August 09, 2022
Of the four sunflower fields on the wildlife management area, three grew bumper crops that year. The fourth field, which was also the longest walk in, failed completely. That's where I headed opening morning.
The other fields held swarms of doves. I'd seen them when I scouted earlier in the week, and I had seen other hunters checking them out, too. A few doves flushed out of the chopped weed stalks when I checked the fourth field one midday, but I reasoned that a few doves—and fewer hunters—beats fighting the crowds on opening day.
There was one person in the field when I got there opening morning, and he quit early to go to work. I had the field to myself and a steady trickle of doves floating in toward my spinning-wing decoy. Better yet, I had unwittingly picked the spot where the DNR live-trapped doves before the season. I left the field with a limit and two tiny bands.
The bands were a lucky bonus, but that hunt went well because I was prepared. My gun and ammo worked, I shot straight and my plan factored in where the doves and the dove hunters would be. Whether it’s dove season or Christmas, anything worth looking forward to is worth preparing for. Here's what you need to do to have a great September of bird hunting.
Preparation starts with your gun. If you didn't clean it before you put away last winter, clean it now so it functions on the opener. Remember that less is more when it comes to oil, and be sure to remove choke tubes and clean and grease the threads. Chances are good a warden will check you if you hunt public land on the opening day. Ensure your gun is plugged to hold only two shells in the magazine.
Patterning your gun lets you test its function while checking that your ammunition is up to the job. You can make patterning as complicated or as simple as you’d like. It's enough to shoot at a 3-foot-by-3-foot sheet of paper, then draw a 30-inch circle with the heaviest concentration of pellets in the center, from the distance at which you will typically shoot your doves. There should be at least 200 hits spread throughout the circle to provide adequate pellet density. Shoot at least three shots with each choke/load/range combination you want to test.
Having knocked the rust off your gun, now you need to knock the rust off yourself. You do this, of course, by shooting.
Any clay target practice helps, but skeet is my favorite for dove practice. It presents almost every shot you'll encounter on the dove field, especially the crossers so many people struggle to hit. If you can get to a skeet field even a couple of times and shoot three or four boxes of shells before the season, it'll help.
Shooting clays from a portable trap also gets you used to keeping your head down and your eye on the bird again. Practice moving the gun in time with the bird and focusing on the target, not on the bead.
NAIL THE OPENER
Early August is a good time to start checking the sunflowers on public areas. A good crop isn't always a necessity for attracting doves, but more often than not, the bigger and better the sunflowers, the more doves they will attract. Dove field managers usually start cutting sunflowers a few weeks before the season to attract doves, and make the last cut about a week before opening day.
Serious scouting of private and public land begins the week before the opener. The doves that swarmed fresh-cut fields in early August may be gone by Sept. 1 if the fields have greened up significantly. Remember that doves love bare dirt and don't like to feed where they can't easily walk and watch for predators.
Scout the fields at feeding times—first thing in the morning and late afternoon, maybe 3 or 4 p.m.—to see where doves enter, and look for landmarks like a tall tree or a gap in the trees that may serve as navigation points for doves as they come and go. Look for dead trees around the field edge where birds will often land to wait and watch for signs of danger before dropping down to feed. Often, too, doves will favor one part of the field where there may be more food. The clearer the understanding you have of where birds want to be, the better you can pick your spot on opening morning.
If I haven't found a private field to hunt on the opener and I'm hunting public land, I sleep in and skip the mayhem of first light. I learned long ago that no matter how early I get to a public field, I'll still be overrun five minutes before shooting time. Instead, I go at 10 o'clock or so, by which time most people have limited and left. I usually have the field to myself until about 3 o’clock, and there are enough birds flying in the middle of the day that I can peck away until I've shot a limit.
AFTER THE MADNESS
A lot of dove hunters are done for the year at sunset on opening day. In my part of the Midwest, the season is just getting started, but finding good hunts usually means switching from public lands to private fields. Our public fields seem to hold birds for the first two or three days of the season; after that, the pickings get slim.
Hunting pressure pushes birds out, and unless managers cut or disk more sunflower strips throughout the season, doves usually don’t return. On the other hand, with harvest just beginning, potential dove fields open up every day in September. You just have to find them. Where I live, that means looking for cut cornfields, but it might be another crop in your area.
Scouting for doves is like scouting for any other migratory bird. Changes in the weather—usually cool, rainy spells—send doves south, but they bring new birds, too. Keep one eye on the weather and the other on the progress of the harvest.
The easiest way to find doves is to look for them on telephone and power lines or in dead trees when they gather before and sometimes after feeding. My rule of thumb is if I see 10 doves perching together on the wires, I might hunt. If I count 20, I’m hunting for sure. And if there are more than 20, I’m calling people and telling them to bring lots of shells. My dove hunting partner and I have learned the hard way that you can’t save a field for later. Some fields will attract doves for several days, even weeks, but other times the field that was full of doves on Monday may be empty by Wednesday. Hunt them when you find them.
Fields aren’t the only places to hunt doves. The afternoon flight slows with an hour or more of daylight left. Doves go first to water, then to roost. If you can find a pond near a field where doves are feeding, watch it in the evenings for birds coming in during that last hour of daylight.
The perfect watering hole will have a dead tree nearby, preferably on the bank, and bare dirt around the water’s edge. You probably won’t see doves pouring in, but there’s often a steady flight that offers a pleasant shoot to end the day.
The hardest dove spot to find is also the ace in the hole you want to be holding in September: a roost. Doves roost in stands of trees, and they especially like evergreens. Finding a roost is a matter of being in the right place near dusk, and seeing doves going in for the night.
Unfortunately, roosts aren’t always the likeliest things to find. The best one I ever hunted didn’t look like a dove hunting spot at all. It was just a narrow creek bordered by trees running through a draw in an unpicked soybean field.
Thirty minutes before sunset, we spread out on the edge of the trees along the creek. For the first 15 minutes, we looked at empty sky. For the last 15, we shot and reloaded almost non-stop as doves streamed downhill to the trees. I wish I could take credit for finding that roost, but it was my host who found it almost accidentally as he happened to drive by one evening near dark. There are hot spots like that—most of them unhunted—throughout the Midwest. To find them, all you have to do is keep your eyes open in September.