Gridley. The birds, he said, started filtering back in during the second week of the season.

Hunters can pick up a map of Howard Slough at the check station when they check in, where last year, an estimated 70 hunters bagged 280 birds for a 4.0 birds/hunter average on opening day. This year, expect to find 45 acres of safflower planted in the same general area as last year.

About 100 acres of safflower have been planted on Llano Seco, where 96 hunters bagged 300 birds for a 3.0 birds/hunter average on opening day last year. Register and get a map at the check station on Seven Mile Road before walking in to the shooting area.

At Graylodge SWA, three miles south of the Gridley-Colusa Highway on Pennington Road, 248 hunters bagged 181 doves on opening day last year, estimates area manager Mike Womack. The poor shoot was partly attributed to steady late-season rains in April and May that caused some of the planted safflower to rot. "But," he notes, "we still had lots of birds in August, then a few days before the opener we had a thunderstorm and the birds scattered off out of here."

The season went downhill from there, as 358 hunters bagged just 243 doves during the first 15 days of the season for a .68 dove/hunter average.

Graylodge has managed to corral enough donated seed to plant roughly 77 acres of safflower on five fields, three on the east side and two on the west side.

On the Oroville SWA, just east of U.S. 99, almost 12,000 acres of oaks and dredger tailings follow the Feather River downstream to the Thermalito Afterbay, where last year an estimated 152 hunters bagged 306 birds on opening day for a 2.0 birds/hunter average. But safflower was not planted this year, says Andy Atkinson, area manager. Instead, hunters will have to rely on scattered patches of turkey mullin and passing birds looking to roost. Maps are available at all of the main entrance signs.

The Spenceville SWA, 15 miles east of Marysville in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has a little over 11,000 acres of oak, grass and ponds where 243 hunters bagged 535 birds for a 2.2 birds/hunter average on opening day last year. I was one of those hunters.

It was crowded and hot and impossible to find a decent place to park. But, after the initial madness subsided, I managed to take a few birds each day for the entire first week of the season.

Assistant area manager Tim Caldwell reports that they have planted almost 100 acres of safflower this year, most of it concentrated in two large fields along Waldo Road. Some smaller plots are still hidden away in secluded spots for those willing to scout and walk - they will just be harder to find this year. Pick up a map at the information board kiosk; scouting is a must. And be careful where you park - that high grass is going to catch fire from a hot exhaust pipe if we are not careful.

The Yolo Bypass SWA, just across the Yolo Causeway from Sacramento, had an estimated 211 hunters bag 223 birds for just over a 1.0 bird/hunter average on opening day last year. This year, area manager Dave Feliz reports that almost 100 acres of safflower will be planted as part of the lease agreement with farmers who have crops on part of the 16,000 acres that comprise the area. Look for crops on the south side of Putah Creek, in small plots in areas south of parking lot G, north of parking lot F and scattered around the Tule Ranch area on both sides of the new parking lot I. A map of the area is available at the front entrance, or at the check station during registration.

Nelson Slough will not be planted this year, notes Dale Whitmore, DFG biologist. Instead, sheep were grazed on the acreage in the spring to control star thistle. Grazing could encourage the growth of turkey mullin, so scout the area before hunting to see if birds are present. Request a copy of Wing Beat News and a wildlife area map pack for Sacramento Valley hunt areas by writing Whitmore at Wing Beat News, 3207 Rutherford Rd., Gridley, CA 95948.

"Try some place with good weather," offered Paul Hofmann, a biologist for DFG, before suggesting the sandbars on the Sacramento River Wildlife Area. Launch from the Glenn County public boat ramp at Ord Bend, between Chico and Willows - just be sure to stay off priv

ate property. He also thinks that BLM land around Black Butte Reservoir might work for an evening shoot at birds coming in to roost.


I have seen the occasional dove fly by while duck hunting on Graylodge during December, and the downtown area of Sacramento is certainly loaded with doves all winter. I thought those occurrences were mere anomalies, a result of sheltered areas and bird feeders.

Now, I'm not so sure, and if you're one of California's opening-day dove shooters who is never heard from again until the following Sept. 1, you might want to take another look around.

Trying to forecast the opening day of dove season is one of the great crapshoots of all time. Fickle creatures, doves are here one day, gone the next, subject to whims and caprices that nobody seems to understand. One constant everybody agrees on is that doves head south at the first sign of bad weather.

Not so fast, says Bob Smith, area manager at the Shasta Valley SWA near Montague. Lying in a grain field on a December hunt for Canada geese last year, Smith watched a flock of more than 100 doves set down in the field to feed during a snowstorm. He claims that every November, doves fly in and stay for the winter.

A few local hunters set up on the edge of dry-land grain fields and pass-shoot them when they come in to feed during the late dove season. In fact, one section of the area is planted in winter wheat that is cut in the fall to give doves the open ground feed they prefer.

Mike Womack, manager at Graylodge, tells about a party of hunters who hunted pheasants at Little Dry Creek in the morning, and then came to Graylodge and shot limits of doves. -- Marvin D. Bibby



Although a reservation system with an Aug. 13 deadline for application (see July California Game & Fish) is used for opening-day shoots on many San Joaquin Valley state wildlife areas, several 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, ext. 132 or 133, or by writing: San Joaquin Valley Dove Hunts, Dept. of Fish & Game, 1234 East Shaw Avenue, Fresno, CA 93710.

Near the town of Huron, 45 acres of safflower have been planted on land managed by the DWR. Restricted on opening day to those 40 hunters drawn, 20 in the morning and 20 in the afternoon, it shot a 5.0 birds/hunter average in the morning and a 5.0 average in the afternoon last year.

Three miles northwest of the town of Tranquility, 45 acres of safflower are planted on Bureau of Reclamation land. The area will accommodate 40 hunters selected by draw for opening day, and last year the hunt posted a 6.0 bird/hunter average.

Twelve miles west of Mendota, next to the California Aqueduct, 60 acres are planted to safflower at Pilibos, which will be limited to 50 hunters a day (25 in the morning and 25 in the afternoon) selected by draw for both Sept. 1 and Sept. 2. Last year's opening weekend produced 620 birds between 75 hunters, for an 8.2 birds/hunter average for the four hunts.

Just three miles south of Mendota, the Mendota SWA has almost 12,000 acres divided into two sections where assistant manager, Rick Knoernschild, says that over 100 acres of safflower have been planted. The Traction Ranch section is limited to 50 hunters selected by special draw for opening morning, while the rest of the area will be used on a first-come/first-served basis.

Last year, the Traction Ranch restricted hunt yielded 97 birds between 27 hunters for a 4.2 birds/hunter average, while an estimated 153 hunters bagged 367 birds for a 2.4 birds/hunter average on the free-roam section. Knoernschild reports that some hunters connected with birds for the entire first week of last season before kill numbers tapered. Obtain a map showing the location of planted crops at the check station before scouting the area.

There is almost always room to hunt somewhere on the Los Banos SWA, but to ensure success you must scout the area ahead of time, says Bill Cook, area manager. Located just off SR165 four miles northeast of the town of Los Banos, the 6,130-acre wildlife area can handle up to 300 hunters.

On opening day last year, sections of the free-roam area shot better than the restricted area, with some fields averaging between six to seven birds/hunter. The restricted hunt averaged 6.0 birds/hunter, with an overall average of 3.0 birds/hunter for the 250 hunters that shot the area. This year on opening day, 100 hunters will again be selected by special drawing for two restricted hunt areas while the balance of hunters will have access to the free-roam acreage.

Although 2004 planted acreage is slightly down, 100 acres of safflower have been planted in 5- to 15-acre plots split between O'Neil Fore Bay and Los Banos in those places that have shot well in the past. Hunters can obtain maps of the area at the Los Banos headquarters check station.

Two units of the 6,335-acre North Grasslands SWA have over 100 acres of safflower planted. Seven miles north of the city of Los Banos, the Salt Slough Unit is restricted to 60 hunters holding reservations on opening day morning. Last year, averages ranged from a high of eight birds/gun out of some parking lots to a low of two birds/gun in others for a 4.0/birds/hunter average, overall.

Halfway between Newman and Gustine, the China Island Unit provides hunting space on a first-come/first-served basis for 300 hunters. A popular place that can be crowded, scout the area and have a backup plan, or try it in the afternoon. Maps of the area can be obtained at the main check station.


"Go. Have fun. Just pick up your trash. That's all we ask," says Leon Lescika of Desert Wildlife Unlimited, a nonprofit group based in Brawley that sponsors habitat improvement efforts in the area.

That is exactly what over 3,500 hunters did last year in Imperial County, where over 2,500 acres have been strip-planted in wheat, safflower and barley that will be flailed before the season to encourage dove usage. And, best of all, the acreage is open to the public - with no charge and no sign-up.

Using money from the Upland Game Bird Heritage Program, Desert Wildlife Unlimited leases private land around the town of Niland

that DFG plants with safflower and wheat. Lescika reports that hunters averaged a resounding 7.6 birds/hunter last year on opening day and that over 8,500 hunters shot the area during the 15 days of the early dove season. Get a map of the area, obtain hunting information and find local accommodations and amenities on the Desert Wildlife Web site ( Maps and hunting information can also be obtained on the DFG Web site, at the SOCO Service Station in Niland, or the Calpatria or Brawley Inns.


The early dove season runs Sept. 1-15, with a 10-bird limit. A resident license ($32.80) and an Upland Game Bird Stamp ($6.85) are required.

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

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