A great dove field provides hunters with some of the fastest wingshooting available anywhere. Here's a look at some top dove-hunting spots in our state. (September 2008)
It's really hard to beat -- sitting along a fencerow or on the edge of the woods watching and waiting as the first doves make their way into a field to feed in September. Things start slowly at first and then build with each passing minute and flight of the winged targets.
A good dove hunt, however, isn't just hard to beat -- it's often hard to find. With fewer and fewer private options for most of us, our best opportunities come each fall with the efforts of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). The leased field and public hunts on regional wildlife management areas (WMAs) can often be as hot as any private hunt.
The public hunts might be a little lacking on the barbecue side of things, but you and your hunting buddies can always get together back at the house for that September tradition after a fine shoot elsewhere.
The only question you have to ask yourself is where you are going to hunt -- but we have some suggestions on that score for you. Read over these important hunt reminders and then onto where you might find your dove field of dreams.
For pre-season dove tips, refer to the TWRA's 2008 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.
A few of the details you'll want clarification on as far as dove hunting on WMAS include 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 nontoxic 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.
Just before opening day, the TWRA will also post the site locations and directions for public leased fields in each region on its Web site at www.tnwildlife.org.
Jim Hamlington, a small-game biologist in Region I, said the state of public dove hunting in Tennessee could be rated as stable last year. The best WMAs in his region last year have to include the Bogota WMA Youth Hunt and adult hunt. Hunters need to note that Hamlington pointed out the high water in the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers may prevent some sunflower fields from being planted this season. You need to do some pre-season scouting for sure.
As for current dove-hunting opportunities out there, he said, at this time, the TWRA will still have the fall lease dove field program, as well as hunts on WMAs. Hamlington added the TWRA in Region I in West Tennessee continues to distribute sunflower seed to landowners to plant their own fields, and that's a plus.
Because of the timing of other hunting seasons and opportunities, as well as participation, the September dove hunts continue to be the more productive ones over the October and December hunts.
Region II hunters can expect much of the same when it comes to early-season dove opportunities. Doug Markham, the Region II information officer, said the dove hunting opportunities are still very good in Middle Tennessee.
"We, along with the other regions of the state, provide numerous public fields for the early segments of the dove season," Markham said. "We will also be working again this year to gain public access to private land for specified days during the month. Hunters need to check out our Web site before opening day and take time to scout fields before they decide where they are going to hunt."
Markham went on to say all of the WMAs in Region II have the chance of having excellent days. However, he has seen a field that was red-hot one year and stone cold the next. Weather patterns will affect many hunts. Markham agreed scouting is the key to successful dove hunting.
"We do have some fields that get more crowded than others," Markham explained. "I don't know if that speaks to the success of the field as much as (the field's) proximity to hunters. However, AEDC WMA near Tullahoma and Percy Priest WMA near Nashville always have full fields."
From past experience, he added the TWRA in Region II occasionally tweaks its dove-hunting plans, but in recent years has relied on its WMAs as the primary way to provide public access to our hunters, supplemented by the TWRA's program to contract a few days of public access from private landowners.
"Hunters wouldn't really notice a difference in our management plans because most of it has had to do with contract prices," Markham said. "We do our best to make sure that those landowners have crops that appeal to doves and that the fields are active, but once again, scouting those fields just prior to the hunt is the only way to assure a successful hunt."
Also, there are a few WMAs open to public access where they don't plant crops for dove hunting. They don't offer the traditional opening day style of shoot where hunters rely on one another to move birds from one end of a field to another, but you can hunt on them, and if you are lucky, you can get in line with birds moving to roost or in a flight pattern to a nearby food source.
Markham said all of the three dove hunting months of September, October and December provide good dove-hunting opportunities, but there is nothing like September, especially the first week, and especially if you enjoy the company of others.
Marc Lipner, a wildlife biologist from Region III, said the dove outlook there is fair to good in all honesty. He added the current state of public dove hunting in the 24-county Region III is cautiously stable. You can thank continuing urban development, changing agricultural crop patterns and habitat fragmentation as being causes for concern.
However, Lipner went on to say three WMAs last year had fair to good dove hunts -- North Chickamauga Creek in Bradley County, Yuchi WMA at Smith Bend in Rhea County and Jackson Swamp in Overton County.
The better leased fields in Region III continue to be in
Marion, Meigs and Rhea counties. Lipner reminds hunters in his area to be sure to check the TWRA Web site for updated fields for both WMAs and leased public lands. He also said the September hunts are the most productive; however, the late season can be productive for small groups of hunters.
The dove situation is "status quo" in Region IV. David Brandenburg, a Region IV wildlife biologist, said dove hunting is stable and has remained essentially unchanged in recent years. That's not only the case here, but elsewhere as well. He said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2007 Mourning Dove Population Status report showed that the dove situation has been stable for the last 10 years across most of the country.
Brandenburg said he and others, including WMA managers across the state, start working on the fall dove hunts as early as April and May. They're busy preparing dove fields at WMAs and planting sunflower, wheat and millet way ahead of the game.
That early work pays off in the fall in the way of good dove shooting. Like the season prior, last year's public dove hunts were better at the Lick Creek Bottoms and Forks of the River WMAs than most. Chuck Swan and Buffalo Springs WMAs also had respectable hunts.
Nearly 1,200 doves were harvested on opening day at Lick Creek Bottoms alone. To be more precise, the South Mohawk Field at Lick Creek Bottoms saw 120 hunters harvest 1,004 birds, while 113 hunters took 156 doves at the Fox Gate Field, and an additional 27 doves were harvested at the Joachim Bible Refuge Field.
At the Forks of the River WMA, huge success was had in back-to-back seasons. Like the prior year, the 2007 dove hunts featured the addition of power poles in the field -- complete with fake power lines -- and these features continued to attract birds. The experiment was clearly still working last year: 150 hunters there on the opening day shoot harvested a total of 746 doves. Brandenburg said the TWRA is still contemplating the addition of fake power poles and power lines to other WMAs.
Brandenburg said hunters should expect few changes this fall in dove-hunting opportunities, and the agency plans to lease as many fields as possible. The one expectation he does look forward to seeing is more youth hunts on WMAs in the coming years in an effort to recruit more hunters.
Leased fields are key not only to hunter opportunity but also hunter success in Region IV. Although hunters need to check the TWRA Web site to find out which fields are going to be available this year, TWRA reports show that one of the hottest leased fields last year was the Baker Farm in Jefferson County, where 84 hunters took 801 doves on opening day. The Laymon Farm in Greene County also had a decent day, with 66 hunters taking 287 birds.
For hunters' benefits, Brandenburg said TWRA 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's last tip to hunters is that if you have property, then you can have a good dove shoot -- and it doesn't take more than a half-acre field. He said if you have seed on the ground from normal agricultural practices, you can draw doves to your spot. He said you can find more information on food plots and dove field preparation on the TWRA's Web site in the "Wildlife and Hunting" section under "Habitat Management."
DOVE REGULATION REMINDERS
Here are the major regulations on dove hunting that you need to file in your memory banks. 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 said good dove hunting is frequently found where grain and other feed is distributed in the ordinary course of farming activities. Also, 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.
The TWRA noted the Latin words "bona fide" included in the hunting regulations mean in good faith or without fraud. Normal agricultural planting or harvesting includes many factors, such as time of year, rates of application, methods, seed source and equipment efficiency
The harvest of such grain crops as corn, wheat, milo, sorghum, millet, sunflower, buckwheat and others may attract doves. During 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 plants then 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 does allow 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 during the following year's hunting season.
In addition, 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 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 reminds everyone that hunters on a WMA are 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.