Best-Bets Public-Land Dove Hunting

Best-Bets Public-Land Dove Hunting

It's almost opening day, so stock up on shells, get your favorite shotgun ready and check out some of the best public-land dove hunts near you. (September 2009)

What is it that makes the opening day of dove season so important in this part of the world? Sure, it's usually something of a social event, but that does not explain why normally sane sportsmen would rather miss a family reunion or a championship football game than fail to be on the firing line come Sept. 1.

If you think that I exaggerate, consider the time when a new editor showed up at Game & Fish, fresh from a Yankee state with no dove-hunting legacy. Shortly after his arrival, he announced plans to wed and that he and his bride had set the date: Sept. 1. Guess how many friends and co-workers were there to witness the happy event. Yep: not a one. We had all gone hunting.

Happily for those of us who enjoy the sport so much, the TWRA makes a substantial effort to provide places to dove hunt both on wildlife management areas and through the leasing of private lands where farmers can make some extra bucks by allowing hunters to take advantage of the birds drawn to croplands. In case you wonder about the availability of the former, I made a quick count in the Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide and noted 33 WMAs here in Region I where I live. As for the latter, the agency spends in the neighborhood of $70,000 most years to provide quality fields that are open to the public.

Despite the importance of this resource and the amount of effort that goes into making it not only viable but also easily accessible, predicting where the doves will be when the opener arrives is tricky. Sportsmen should be aware that doves are, in the real sense of the word, very flighty.

On more than one occasion, I have made serious plans to take my position near a field that was crawling with feeding birds a couple of days before the season only to have a cold front blow through. It does not take a big drop in temperature; even one of 10 degrees if accompanied by rain or showers can be enough to send the birds southward, or at least elsewhere. This makes for spotty shooting at least until doves from north of us filter in and set up housekeeping.

While on the subject of dove mobility, it can actually work in the hunter's favor if you bear in mind that September is not the only time to pursue them. The second season, which opens in October, can be very good even though it is largely ignored. Our third season, which runs from mid-December until the first of January, is often the best of all if you really like sporty shooting. The doves at the end of the season are big, fully flighted adult birds and they regularly come in waves over large harvested fields. You will need a tighter choke on these "doves in high places" and shells along the lines of a handicap trap load, but if you have never gunned last-minute mourning doves, then you have missed some of the finest wingshooting that North America has to offer.

Since opening day is on everyone's mind right now, though, let us look at what you need to be legal as a hunter. First is the appropriate small-game license, and then you are required to possess a Hunter Information Program (HIP) card. For WMA hunts, you are also required to have a WMA/Small Game permit.

The daily limit is expected to be 15 mourning doves again this year (check to be sure) and there is no limit on the collared doves since they are "foreigners" that do not have game bird status.

For those of you who have not seen a collared dove up close, you will have no trouble making the proper identification. They resemble a mourning dove on steroids, substantially larger than our local birds, and they have a distinctive dark ring or collar around their throats. Take advantage of them when you get the chance because they cook up just as nicely as their smaller cousins.

Collared doves also have a distinctive, three-note calling sequence. When doing your early scouting, make sure and listen closely to any birds cooing in the trees. You'll have no trouble picking out the different sound.

Many of the best WMAs for dove shooting are heavily managed for waterfowl. Some years that is great, but when spring floods or other weather factors hamper planting efforts, you could wind up needing a backup plan. Never get locked into going out on that first shoot without knowing what the conditions are. Also, where waterfowl management is a major element, you will probably need to shoot only non-toxic shot. For a complete rundown of rules and regulations, you can check the new Hunting & Trapping Guide or go to and find all of the details there.

Region I

Jim Hamlington of TWRA's Jackson office said that the degree of success regarding dove hunts on WMAs in West Tennessee is often dictated by spring weather.

"An unusually wet spring that brings flooding that stays into the planting season means potential trouble," he commented. "We have nine managed areas that are on or influenced by the Mississippi River. Barkley, Big Sandy, Camden, Harmon Creek and others feel the impact of high water on the Tennessee or Cumberland rivers. About the only thing that can be counted upon is that there will be some types of grain crops available unless Mother Nature really goes haywire. If the high water stays too long for crops like corn, soybeans, sunflowers and such, then we may have to rely on a faster-maturing grain such as millet. Hunters should be confident that there will be food for the doves, and the numbers of birds have not fluctuated much on any of the WMAs in recent years.

"Although all of the details for the coming season have not been worked out, the TWRA is planning to have at least two Youth Dove Hunts and they will be on Bogota and Tully."

He also points out that the opening of WMA dove hunts will be on Sept. 5 and not on Sept. 1. The purpose of WMA hunting is to offer the most opportunity to the most hunters, he said, so the TWRA will have a Saturday opener.

"On Bogota and Tully that means that the kids get to shoot on Saturday and everyone else has to wait a day there," he said.

When asked to pick other locations with good track records, he laughed, commented about not having a crystal ball, then allowed that Camden, Big Sandy and Wolf River have been consistent producers, and he couldn't see any reason that this year should not be as good as any.

Region II

Doug Markham, information officer with TWRA's Region II office, said that the dove population had been steady in Middle Tennessee for the past few seasons and barring some unforeseen disaster should remain so at least through the upcoming year.

"We're stable overall with an abundance of doves, but

how well hunters do overall hinges on how many of the birds show up, and that is tied very closely to the weather and available crops for them to feed on," Markham said. "We lease private fields in addition to our WMAs.

Sometimes they are really good and sometimes not so good. Last year, we had drought situations to deal with here in the region. In some cases, that meant fewer doves, and in others, it meant that grain that wasn't worth harvesting went to the birds. You never really know which way it will go. Leased fields generally produce some of the hottest spots while we can't be sure that they will be available or productive on an annual basis."

The TWRA also waits until the last minute to lease the fields to make sure that good places are accessible. The leased fields are listed along with all WMAs on the TWRA Web site. There is a dove page with a map broken down by regions (I, II, III and IV) at If you have trouble finding the information, type "dove hunting" in the site's search box.

"WMAs where we have hunts -- and usually good ones -- include: Yanahli, Williamsport, AEDC, Percy Priest, Cheatham Lake WMA, Laurel Hill and Old Hickory. All of these have good track records. You can check details on the Web site for size of fields and find out what has been planted there whether it is wheat, corn, milo, millet, etc. One reason that the WMA hunts usually produce good numbers of birds and quality shooting is that the managers and technicians assigned to the areas spend a lot of time picking the right crops, then preparing them properly. Be sure and check out the WMA specifics. Some are first come, first served, while a few require a hunter's presence for a drawing to determine shooting location."

Markham added that since the Region II birds are not checked in, the total harvest numbers are not available, although at present, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is requiring a number of birds to be banded each summer, and the data will be tabulated at the end of the upcoming season.

Region III

The Cumberland Plateau area still has viable dove shooting, according to TWRA biologist March Lipner. The bird population remains mostly stable, but the number of people and their imprint is something quite different. Land development is a cause for concern, especially as it causes habitat to fragment or disappear entirely.

Most of the 25 WMAs that offer anything other than specialized hunting are open to the dove hunter, but sportsmen should check with their preferred management area within a week or two before the first day of hunting. Predictions of bird densities before that are extremely difficult to make, although there will be food plots in place that the birds will be using. In this area, hunter information is critical for a successful hunt.

Leased fields that usually offer good shooting should be available in Marion Meigs and Rhea counties at least. It is always good advice to check the TWRA Web site, but you might learn as much locally, and much closer to "real time" by checking with local sporting goods stores where hunters are prone to hang out and stock up on ammo. Word of mouth remains one of the best resources for the sportsman, and unlike the location of a big buck or gobbler, or where you are sure to find grouse, folks don't seem to mind talking about fields with plenty of doves to go around.

One of the best, and least used, sources of information is the county's TWRA officer. Still another is the Information and Education specialist at the TWRA regional office. These officers may only be a day or so ahead of the Web site information, but on the Plateau that can make a lot of difference.

Region IV

The eastern quarter of the Volunteer State did have hard numbers for last year's WMA and leased field hunts. According to biologist David Brandenburg, these numbers are fine as far as they go, but can be misleading.

"The charts and graphs break down the harvest that we see and check but do not take into account several factors. How well did the hunters shoot? Did some cool or wet weather blow through that kept the doves from moving as freely as they would have otherwise? There are a lot of 'if's' attached to dove shooting.

"What we can project is this. The dove population here has been stable for 10 years and is expected to remain so. Lick Creek Bottoms, Forks of the River, Chuck Swan and Buffalo Springs have been consistently good. Fields there and elsewhere can range from 20 to 100 acres, and even the smaller food plots intended mainly for other game can give up some good, although spotty, shooting. Depending on the specific situation, you may find sunflowers, wheat, corn, millet, soybeans, milo or buckwheat planted. Location and weather dictate the selection."

Hunters in Region IV, like those in some other locations, should be aware that the fields leased by the TWRA will probably have a specified opening day rather than being tied to the Sept. 1 traditional statewide opener. For instance, the first available shooting date may be set for a Saturday, since this allows more hunter participation, and that is the reason for leasing the fields anyway. Normally, there is an opener, then at least one more weekend available on leased properties.

The numbers compiled last year showed that Lick Creek South Mohawk fields led WMAs with an average of 7.8 birds per hunter, with Tellico Lake and Forks of the River (special opener) following closely behind with roughly six birds per hunter being harvested on the first day of shooting. South Mohawk remained strong on two following dates, which included a youth hunt and TWRA Hunter Education Graduates Hunt.

Results on leased properties fluctuated widely but did show lower per-hunter averages than WMA hunts, a finding that surprised some people. Given the vagaries of dove hunting this could flip-flop in 2009.

"Right now, we're hoping to maintain the status quo," Brandenburg said. "If I were going to wish for any changes, it would simply be for more youth hunts. It's good for the kids to be able to shoot without the pressure and distractions that come on open shoots. We'll see if that happens."

Whatever happens and in whatever region, the countdown has begun toward the first day of dove season. Get your gun ready, and you might want to lay in another box or two of ammunition.

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