Dove hunting is king for a day with the arrival of September. Excellent public dove hunts are scattered across the state, and the birds don't stop flying after opening day, either. (September 2007)
Photo by Mike Marsh.
Their harvest numbers may not be tracked with the fervor expressed by deer hunters and they may not be so highly prized as a springtime tom, but for at least a day or two, doves and dove hunting rules for most Tennessee sportsmen. The Sept. 1 opener for wing-shooters is a grand tradition. From barbecues to cookouts before and after the shooting starts, Volunteer doves get their share of the spotlight.
The best opening day and Labor Day dove shoots will find you trying to keep your hot-barreled shotgun loaded. As good as opening day is, are you really taking full advantage of what the entire dove season has to offer? There really is more to the hunt than a couple of fun-packed days. After all, dove hunting in Tennessee is broken up into three separate and often equally enjoyable seasons.
From September's heat, October's cool air, and December's chill, there are doves to be taken. Nor should they be taken lightly, not after you've had some grilled with a touch of hot sauce.
We've gone to the effort of locating a few public hunts across the state to get you started on your all-season dove quest. Hanging a tree stand can be rewarding, as can calling geese from a layout blind, but there's still something to be said for some old-fashioned wing-shooting.
For dove season tips, refer to the TWRA's 2007 Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide. All season regulations and dates are available there, including a full listing of WMAs per region that offer dove hunting. Guides are available at all locations where hunting and fishing licenses are sold, as well as at each TWRA regional office.
For hunting on WMAs or other state-run fields, you'll want to check the guides for details on specific dates and hours. Not all WMA hunts are the same as the statewide season, and many of them have hunt hours restricted from noon until sunset. There are a few WMAs that have reduced bag limits as well.
Many dove fields on WMAs are open as posted and some do require the use of non-toxic shot. That posting may also limit the number of hunters per field. In some cases, hunters are placed at staked positions and are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis or drawn randomly. In those cases, a position becomes available after the initial hunter retires from the field. Keep in mind hunters participating in a WMA hunt will need a WMA permit or a Sportsman License.
Just before opening day, the TWRA will also post the site locations and directions for public-leased fields in each region on their Web site at www.tnwildlife.org.
TWRA wildlife biologist Jim Hamlington in Region I said the current state of public dove hunting in Tennessee is best described as stable. However, there are WMAs in Region I that stood out last year based on hunter success. The best news is there are to be more WMA fields developed this year, weather permitting.
Hamlington said that last year Bogota had a great youth dove hunt, while other good hunts were found at the leased fields in Hardin County, Camden WMA, a Fayette County leased field, Tully WMA and White Oak WMA.
Hamlington said you cannot tell early in the year where the hot fields will be in a given season. Sometimes the birds leave a field a week before the season opens. Like he said, the WMA managers are proposing to put in more fields this year in Region I, and it remains to be seen if the weather and the birds cooperate.
Also, Hamlington added, sunflower fields usually tend to produce the best dove shoots. Whether hunters choose to hit the field in September, October or December, dove shoots are usually opportunistic hunts over harvested corn and bean fields.
Still, region managers are working to help hunters find better dove shooting success. In Region I, they distributed 15,000 pounds of black oil sunflower seed to landowners and hunters in order to promote the production of family dove fields. Hunters can assuredly expect the TWRA to have the Dove Field Lease Program again this year.
"Doves are closely monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the help of local state governments," said Doug Markham, Region II's information and education coordinator. "The Tennessee population continues to have good health."
Markham added that Region II contains some WMAs that provide good dove shoots. He said they have several WMAs that always have good hunts, and others at which the hunting is variable: One year the fields will really bring the doves in, but the next year might struggle to attract birds.
The AEDC WMA near Tullahoma usually does well, as does Percy Priest WMA close to LeVergne, but Markham's best suggestion for the serious dove hunter is to scout a couple of days before the hunt, see how good the crops are growing in a particular field, and cross your fingers that the weather stays constant between the time you scout and the time the dove shoot starts.
Markham credits the guys on the ground for fall dove success. He said the WMA managers and technicians do a terrific job of preparing dove fields. That preparation includes planting crops that doves consider good food, but also keeping in mind edge areas where hunters can conceal themselves from approaching birds. That's what you call thinking about the whole picture. Markham said they have dove fields down to where he's not sure they can get much better unless someone finds a way to control the weather.
Other public opportunities are, of course, available as part of the leasing program. Markham said all of the regions work with private landowners to open fields for public hunting. The agency's Web site lists those private lands as soon as possible, but that's usually only a few days before the Sept. 1 opener.
Nevertheless, he encourages hunters to scout these fields, just as they would scout a WMA. Some are definitely better than others.
"September is by far the most popular hunt and when most fields have been designed to attract birds," Markham said. "October and December can be enjoyable, too, and no doubt are often overlooked. But, there's nothing like Sept. 1st."
According to the TWRA, the leasing program is paying dividends in Region III. In conjunction with WMA opportunities, these provide many Tennesseans with either a "first choice" opt
ion for a hunt, or back-up opportunities in years when their own private fields fail to draw doves.
For top WMA options, hunters should take a look at the success found at Yuchi WMA in Rhea County, Jackson Swamp (where there's usually a pretty good shoot) in Overton County, and Hiwassee Refuge, which usually provides very good dove shooting.
Some of the best of the leased fields in Region III have been found in Marion, Meigs and Rhea counties in recent seasons. When the season does roll around, the agency said hunters should call the regional office or check the Web site for updates on WMAs and leased public lands.
It's been noted in the region that many of the crops that doves depend on are dwindling. Some declining dove populations across the country are also a cause for concern, but the bird populations remain fairly good in Tennessee.
Middle and West Tennessee have long been known for better deer hunting than the eastern reaches of the state, but when it comes to dove-shooting opportunities, Region IV may be the cream of the crop.
Region IV wildlife biologist David Brandenburg said WMA managers deserve the credit for making dove hunting a success for hunters. Managers like David Sams at Lick Creek Bottoms and John Mike at Chuck Swan and the guys at Forks of the River WMAs put forth plenty of effort all year long.
Those three WMAs were standout areas last season. On opening day last year, hunters at Lick Creek Bottoms took over 1,000 doves. To be precise, the South Mohawk Field at Lick Creek Bottoms saw 74 hunters harvest 735 doves, while 60 hunters took 328 birds at the Joachim Bible Refuge Field, and an additional 26 doves were harvested at the Fox Gate Field. Likewise, the Chuck Swan shoot saw 580 doves taken home to the grill.
At the Forks of the River WMA, hunters had never harvested more than 200 birds on opening day until last year. The folks that work this WMA placed donated power poles in the field complete with fake power lines to attract birds. The experiment obviously worked because hunters there on the opening day shoot harvested a remarkable 937 doves. Brandenburg said this is an application the TWRA is going to study more completely, and it could be applied to other areas.
Also, Brandenburg credits wildlife officers for their work with area farmers to set up good working relationships with landowners and farmers to find high-quality leased fields for that public opportunity. Wildlife officers spend plenty of time scouting and don't start looking for prime fields until just before the season. Doves could be using a specific field three weeks or more before the hunt opens and then move on to another location as food supplies dwindle.
It's a win-win situation for the TWRA, farmers and hunters. As soon as a good field is acquired, the information is posted almost immediately on the TWRA Web site where hunters can locate the good opportunities. Officers will start to look for viable shoots about two weeks to 10 days before the September opener. He said it's up to hunters to then get out and do their own scouting once a field has been designated for a shoot, if they want the best chance at success.
Brandenburg also said the youth hunt in Monroe County was so successful last year that the agency is looking to add more youth-only hunts at other areas this year. That's just another option they're adding to an already successful leasing program in Region IV.
"We take dove hunting seriously," Brandenburg said. He added the money is already in the budget to lease prime spots this year. Last year, Region IV managers actually exceeded their budget in order to bring more opportunities to hunters. Brandenburg was proud to say that Region IV had more fields available than any other region in the state last season, and he feels the quality of the shoots were probably at the top as well.
DOVE REGULATIONS REVIEW
All persons who hunt migratory game birds, including doves, are required to have in their possession a Tennessee Migratory Bird Permit (TMBP) in addition to other required Tennessee licenses and permits, with the following exceptions: landowners hunting on their own land, disabled veterans, residents of Tennessee who are 65 or older, Lifetime Sportsman License holders, and residents of Tennessee under 13 years of age. Military personnel on leave or furlough will be required to possess the TMBP when hunting migratory birds even though they are not required to possess a hunting and fishing license.
The TWRA said everyone who hunts on a WMA is required to have a WMA permit except the holder of a Lifetime Sportsman License, Annual Sportsman License, Annual Senior Citizen Permit (Type 167), and youths under age 16 hunting small game and waterfowl. However, there are some WMAs that do not require a WMA permit. Youth hunters must be accompanied by an adult with a valid WMA permit.
The agency also said the mourning dove is the most hunted and the most harvested migratory game bird in North America. There are about 450 million birds in the continental population. The overall harvest in the U.S. is 45 million birds. In Tennessee, some 100,000 dove hunters harvest an estimated 2 million or more doves annually.
The key regulation on dove hunting, as most veteran hunters know, concerns baiting: No persons shall take migratory game birds by the aid of baiting, or on or over any baited area. Baiting means the placing, exposing, depositing, distributing or scattering of shelled, shucked or unshucked corn, wheat or other grain, salt or other feed so as to constitute for such birds a lure, attraction or enticement to, on, or over any areas where hunters are attempting to take them.
The TWRA notes good dove hunting is frequently found where grain and other feed is distributed in the ordinary course of farming activities. Federal hunting regulations recognize this fact. Doves may be legally hunted where grain, salt or other feed is found scattered solely as the result of normal agricultural planting or harvesting and distributed or scattered as the result of bona fide agricultural operations or procedures. Additionally, doves may be hunted over crops or other feed raised for wildlife management purposes and manipulated in the field where grown.
Normal agricultural planting or harvesting includes many factors, such as time of year, rates of application, methods, seed source and equipment efficiency. Questions about what constitutes normal agricultural planting or harvesting practices should be addressed to the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service.
The harvest of such grain crops as corn, wheat, milo, sorghum, millet, sunflower, buckwheat and others may attract doves. During the harvest, seeds may fall to the ground and become available to wildlife. Hunting over normally harvested fields is legal. However, a field would be considered baited for doves if harvested grain is redistributed on the field after harvesting.
Crops such as browntop millet, sunflowers, corn, grain sorghum, wheat or other small grains can be grown for wildlife management purposes and the mature pla
nts can then be manipulated to improve dove hunting. This manipulation can include mowing, dragging down and disking and does not have to be related to any type of agricultural process. However, no distribution of additional grain or redistribution of grain once removed from the field may occur. Planting a grain field in the previous fall or spring and manipulating it before the dove season is the most reliable way to attract doves over a longer period, and is also the safest way to avoid any question of baiting or intent to bait doves.
While federal law allows the growing of a grain crop to be manipulated specifically for the purpose of attracting doves for hunting, the sowing of any grains immediately before or during the hunting season for the purpose of attracting doves is considered baiting and is illegal to hunt doves over. It is legal to plant winter grains in the fall to mature and be manipulated for dove hunting the following year's hunting season.
Find more about Tennessee fishing and hunting at: TennesseeSportsmanMag.com