Decoying Doves

You see hunters placing decoys on fences around dove fields every season, but do they really help? Let's take a closer look.

There is an old saying that "birds of a feather flock together." As any hunter knows, there is a lot of truth in that statement.

Most game birds are flock-oriented - some more than others, but all to at least some degree - and normally take comfort in being around others of their own kind. One of the first things they do when settling in on the ground to feed or drink is to look for the presence of other members of their species. Ducks of all types are especially prone to socialize, which is one reason why any waterfowling trip normally involves the placement of a significant spread of decoys.

Nothing says safety louder than the sight of a number of their cohorts already bobbing comfortably on the water's surface. Add a few calls to provide the right vocal stimulus, and passing ducks are far more likely to drop in than fly on.

Geese are also similarly inclined. No goose hunter would seriously consider setting up in a feeding field without a good-sized spread of decoys out in front of the shooting position.

Even turkeys can be susceptible to decoys, especially during the spring breeding season.

Getting some of your decoys elevated, particularly around water holes, is a key to success. Photo by Tony Clifton

When it comes to doves, however, decoys are not as widely used as they are for other species. In some cases, that can be a mistake.

Doves do respond to decoys, and they do it for the same reason as other game birds. Seeing what they believe to be other doves already on the scene is a confidence builder and gives them a sense that everything is all right. But they don't do it in precisely the same manner as ducks or geese. Don't expect a large spread of decoys to bring doves in for a landing with wings set, at least not under most circumstances. In some situations, however, they can make a significant difference in the number of birds that zip within range. In other cases, they may well be a waste of time.

When it comes to selecting dove decoys, there aren't a lot of options. A limited selection is available. Generally they are full-bodied, molded plastic with some form of clip on the bottom that can be jammed into the ground, or slipped over a slender tree limb or fence wire. These are the most effective choice, and they're not particularly expensive or heavy to tote. A couple dozen can easily be carried in a plastic garbage or net bag, and that's really as many as are needed.

Another option is a simple cardboard cutout of a dove that forms a silhouette. Add a small piece of coat hanger to the bottom and they can be stuck into the ground wherever needed.

These cutouts are an idea that looks great on paper but fares poorly in the real word. My experience with them in the field has ranged from mediocre, at best, to very negative. They tend to spook more birds then they tempt. If dove decoys are desired, stick with the full-bodied plastic models. Here's how they are best used.

Locate a dove flight path connecting a feeding or watering area with a roosting site and you can have some pretty hot shooting during the morning and evening hours. But it's also a situation in which decoys are a waste of time.

When doves are heading between points A and B, I have yet to see a situation in which decoys made even the slightest difference in their flight. They know where they are going and are usually in a hurry to get there. Seeing a handful of doves in a spot where they don't intend to land seldom alters that. Basically, they just ignore them and barrel along on their way.

Hunters who find a good pass-shooting spot get a better reward for their time spent if they analyze the flight paths to find the best shooting position, rather than spending the time needed to put out the decoys.

If you're shooting where the doves intend to wind up, however, decoys can be well worth the time. There are two situations in which decoys should be employed - on a field and at a water hole.

Doves flying into a field are there to eat, and the sooner they can get on the ground the sooner they can get to dinner. In most situations, the ideal setup is to have enough shooters around the field to keep the birds in the air. If there aren't enough guns, the doves will land in a quiet spot. Decoys can help in either case.

If there are plenty of guns, a spread of decoys may convince the doves that particular spot is safe. If there aren't enough guns, the decoys can indicate that this is a pretty good spot out of all those available. It doesn't, however, mean that the birds will land among the decoys like waterfowl will. That can sometimes happen, but it's not something savvy hunters anticipate.

Instead, the fake birds frequently cause the real doves to change their flight path and wander over for a better look. If the decoys are properly placed, that's all it takes to bring them within range.

That is, essentially, the benefit of dove decoys in a field situation - they can often draw birds into the effective range of your position that might otherwise pass by out of range.

One effective way to do that is to determine what your maximum shooting range is - the furthest distance at which you feel comfortable taking a shot. Pace it off from your position and start placing decoys on the ground there. If the doves are over - or inside - those decoys, then you know they're in range. The remaining decoys can then be placed back towards your stand but shouldn't be put any closer than about 20 yards.

Veteran hunters have also found it is often more effective to put the decoys out in distinctly separated pairs, rather than groups. Doves on the ground often travel in pairs, and this is a more natural appearance than a large, compact group of decoys.

A dozen decoys on the ground is enough to be effective. If you have more, get them up off the ground.

Doves often land in a tree, or on a fence, to take a look around before they hit the ground. Elevated decoys are a natural-appearing situation that doves would expect to see.

One mistake to avoid, however, is placing any elevated decoys close to your stand. That can draw the birds' attention to you. Instead, take the time to walk 20 to 40 yards away, then get them as high as you can. Also make certain that they are visible from any angle and not screened by vegetation. If the clips on

your decoys won't hold them on a skinny limb, a quick wrap of non-reflective plastic tape around the bottom of the clip normally keeps them in place.

If there is a "perfect spread" for dove decoys in a field, it would be a dozen or so on the ground between 20 and 40 yards in front of your stand, with another group placed 20 to 30 yards to either side of you in elevated positions.

Decoys can be very effective in fields, but they are doubly effective at watering sites. In fact, this is their most productive use.

The same basic rules apply here as in a field - some decoys on the ground in front of you and more in elevated positions well to either side of your stand. Depending on how the water hole lays out, you may want to put more in elevated positions than on the ground. But, again, put none in your immediate vicinity.

The biggest consideration is where doves are most likely to land to drink. They won't do it in an area where any type of vegetation that is more than a few inches tall comes down to the water's edge. Instead, they will look for a clean dirt bank, even one beaten down and churned up by livestock.

Locate a section like that and put just a couple of pairs of decoys right on the water's edge, and then take a stand within comfortable shooting distance. If there are several sections like that, try to get a stand position between two of them and drop a few decoys on each site.

After that, get as many decoys elevated as you can. Doves seldom land immediately at a water hole and often light first. Decoys in the trees are a bigger draw than those on the ground for the hunter shooting water holes.

After that, let the decoys do their job. They may not draw every bird in the area to you. But when properly placed, they can definitely boost your odds of success.

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