Figuring Out The Dove Puzzle

Many things can make a well-planned dove shoot go all wrong. The question is: What can you do about it?

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Here's an oxymoron for you: "well-planned dove shoot." Made me chuckle just now when I wrote it.

Don't take that the wrong way. Every summer, hunters spend more time than many of them will care to admit planning dove shoots. Opening day of dove season has become a wonderfully fun social event just about everywhere.

But many things can turn a "well-planned dove shoot" into something far less rewarding than was intended. It happens quickly, and usually, it isn't anybody's fault.

The funny thing is that, in my experience, the puzzle of putting things together doesn't really get more difficult if you add or subtract hunters. Larger groups only mean more places for the same things to go wrong.

What can go wrong? How can you fix it? Can you fix it on the fly? Can you salvage a productive dove shoot that's started turning into chapter and verse from Murphy's Law?

You can indeed -- and that's what this story is all about.

You can control most of the elements that will make or break a dove shoot -- where you set up, how you conceal yourself, how you shoot, what you shoot, and so on. You can't however, control where the doves are going to fly -- or why -- on a given day. So forget about that. Concentrate on what you can control, and do the best job possible on those things.

Let's work backwards and talk about your shooting first. Any practice you can get before the season opens will help, but the kind of practice designed to make you a better dove shooter will make a bigger difference than you think.

What exactly is "practice designed to make you a better dove shooter?" Something involving overhead incoming and passing shots, and passing shots at distances of 20, 30 and 40 yards. If there's any way that you can practice taking those sorts of shots at clay targets, your shooting will improve, as will your ability to judge distances.

Some shooters will disagree with this, but I believe it to be true that every wingshooter attempts shots at distances longer than he believes. Knowing what targets look like at the very edge of effective shotgun range is going to help you make better decisions about when to shoot, and those decisions will help you become a better shot.

You also should take the time to pattern your shotgun at 20, 30 and 40 yards with the loads you intend to use. If your smoothbore has interchangeable chokes (most modern guns do), take the time to pattern using at least the improved cylinder and modified tubes. If you own a skeet tube, try that one too.

Knowing how your shotgun patterns with the load and choke you intend to use at the distances you intend to shoot is critical information when it comes to being a better shot. It's also critical to being a better dove hunter for a reason you might not consider too often.

Birds get "educated" when we miss them. One reason for dove shoots going bad, especially after the season has been open a while, involves just that kind of education. The better you shoot, the less you miss. The less you miss, the fewer doves you educate.

That education also occurs as it relates to a couple of other things you can control: movement and concealment. One element of a dove shoot that I personally find very intense and challenging is the constant searching for birds flying just under the treeline, which sometimes makes them very difficult to pick out. Seeing them, and waiting on them until I know they're in good shooting range -- that's fun for this dove shooter.

It's also important when it comes to not educating them. It goes along with improving your shooting; as noted, the fewer birds you miss, the fewer birds you educate.

When it comes to concealment, we all should be pleased as punch with the new high-tech style of lightweight, moisture-wicking camo clothing. When I started hunting doves many years ago, that kind of camo didn't exist. As a result, my outings got sweaty and miserable in a hurry after the sun rose above the treeline, because the opening days of the season can be so hot and humid.

I didn't wear short sleeves; I covered up. I wore a headnet. And I still do those things, because concealment is very important when you're trying to pass-shoot doves and want a chance to take shots close to you.

I am a firm believer in a "match-the-hatch" approach when it comes to camo -- I want the pattern I wear in the dove field to match my surroundings as closely as possible. Darker patterns with shades of green and earth brown just don't blend in when you find yourself sitting in a 4-foot-wide strip of cornstalks left standing in a harvested field to provide cover for dove shooters. Reed-style waterfowl camo works better in that setting. Put me in some brush at the edge of a cut grain field, however, and the woodlands pattern is going to work a lot better.

One of the planning elements that will pay dividends for you is to make a mental catalogue of the specific spots that you and others will be hunting; then, try to get out to your dove field a week before the season opens to see the rising sun lighting those spots. Let that help guide your camo selection for upcoming hunts.

Where should you set up? A lot depends on how many hunters will be in the field with you. The fewer the hunters, the more important it is to know how birds are flying a field: where they come in, where they go out. Dove shooting alone or with just a couple of buddies is much more of an ambush than is a large hunt with a dozen or more hunters spread around a field. In the latter case, birds will begin moving helter-skelter when the shooting starts, and almost everybody will stand a good chance of getting good shots -- shots at effective distances.

By the time you read this, it'll be too late to do much about what the birds are flying in for. You may be on a cut grain field, as mentioned above. If you hunt the afternoon alone or with just a buddy or two, you might want to think about setting up at a waterhole. Doves use them, and the action can be fast and furious.

Another great late-day hunt involves advance scouting to identify the whereabouts of roost trees. Setting up near them to ambush birds coming in from feeding and watering also provides some wonderful action. Here, too, the better your shooting, the fewer birds you'll be educating.

More than one biologist I've talked to about these little acrobatic flyers has referred to sunflowers as "dove candy." If you can hunt fields of sunflowers, do so. If you have a chance to influence the landowner or farmer planting the field you hunt, ask for sunflowers around the edge of the field next year, or maybe among the rows to be left standing at harvest.

The latter takes some extra effort. Offer to help with it at planting time, and you'll often score points with the people who graciously provide your hunting access.

Here are a few more tips that will help you make any dove shoot the best that it possibly can be.

Figure out how many shotgun shells you'll need -- and then double that amount. Somebody won't bring enough shells, and somebody (maybe you!) won't shoot as well as he or she thought. The extra shells will come in handy; they always do.

If you're shooting a pump gun or a semi-auto, check to make sure the magazine stop is in place to keep you from loading too many shells. Please note: It doesn't matter than you don't have too many shells in your gun if you get checked in the field. It will matter that you don't have the plug in the magazine. One of my dearest friends got just that kind of citation one opening day several years ago (which made me happier than ever that I shoot an over/under).

You might even want to carry an extra plug or two with you, and have everyone you're hunting with check the scatterguns before heading into the field. There's simply no reason to violate the law when it comes to plugging guns for hunting doves -- and there's no easier way to ruin an otherwise wonderful shoot than by getting a ticket from a wildlife officer.

Bring plenty of water to drink. Bring sunscreen and bug spray. One of the coolest -- literally -- camo outfits I've ever worn on the edge of a dove field is a mesh "bug suit" that lets air flow while keeping bugs out. You can wear shorts and a light T-shirt under it, and so be both comfortable and concealed.

Also, if you or others decide to move from one spot to another, let your hunting partners know. Safety must be your No. 1 concern on a dove shoot, or on any hunt. Knowing where the rest of your party is situated throughout the hunt will help you stay as safe as possible.

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