Nothing brings new -- and old -- hunters to the sport like a good dove shoot.(September 2007)
Sam Martin of Greenville with a dove he shot near Kinston during the 2006 hunting season. The North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission plants corn for dove hunts on many game lands, including Caswell Farm Game Land near Kinston.
Photo by Mike Marsh.
The young hunter watched an incoming bird, his eyes wide with excitement. It would be hard to say whether it was the hammering of his heart or the pounding of both barrels of his 28 gauge that seemed louder to him -- just as it would be hard to tell of the millions of other young hunters who have been introduced to hunting on the dove field. However, for 11-year-old Caleb Martin, thoughts of becoming an important part of the continuation of hunting's future did not enter his mind. He was only here to have fun.
"I really like being out here with my dad on opening day," he said. "I wouldn't be anywhere else in the world on Labor Day weekend because it's so exciting to get to hunt when you get a break from school."
Caleb was hunting with his father, Sam Martin of Greenville, in a harvested corn field near Kinston in Lenoir County. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has one of its best dove-hunting game lands, Caswell Farm, in the same county near where the Martins were hunting. These vast farm acreages in the Coastal Plain attract the most doves, as well as the most dove hunters. But the commission plants dove fields statewide.
Scenes like the Martins' hunts are repeated as often as wing-shooters are created. It doesn't take a genius to tell anyone that dove hunting and hunter recruitment are inextricably tied together. Nothing recruits young hunters to the sport faster or retains them more steadfastly than the timeless tradition of an opening day dove shoot.
Agricultural crops planted on farms and small grain food plots planted solely for the purpose of attracting doves are the primary food sources that lure and concentrate these homegrown doves for a Carolina-style, barrel-melting dove shoot. This season, farms that were rapidly turning into subdivisions with the loss of income from the federal tobacco price support and quota programs are now planting more acreage in corn for ethanol production, as well as to capitalize on the skyrocketing prices of feed grain. This gives incentive to farmers to plant corn, which is better for doves than other tobacco alternatives, such as cotton, and is therefore good news for doves and dove hunters. On the other hand, dove-hunting leases are going up along with the prices for other agricultural commodities.
Many hunters either pay daily hunting fees or pay to lease entire farms with sums that can produce more cash from dove hunters than from the crops that are harvested.
However, fortunately, there is an option for hunters who want to get out in the field on opening day without paying an arm and a leg. With the exception of the far western region of the state, where finding a piece of level farmland can be more difficult than bagging a limit of 12 doves with a box of 25 shells, there are many public lands with fields specifically planted and managed for doves and dove hunters. But even Mountain Region hunters should not despair. Doves are also found in clearcuts and controlled burn areas on the many game lands open to the public, even if there are fewer special dove fields planted on these mountainous tracts.
Each August, the commission's management biologists and field biologists contact one another by telephone and e-mail. They compile all of the information on the fields their crews have been planting for dove hunting across the state and transfer the information to the commission's Web site at www.ncwildlife.org.
Hunters can easily access the data on the Web site because it includes maps and directions showing the locations of the planted fields, where they can park, what grain crops have been planted and how many acres have been planted. Sometimes there are other comments from the biologists as well, including how well the crops have done. Just as with any type of farming, the weather can help or hurt dove crops. The productivity and timing of that crop will obviously influence the number of doves using any particular game land or any particular field on a game land.
There are four regions of the state where the fieldwork crews are overseen by management biologists. These are the Northern and Southern Coast, Piedmont and Mountain regions.
Dale Davis is the commission's Northern Coastal management biologist and he supervises the work done by the commission's crews in Edenton and Williamston in District 1.
"We've got some excellent dove-hunting areas in the coastal region," he said. "In the northeast, the Edenton crew manages four fields at Lantern Acres Game Land in Tyrrell County. Lantern Acres has 50 acres of fields. We've been planting sunflowers at Lantern Acres, but the deer and bears have become accustomed to eating them, so now we are replacing sunflowers with millet. We used to plant half sunflowers and half millet, including browntop, German and proso millet. We plant several varieties because one may grow faster or slower depending on weather. Browntop matures first, with German shortly thereafter, then proso. The crews may mow the field and burn it to expose the seed. But burning is dependent on the weather. Some grain crops we don't burn at all, leaving strips of food for winter. Lantern Acres is a six-day-per-week game land open for dove hunting all season."
Dove hunting at Lantern Acres gets better after the season has been in for a week or two and is usually not as good the first weekend. Davis can't put his trigger finger on the reason, but said hunting gets better when the morning hunts begin after the second Saturday of the season.
"There are other crops on nearby farms, especially corn fields," he said. "You think they would stay in those fields. But instead, they head for our small grain fields later in the season."
The Edenton crew also manages J. Morgan Futch Game Land in Tyrrell County, located eight miles east of Columbia on Highway 64. It is a recent addition to the commission's public dove-hunting areas.
"Three years ago, we offered J. Morgan Futch dove hunting," Davis said. "The game land is a waterfowl impoundment and is contract farmed. The quality of dove hunting depends on whether the corn has been harvested. But we offer dove hunting there during the first four days of hunting season. We have 600 acres of farmland and moist soil units impounded for waterfowl. Most of the time, the farmer harvests the corn in August and that's the biggest draw for doves. We feel as long as it doesn't conflict with w
aterfowl uses, it's a good use of the impoundment and we flood it after the dove hunt."
J. Morgan Futch Game Land special dove hunting is by permit. However, it's a point of sale permit and unlimited numbers of permits are available. Anyone who wants to hunt can buy a $5 permit at any license dealer. Because the hunting area is a waterfowl management area, the use of non-toxic shot is required.
The Williamston crew manages the Roanoke River Wetlands Game Land. There are 60 acres at the Conoho Farms Tract, which has permit-only dove hunting. There is a quota of 50 people for each hunt. After the first two weeks, it is open two days per week during the early season. A small-game permit is needed for the non-permit hunts. For doves, the fields are planted with millet, milo, corn and sunflowers.
The New Bern crew plants Croatan National Forest in Craven County. There are two dove areas and both are in Jones County. The first is near Brice's Creek behind the commission's field depot on Brice's Creek Road. The Brice's Creek area will require permits for the first time this year. In past seasons, Brice's Creek fields were open for hunting without permits.
"There are several fields totaling 50 acres at Brice's Creek," Davis said. "Some of them right behind the depot will be permit only because of crowding."
The rest of Croatan is a six-day-per-week game land with no permits required for dove hunting. The other dove area is called the Hill Fields off Highway 58; it totals 20 acres. The crew plants corn, millet, milo and sunflowers. They also plant wheat in the fall and produce seed for the following dove season. The crew mows, disks and rakes the fields. Mowing is especially important to attract doves.
Most of the Hill Fields are millet. There is no corn planted because of the deer.
In Bladen County in the southern Coastal Plain, Suggs Millpond Game Land has a popular permit dove hunt. The airstrip and the waterfowl impoundments are planted in millet varieties that attract doves. Hunters must choose which field they want to hunt when they apply for permits. There is a quota of 30 hunters the first four hunt dates.
After the first few high-use permit hunts, hunters buy a $5 unlimited small-game permit and hunt doves.
There is a new addition to Suggs Millpond this year. However, hunters will have to check the Web site to see if the new fields have been prepared for dove hunters.
In Pender County, the Holly Shelter Game Land crew plants several dove fields. A total of 40 to 50 acres of dove plantings are scattered in fields throughout the game land. Several fields off Lodge Road on the east side hold doves. On the west side, the crew plants the airstrip and field near the boat ramp. Dove fields are planted with millet, mowed and disked before the season.
Located near Kinston, Caswell Farm Game Land is a 276-acre dove-hunting-only area. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission leases the game land from the N.C. Department of Agriculture. There is usually plenty of corn. The only hunting at Caswell Farms is two days of permit dove hunting with a quota of 100 hunters.
Fort Bragg has excellent dove hunting, with several fields planted on the U.S. Army post in Cumberland County to attract doves.
The number of hunters is limited on a first-come, first-served basis. When a hunter shoots his limit, another hunter is allowed to take his place.
Hunters must sit through a course specific to the post and must buy a Fort Bragg hunting license. For more information, check out their Web site at www.fortbragg.army.mil/wildlife/ regs-permits
In the mountain region, Kip Hollifield is the commission's management biologist for districts 7 and 8. He said the most popular game lands for doves in the mountains are Perkins Game Land in Davie County and South Mountains Game Land in Burke County.
"At South Mountains Game Land, the dove field is in the Burke County portion near Morganton," he said. "The 20-acre field is planted in millet and sunflowers."
The dove hunting is usually good. But in the mountains, the birds could leave at the first cold snap, so hunters should check the fields before hunting. It's an open hunt, with no special permit required. Hollifield said he has been trying to manage the South Mountains Game Lands fields for late-season dove hunts.
"We seem to get more birds in December and January," he said. "We've had some success by leaving standing crops for the late season. But that's always contingent on the weather."
Perkins Game Land is located off Highway 801 near Mocksville in Davie County. There are four fields totaling 18 acres planted with sunflower and millet at Perkins Game Land. Dry weather has an adverse impact on the game land fields, so hunters should visit the fields ahead of hunting season to see if doves are there before showing up to hunt on opening day.
Isaac Harold is the management biologist for the Piedmont region, which includes districts 3,5 and 6.
"We have 30 dove areas with a total of about 300 acres," Harold said, "at Falls of the Neuse, Jordan, Caswell, Sandhills and Uwharrie game lands dove fields."
Harold said dove fields are planted close together. Some large fields are located at Falls of the Neuse and some of them are very big compared with other Piedmont game lands fields, up to 20 acres in size. Piedmont game land fields are planted with winter wheat, buckwheat, millet, sunflowers and corn.
Butner-Falls Game Land is the best Piedmont dove area because it has the most and largest fields and therefore holds more birds than other game lands. It is a six-day-per-week game land with no special permits required.
"Brickhouse Road Peninsula is a good place," Harold said. "But if it's a good year, all the dove areas are good. We plant a total of nine or 10 fields there. Besides the sizes of the fields, the fact that they are adjacent to Falls Lake and the amount of timber management we do on the property produces lots of doves."
Sandhills Game Land in the southern Piedmont had good dove hunting at 10 fields scattered throughout the game land. Soil moisture is a key component in producing grain crops for attracting doves. Most summers, the fields grow well. Sandhills Game Land is a three-day-per-week game land and no special permits are required for hunting.
Caswell Game Land in the northern Piedmont attracts many doves. But it is not as consistent at holding them as some of other Piedmont areas.
"Some years are quite good and others are not so good," Harold said. "We've had lots of doves using Caswell fields ahead of the hunting season, then they've disappeared before opening week."
The crops at Caswell are typical of the other game lands. There is usually good shooting at Caswell because it has large fields so hunters have room to spread out. Some Caswell fields are as large as 18 to 20 acres in size, with a few even larger.
"There are two particularly large fields at Caswell," Harold said. "The Scott Tract is about 30 acres and a newer one, called the Barker Tract, which we have only had for the last few years, is about 45 acres. The Barker Tract has been really good for dove hunting. We rotate crops around in those larger fields and leave some of the field areas fallow from the previous fall. Sometimes we leave winter wheat standing from the previous fall, and that also attracts doves. We mow strips in all of our dove-hunting fields three to four weeks ahead of season, with a goal of having half the crop mowed by the time the hunting season opens."
Jordan Lake and Uwharrie National Forest game lands do not offer dove-hunting opportunities that are as good as other Piedmont regions, but there are some small fields planted for doves at these game lands. The thinner, rockier soils do not tend to produce the quantities of small grains needed to attract doves. However, hunters can find clearcuts or controlled burns on these tracts and have some good hunting.
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