There are plenty of public lands that offer hot dove shooting, but the five wildlife management areas highlighted here are the best from last year! (September 2009)
Have you got the action of your pump and semi-autos oiled up? Located your camo T-shirt, cushion-topped bucket and figured out a new way to snooker your buddy into having to carry all those heavy boxes of shells you take out to the field for you? It's time to think dove hunting, and in Kentucky that generates a lot of excitement -- and fun.
Kentucky landowners spend a good bit of time and effort across the Commonwealth developing food plots for dove hunts each year. The preparation starts way before the season arrives, with plantings of various seed-bearers like millet, sunflowers, milo, sorghum and (for later in the season) corn in some cases. Even natural weed fields bush-hogged at the right time can really set the table for some excellent dove action at the onset of fall.
As with any migratory game bird species, the numbers of doves will fluctuate from year to year, but because doves are such prolific breeders, it is rare that a huge drop in population occurs one season to the next. This helps keep a continuous and renewable supply of birds available, and generally means good hunts, especially during the first month of the season.
As fall progresses, the chances increase that cold fronts may come through that sometimes push the migrating portion of the population farther south. Homegrown birds, though, mostly ride it out unless the front is severe. However, in some years, when spring nesting isn't plagued by winds or unusually wet weather, or an ill-timed storm, and the birds get off a good late nesting in midsummer as well, the number of doves may jump up a good bit. Those are the seasons when you enter the field and find thousands of birds swarming in all directions. That's when the shooting action really gets hot -- literally.
Many Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) wildlife management area (WMA) managers, who serve as the on-site "landowners" of the state's public hunting areas, also spend a lot of time and effort dressing up fields in anticipation of hosting good dove hunts each season. Though about every field that they work up will attract birds, there are some WMAs, by virtue of location, that will have a better chance of pulling in more birds than others. We don't think about it as much as we do for turkeys or deer, but doves have a preferred habitat as well. Some regions of Kentucky are better suited for these game birds than others -- just like they are for big-game species.
"We don't keep harvest records for hunters who use our WMA fields, but we know from observation where some of the better spots usually are," said Rocky Pritchert. Pritchert is the biologist who coordinates the migratory game bird program for the KDFWR, including for doves, ducks, geese, snipe, woodcock and the like.
"The agency recognized some time ago that dove hunting is very popular, but not everyone who wanted to get in on the action had an invitation to hunt a private field; so we have attempted to offer that opportunity as best we can through our public field program on WMAs, and the private field lease program," explained Pritchert.
"Our funds and staff are limited to what we can devote to this type of hunting, but when conditions are right during the growing season, and if the birds are available in their usual abundance, there is some good quality action on several of our fields early in the season," said the biologist.
"It's a pretty good deal to be able to hunt for free on nearly all these fields, other than paying for a license and dove permit," he said. Maintaining quality fields is hard work, and KDFWR employees take a whole lot of pride in getting it done correctly. They all buy a license and hunt, too, just like anybody else, so they want the experiences hunters have on their areas to be enjoyable, as if they were hunting themselves.
According to Pritchert, all five wildlife regions that Kentucky is divided into for management purposes have at least one WMA that seems to produce or attract more birds and yield better harvests than the rest. In some places, the lay of the land allows more plots to be raised, which increases the potential for more birds.
Sometimes fields can be planted in areas that are strategically better, in closer proximity to water and roosting areas and that may improve the hunting. WMA managers, Pritchert says, have mastered the art of timing the maturity of the crop, choosing corridors that doves travel and keeping the fields cut at various intervals to put seed on the ground at the right time. It all works together to get the birds there. Let's take a look at what's out there for you this coming season.
In the Green River Management Region, one of the top choices is the 50,000-acre-plus Peabody WMA in Muhlenberg and Ohio counties. Smack in the middle of some of Kentucky's most productive ground for agriculture, which often also means enhanced quality habitat for wildlife in general, this WMA in west-central Kentucky is a good choice for doves.
Peabody is managed for doves extensively compared with other WMAs around the state. About 10 different fields are prepared, which helps spread out the hunting pressure while putting a lot of feed on the ground for the birds. The dove fields can be found on two different tracts of the Peabody WMA.
Some fields are worked up on the Sinclair Unit on the west side of the Green River, and another bunch of fields are available east of the river on the Ken Unit. The closest exit to these tracts for most hunters will probably be Exit 58 off the Western Kentucky Parkway.
Exact directions are available from the KDFWR office at (270) 273-3568 during normal business hours, and you can print a map of the area from the agency's Web site at fw.ky.gov for general reference on this big WMA. Peabody is the only state-owned WMA where a user permit is required.
"We know that this region of Kentucky is well suited to doves and that hunters are pretty successful here," said Pritchert.
"Like with most WMAs, hunting the first few days of the season provides better shots before the birds figure it out and start flying higher, or search out other feeding spots with fewer disturbances," he said.
Hunters need to also be sure and check the official season dates because sometimes WMAs and other public fields are off-limits on certain days to improve hunting on the days it's allowed. Those areas that receive daily non-stop gunning tend to "burn out" more, until a new crop of birds fly in, so sometimes managers try to spread out the hunting success over more of the season by giving these areas a day off here and there.
On WMAs like Peabody, where a number of fields are planted and they are some distance from each other, if that's where you've decided to hunt, it's a good idea to do a drive by at all the fields and see what the score is a day or two before the season opens.
This helps in two ways. One, it simply lets you see what fields may be pulling more birds. Second, it may give you an idea of where you'll want to try to be in those hotter fields, if you can watch for a while and see how and where the birds are flying. Sometimes on shoots where more than several gunners are present, being the guy who gets first crack at a good number of birds means improved success. If you're one of those guys every dove hunter loves, who can "dust" them coming straight in at 60 miles an hour and 40 yards out, it won't matter as much.
An alternate choice in this region of the state would be the Sloughs WMA near Henderson. You have to shoot non-toxic (no lead) shot on Sloughs, but this area has a number of agricultural fields and consistently good shoots, too.
WEST KENTUCKY WMA
Down Paducah way in the Purchase Region, the West Kentucky WMA is a top pick for good dove action. Pritchert says that lots of gray-winged speedsters will alight in the various fields planted usually on Tracts 1 and 5 of this 6,500-acre-plus public hunting area.
West Kentucky WMA consists of old fields, grasslands, wood lots and a number of ponds, along with food plots. It's bordered to the north by the Ohio River and has flat to rolling terrain. It's an area that provides doves everything doves need. The office on the area is about six miles off U.S. Route 60 out of Future City via state routes (SRs) 996 and 358.
"Because West Kentucky is so close to the city of Paducah, hunters can expect there to be plenty of shooters on these fields," said Pritchert.
"When it comes to doves, it's pretty hard in Kentucky to find public lands that have hardly anyone there during the first day these areas are open.
"But the nature of the sport sort of lends itself to a group hunting approach, and as long as hunters keep some spacing between themselves, there's usually enough action to get in an ample amount of shooting opportunities," he said.
"On a public field, if you knock down eight to 10 birds in an afternoon, that's considered a good day. In fact for most, that's a good day anywhere.
"Those who drop a limit of 15, and there will be several who do, just had an exceptional day. It all depends on the weather, bird numbers and luck in setting up and making good shot choices," Pritchert added.
GREEN RIVER LAKE WMA
Though this management area seems to be located more in the mid-portion of the Commonwealth, it falls into the Southeast Wildlife Region for management purposes. Green River WMA, outside Columbia, is one of Kentucky's largest chunks of public lands and encompasses more than 21,000 acres all together. Over 80 percent is forested, while some 11 percent is open fields and uplands.
Fields prepared on this area traditionally attract good numbers of birds, and this area sometimes picks up birds that drop farther south when a cold snap comes to the more northern counties in autumn.
Mixes of sunflowers, milo and other grains give doves reason to drop in, and there is sufficient water and tree canopy in the vicinity to provide birds with roosting areas.
"You might not think about some southern or eastern locations being good for mourning doves because hunters sometimes tend to think the parts of the state where big grain field farming is found is better," said Pritchert.
"You can still bring in birds from a long way when you have pockets of food plots, and sometimes depending on how much other farming is going on in the vicinity, those sources of food may be all there is available over a pretty big area.
"Doves have no problem moving a long distance and staying in the area when they find a long-term food source -- something they really like.
"We use the types of food we can grow well, which these birds can use for weeks if they want. Once it gets ripe and they find it, we get them used to coming before the season opens, and that improves the odds for opening day," Pritchert said.
One thing hunters should give some thought are the loads they select for doves in situations where more hunters are in the field. Experienced shooters often go with a slightly bigger, heavier load in order to have better success on birds at longer range. On private field hunts where the numbers are controlled, shooters tend to get shorter-range shots at birds that haven't been goosed along, or forced higher by three other shooters. Public field hunting is different. Many of the shots you get will be behind another shooter's miss, and most doves don't slow down and become more relaxed to come land at your feet after a series of loud bangs beneath them.
Shooting 7 1/2s versus 8s might give you an advantage. They carry a little farther and a little extra powder and knockdown power isn't such a bad thing to have in your pocket if you need it.
TAYLORSVILLE LAKE WMA
There are several decent public dove lands in the Bluegrass Region in central Kentucky, which includes Taylorsville Lake WMA. Even though whitetails get some of the crops grown for doves before they mature, hunters on Taylorsville still seem to do pretty well when the season arrives.
Bottomlands, overgrown fields and woodlands combine to give doves feeding, resting and breeding areas, and quite a bit of other agricultural activity goes on in and around the management area lands.
On the Taylorsville WMA, dove fields are usually planted in the Van Buren bottoms in the Anderson County portion of the area below the SR 248 bridge near the Salt River. This is another non-toxic-shot-only area because of the use of these lands and waters by waterfowl. You won't want to wait until 10 minutes before shooting hours start to arrive. Being there well ahead of time may get you in a better spot to see, and be able to more easily retrieve the birds you knock down.
You'll likely also find a field or two across from the Army Corps of Engineers office in the Spencer County part of the WMA. Either spot should provide some good gunning Pritchert says.
The 2009 edition of the Kentucky Dove Hunting Guide will provide you all the details about hunting Taylorsville and other public areas. It's available at license outlets, or more conveniently for some on the Internet at fw.ky.gov.
GRAYSON LAKE WMA
It seems that many of the management areas associated with a big body of water tend to be high-quality dove hunting areas. Grayson Lake in the Northeast Wildlife Region falls into that category.
Dove plots are available on Grayson WMA next to the designated parkin
g area in the Frazier Flats Unit. That's east of the lake and south of Grayson Lake State Park off Wells Branch Road right on the Carter/Elliott county line. Hunters may want to scout it out first.
"We offer fields at Yatesville, Fishtrap, Clay and Lewis County WMAs in this region as well, but have found over the years that the Grayson Lake WMA usually has one of the best hunts," said Pritchert.
"I don't know if there's a particular reason why, other than maybe where the field is able to be cultivated is just a hotspot that the birds in the area use, and they have the rest of what they need in addition to easy access to food closely.
"On any given year, any WMA could be loaded with birds, but we get consistent reports of a good opening shoot at Grayson.
"With a midweek opener this year, hunters may find a few less guns in the field than if it came in on a Saturday or Sunday, so that might be a plus at some of these public shoots this time around," he noted.
While these five or six highlighted areas tend to be some of the best public lands for doves, they are by no means all the public-hunting opportunities that the state fish and wildlife department provides. The agency continues to administer the private land lease program, which pays local farmers for raising dove plots and allowing public hunting at various times during the season. You can find those listings on the agency's Web site in late August, and check those spots as well.
Dove hunting is a fun sport because there's a lot of shooting involved, but it's also a sport that requires respect for fellow hunters, and smart shot choices in the field. Lastly, if you are able to take a younger hunter with you, dove hunting is one of the most exciting types of hunting that will hook a newbie. Whether they hit anything or not, it doesn't matter, because kids like shooting.
Make a new hunter -- take a youngster along and show him or her the ropes. It will double your enjoyment to see them having fun, guaranteed.