Illinois hunters can't complain about not having a place to hunt doves. The little speedsters are everywhere! You can even get in on the action on these public lands.
Photo by Mark Romanack
Mourning doves could offer the best public hunting opportunity of any game bird in the Prairie State. Thousands of the little gray rockets swoop through Illinois every fall, congregating in sometimes incredible numbers in sunflower fields and food plots grown with this migratory bird in mind on both public and private lands.
Landowners are more likely to grant access to private property for hunting because of the migratory nature of these critters in a time when pheasants and even quail are viewed as almost endangered species by those tasked with stewardship of private lands.
You don't have to rise at oh-dark-thirty and travel to a distant marsh to break ice and set decoys for this game bird. The late afternoon is often the best time to hunt, with short-sleeved shirts the clothing of choice early on, and maybe a sweatshirt later in the season in October.
These birds aren't that wary until they've been busted a few times. You don't have to dress like an enchanted stump and remain motionless for hours to lure them within range. Uneducated birds are pushing south throughout the season, providing almost continuous action for those serious about the sport.
Camouflage clothes, a little stealth and a keen eye are the basic prerequisites for getting into position to bust a few caps throughout the season. Once doves start using an area, their behavior is easy to predict -- although I never could figure out how the birds decide to travel on precise vectors over an old dead tree or copse of conifers every time without another bird to follow to the food, water or roost.
These game birds display definite preferences for habitat needs. They like to roost in locust trees. They love sunflower fields that are weed-free between the rows with open places and the heads bending low, with fields near water and grit being absolute dove magnets.
Doves prove the adage "if you build it, they will come." A number of public sites on state and federal lands are managed successfully for dove shooting. These feathered rockets in short order will locate other areas -- like thistle patches or freshly cut sorghum --.
One of the best ways to find where doves are working is to cruise back roads with a pair of binoculars and a plat book. Doves don't take evasive action in their travels through the air if they aren't being shot at. Find doves sitting on the power lines or an old dead tree and watch where they travel in flight. See several birds taking the same vector and you have a pattern.
Getting some shooting is basically a matter of setting up between Point A and Point B -- either pass-shooting at doves following established routes or intercepting them upon arrival at food, grit, water or roosting sites.
Of course, you still have to hit them! The average is something like one bird in the bag for every four or five shots taken. If you can bag a 15-bird limit with less than two boxes of No. 7 1/2s, you're doing well.
The dove's breast provides some outstanding eating. They're exceptional cuisine when pan-fried in butter, baked in a casserole over wild rice or skewered on a shish kebob. One favorite way to serve them is as appetizer with a half-breast pinned with a toothpick to a jalapeno pepper, slice of onion or tomato, and grilled.
Other than the need to purchase shotgun shells by the case, this sport requires little capital outlay. All you need is a 5-gallon bucket to sit on and to carry adequate water for both you and the dog, insect repellent, sun block and a pair of sunglasses to hide a look of embarrassment from cronies after missing another easy shot.
Dove hunting provides an exceptional training opportunity for your retriever. But hot weather and bright sun are hard on a dog. Choosing an ambush point with some shade is better than roasting in the hot sun at ground zero in the dove's flight path. Waiting until later in the afternoon is usually a good strategy. Even with that pea-sized brain, doves realize they're better off sitting up in trees when the sun is high overhead and there is no wind.
Hunting pressure is a non-issue after the first week or so beyond opening day. Some of the most popular sites are full for the opener. But guys hunting "stand-by" after successful hunters fill their limits often fill up, too, because they're moving into a blind with proven action.
This is one hunting activity where having many hunters in the field is a good thing. The birds will congregate where they aren't being pressured. Half-dozen hunters in a 10-acre field will keep 'em moving.
The annual "dove bust" is an established tradition in many parts of Illinois. But some of the best hunting comes from mid-September to mid-October with the arrival of later migrants when it's tough to get several buddies together to go after 'em.
During the initial days of the season, both state and Corps of Engineers dove fields have special regulations in place for safety and to ensure a quality hunt. At some of the most popular sites, like the federal fields at Shelbyville, hunters need to apply to simply qualify for a chance to draw for a blind on opening day.
"We have hunters coming from all over the state," park ranger Leann Cruitt said. "By pre-qualifying hunters coming from long distances, they know that they will at least draw a blind for the first two days of the season. Of course, some blinds are always better than others."
Dove hunting has been a major attraction at Shelbyville since 1976, shaping dove management statewide since this time. On the two federal fields that will be open at Shelbyville this September, hunters draw for positions in blinds made out of snow fence that are placed at strategic points in sunflower fields that have open lanes mowed between blinds.
There will be 14 blinds at the 13-acre Rees Ridge field located near Wolf Creek State Park and 11 blinds on a 7-acre field around the Hunter Lake subimpoundment east of Shelbyville this year, according to Cruitt. Last year, hunters killed more than 700 doves in two days from the federal lands here.
"Over the years, we've learned what works and what doesn't," Cruitt said. One year the Corps fields tried using blinds made from straw bales. "Hunters had trouble abiding by rules about not leaving the blind," she said with a laugh. "We didn't know that yellow jackets would have such an affinity for this kind of habitat. Hitting a dove
is even more difficult with a half-dozen wasps swarming around your head!"
Recent innovations at Shelbyville's federal fields include large movable sunshade umbrellas at midfield blind sites in direct sunlight. For more information on hunting federal lands at Shelbyville, contact the management office at (217) 774-3951.
Designated shooting spots on state lands are somewhat different. For example, the state-run site in the Shelbyville Fish & Wildlife Area has employed simple stakes with a number on them to indicate where you are supposed to hunt. Last year the state put in 70 acres of sunflowers at Shelbyville, enabling 396 hunters to kill 4,647 birds in the initial five days of the season for an average of 11.7 doves per hunter.
DNR dove specialist Mike McCulley said the state would have about 75 areas open to dove hunting statewide this year, about the same as last year.
Heavily populated Region II in northeastern Illinois had five sites last year, with hunter success ranging from 2.1 doves per hunter at Chain-O-Lakes State Park to 10.9 birds/hunter at Silver Springs where 269 hunters harvested 2,929 doves over millet and sunflower fields.
Nineteen hunting areas in north-central and northwestern Illinois in the DNR's Region I saw typically better success, with more than 1,000 doves harvested at 12 areas in the initial five days of hunting in 2004. The highest harvest was at the Double T State Fish & Wildlife Area where 475 hunters bagged 3,250 doves for an average of 6.8 doves per hunter.
Statistically, hunting was best at the Sand Prairie Public Hunting Area with an average of 13 doves per hunter over 28 acres of sunflower and wheat fields. Hunters at Marseilles WMA, Green River WMA, Hennepin Canal and Big Bend FWA also bagged more than 10 birds per hunter.
The highest hunter success rate reported on state lands last year was an impressive 14.5 doves per hunter over just 5 acres in Region III's H.B. Woodyard site in central Illinois. The other site in Region III besides Shelbyville and Woodyard with more than 10 doves per hunter was over 70 acres of sunflowers in Moraine View State Recreation Area.
Region III had eight sites open to dove hunting last fall, with a similar plan this year.
Hunters in Region IV around Springfield also had good success in several of the 14 management areas in this region. The most productive site was over 30 acres of sunflowers in the Madigan FWA where 101 hunters averaged a daily bag of 13.2 over the first five days of September 2004. Other areas showing harvest of over 10 doves per hunter in Region IV include Horseshoe Lake, Panther Creek and Sangchris Lake State Park.
Our state's best hunting is in Region V in southern Illinois where the state manages 26 different areas for dove hunting, although the DNR could not provide the statistics to back up this conventional wisdom.
Dove hunting downstate has always been a part of nature's grand scheme where hunters find success in at least five sites with natural cover or residual corn crop in the field. In areas where the DNR has planted food plots, the plantings are more diverse. Besides sunflowers, wheat and year-old cornfields prove to be great attractors for doves and other wildlife.
Because there are so many places to hunt, gunners in Region V only need to sign in and out of the hunting areas and are not subject to daily blind drawings or restriction to specific points in the field.
Specific information on dove hunting at state sites can be found in the DNR's 2005 Hunting Digest or on-line at the DNR's Web site at www.dnr.state.il.us. Follow the links to the areas you are interested in.
Statistics kept by the Corps of Engineers at Carlyle Lake since 2000 show some interesting harvest trends, with fewer hunters dropping more doves in 2004. Last year, 311 hunters killed nearly 2,600 doves at managed sites, far above the 827 birds taken by 352 hunters in 2003. Back in 2000, the state data indicates 464 hunters bagged just 583 doves.
Extensive research has shown that hunters have minimal impact on dove numbers. Weather is the major determinant on dove survival in any given year, with hunting always better in those years when more juvenile birds are part of the migration.
Park ranger Jason Selle said there would be six management areas on federal lands at Carlyle this year, with sunflowers comprising most of the food plots. Hunters at this project can hunt over a matrix of crops that also include corn, wheat, soybeans and milo to attract the birds. For more information on dove hunting at Carlyle, call (618) 594-2484.
Hunters around Rend Lake have federal as well as state hunting options as well. Mike Edwards, wildlife manager at the Corps of Engineers project here, said that planning was under way for fields at press time, but there would be at least one 35-acre sunflower field planted for doves. Hunters here smoked about 800 birds in the initial two days of the 2004 season.
Dove shooting on Rend has non-toxic-only shot rules in place. Other special regulations may apply here and at other sites, some of which -- like hunting at an established blind site -- become more liberal after the first few days of the season. For more information on hunting around Rend Lake, call (618) 724-2493.
Numerous state and federal areas managed for dove hunting are like the bull's-eye on a target with many outlying rings. In some instances all of the doves' habitat needs are met entirely on public lands. However, in most cases the birds need to fly elsewhere to find grit or water or to roost. This opens up an entirely new realm of hunting possibilities on private lands, most of which are found within a couple miles of the managed public food plots.
Government programs like Acres for Wildlife have made establishment of food plots on private lands worthwhile, with private holdings comprising fully 95 percent of the Illinois landscape. Those who take the time to cultivate relationships with farmers can quickly discover area food plots and even large crop fields that doves find attractive. Success on private lands first requires obtaining permission.
After gaining access to the land, spend some time simply observing for dove activity, noting flight paths and landing areas. When prospecting for doves on vast tracts of land, good scouting spells the difference between weight in the game bag and weight from unfired shot shells at day's end.
Just 100 yards can make a difference in your success. The key is setting up directly in the doves' flight path, not necessarily where they want to feed. Survival is still Job One in these creatures with so little discretion. If you spend some time watching doves before entering the field where they are feeding, you'll note that the birds often roost momentarily on power lines or a dead tree limb before swooping down to feed, while checking out the food plot before moving in.
Some of the fastest action
you'll find is between these staging areas and the food plot. By setting up at a transit point rather than a final destination, you can hunt a field several more times before "burning it out."
The wonders of good venison sausage have secured several such areas for my yellow Lab, Hanna Banana, and me. For the price of one savory stick per year, Hanna and I have access to a 200-acre farm with several sunflower fields. Last year the fields were planted a couple weeks apart. As a result, the sunflower heads reached the optimum "heads down and hanging" orientation that doves find so appealing at different times, thus enabling us to hunt all season.
These fields are vast, 40 and 60 acres. With so much area to feed in, setting up at a transit point is the only way for a solo hunter and his dog to hunt. One of these fields is near a small-stock watering pond. The fencerow between food and water is a great place to wait in ambush. This fencerow has just two small trees along its run of 200 yards. Doves use these trees as a navigational tool along their flight path -- with the shade that they provide an added bonus.
The other place we like to set up is in a more overgrown fencerow bordered by a grain field and small woods adjacent to the sunflowers. Four towering dead elms practically scream "stop here" to passing doves. This was "the big adios" for over 100 of the tasty little critters last year.
Doves have little scent. This combined with typically warm weather make it important for you to mark downed birds for even an experienced dog to ensure recovery. Resist the temptation to shoot at other doves until the one you've downed is delivered to hand. And the need to take plenty of water for your dog can't be overemphasized. I take a gallon, even for short hunts.
As we get ready for Hanna's third season, this pup, who owns my heart, has the game plan memorized. She sits facing me about 5 yards away. When a dove comes from behind, her ears come forward and I get ready. When a bird comes from behind Hanna and the safety is clicked off, she turns to watch for the falling dove. It would take many more years for the dog to have reached this point as a hunter with just the few upland game birds available these days and the meager flights of ducks that have been coming down the Mississippi over the past couple of seasons. A dog like that deserves to go hunting every day. The bounty of Prairie State doves makes this a "must do" mission.