Here's a region-by-region breakdown of our state's finest dove hunting on public land this month. Get ready for some fast early-season action! (September 2008)
The nation's No. 1 migratory game bird is the mourning dove. And since doves are migratory, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages them primarily.
But at the same time, state fish and wildlife agencies do a good bit of groundwork that, collectively, helps the federal agency make decisions about the dove population as a whole.
About 10 years ago, Kentucky and other states initiated a mandatory requirement for dove hunters to report their harvest numbers. Initially, this was accomplished through a permit system that first, identified who was hunting for doves, and second, asked them to report how many they were taking each season.
"To say the least, our first few years of trying to collect this new data -- and to get hunters and license vendors to get in the groove of reporting -- were less successful than we had hoped," said Rocky Pritchert, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources' (KDFWR) lead migratory bird biologist.
"The idea behind the reporting requirement was to look at information on a regional level, and not so much state by state; to take a more comprehensive approach to managing the dove resource. But we weren't getting as much information that we could use with full confidence to make management recommendations.
"It's been only in the last year or so that a better system has been in place for getting harvest numbers from hunters," said Pritchert.
"I'm feeling much more comfortable that the data we're collecting now is closer to the true picture."
Last year, and again this year, hunters may have noticed that filling out their harvest information from the previous season is required before a migratory game bird permit -- or any license that includes that permit -- will be issued.
Having solid numbers to monitor how well the dove population is doing will help biologists like Pritchert keep a better eye on what's happening in the Bluegrass State.
Pritchert says that Kentucky's overall harvest numbers will probably be pretty close to what historical estimates have been thought to be. But he hesitates to say that's an absolute given, until a few more years of more accurate data is received.
This past year, he reports, the harvest wasn't quite as high as projected, but there could be several reasons for that. One may be last summer's serious drought conditions. And one single year's numbers are not enough to make a definitive call.
However, Pritchert does say that high-quality dove hunting can be found throughout Kentucky, in each of the five wildlife regions into which the Commonwealth is divided.
Enjoying a successful hunt largely depends on hunter legwork to find the spots that doves are using.
"For some time now," Pritchert said, "we've been taking part of a national dove banding study.
"We're trapping and putting leg bands on about 1,500 birds a year. Nationally, about 33,000 doves are being banded to help us learn more about their patterns and the harvest.
"This study seems to be indicating is that not as many of our Kentucky birds are leaving the state as we once believed. Almost all the bands put on in Kentucky are reported back from Kentucky. That tells us that even when we get a hard cold snap, more of our birds are staying here than heading south out of the state," said the biologist.
"They may vacate the field they were using and scatter, but most of them are still around somewhere, and are probably moving some, but they are not altogether gone."
In finding doves, the biggest key is getting to spots with abundant food. Kentucky has wildlife management areas (WMAs) to choose from, as well as fields that private landowners have leased to the agency for public hunting. Though the agency attempts to get about the same number of public-use fields in each of the five wildlife regions, sometimes availability of public hunting lands for doves is determined by landowner interest in the leasing program in any given area.
Let's take a look at the five regions to see what the opportunities will likely be and get you prepared for opening day -- and beyond.
Over the last couple of years, reports from biologists and wildlife area managers in the Northeast Region have been quite good, according to Pritchert. The northeastern part of the state is more forested and hilly, not normally thought of as an agricultural mecca. Yet Pritchert says that dove hunting there is pretty productive, at least on the fields made available by the KDFWR.
Last season, hunters had nine locations in eight different counties to choose from -- a really good volume of opportunity. Six of the spots where dove fields are usually available are on WMAs in the region.
Most of these WMAs have offered fields for years now.
"I think there's something to be said for dove hunting," said Pritchert, "in that a spot that attract birds for a couple of seasons will likely keep attracting birds once it gets established."
WMA managers have to work with the landscape they have, but they've chosen spots on WMAs where doves are most likely to find the food plots, and also have roosting and watering capability close by. The more components of dove habitat are available in close proximity to each other, the better the chances for higher bird use on that field. This holds true on both public and private lands, and is something hunters need to look for when scoping out spots to shoot over prior to the season.
"Sometimes," said Pritchert, "hunters tend to search for good dove hunting in areas where a lot of grain production occurs and farming is done on a larger scale. But surprisingly, the Northeast Region is blessed with doves despite a lower amount of crop growing."
Perhaps on fields prepared in this region, doves produced in the area are better concentrated due to the lower general availability of their preferred food elsewhere. As an interesting side note, Pritchert has also noted that other migratory species -- such as wood ducks, particularly -- are more abundant in the Northeast Region than you might expect.
Something in this region is obviously good for migratory species. Here are public areas well worth your lo
ok when the season opens.
Dove hunters should note that at Yatesville Lake WMA, lead shot is prohibited for dove hunting. Grayson Lake, Clay, and Fishtrap WMAs, as well as Lewis County, have no special restrictions on the type of loads you can use.
The outlook in the southeast isn't quite as rosy as other regions. Yet fields are offered in six different locations, including the Green River WMA in Taylor and Adair counties.
Sunflower and wheat fields, totaling a little over 20 acres of food, are open to public hunting on the Green River WMA. Other fields available last year were located in Green, Lincoln and Pulaski counties. But with those fields, you need to be sure and check that landowners are again participating. Others may perhaps have been added for this season.
"Hunters in this region will probably find quality opportunities in some locations," said Pritchert. "But they are going to have to scout around a bit for the better dove hunting.
"There is some large-scale farming in this region, but in the extreme southeastern counties, it's virtually nonexistent."
"One thing you can find here that isn't available in most other areas is hunting on strip-mining jobs that permit it," said the biologist. "Some of these mines have surprisingly good numbers of doves around ponds, gravel lanes and spots where bare ground and native weed stands produce seed at this time of year."
Hunters just need to check to be sure areas are open for dove hunting -- or request permission if it's a privately owned piece of ground.
Since the belly of Kentucky and points farther west are more suited to farming crops anyway, naturally there are chances of more dove hunting opportunities on both public and private lands. Last season, about a dozen spots were open to public hunting in several different counties in the Central Region.
"In this region, the public-lease fields have generally proven to be quite good when weather conditions are right," said Pritchert. "And in the early season, most any of them can provide a good-quality shoot."
As far as hunting public lands is concerned, that more crop farming goes on in this region is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Abundant food sources may help attract m ore doves. But at the same time, gunning pressure encourages the birds to scatter to other fields where food is often likewise available.
You may tend to find a lot of birds in a certain spot. But after the first few days of the season, they may move away to some other location to which you don't have access.
Dove hunting in the Central Region is immensely popular, though. When landowners are approached right, an invitation isn't terribly hard to get for those first few weekends when hunting is generally best.
The Central Region has a couple of fine public spots such at the fields of Taylorsville Lake and Kentucky River WMAs, where only non-toxic shot may be used. Trying these the public lands is a good deal because many hunters will shy away from places where the cheaper lead shells aren't allowed. That means less hunting pressure, which is generally good for a better hunt.
The way things are going, even the higher-priced shells might seem not so steep compared to what you'll spend on the gasoline to get there.
Also, remember to check the KDFWR's dove-hunting regulations for mentor-youth hunts some public fields. When those special hunts with a youngster are scheduled, only those who have signed up in advance can hunt.
Thereafter, it's open as per usual, though lease fields aren't open every day during the season. So be careful.
WEST CENTRAL REGION
Some of the largest public dove hunt fields raised in Kentucky are found on lands in the West Central Region. This area receives a decent amount of hunting pressure early in the season, but hunters can usually spread out enough to enjoy good and safe hunts. This season, one factor that might help is that opening day is a weekday, which usually trims down hunter numbers some.
You'll want to get there in early afternoon and stake out your spot.
In this region, WMAs like Peabody, Higginson-Henry and Yellowbank are excellent choices because all three really roll out the food cart for doves.
Of course, the West Central Region is also laden with high bird numbers, thanks to good reproduction, so shooting opportunity abounds.
"I think this part of the state ranks higher on the list than others for a couple of reasons," said Pritchert. "It traditionally has produced a lot of birds for Kentucky.
"And throughout the region, there's a strong hunting tradition that keeps a lot of private land open to the average guy just looking for an afternoon's enjoyment.
"We just try to supplement what's available on private lands with our WMAs and lease program for those guys who don't have as many other hunting options for doves.
"If we can have a good shoot the first couple of days, that's really what a lot of dove hunters are after. They get a chance to shoot a lot of shells, kill eight or 10 birds maybe, spend that time in the field with their friend and create some good stories to tell.
"In my mind, that's a good experience," he said. "We've been successful as an agency being part of that."
In Kentucky's far western reaches, dove hunters have opportunities on three major WMAs and several privately owned fields that are leased to the agency. McCracken County's West Kentucky WMA provided a ton of ground that was worked up for dove hunting. And last year, hunters there killed their fair share of doves -- as they usually do.
This is also known as one of the better dove spots later in the season, since birds will often come back late in October, after the initial barrage at the onset of September.
Ballard County holds two super spots for doves as well, including Ballard and Boatwright WMAs. Since waterfowl use both areas heavily, no lead shot is permitted on either of these public properties. At times there will some limits taken on these fields, and almost all hunters will find some pretty good action.
Last season, fields were also grown in Christian, Crittenden and Livingston counties, so when checking this year's public field list, don't overlook those possibilities.
All of the fields on the list have potential to hold a big bunch of doves for opening day. You just have to slip by there and take a quick look to see which one appears most promising.
If other grain f
ields in the area have not been harvested, fields specifically planted and manipulated to attract doves are usually even better. Doves seek out those food sources that are available first and will then spread out to other sources as the harvest season wears on -- and when natural foods mature and start falling to the ground.
To have the food on the ground a little before the season opens, timing is important. But the farmers and area managers know that. They do their best to hit it just right. The Western Region's public land managers and wildlife technicians have provided fields year after year, so they have lots of experience that benefits the resources, as well as the hunters.
Remember that scouting on foot on fields that are leased (and not WMAs) isn't allowed. But with most of them, you can get a look from the road for some idea of what the field is like and whether some birds are in the vicinity. You have to respect the owners of these fields. Remember, if these opportunities are to continue, the landowners have to remain happy.
Kentucky's dove-hunting season dates, requirements and a complete list public-land hunting opportunities can be found at fw.ky.gov.
You can request a booklet on dove hunting by calling toll-free 1-800-858-1549 on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.