Some public areas in the upland portion of the state offer
dove hunts. Let's see what to expect there this year. (September 2007)
Photo by Mike Marsh.
Many a Georgia gun safe holds a scattergun that only sees the light of day in early autumn, when dove season rolls around: time to head to the fields with friends and family for some barbecue and good conversation, and the smell of gunpowder burned while trying to down an innocuous-looking feathered missile.
Consistently bagging doves tests the mettle of even the best wing-shot, as the little brown-feathered rockets can put on a midflight acrobatic show to put the Blue Angels flight team to shame. The birds also have an uncanny ability to know a split second ahead of a shot pattern arriving that it's time to juke and dive their way unscathed on across the field.
A few wily birds even seem to take perverse pleasure in zipping and darting their way down the shooting line, leaving in their wake a box worth of smoking hulls, muttering hunters and empty shotguns. It's been said that the national average is five shells per dove. If a box of shells puts enough doves in your game bag for one kabob stick, you're a fair-to-middling dove shot.
As in any hunting, the key to success lies in scouting to learn the habits of your quarry. Just like most other game animals, doves follow a set routine. They're normally found in areas having plenty of roosting perches. Around first light, they leave the roost and head to the fields to feed. Breakfast can make them awfully thirsty, so after that, it's time to find a watering hole. That done, maybe it's back to the field to top off the long meal with some tasty sunflowers or millet, or some other grain. Finally, they return to the roosting area to pass the rest of the day until their stomachs tell them it's time to repeat the process in the evening.
Doves are strong fliers, so they don't hesitate to travel many miles in seeking what they're looking for. The favored watering hole can be miles away from the best grain field. But, they're predictable once you determine the areas they are using.
Spend some time watching doves work the area and you can discover what corner of the field they fly into and from where they leave, and maybe get a general idea on where they are headed next.
Set yourself up on this flight path, and you should experience fast shooting when the birds are moving. But set up away from the flight pattern, and you only may get the occasional errant bird flying by within shotgun range. Scouting is the key to a good shoot.
Once you've got it figured out, the pattern should hold up for several days of good shooting. Eventually, resident birds figure out the game and change their habitats accordingly.
Also, migratory birds on the move come down the line, and the next wave to come in might not see things exactly the way the others did. Your pattern may need some tweaking to match the preferences of this new flight.
Although scouting is the best thing you can do to improve your success, a few other tricks are worth employing. One is camouflage: While doves may not equal a wild turkey in the sharpness of their eyesight, standing out like a sore thumb on a dove field is not likely to get any birds coming your way. Find something to hunker down against to break up your outline, so the birds come within easy range.
Another trick: decoying birds. Many dove hunters forgo decoys, which is a mistake, as doves are suckers for a decoy spread, and often veer off their chosen path just to see what that group of their buddies is doing over there. Commercial decoys of several types are available and very effective. Clip them on high branches or even long sticks stuck in the ground to mimic doves roosting on vegetation.
When we were teenagers, our hunting budget barely covered shotgun shells, much less decoys. Since (as they say) necessity is the mother of invention, we developed a solution: homemade decoys We'd cut some cardboard into the silhouette of a dove, glue cotton balls to each side of the silhouette to give it some bulk, apply some spray paint to make the whole thing look somewhat like a dove, and use some clothespins to clip the thing where we wanted it.
They were crude, and wouldn't win any dove beauty pageant award -- but they worked. A dove coming by out of range would often veer over to get a better look at these ugly dove imitations. In the process, it at least got his wits scared out of it as the ground suddenly erupted with loads of No. 8 shot headed its way.
Now that we have some idea on the best way to hunt the birds, let's take a look at some of the best dove shoots in North Georgia.
Some lucky hunters have standing invitations to private shoots; for most, though, finding a dove shoot can be a research project. Happily, though, there are no better places to look to for a well-prepared field than some of the region's state-managed wildlife management areas.
"Berry College WMA seems to have one of the best dove shoots of all the northwest Georgia WMAs," senior Wildlife Resources Division wildlife biologist David Gregory suggested, "Last year, opening day was good, with hunters shooting birds over sunflowers and millet, with some grain sorghum mixed in. The area was hayed prior to the season, releasing a fair amount of seed that helped draw in the birds. A powerline for roosting running through the field is always a nice touch, and the Berry field has a good one.
"What many hunters missed out on last year was the late-season hunting. With the mild weather last fall, a second hay cutting was done late in the season; this released seed and exposed bare ground, creating the second round of perfect conditions for doves."
According to Gregory, this season looks to be another good one. "Last fall, we planted 10 acres of wheat," he stated, "and it remained fallow all summer, hoping to draw and hold a large number of resident doves. In the summer we planted additional acreage in sunflowers and millet for a fall food source.
"Hunters do need to recognize the popularity of Berry College WMA, so expect to see lots of hunting pressure and hunter competition. Still, this WMA would be a great choice for a good shoot this fall."
Two fields in Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA, near Lafayette in Walker County, offer hunters some possibilities in the extreme northwest corner of the state. "The fields at Estelle were just fair last year," Gregory admitted. "They were planted in browntop and hayed prior to the season. The field produced some birds,
but a limit would have been hard to come by. On opening day, a few birds flew all afternoon, providing slow but steady shooting, but we didn't have large flights of birds.
"For this season, the field will be treated in the same manner. Hunters can expect about the same thing: steady shooting -- but the skies will not be black with birds.
"The Bluehole fields were slim pickings last year," Gregory next pointed out. "Even though they were prepared in much the same way as Estelle, they just didn't seem to have as many birds." As a result, many opening day hunters left early since they weren't getting many shots. The hunters that stuck it out were rewarded with a fair shoot at the closing hour.
"This past winter, wheat was planted in the former dove field, and two new smaller dove fields will be created on both sides of the old dove field," Gregory explained. "A portion of the wheat will remain fallow in the field, hopefully drawing and retaining resident doves throughout the summer, yielding better production for opening day. The two new fields will be planted in millet and hayed prior to the season."
J.L. Lester WMA, a small property south of Cedartown in Polk County, has two dove fields -- one behind the hunter pavilion, the other alongside the small lake on the area. "Both fields were planted in sunflowers last year," Gregory offered. "Unfortunately, with last summer's drought, and plenty of deer grazing the area, the sunflowers were pretty much a bust, resulting in an extremely disappointing Adult/Child hunt.
"The deer-hunting program has become more aggressive to continue to try and reduce local deer densities, but whether enough progress can be made in time for summer's plantings remains to be seen. Browntop millet is not as likely to be destroyed by deer, so that be what we have to go with on J.L. Lester."
Moving on east brings us to Pine Log WMA, northeast of Cartersville in Bartow County. Wildlife biologist Adam Hammond oversees the WMA's dove field preparations. "Pine Log fields are continuously evolving," he remarked, "due to changes associated with the construction of the new Toyo plant nearby, as well as the farming practices of the landowner, since Pine Log is a leased WMA. Last year it was planted in a mix of browntop and proso millets as well as benne (sesame), and with Egyptian wheat cover strips for hunters to hide in. The millet did well, but the sesame not so well.
"For this year, we have wheat out and we'll have some combination of browntop millet, sesame, or sunflowers in preparation for opening day. Pine Log gets a significant amount of hunting pressure, but can be a fair shoot. Hunters need to be courteous wherever they go, but particularly on Pine Log. Make sure and pick up all your litter, including spent hulls, in order to keep things looking nice -- to show the owners that hunters respect the property and are interested in keeping the property open in future years."
Wrapping up our tour of North Georgia's public dove fields is McGraw Ford WMA, near Ball Ground in Cherokee County. "McGraw Ford is a pretty small field and was planted in sorghum and browntop millet last year," Hammond said. "The field is less than 10 acres, and is located along the Etowah River. There are plenty of doves in this area, but getting them to come to a small field in large numbers has been a bit of a challenge.
"I don't expect our results out there to change significantly anytime soon. Its small size means it won't produce that many doves -- but it should produce some action."
Although doves are classified and managed as migratory birds, much like with Canada geese, some birds have found the Peach State so much to their liking that they just ignore the migrating part and stay here throughout the year. David Gregory was able to shed more light on this subject.
"We have been banding doves over the past three years to learn about reproduction and survival characteristics as well as migration patterns," he said. "One thing that is becoming quite obvious is that on opening day, an extremely large percentage of the harvest is made up of resident birds. This highlights the fact that a successful dove field should be planned for and managed year 'round, not just providing attractive conditions right before the opening day, hoping to draw in birds that are migrating through."
Those who have the luxury of managing their own private fields should keep this information in mind. Proper management throughout the year can result in much better shooting than will a haphazard last-minute approach based on the hope that as the new kids on the block migrate their way through the state, they'll somehow pick out your field from all the other prime habitat.
Even with proper field preparation, dove hunting isn't always as easy as plunking down on a 5-gallon bucket with a case of shells beside you and shooting until your shoulder can't take any more abuse. As mentioned earlier, the most successful hunters are those willing to make the investment in scouting prospective areas to make sure they are in the right place at the right time.
One other thing to keep in mind: responsible harvest. When you hunt in tall vegetation, it's very easy to lose a dove that you've put down. When the action's fast, you may make a great shot, and be rewarded with a satisfying puff of feathers. After grinning at your buddy to make sure that he's seen your feat of wingshooting prowess, you go to retrieve your dove -- but another flight comes in, and you pull up to shoot; after a couple of misses, you continue on to retrieve the downed bird. The problem here is that, in all the excitement, you've lost track of where it landed, and finding the bird may take time that could be better spent shooting.
When hunting high cover, follow the bird to the ground with your eyes and walk directly to it before scanning for more potential targets. By doing this you get more shooting in the end than by wasting half the afternoon stumbling around the field looking for lost birds.
Doves are great on the table, with a very mild flavor. To make the most of them, treat them right from shot to table. A dove left to bake all afternoon on the ground in the September sun is not going to taste as good as one properly cared for. Some hunters even prefer to carry a small lunch cooler into the field to place their birds in to keep them cool and out of the sun.
Dove breasts marinated for a few hours, wrapped with a piece of bacon, and grilled make for some fine eating. Another favorite is to make kabobs: Stick the breasts on skewers sandwiched between chunks of your favorite vegetables; place those over an open grill for a few minutes, and they're ready to go.
This September, give North Georgia public dove field hunting a try. The Department of Natural Resources' Game Management staff puts a lot of time and effort into preparing these fields for public shoots. Fields like Berry College WMA have been consistent producers over the years, and this year should be no exception.