Here's what our experts have to say about the prospects for opening-day action on Tennessee's public dove fields.
Photo by Mark Romanack
No matter your addiction -- deer, turkey, squirrel, rabbit, duck -- it probably doesn't offer close to the same fast action of a mourning dove hunt. When doves are in the shooting fields, especially early in the season, the action is nonstop.
THE BIG PICTURE
The season will open this year, as it has since 1954, on the first day of September and will run late into the month. After a brief closed period, it normally reopens again in early October and doesn't close until nearly November. After that, there'll be one last late-season chance from around the middle of December on into the early part of January.
That's plenty of opportunity for almost anyone, with almost any work schedule, to hunt these birds. And there's no scarcity of places to hunt either, thanks to a cooperative program between the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and local landowners and farmers.
Since the late 1980s, the TWRA has operated a program designed to increase the numbers of mourning doves in the state and provide more opportunity for hunters. It's called the Public Dove Field Program.
Basically, the TWRA pays private landowners to create forage fields on their land and, in some cases, on public land. (Most of the fields on public land are planted by state personnel, but not all.)
In exchange for planting those fields, the landowners are paid a fee. Payments vary depending upon the type of field leased.
The leased fields are broken down into three basic groups. First are the spring fields. They're mostly planted in millet, wheat or sunflowers and are mowed before the dove season opens. These fields offer no crop benefit to the farmer. They're strictly for the doves.
Second are the improved silage fields. The farmer harvests them for silage in a traditional manner with the exception that some grain -- usually about 4 acres -- is allowed to stand until just before opening day to help attract and hold doves. These can be great hunting spots but do have one disadvantage: No one knows how many doves will be there until just before opening day.
Last are the traditional fall fields. These fields consist of harvested grain, millet or in some cases late harvested hay. No crops are allowed to remain standing by the farmer. The only exception might be a few outside rows to give the shooters a little cover.
No matter what type field is in the TWRA program, there are a variety of rules and regulations that control the owner's use of it and the public hunting rights on it. For the most part, the TWRA requires that the fields be harvested in a particular manner and at a particular time, usually determined by a regional biologist.
Part of the deal is that the fields must be open to public hunting during the season. In all cases, that includes opening day and at least two other days during the season. Under most circumstances, but not all, those additional dates will include Saturdays to offer the maximum amount of hunting time for Tennessee sportsmen and women.
The Public Field Dove Program is one of the best -- if not the best -- wildlife programs in the state.
It's popular with farmers because it gives them a guaranteed income from some of their land. Not a lot of income, but at least some guarantee. That's a good thing in this time of unstable agricultural conditions. It's also widely renowned for increasing the mourning dove population as well as increasing hunting opportunities. Volunteer hunters love it.
Along with the TWRA and local farmers, let's not forget the field officers and the contribution they make to a successful program. They're responsible for finding good spots for fields. On top of that, they typically help with advice to the farmers, by arranging parking in the immediate area of the field and, on opening day, supervising the hunts to make sure everyone has a safe and successful experience.
"Our officers should get most of the credit for the dove-hunting turnaround in the state," said David Brandenburg, Region 4 wildlife biologist.
Tennessee hunters are taking advantage of all this work and effort. In past years, nearly 120,000 hunters have killed approximately three million doves on an annual basis. During the 2003-04 hunting season, the number of hunters increased to nearly 140,000. The dove harvest increased proportionally.
Opening day of mourning dove season has been described as the fall social event for hunters. Everyone who's anyone is there. Those in attendance make small talk, laugh, have a good time, look over their competitors' equipment, and make plans for the rest of the year. You don't want to miss it.
Public fields are strictly controlled by the TWRA and their field officers. Every field in the state will have a TWRA representative on it for opening day, no exceptions. Generally, they will have made parking plans for the hunters in advance and will help with hunter placement. In most cases, they'll limit the number of active hunters to two per acre. And should a dispute arise -- it rarely does -- they'll referee.
Call and make sure you know where the fields are located and what the rules are for hunting them. Usually, the TWRA enforcement officers limit participation to two hunters per acre. That may sound like a lot, but a 25- to 40-acre field can fill up fairly quickly.
On some WMAs, the dove season is closed during a big-game season. Check before you hunt. A mistake could be expensive.
The specifics are a little bit different from one region to another and, with the exception of opening day, the specific dates have not been determined as of this writing.
For up-to-the-minute information, call the TWRA Wildlife Division at (615) 781-6610 or check their Web site at
www.state.tn.us/twra. A complete 2005 Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide will be available where licenses are sold by the time you read this article or one can be downloaded from the TWRA Web site.
Those are the statewide basics. Now let's take a look at the region-by-region places to hunt public doves.
Spring fields are king in Region 1. They're the most popular and offer the best opportunity for hunters to bag their limit.
According to Ed Harsson, Region 1 wildlife biologist, there will be between 17 and 19 fields open for the 2005-06 season. He cautions, however, that numbers can and do vary depending upon how many private landowners sign up for the program. Usually the numbers are reasonably stable, but he is concerned that escalating fuel costs could adversely impact sign ups.
Most of Region 1's fields will be planted in sunflowers, weather permitting. "They seem to work best for the doves and the hunters," Harsson reported.
In most years, landowners will start bush hogging several weeks before the season opens. They first cut in the center of the fields and then later, as the season nears, they mow out toward the edges of the fields. The idea is to attract the birds from the inside out. Harsson encourages the farmers to leave some sunflowers standing around the perimeter of the field to give the hunters cover and the doves a feeling of security.
Several of the best leased fields in this region are located near Atwood in Carroll County and Savannah in Hardin County. Harsson also says that "Fayette County hunts good," as does Madison County from time to time.
The top public hunting areas in Region 1 include the Lake Barkley-LBL units, the White Oak WMA, Natchez Trace and the Bogota WMA.
The Kentucky Lake Units are located in the Tennessee lands of the LBL. (Call 731/593-0588, 931/423-5721 or 270/924-2000 for last-minute information.) White Oak is located in northwest Hardin County, southeast of Milledgeville just off Highway 69. (Call 731/687-3444 for last-minute information.) Natchez Trace is located in Benton, Carroll and Henderson counties off I-40 at Exit 116. (Call 731/968-5351 for last-minute information.)
Bogota is located near the Obion River in Dyer County, approximately eight miles northwest of Dyersburg. (Call the main office at 615/781-6610 for last-minute information.)
Harsson believes that the 2005-06 season should be fairly good. "If you're any shot at all, you should be able to limit out on a good day with a couple of boxes of shells," is his summary.
For up-to-the-minute information on the hunting prospects in Region 1, call their office at (731) 423-5725 or check the TWRA Web site at
Corn silage and winter cover crops are popular in Region 2. According to Russ Skoglund, wildlife biologist for the region, there are usually between 12 and 15 private leased fields available to Tennessee hunters. They're scattered around the region and afford nearly everyone a good hunting spot that's close by their home or work.
In addition to the leased fields, there are usually another eight fields or so on public WMAs throughout the region.
Skoglund reports that dove hunting has been "pretty good" the last several years in his region and he sees no reason for that to change. Harvest numbers have been steadily high and, barring any unforeseen circumstances, that should continue into the fall of 2005 and early winter of 2006.
When asked about his "hot picks" for leased fields in the area, Skoglund replied, "You never know until just before the season opens." If past years are any indication, however, the better fields will be in the southern half of the region down near the Alabama border. This area includes Wayne, Lawrence, Giles, Lincoln and Franklin counties.
If you go down there to hunt doves, don't look for leased fields full of bright, yellow sunflowers. If you do, you'll be sorely disappointed. They aren't there.
"The deer eat them as soon as the heads turn up," Skoglund said.
Popcorn is the forage of choice in these spots. It's a late-season silage type of crop, but the mourning doves love it. They're attracted by the small kernels that end up scattered about the ground.
When it comes to public hunting grounds, Skoglund points hunters toward the Percy Priest WMA-Unit 2, the Yanahli WMA and the AEDC WMA.
Percy Priest-Unit 2 is located in Davidson, Rutherford and Wilson counties. (Call 615/444-6673 for last-minute information.) Yanahli is in Maury County. (Call 931/840-4042 for last-minute information.) AEDC is in Coffee and Franklin counties near Tallahoma. It can be accessed from I-24 at Exit 117. (Call 931/967-6101 for last-minute information.)
For up-to-the-minute information on Region 2 mourning dove hunting opportunities, call their office at (615) 781-6622 or check the TWRA Web site at
Dick Conley, wildlife biologist for Region 3, is very positive about the dove-hunting prospects in his region. He reports that due to heavy promotion by the TWRA and strong support from local farmers, there should be several good leased fields available in the region.
Although final sign ups will not be known until after this article has been printed, he expects his region to offer hunters the usual average of six or seven good fields. His lowest number over the years has been four and his best was 12 fields. He hopes to exceed those numbers for the 2005-06 season.
Regardless, don't let the smaller numbers fool you. Some of them are top producers and have a very high average dove-to-hunter kill ratio. They also attract doves late into the season, well after they have moved off most of the fields in the state.
The majority of this region's leased fields will be spring plantings that are reserved strictly for doves, but there should be a couple of cut silage and late harvested hay forage fields available as well. With that variety to choose from, there's bound to be something the doves like. And don't forget, if they like a field, you'll love it!
Over the past several years, the Kingston Refuge, Yuchi Refuge at Smith Bend and Chickamauga WMAs have been the best WMA dove producers in Region 3.
Kingston is located in Roane County on the Watts Bar Reservoir near the Kingston Steam Plant. (Call 931/484-9571 for last-minute information.) Yuchi is located in Rhea County and is accessible from several improved highways. (Call 423/365-9166 for last-minute information.) Chickamauga is located in Bradley, Hamilton, McMinn, Meigs and Rhea counties. (Call 931/484-9571 for last-minute information.)
For up-to-the-minute information on Region 3 mourning dove-hunting opportunities, call their office at 931-484-9571 or check the TWRA Web site at
Region 4 is the top area in the state for doves. Not only does it support the most number of fields -- usually around 17 private fields and as many as 10 public WMA fields -- but it also offers the
hunters the best harvest ratio -- four birds per hunter on opening day.
Unlike the other TWRA regions in Tennessee, Region 4 has a preponderance of cut silage fields.
Silage fields can be a feast-or-famine proposition. When they're good, they're real good. The doves absolutely love them. But when they're bad, they're real bad and it's a waste of your time to hunt on them.
This creates a unique problem for David Brandenburg, wildlife biologist for Region 4. He points out that while these fields certainly attract plenty of doves, the best fields and highest population densities won't be known until just a few days before the season opens.
"We just don't know until the last minute. That creates problems for us and for our hunters," he said.
Brandenburg has taken this problem into his own hands and has gone to extraordinary lengths to help solve it. He's created his own personal Web site, which will be updated on a daily basis until the season opens -- maybe even longer than that. This should help Region 4 hunters by reducing the lag time for updated information from the main TWRA site.
You'll be able to access Brandenburg's site from the main TWRA Web site at
www.state.tn.us/twra. After that, put it on your Favorites Menu and you'll be in business.
"It's hard to say," was Brandenburg's reply when asked for the best spots to hunt. He reports that due to the high number of fields in his region, there are hotspots all around. "Most counties have one," he said. In 2004, the best private fields were in Greene and Washington counties.
The best public hunts were on the Lick Creek Bottoms WMA. It's located in Greene County. (Call 423/587-7037 or check Brandenburg's Web site for up-to-the-minute information.)
JUST DO IT
If you want some early fall shotgun action, give mourning doves a try this year. There's plenty of opportunity near you.
And one final thought: You might want to spend a day or two at the local trap range before opening day. Doves aren't the easiest critters to hit, at least not for some of us.