Tennessee's Best Public-Land Dove Hunting

Tennessee's Best Public-Land Dove Hunting

Dozens of fields in all parts of the Volunteer State provide great public opportunities for excellent dove hunting.

By Jeff Samsel

Kinship builds quickly around dove fields as hunters collectively stare into the early-autumn sky. They call birds for one another, help each other spot doves that have fallen in the woods or high grass and chide one another (and themselves) about errant shots.

Dove shoots are social affairs, even on public fields where most hunters have never met one another, and working together toward limits of birds is part of the fun.

On the first Saturday of September, when dove season begins at noon, dove-shooting bonds truly extend beyond individual field boundaries. Shooters across the state gather around agricultural fields on opening day, and all are unified in their pursuit.

Many dove shooters gather with family members and friends year after year and combine a big barbecue with an afternoon of shooting around the same field they have hunted for many years. Others hunt wildlife management area (WMA) fields that have been managed for several months largely for that day. Still others hunt farmers' fields where they have gained permission to hunt around just that day or that have been opened to public shooting opportunities.

Some hunters spend days shooting doves throughout the three-part season, which typically includes 60 open days and extends from early September through early January. Many hunt only the first few weekends of the season, however, and quite a few of those get out only on opening day. More so than any other type of hunting in Tennessee, dove hunting is an event.

Last season, 118,000 Tennessee dove hunters made 609,000 trips and killed approximately 3 million doves, based on estimations given by Tim White, small-game coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). That comes to slightly more than five trips per hunter and an average harvest of slightly less than five birds per trip.

A set of warm-weather hunting clothes and a canine friend to do some legwork are helpful on early-season dove fields. Photo by John Trout Jr

White did not have any estimates available on the number of doves that travel through or reside in Tennessee or on trends in the numbers of birds that pass through each fall. He did note, however, that the total number of doves available throughout the South seems to have been generally declining in recent years.

Despite the importance of mourning doves as migratory game birds, wildlife managers in Tennessee and elsewhere have relatively little information from which to guide harvest-management decisions. Information on dove survival and harvest rates, which they have little of, is critical to understanding the effects of harvest on populations and therefore to making the best decisions regarding seasons and limits.

This summer, Tennessee, along with 25 other states, began participation in a nationwide dove-banding study. The three-year study is aimed to determine mourning dove harvest rates, estimate annual survival, provide information on geographical distributions of the harvest and develop and refine techniques for a future dove-banding program.

Banding is one of the most important tools that biologists use to obtain that kind of information. Birds are marked with metal leg bands containing a unique number for hunters to report. From reports, biologists learn the location and date of harvest of each bird, which can be used to estimate survival rates, harvest rates and distribution of the harvest.

During the three-year study period, more than 85,000 doves will be banded in the 26 participating states. Biologists use wire ground traps baited with grain or sunflower to trap doves, usually in agricultural fields or over bare-earth or gravel areas. They remove doves from the traps, determine the birds' ages and sex and then affix a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band on one leg of each bird. The bands are all inscribed with unique numbers and the toll-free number, (800) 327-BAND (2263).

That's where dove hunters fit in. For the study to be successful, hunters must report any banded doves they kill, which only requires calling the toll-free number and reporting the number, along with when and where the bird was killed. Operators are on duty 24 hours a day during hunting season and during business hours outside the season. In addition, bands can be reported online by logging onto www.pwrc.usgs.gov, clicking on "Bird Banding Lab" and entering basic band information. Hunters get to keep the band and will get a certificate that identifies the age, sex, date and location of the bird when it was banded.

When most hunters think about dove shoots, they think first of private-land options, whether by invitation to a big private "shoot" or simply by a landowner's permission to hunt a particular field. Casual permission to hunt doves is much less readily attained these days than it once was, however, and a hunter just about needs to "know someone" to get in on private-land dove hunting.

What many hunters don't realize is that public dove hunting opportunities are quite extensive in Tennessee and that those opportunities have been expanding over the past few years. Between WMA fields and farmers' fields leased by the TWRA for public dove shoots, more than 60 fields were open for public dove hunting last season, according to White.

Most familiar to Tennessee hunters are WMA opportunities, which range from set-date hunts with staked shooting positions and drawings for spots to fields that remain open throughout the dove season. Drawings and staked positions exist only at fields that tend to get extensive pressure.

Last season, dove-hunting opportunities existed on 36 different WMAs. That total was actually lower than normal, however. Several fields couldn't be opened last year because of heavy flooding that occurred during early fall, White explained. Normally, at least 40 WMAs have one or more fields set up for dove hunting.

Dove fields, many of which cover 20 or 30 acres and some of which are as big as 100 acres, are intensively managed, almost without exception. Specific management strategies and crops planted vary quite a bit from one WMA to the next, but most have plenty of food available for doves on opening day.

"These fields are heavily managed," said Doug Markham, TWRA public information officer for Region II. "That doesn't mean there will be birds, but the fields are always ready for them."

Sunflowers, wheat, corn, millet, soybeans and milo are among the crops planted in WMA dove f

ields. Sometimes crops are cut or burned or both. Most WMA fields are managed expressly for doves and by TWRA land managers. A few are actually farmed through sharecropping.

Because the bulk of the WMA fields are open throughout regular dove seasons, they get at least some pressure on a daily basis early in the season. The doves typically get wise pretty quickly with daily shooting going on, rendering some fields that offer spectacular shooting on opening day largely devoid of birds on most other days during the first split.

New birds do fly in and out, and good shooting can be enjoyed throughout the season. However, opening day is by far the best day to hunt many WMAs. Those areas that are open only on select dates are more likely to offer good shooting on several of those days.

In terms of top WMA dove fields, White said that the most productive fields truly are different every year. "It varies so much that it's really hard to pick," he said. "There are just so many variables that have an impact on how many doves use a field."

Weather patterns throughout spring and summer have an obvious effect on plantings and where doves are in their migratory routes on opening day and can affect whether area managers are able to conduct burns or carry out other plans. In addition, opening-day weather across the state affects how the birds fly.

"Small weather fronts in late August and early September, which don't seem like anything to us, make a huge difference in where the birds end up," White said.

Management schemes on individual WMAs, which can vary from season to season, also impact numbers of birds, as can various happenings on surrounding lands. Grain harvested at just the wrong time or a change in what has been planted on lands near a WMA can pull a lot of birds from even a very well-managed field.

Markham did point to a couple of areas that typically provide good shooting opportunities, largely due to the size of their fields. Yanahli and AECD WMAs, each of which has two dove fields, are traditional favorite opening-day destinations for many Middle Tennessee dove hunters, he said.

Yanahli, formally known as Duck River WMA, has a 10-acre field, which was planted in wheat last year, and a 55-acre field, which was planted with corn, wheat and sunflowers. AEDC WMA has a 100-acre field and a 25-acre field. Both were prepared with cut sunflowers, millet, buckwheat and wheat last season.

Dove hunting is unpredictable through the second and third splits of the season, especially on those public lands that are open throughout those seasons. Some migratory birds always come though, and hunters who are there at the right time can enjoy good shooting, sometimes with little company. The first day of each of the other two splits does offer a second and third opening day of sorts, when birds have not been shot at in a while, but on these days offerings are typically only a shadow of those on the real opening day.

Mornings and evenings naturally are best, and cloudy days can be good after it has been sunny for several days. On opening day, the season always opens at noon. It's an all-day affair through the first day of the season, however, and first-of-the-morning shooting can be very good.

Because fields aren't bounded by hunters to keep the birds moving through much of the season on many areas and because dove numbers tend to be notably lower, hunters need to pay close attention to how any birds fly and be prepared to move if any patterns become clear. Subtle changes in field position can afford hunters far better shots when birds are flying specific routes fairly often, which they sometimes will do based on the wind direction, field configuration or placement of trees.

Additionally, dove hunters need to be more careful about the color of their clothes, their setups relative to concealing cover and the amount they move this time of year than they would on earlier in the season. Fewer birds flying means fewer opportunities, and most birds are far more cautious late in the season, having been shot at before.

In addition to managing WMA fields for dove hunting, the TWRA leases fields all over the state from farmers for public dove shoots on selected days. This program has been in place for many years, but a few years ago the agency really kicked up efforts and began putting quite a bit of funding behind it. Last season, 42 fields were leased specifically for public dove hunts at an expense of $69,000.

"Over the past few years in Tennessee, we have really increased efforts to make available land for public dove hunting," Markham said. "Through the lease program, we have more than doubled the number of fields open for public hunting."

Last season, 4,800 hunters used TWRA-leased dove fields on opening day, up from 4,700 the previous year and only 1,500 the year before that. At the same time, hunter success rates have gone up for each of the last three years on leased fields, White pointed out. Last season's daily average on the leased fields was 3.6 birds per hunter.

In addition to putting more money behind the leased-field programs, the TWRA has begun looking for fields and talking to farmers much earlier in the year, Markham noted. "Most of this used to go on right before the season. Recently, we've begun looking for fields early in the summer or even in the spring," Markham said.

The early start has allowed for more fields to be secured. In addition, it has allowed for better management of the fields on farmers' parts and has allowed TWRA to get the word out about hunt dates and locations more effectively.

Leased field locations and dates of shoots are publicized through local media as information becomes available. In addition, the TWRA maintains comprehensive coverage of public dove-hunting opportunities from late summer through the end of the season on its Web site.

"The Web site is really the best place for someone to go to find out about opportunities in any given area," Markham said.

Most leased fields are open on one to five "priority dates," which typically include opening day and at least one other weekend within the next couple of weeks. The dates or weekends for any given field are sufficiently well spaced so that shooting prospects remain good for each hunt.

Some leased fields are specifically managed for doves, with the lease-field program in mind. Most are simply farmed in a way that happens to be conducive to attracting doves. The TWRA does not actively assist in managing. They just seek out suitable fields, pay to open those fields to public use on select dates and promote the opportunities so that hunters can get in on the shooting action.

The TWRA is careful to select fields that are likely to offer good shooting prospects. The fields themselves, which are different from season to season, range from 15 or 20 acres to quite large. Last season, the TWRA had leases on several fields of more than 100 acres, providing an abundance of public hunting opportun


When this issue went to press, there was no way to forecast how many fields would be available or where they would be located. However, with the TWRA's commitment to expanding opportunities statewide and the great success of the leased-field program over the past few years, it's fair to anticipate this season's offerings being at least comparable to those from last season.

With so many WMA dove fields and leased fields available, finding a place to go on opening day shouldn't be difficult for any Tennessee hunter. As for hitting doves when they race overhead, well . . .

In addition to a regular hunting license, all dove hunters must have a free Hunter Information Program (HIP) card. For WMA dove fields, a WMA/Small-Game Permit is also required.

The daily limit is 15 birds, with no limit on collared doves. Doves that cannot be readily identified as collared doves are considered as mourning doves and count toward the daily limit.

Dove seasons had not been set when this issue went to press. For season dates, WMA dove field listings, complete hunting regulations and information about public dove-shooting opportunities on leased farmlands, check out the TWRA's Web site at www.tnwildlife.org.

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