The arrival of Texas' dove season is cause for celebration all across the Lone Star State, but the celebrating might be greater in some places than in others. (September 2007)
Photo by Larry Ditto.
A Texan can always count on a few things: The best barbecue in the universe is still in Llano; construction on I-45 and I-35 will never be finished; and the real first day of fall is Sept. 1.
That first day of fall begins with a flash of whistling gray wings and a blast of No. 7 1/2 shot that likely don't meet. And in Texas, they often miss one another over a field of sun-dried weeds.
So what's this September likely to bring for a Texas dove hunter?
Predicting dove-hunting prospects ahead of the season opener is almost as tricky as predicting which way that next dove is going to zig when your shotgun zags. But some trends are holding, and should be good indicators.
As with most things wild in Texas, Mother Nature still bats last when it comes to doves. A substantial part of what Lone Star State dove hunters can hope to see this month will have been predetermined by spring weather.
"The fall hunt success will depend to a large degree upon production in June and July which is dependent upon weather," said Jay Roberson, the state's dove program leader. "The cold snap we had over the Easter weekend doesn't bode well for early nesters -- not with snow and ice we've received over the northern half of the central portion of the state."
In May, most of the state was at or above normal precipitation levels. When combined with a normally dry summer with average temperatures, that happy situation usually results in good reproduction and survival of young birds.
As you may recall, just the opposite happened last year, when our most recent and most brutal drought took a toll on breeding pairs. "I believe the severe drought over the central portion of the state will be reflected in last year's harvest statistics and this spring's breeding counts," Roberson said. "I expect a 10 to 20 percent drop in both when the final numbers are posted."
Strong reproduction would be very encouraging, because Texas mourning dove populations are on a 40-year slide that still seems to defy explanation. "I would say that the population index is still declining in Texas at about a half-percent per year with about a 25 percent decline since 1966," Roberson said. "We have no new theories as to why, but we're starting to collect banding data that will allow us to determine if survival and harvest rates have changed significantly from 30 years ago.
"Therefore, it's extremely important that hunters continue to call in bands they find on doves to 1-800-327-BAND. Recent research indicates a correlation in this declining index with decreasing grain production, which may be inversely related to urban and industrial development.
"The decline is most pronounced in South Texas where significant human population growth and urban development has occurred."
Other possible contributing factors could be decreases in wheat and small grain farming, lead shot toxicity, nest failure and lack of nesting habitat, biologist David Sierra added. "I suspect it is a combination of several factors," he said, "but I feel that lack of nesting habitat may be the biggest reason."
Ever feel like every dove hunter in Texas is in the same sunflower field with you? Well, that would take a pretty big field! "We are still estimating about 325,000 hunters annually," Roberson said. "It has declined some over the last 10 years, but dove hunting is still the second most popular hunt behind deer."
So don't panic and trade the old scattergun in for a set of golf clubs just yet. As we're fond of saying, a bad day of dove hunting (or fishing or deer hunting or anything else) in Texas beats a good day almost any place else. And traditional good dove country is still good hunting country.
"The Rolling Plains, Cross Timbers and Prairies, Blackland Prairies, and South Texas Plains are still the best mourning dove production and hunting areas in the state. Brown, Coleman, Comanche, Throckmorton and Shackelford (counties) are still among the best in the north, and Medina, Atascosa, Wilson, Karnes, Live Oak, Frio, Starr, Hidalgo and La Salle are still among the best (counties) in the south," said Roberson.
That's great -- but are specific new hotspots developing? And if so, where? Has the previous year's drought made any changes in Texas dove populations?
Texas mourning doves are really of two kinds -- the local birds hatched and often harvested in the early days of the season, and the migratory birds that move through the state ahead of cool weather. These include the Midwest and Panhandle native birds that move down into Central Texas in mid-September and on into South Texas near the end of the month.
For the most part that pattern has not changed, except that migrating birds are now dodging more and more urban sprawl along the traditional I-35 migration corridor, as Dallas, Austin and San Antonio continue to spread out into farm and pasture land. Houston and Lower Rio Grande Valley developments likewise are crowding into what once were hot dove fields.
White-winged doves, which used to be the "other" Texas dove, and which few hunters saw and fewer hunters shot except in the Rio Grande Valley, are now a mainstay of dove hunting almost statewide. "Whitewings still seem to be increasing in the state," Roberson said. "They are known to be breeding and producing young in most counties of the state, with estimated annual harvest of 1.3 million."
That's a really exciting change for those of us who grew up dreaming of just once hunting the big high-flying birds!
Another looming issue that waterfowl hunters have lived with for a generation, and that might affect dove hunters: lead shot. "Concern has been expressed over the deposition of spent lead shot in the environment and its effects on other birds that might ingest it," Roberson said. "I expect more state and federal pressure to find alternate sources of shot for dove hunting."
Here's a closer look at the hunting in what should be our top dove regions this fall.
"Historically, the Rio Grande Valley (Cameron, Willacy, Starr, Hidalgo, and Zapata counties) offered some of the best hunting in South Texas, primarily due to extensive food sources and a large population of whitewing doves," said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Dan
iel Kunz, of Alice. "Although these counties still offer excellent hunting, the whitewing population has since expanded northward, and large populations can be found throughout the South Texas Brush Country. Farther north, this species has exploded in population around urban areas.
"I believe current call counts indicate that the population of white-winged doves in the San Antonio Metroplex now exceeds the population in the Rio Grande Valley. The hotspots nowadays include agricultural fields surrounding urban areas, especially those areas surrounding San Antonio, Uvalde, Hondo, Castroville, Corpus Christi, and the aforementioned counties in the Rio Grande Valley."
Some of the most incredible bird hunts of my life have taken place in the maize fields around Uvalde, where I'd take aim at the huge flocks of whitewings flooding out of the city's oak trees to feed. Maybe the best shooting I've ever had with doves was on one such hunt.
I parked my backside under a lane of what proved to be steady overhead flights, all on the same route. I was armed with an ancient Model 12 full-choke pump that we'd inherited from my father-in-law -- a gun ideal for the 40-yard-high birds. I dropped 10 straight before I realized that my morning hunt was rapidly turning into a 1-minute hunt!
"Areas to the south of San Antonio also offer excellent hunts, such as around Dilley and Pearsall," Kunz said. "The counties surrounding Corpus Christi (Nueces, Jim Wells, San Patricio and Kleberg) are also hotspots for both mourning doves and whitewings. Nueces and San Patricio counties have large amounts of cropland, and one of the primary crops produced is grain sorghum (milo), an excellent forage for doves.
"Many private ranchers also draw in doves across the Brush Country, providing irrigated food plots and water sources, so excellent hunting can also be found outside the previously mentioned areas."
Kunz agreed that the drought did change some dove movement patterns in South Texas. "The shifts in migration patterns of mourning doves are largely dependent on climatic conditions and water availability," he remarked. "For instance: Last season, fewer doves were seen along agricultural corridors along the coast. The severe drought we experienced resulted in poor milo yields in these areas, but heavy rainfall in the fall caused many forb, grass, and brush species out west to flower late and produce abundant forage. The doves seemed to shift their movements west to take advantage of this.
"I saw fewer doves than normal in Nueces and San Patricio counties, but helicopter surveys in Jim Wells and Duval counties last fall showed large numbers of birds. South Texas can get large rainfall events of tropical origin in the fall, and this can scatter the birds across the landscape."
According to district biologist Ruben Cantu, drought shouldn't be a factor in the upcoming season. "I say this because we are experiencing good rainfall," he said, "and doves are cooing really early. So I don't see the drought we had before the New Year to have an effect, at this time, for dove production."
While package hunts and day-hunting are the norm for South Texas dove shooters, there's also a good alternative on state-leased land. "TPWD currently has a public hunting program that leases lands from private landowners for use by the general public," Kunz said. "We have several quality leases in South Texas." For more information, visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/hunt/public.
"The best counties in my district for dove hunting are typically those Blackland Prairie counties that are still farming wheat and milo, or have allowed sunflowers to grow in fallow fields," said biologist David Sierra. "These counties include southern Grayson, southern Fannin, southern Lamar, Collin, Hunt, Delta, Rockwall, Ellis and Navarro. Of these counties, I think Delta, Hunt, Rockwall and Collin are the hotspots and there are quite a few TPWD-leased public dove-hunting fields located in those counties."
Despite explosive urban growth in the region, Sierra said, doves seem to be sticking to traditional migration routes. "I don't think there have been any shifts in mourning dove migrations through the district," he suggested. "They still typically arrive ahead of a strong cold front and follow the usual flyways.
"Whitewings have moved north along what I would call the I-35 corridor. They have made it up through the Dallas area and somewhat eastward, but are still not found in large numbers in most areas. Hunters have taken a few in the more southern counties such as Milam and Falls."
This region has been hit hard by last year's drought, especially with respect to dove reproduction. "The drought has limited the nesting success of the local populations somewhat," stated Sierra. "While this was not a large effect last year, it should be remembered that around 60 percent of the harvest in Texas is from local birds, and so climate has the potential to have a large effect. Of course, this does not apply to the migratory populations that come through later, when conditions are better."
Back in the glorious days that saw me hunt the Texas Panhandle nine months of the year -- from September through May -- for everything from doves to spring turkeys, we used to enjoy some barrel-melting-hot opening-day dove shoots -- around waterholes in particular. Unfortunately, the whole dove season usually lasted only until the first hard cold front blew through, which might come Sept. 2!
Although a flood of "Kansas doves" flows into the Panhandle in October and November, the season closes at Halloween. Often we'd often see more doves during quail hunts than we did in September. That said, those willing to do a little scouting in this wide-open country and to drop everything to go hunting when a new wave of birds moves in can enjoy some great action until the last day of the season.
The same applies to the Rolling Plains mesquite country, especially south of the Caprock in North-central Texas. Cold and rain push tons of doves out of the Panhandle and below the Caprock, but the birds often slow down and settle in as soon as the weather does. You can find many fields consistently holding doves through October as you move south from the Rolling Plains into the Hill Country.
My idea of the dream dove season (which I have yet to accomplish) is to open the season in Hemphill or Wheeler County, on the Oklahoma border and then follow the birds steadily south through the month, arriving in Uvalde in time for the South Zone opener and finishing the month on the Rio Grande. Only time and the realization that I'd have to carry a tractor-trailer full of shotgun shells with me have kept that dream from happening!
You hear a lot of Texas hunters, or former hunters, complaining about not having an affordable place to hunt. And while some types of hunting, such as that for trophy white-tailed deer and bobwhite quail, remain costly, dove hunting is still the biggest bargain in public hunting within the Lone Star State.
Throughout the state, good day-hunting operations charge $50 or less per day. That might not sound cheap -- but price dinner and a movie, or a round of golf, and compare! Call any small-town chamber of commerce in the top dove counties and you should find a ready list of landowners hosting bird hunters. Dollars spent by dove hunters are a welcome early-fall boost to local economies.
The TPWD has aggressively and successfully leased hundreds of tracts of pretty fair dove country from the Rolling Plains to South Texas for public hunting. For one small annual fee, dove hunters can hunt Texas practically border to border.
For a complete list of public hunting guidelines and a map of public hunting areas, go to the www.tpwd. state.tx.us/huntwild/hunt/public/lands/dove_hunting_areas, or contact any TPWD office.