Note: This article is featured in the September issue of Game & Fish Magazine, now on sale at newsstands. Click to subscribe.
Every September, like clockwork, waves of hunters take to grain fields across the country to participate in one of hunting’s most cherished and highly anticipated traditions: the dove opener. Occurring the first week of the month in most states, opening day is an unofficial kickoff to fall hunting seasons. It is hunting’s opening bell, lighting of the torch and first pitch all wrapped into one.
Just as folks often get together to watch their favorite football team’s first game, the dove opener is usually a communal event, shared among friends, family, neighbors and even strangers. It’s truly one of the most unique celebrations, and pursuits, in all of hunting—and something every hunter should experience at least once.
Dove hunting is usually a relatively local affair. However, prime destinations do draw non-resident hunters willing to travel for fast action. This past September, I was one of them. As part of a “cast and blast” event hosted by Academy Sports and Outdoors, I had the opportunity to experience the opener in perhaps one of the best dove-hunting areas in the United States: El Campo, Tex.
Sitting some 50-odd miles from the warm, churning waters of the Gulf of Mexico and roughly an hour southwest of Houston, El Campo is a small, relatively rural town with a population of a bit more than 11,000. Every September, however, the resident population is bolstered by countless hordes of white-winged doves on their way back to wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.
These birds—larger, heavier and higher-flying than their well-known relative the mourning dove—bear distinctive white-edged wings and are limited in their distribution to far southern reaches of the U.S., though that range has been expanding in recent years. Both large resident and migrating populations exist in the southern third of Texas. This makes El Campo a perfect venue to get after “white-wings” as the south Texas summer begins slowly lapsing into fall.
After spending the morning of Sept. 1 inside one of Academy’s Houston-area stores learning about its new outdoor products and then grabbing some grub at Torchy’s Tacos (another Texas staple), a group of outdoor writers and I traveled to El Campo. It wasn’t long after rolling into, and then quickly back out of, town that we reached an open, grassy field filled with a large fleet of beefy SUVs and lifted pickup trucks. Hunters congregated around their vehicles, shooting the breeze in anticipation of the afternoon flight.
Clearly, we had arrived. A couple hundred yards beyond our hastily assembled Texan armada was the dove field we’d be hunting, a large expanse of cut and uncut corn strategically arranged in wide firing lanes.
As we piled out of our own SUV to join those who’d already arrived, I took stock of our total number, which I appraised to be well beyond 50 hunters. In our camo garb and loading up with boxes of shells, we looked less like a small party of dove hunters and more like a local militia set to defend home and hearth from a legion of winged invaders. I recall thinking to myself at the time, Wow. It’s about to be a really bad day to be a dove in El Campo.
In fact, being a dove anywhere in Texas during the fall is generally a bad thing. In the course of the 2018 season, the latest that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has harvest data for as of this writing, hunters in Texas accounted for an estimated 1,481,200 white-winged doves, a staggering 88 percent of the total U.S. harvest of that species. Mourning doves didn’t have it easy, either. In 2018, nearly 3 million were harvested in the Lone Star State, roughly 28 percent of all those taken across the country. And an estimated 329,600 hunters in Texas spent a combined estimated 928,100 days afield chasing doves.
All this is to say, dove hunting is kind of a big deal in Texas. And I was eager to see what all the excitement was about. After loading up with shells and shotguns provided by Academy, we set up in the field, appropriately spaced out from one another atop buckets, and waited. Although it was a bit slow initially, we weren’t waiting long.
Fast, Furious Feathers
The early afternoon hours in the corn were oppressively hot as the South Texas sun and late-summer humidity threatened to sap our energy. But then, inevitably, as the afternoon pressed on and the harsh, bright sun lowered toward the horizon and softened, things began quickly picking up. The occasional dove passing overhead and lone distant shot became small groups of birds followed by short salvos.
A passing white-winged dove seemed to be taking a completely different line and then suddenly veered my direction. I attempted a passing shot and missed, and then missed even worse on a desperate second shot. Another bird, another miss. And then another.
I started planning future trips to the skeet range in my head.
Then a short while later I connected on a high, rising shot and watched a bird fall behind me. My face, I imagine, was the picture of relief. After the ice was broken, I knocked down a few more and, of course, missed on many others. In truth, I was starting to feel the heat a little bit after moving around to collect downed birds. The action was still intermittent but had become more and more consistent as the afternoon wore on.
Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, it happened. The flood gates opened. Doves started pouring into the fields.
What followed was nonstop action, a frenzied routine of loading, shooting and retrieving that continued—more or less unabated—for a couple hours until afternoon gave way to twilight. In a sea of winged targets, choosing the easiest bird to shoot at became the name of the game, and gradually the fields began to clear of people as hunters started reaching their bag limits.
I had seen these types of hunts unfold on TV screens in places such as Argentina, but to experience it firsthand in South Texas was something entirely different. And as the flights into the field gradually slowed, I walked out toward the vehicles grateful to have taken part.
A Finish with Flair
No dove opener is complete without some post-hunt chow, and our hosts in Texas didn’t disappoint. A smoker had been deployed back at our base of dove operations, and pulled pork and brisket, as well as cold drinks, were waiting for us on our return. Hunters sat in lawn chairs or on the same buckets they hunted from, or stood paper plate in hand devouring the food that had been prepared.
It was a perfectly satisfying end to an exceptional afternoon of dove hunting. I’d been part of an annual tradition stretching back more than 100 years, and I’d be coming home with plenty of meat to make dove poppers.
If you’ve never had a chance to dove hunt or participate in the opener, I highly recommend it. It’s a fun time and a perfect preamble to the fall seasons to come. And if you can do it anywhere in the country, you could hardly do better than the dove fields of South Texas.
Dove Droppers: These shotguns proved deadly
In South Texas, I had the opportunity to use two shotguns: the 12-gauge ATA Arms NEO semi-auto and the 20-gauge Yildiz SPZ ME over-under.
As a duck hunter, I’m a big fan of the simplicity and ease of use of inertia-operated shotguns, and the NEO ($449.99) didn’t disappoint while dove hunting. It ate and spat out every shell I fed it without issue, and it felt pretty easy in the hands. At less than 7 pounds, it’s fairly light as well. And being available in Realtree’s Max-5 camo means it’s ready to go come waterfowl season, too.
The Yildiz SPZ ME was a fine gun that sported a beautiful walnut stock, a “white” 7075 alloy receiver and a 4140 steel barrel, along with a Schnabel-style fore-end. The Texas model we used in El Campo came with elegant, hand-engraved Texas-themed scenes, and it swung and shot like a dream. However, the SPZ ME was recently discontinued in favor of Yildiz’s new-for-2020 Legacy HP 20-gauge ($479.99), which includes added features such as a 5- to 6-pound single-selective trigger, fiber-optic front sight and mid-bead. It also wears an even nicer Grade II Turkish walnut stock. The Legacy HP and NEO are both available from Academy Sports and Outdoors (academy.com).