Early Birds

Early Birds

Kansas and Nebraska shotgunners know the importance of hitting the dove fields early in the season to get the most from their sport. These tips are designed to help you make the most of those opportunities.

Photo by Mark Romanack

Scattergunners in Nebraska and Kansas who've been looking forward to Sept. 1 and the opening of the mourning dove season are praying for warm, mild weather. If those prayers are answered, those hunters should have an action-packed opener in both states.

Picking a good spot for opening the season is paramount for success. If it's public land, chances are good that the hunter will find company, so getting to a spot early will be one of the priorities of the hunt.

In Nebraska, scores of hunters are drawn to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's wildlife management areas because of the food plots. Scott Taylor, upland game program manager for the NGPC in Lincoln, says that while quite a few varieties of food are planted on the areas, some attract doves more effectively than do others.

"Doves begin to flock up and migrate in August and are attracted to feeding areas where food such as sunflowers, millet and wheat are readily available," he said. "It's hard to beat sunflowers simply because most fields have bare ground under the plants, and that is attractive to the ground-feeding doves searching for seeds that have fallen.

"Other food plots such as millet and wheat stubble are good, but it depends on where they are located and how much of this type of forage is available in the area. I wouldn't expect to be able to find a lot of doves in a wheat-stubble food plot if there are numerous large wheat fields in the vicinity."

Food plots are not the only areas attractive to the little feathered jets. Water is a big draw -- and Nebraska has hundreds of farm ponds. The ones that seem most alluring to doves are those with little or no cover along the shoreline. In the sprawling ranch country of the Sandhills, windmills and watering tanks draw birds. An added attraction to be found around many of the windmills is the Rocky Mountain bee plant. When its tiny black seeds either fall or are knocked loose by cattle, the doves chow down.

Doves feed as well on other varieties of native grass and weed seeds. Ragweed, pigweed, thistle, wild hemp (marijuana by any other name), and grasses such as foxtail are but a few that produce seeds the doves relish. Years ago, some hunting partners and I searched well-grazed cow pastures for stands of wild hemp and, standing chin-deep in loose clumps of it, filled out a limit of doves coming in to feed.

Quite a few of my dove-hunting pals and I have found some of our best hunting in the grasslands of the Sandhills. Again, scouting and experience pay off. Find a windmill whose tank runs over, leaving puddles of water in the sand, and that's hemmed in by a good bit of bee plant, and you can enjoy rewarding shooting both morning and afternoon. If the day is warm to hot, there will be birds coming to the water at almost any hour, but the big push is early and late in the day.

Nebraska WMAs that hunters should be checking out now:

  • North-central -- Sherman Reservoir, Davis Creek Reservoir, Thomas Creek, Borman Bridge and Pine Glen.

  • Northeast -- Oak Valley, Black Island, Buckskin Hills, George Syas, Prairie Wolf and Wood Duck.

  • Southeast -- Osage, Branched Oak, Twin Lakes, Oak Glen, Pawnee Lake, Rake's Creek, Wildwood, Stagecoach, Wagon Train and Schilling.

  • South-central -- Alexandria Lake, Alexandria Southwest, Rose Creek West, Little Blue, Dry Sandy, Meridian and Flathead.

  • Southwest -- Clear Creek, Medicine Creek Reservoir, Swanson Reservoir and Cedar Valley.

    Dozens of other WMAs offer less-heralded dove shooting. Just look for those with milo or corn stubblefields, solid stands of foxtail grasses, or good watering areas. A complete list of the areas is in the 2005 edition of the Nebraska Big Game Guide.

    In other areas, I've had great hunts just beyond roosting areas at WMAs such as Yankee Hill and Conestoga, outside of Lincoln. Hunters would do well to make sure they are not shooting within the roosting area itself, which can drive the birds out.

    Kansas' dove hunting's a lot the same as Nebraska's, says Helen Hands, dove program manager for Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area.

    "Our wildlife area managers make the call on what type of food plots will work on their areas," she noted. "Basically, those areas are limited to the eastern and central parts of the state. Sunflowers and wheat have proved to be very attractive to a variety of wildlife, including the doves.

    "In addition to the state areas, the department leases land from private landowners for hunting. Some of the leases open on Sept. 1 for the dove season, and others in November for the pheasant and quail seasons. The leases usually run until Jan. 1 or the close of the upland game bird seasons."

    Randy Clark, Region 4 public lands supervisor for the KDWP, offers that most of the food plots managed for doves in his 16-county region contain wheat stubble and sunflower fields. A list of those areas is available by calling his office in Wichita at (316) 683-8069. For information on the Chanute region, call Doug Blex at (620) 431-0380; for the Topeka area, call Ron Little at (785) 271-7338.

    According to Hands, hunting success on a statewide basis was much the same last year as it has been in the past. "Every year seems a bit different than the previous ones," she said. "If we get a shot of cool weather in late August it tends to move some birds south; if the weather stays mild, they will be around for the opener.

    "Our dove populations have shown an increase in the west, appear to be stable in central Kansas, but have declined some in the east. Wheat stubble and sunflower fields draw the most birds in central and eastern Kansas, while in the west, windmills, stock ponds and pastures are the best places to hunt."

    The 2004 Kansas dove harvest figures were not available when this story was written. Hands reports that stats from 2003 show about 1.5 million doves taken by an estimated 73,000 hunters.

    "The mourning dove population is being surveyed in many states as part of a National Mourning Dove Plan instituted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Hands said. "Last year we trapped and banded about 1,400 doves and to date have had 35 bands returned. Three-quarters of the returns came from Kansas. Texas had the second most returns; Missouri had a few. And we had two come back from Mexico."

    Nebraska banded a total of 2,150 birds in

    2003 and 2004, Taylor said. He reports 65 band recoveries so far: 45 bands from Nebraska, 9 from Texas, 2 from Kansas, one each from Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee, and the remainder from Mexico and Guatemala.

    "Our harvest data from 2003 shows an estimated 18,000 hunters taking about 352,000 doves," Taylor said. "My overview of the season last year is that we likely didn't take as many birds due to an unusually cool summer, so we probably lost more birds than average to migration."

    The season in both states opens on Sept. 1 and closes Oct. 30. Permits required in Nebraska are a small-game license -- resident, $12; non-resident, $68 -- and a $13 annual habitat stamp. In Kansas the resident hunt fee is $15.50; non-resident, $65.50.

    In addition, dove hunters must register with their state conservation agency for the Migratory Bird Hunter Information Program (HIP) before hunting migratory birds -- including doves. In Nebraska the permit or stamp is free; call 1-888-403-2473, toll-free, 24 hours a day. Kansas' hunters pay 50 cents for the stamp, which is available at all offices of the KDWP and from permit vendors.

    Details on dove hunting are available at (402) 471-0641 in Nebraska and (620) 672-5911 in Kansas.

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