South Carolina's Top Public-Land Dove Hunts

South Carolina's Top Public-Land Dove Hunts

With the season opener right around the corner, check here to find out where you need to be on opening day. (September 2009)

Here's a good news-bad news scenario. See if it sounds familiar to you: first, the bad news. At the end of turkey season last spring, you and some hunting buddies talked seriously about planting a dove field. You may have even put together the names of the guys who would hunt it with you and started trying to figure out how much it would cost each member, how often the field would be hunted, and who had a tractor you could borrow.

When the field is right and the shot is right, you can end up with doves in the bag on South Carolina's public-land dove hunts.
Photo by Phillip Gentry.

Everybody said, "Yeah, that sounds good." Turkey season ended. May went by and you just never found time to get that field ready. The bass were literally jumping in the boat that month. Then it was time for family vacation, the kids were out of school and now that Sept. 1st is only a few days away, guess what? You ain't got no dove field.

Here's the good news. While you were out bass fishing and playing in the surf with the kids and all that other stuff you do during the summer, the folks at your local South Carolina DNR office used their tractor to plant you a dove field. You do have a place to hunt after all.

Proper dove manipulation requires more than just planting a field. It also requires an understanding of the terrain, preferred foods and local dove populations. To get an insider's view of the whole process, South Carolina Game & Fish talked with the state's small-game project supervisor Billy Dukes. Dukes is well versed on the subject and offered some enlightenment into dove hunting in South Carolina.

To most hunters, a good dove year is based on the number of doves in the field on the first day of the season. If there are a lot of doves, it must be a good year. If not, it must be an off year. Assessments that are based only on one afternoon's dove activity, however, are rarely an accurate reflection of our state population.

"The state's dove population experiences significant fluctuations of as much as 30 percent annually," said Dukes, "but overall it is stable. Fluctuations are most likely related to severe weather events."

Bad weather during nesting season can have serious negative effects on dove reproduction because doves build very flimsy nests -- a bad storm at the wrong time can blow the nests apart, causing the loss of a nesting cycle. The doves will try again, but one of the year's clutches will be gone.

Though doves are distributed widely across South Carolina, they are not evenly distributed. Broadly speaking, South Carolina can be broken down into three main uses from a dove's perspective: agriculture, forestry and urban.

"Food availability will be the major factor influencing dove concentrations in late summer and fall," explained the biologist. "With more agriculture in the Coastal Plain, birds are more likely to be scattered and spread out on a variety of food sources, including prepared dove fields and harvested grain fields."

According to Dukes, even in "off" years, dove hunters who only hunt during the first season would not necessarily be able to tell if reproduction was off or not -- and nearly 75 percent of dove hunters in South Carolina do not hunt doves after the first dove season.

"While it's difficult to predict the quality of the season based on weather or reproduction before the season has started, I would say that well-prepared public and private fields will provide good to excellent opportunity early in the season. If productivity is poor, later shoots in the first season might well suffer.

The quality of public fields will largely be dictated by location, competition, preparation -- meaning food quantity and availability, and managed hunting pressure," said Dukes. "It is important to manage harvest and hunting pressure. The best-managed and most successful private fields manage hunting pressure by limiting the number of hunters, hunts and hunting hours."

Estimating local dove populations is more than just accounting for doves harvested on opening day in public fields. Several factors are used to manage the resource, including banding data from programs that have been ongoing for several years and other studies by collective cooperation among state agencies, which are grouped geographically across the country.

Dukes said that harvest rates were significantly higher for juveniles in 2008 compared with 2007; the harvest rate of adult doves was about the same in 2008 as it was in 2007. Total harvest and harvest rates tend to be higher in the Eastern Management Unit than in the other two management units (Central and Western).

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources keeps data on success rates of its public dove fields based on the results of the opening day harvests. A you can see by the table with this article, public dove fields vary a good deal both in terms of the number of hunters and the number of doves that show up.

The number of birds taken per hunter is the figure most likely to predict the general quality of opening day this year, but cannot and does not account for success rates throughout the season for each field, nor can it account for environmental influences, such as weather and habitat. For this, there is no better tool than visual scouting by the individual, before and throughout the dove seasons.

As the first season progresses, doves that have become gun-shy from other fields in the immediate area may flock to a field that they did not use the week before. The first season in South Carolina is mostly a hunt for local (rather than migratory) doves. The banding data has proved this over time. As the second and third seasons come into being, migratory doves may influence the dove numbers on a local or regional basis.

Another big factor to cause more or fewer doves to be on a field is crop maturity. Most fields are planted in several different types of grains, with the intent of having food for doves ripen at different times throughout all three dove seasons.

To get a better local view, we talked with biologists with responsibilities from each region.

Heading up the public fields in the Piedmont Region is Clemson-based wildlife biologist Richard Morton. Morton spends a lot of time planning and scouting dove fields and is especially involved in making sure the opening day youth hunts are as successful as possibl


"In Region 1, our best field is the Evans property, also known as the Lebanon Dove field, located in Anderson County," said Morton. "This field is 'draw only' on the first day to limit the possibility of overcrowding. The Ross Mountain Dove field, located in Oconee County, is another good field. Some years ago, we designated this field as Adult/Youth only for the first day of the season. My third pick would be the Pickens Rifle Range Dove Field located in Pickens County. Due to the popularity of this field, it can get very crowded on opening day.

"Last year, we had a new field in Oconee County, the Long Creek dove field. This new addition is limited to Mobility Impaired and Youth -- primarily for the first season. The field is new and has not reached its full potential yet. It probably will take another year to get the soil in good condition for a great agricultural crop. The details for the requirements on this field can be found on last year's dove field list.

"This year, we planted nearly one-third of the majority of our dove fields in winter wheat to help ensure that we will at least have some matured winter wheat, just in case we have another drought this spring, which would affect our spring crops, such as sunflowers and millet," explained Morton.

Florence-based wildlife biologist Sam Stokes oversees the public dove fields in Region 2. Stokes indicated that the Catawba Pee Dee area is home to a large population of local doves. This population is a driving force in the success of the region's dove fields.

"Our top three fields vary slightly from year to year. Last season, our top field was the Lake Wallace Field just outside of Bennettsville. Number two would be the Lee County Field, followed by either the Darlington County field or the Wilkes Chapel field located in the Sandhill State Forest," said Stokes.

Stokes also mentioned that all of the fields are located within open landscape areas and are surrounded by stands of pine trees that provide good roosting and nesting areas. Another advantage for these fields is that most of them do not have other competing fields around them, so they tend to draw doves in from the surrounding areas to feed.

Over the last year or two of economic strain and state budget cutbacks, the SCDNR has had to take a hard look at the feasibility of continuing some of its less productive fields. The goal is to reduce expenses without sacrificing hunting opportunities.

Stokes said, "We dropped two of our dove fields off the program last year: the McBee WMA field and the Taylor property field in Chesterfield. We were having a lot of problems with deer coming in and eating the crops before maturity, plus the fact that the fields were just not producing the numbers of doves they have in the past."

A big concern with wildlife managers is concentrating hunters into one field if not enough hunting opportunities are available in alternate locations.

"All of our fields in Region 2 are hunted on a first-come, first-served basis. Hopefully, the closing of a couple of our fields will not overburden the others. We have discussed the possibility of having one or two of our better fields open on a draw basis for opening day when the hunting pressure is the highest, but for this year, we're going to keep them the way we always have," said Stokes.

The Central Region is home to Columbia-based wildlife biologist Buddy Baker. Large, open fields with a wide variety of different food sources are the rule for the Central Region. The dove harvest numbers from the region speak for themselves.

"Our top fields are the Santee Dam Field located in Clarendon County, the Oak Lee Field also in Clarendon County, and the Crackerneck WMA, which is in Aiken County," Said Baker. "Region 3 has some of the best public dove fields in the state and not just on opening day."

Part of the reason for the quality of these fields is that the region still has significant acreage in working farms. These help to provide the kind of feeding and nesting habitat that perpetuates local dove populations. Many of these doves are attracted to public fields in which cereal grains are planted so that those grains ripen in concert with dove season.

Baker indicates that his region has a strong contingent of public field dove hunters who hunt doves throughout all three seasons. These hunters put in a lot of time scouting and calculating which fields are prime as the seasons progress.

"We have a lot of doves that migrate into the Santee Dam Field later in the year," he said. "Although we don't keep records of any hunts other than the opening day results, I'd venture to say the Santee Dam Field may be the best late-season field in the state. The field is down in a hole in the middle of a river swamp below Lake Marion, and for some reason, migratory birds just flock in there as the other seasons come in later in the year. I wish I knew what made it so attractive; we'd try to duplicate the conditions in some other fields. Maybe it's just the location because the other Clarendon field, Oak Lee, also attracts some late-season doves, but not like the Santee Dam field."

Not all of the Central Region fields are equal. Changes in dove distribution have affected some formerly decent fields. The SCDNR has decided to cull fields if they aren't producing.

"Like some of the other regions, we will be shutting down some fields that were planted in prior years," said Baker. "This is partly due to budget cuts but also the fact that the fields, for whatever reason, just aren't producing enough doves to make them worthwhile. That's the case with both the Richland County Landfill field and the Tootsie Creek Field in Saluda County."

So far, Region 3 has not determined a need to have a draw for any of their open public dove fields.

"All our fields are open on a first-come, first-served basis," said Baker. "The exceptions are our adult/youth fields -- the Bland WMA, McCullough Church Field in Newberry and the Santee Cooper WMA in Orangeburg. They are all draw hunts as a means to control hunting pressure and create a safer hunt for the kids."

Charleston-based wildlife biologist Sam Chappelear has responsibility for the public dove field program in the Coastal Region. The Coastal Region is a mix of urban, agriculture and forestry use. Dove fields in this region fare consistently from year to year.

"The most heavily used field in Region 4 is the Canal WMA field in Berkeley County," said Chappelear. "The Webb Center fields in Hampton County (while small) offer some excellent hunting. The Donnelley field in Colleton County is also productive, but the first hunt is a draw-only hunt, which limits the crowd significantly. All of the above dove fields hopefully will be planted in sunflowers and millet. Corn plantings will probably be limited due to the increased expense.

"Other good dove fields in Region 4 include Samworth in Georgetown County a

nd Bear Island in Colleton County," he said. "The Botany Bay Plantation dove field in Charleston County was just established last season and has yet to attract many doves. All of these fields will have sunflowers and millet planted in them.

"With some areas having limited staff and with the high cost of fuel, seed and fertilizer, we will probably cut back on some plantings on some of our fields," said the biologist. "For instance, the Shultz tract dove field in Horry County will not be planted at all this year due to limited staff."

No matter where you're located in the state, however, a good dove field is within easy driving distance. These fields are prepared, monitored and regulated as well as or better than many private pay fields and are courtesy of the hard work and dedication of a lot of DNR employees. So, rather than sit around wishing for what you should have done, pop over to one of the local SCDNR public dove fields and help bring in the upcoming hunting season.

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