August 23, 2023
For passionate wingshooters, there's no better time on the hunting calendar than late summer when dove seasons open. While some hunters yearn for late-season upland hunts or waves of ducks and geese arriving ahead of a cold front, dove aficionados know their best action comes early in the season, before the birds experience even a hint of cold weather and head south.
However, getting on a good dove shoot takes some scouting legwork. Dove hunters must find where the birds are and where they want to be. Spend enough time in trucks and behind a pair of binoculars, and you'll notice there are three core habitat features that can dramatically up your odds for a phenomenal dove hunt. Here, we'll discuss each of these and how to make the most of the dove opener.
THE MAGICAL TRIFECTA
"In order to hunt doves, you need three things," says longtime dove hunter and guide Chuck Ellingson of Watson Hunting Camp (watsonhunting.com) in Watson, Minn. "You need trees for roosting, you need to be near some water and you need a food source, like a wheat field or conservation lands with grass seeds. If you have all three, you are golden."
Ellingson says he prefers wheat fields in his area of western Minnesota. However, he notes that nearby hunters also do well in large sunflower fields.
David Heggemeier leads dove hunts at the Heggemeier Game Farm and Kennel (heggemeiergamefarmandkennel.com) in Higbee, Mo. For Heggemeier, the best hunts are on those hot days when he can get birds working through small grain fields and near water.
"Doves like big chunks of small grains," he says. "You might get a few doves in a 1- or 2-acre sunflower patch, but if you can find or plant 5 or 10 acres, you'll attract that many more birds."
Heggemeier has done well standing in corn rows near freshly cut corn silage. However, he laments the disappearance of many small-grain fields, hedge trees, groves that doves used for nesting and farmers who cut silage. This is due to the closing and/or consolidation of many dairy cattle operations. Given all the changes on the agricultural landscape, Heggemeier strongly recommends early scouting and finding whatever food sources you can. He suggests that some great areas are often found around small streams with grassy buffers, as there are usually a lot of weed seeds birds can feed on in these spots.
In areas without small grains, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands are a popular draw for doves. Grasses with ripe seedheads and an abundance of small insects will attract the birds. Look, too, for CRP fields with matted or barren spots where doves can rest without fear of predator ambush.
A watering hole of some sort is going to be a magnet for doves. Planted wheat, barley, oat, sunflower or millet fields near lakes, ponds and streams are hard to beat. Irrigation canals and ditches are great attractors, too, as are pivot irrigation units. Cattle dugouts and well pump stock tanks are also attractive for doves; you'll see lots of bird tracks at these sites. In a pinch, you can dig a hole in a cut grain field and inlay a rubber stock tank filled with buckets of water, which can help keep birds around when there is little other water nearby.
Roosting and loafing spots are important attractants for doves, too. Live or dead trees with branches are great, old fence lines and posts work and telephone lines serve the purpose as well. Nearby gravel roads and paved roads with gravel shoulders are bonuses as they hold grit, which doves pick up to fill their gizzards and grind down their food.
Ellingson warns that crop fields can sometimes be too big. In these cases, breaking the property up into smaller chunks with loafing spots is a good plan.
"I set up stations for our hunters," he says. "We might have small groups of hunters along a 120-acre wheat field. That's a big piece of land. We either need a lot of hunters to push the birds around or somewhere for those birds to rest. That's why we put trees in the middle of the fields. We string dove decoys out on a line. You've got to find a place for those birds to rest or they will fly on by. A single tree in the middle of a small grain field can give you great shooting all day."
Both Ellingson and Heggemeier recommend scouting out good fields or weedy and grassy spots with access to water and resting cover. They also suggest you look at the weather forecast as the season opens.
"At the end of August, I'm always hoping that the heat stays through the first or second week of September," Ellingson says. "Doves are all about weather. I've seen some doves out and about in the middle of October, but never in an amount that you can hunt. Doves love heat; that's why they migrate all the way to Mexico."
Heggemeier likes knowing the weather forecast so he can plan to hunt before a cold front or heavy rainstorm blows the doves out. He says when temps get down into the 40s at night, doves hit the road and migrate south.
Midwestern dove hunters should also pay attention to spring crop planting conditions and summer storms, and jot down locations to revisit and scout ahead of the opener. In years with poor spring planting weather, some farmers are unable to plant before the final day for planting as stated in their crop insurance plan, which triggers a prevented planting insurance provision. In those instances, fields will stay fallow during the growing season and often have spotty weed growth while they are untended and uncultivated.
Similarly, summer storms with tornados, derecho winds or heavy hail or rain can destroy entire fields of crops, triggering insurance payments. Check with state and federal conservation officers to see if storm-damaged fields are eligible for hunting. Some authorities regard these fields as "baited" for hunting, depending on crop maturity and other factors. If a field is destroyed early enough in the growing season, it will lay fallow like a prevented plant field and can become attractive to doves by late summer. Fields with patches of switchgrass, foxtail, wild millet, pigweed, panicgrass, smartweed or ragweed are also all popular seed sources for doves.
After finding locations with ideal habitat and abundant birds, your final step is lining up permission with landowners. Secure permission early, before the season arrives and a group of birds attracts the attention of other hunters. By the time birds flock up and feed ahead of the migration, they'll be visible and obvious to prospective hunters.
SET THE STAGE
Follow the above advice and, come opening day of dove season, you'll have found the best locations on private and public land, complete with nearby water, roosting and loafing areas and a good food source. Place a few decoys on a line, a strand of barbed wire or bare tree limbs to convince any passing doves to give your spot a look. Or, go all-in with a set of spinning-wing decoys. These motion decoys are incredibly effective on doves and pigeons.
Any great dove shoot starts with miles behind the wheel and ample time glassing of fields. All this preparation pays off with fast shooting action, hot barrels and, eventually, a pile of doves on the grill. There's no better way to officially kick off fall hunting seasons—and dial-in your wingshot for all the great bird hunting to come in the months ahead—than a productive late-summer dove shoot.
- Add equally tasty Eurasian collared doves to your harvest.
One of the more remarkable stories of exotic faunal invasion has been the amazing half-century pattern of expansion and increasing abundance of Eurasian collared doves. Originally escaping from a captive collection in the Bahamas, collared doves spread to Florida and have since moved across the United States. Despite their non-native status, ornithologists have said that the birds are not yet harming native bird populations but could have impacts on species like mourning doves as they become more abundant.
Chuck Ellingson's Watson Hunting Camp is located near grain elevators in Milan, Minn. He says they get tons of collared doves there, often hanging out by grain bins. These birds sometimes mix in with mourning doves, he adds, and their palatability is similar.
However, because collared doves are not native, they're an unprotected species that can be hunted and shot throughout the year in some states (check local regulations). Ellingson has been on enough dove hunts that he can distinguish between collared doves and mourning doves. He notes that the invasive birds tend to be a little larger, with longer necks that feature a distinctive black collar.
For inexperienced shooters less familiar with differentiating mourning and collared doves, Ellingson advises caution to avoid shooting beyond your limit. Many states don't count them against your daily bag limit, but check local regulations to be sure. Work on picking out collared doves in flight or look for the birds the next time you see a group of doves at a cattle yard, city park or anywhere grain is stored. You can have fantastic wingshooting for collared doves or use an airgun to pick them off as they rest on tree limbs (again, if your state allows).
The best way to distinguish mourning doves from collared doves is to look at body markings while they are at rest. Mourning doves have dark spots on their wing coverts, whereas collared doves do not. Collared doves also have that black collar on their necks. Mourning doves have sharp wingtips; a collared dove's wingtips are rounded. Mourning dove tails are long and spearhead-shaped; collared dove tails are shorter and fan-shaped. Mourning doves have teal-colored orbital rings around their eyes with dark brown eye colors; collared doves have a white orbital ring with crimson red eye color.
- This article was published in the Midwest edition of August and 2023's Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to subscribe.