When it comes to dove hunting success each fall, wingshooters who consistently bag a limit of mourning doves—and white-winged doves in Texas, parts of Oklahoma and the southwestern U.S.—have generally come into a September season well-prepared.
As in honing their wingshooting abilities to deadly precision, as well as scouring the local countryside in preseason scouting chores, locating one or more good spots where the late-afternoon skies are filled with doves pitching down off nearby powerlines and flying to spots to feed and water until the sun sinks below the western horizon.
But even then, the September wingshooting formula isn’t always complete if a limit of the flighty game birds is the ultimate goal. To consistently be on the proverbial "X" and see the most doves zipping on by on any given property, a hunter needs to develop the skill of "reading" a dove hunting field or waterhole like a favorite book.
In other words, successful dove hunters know how to analyze the flight patterns of birds, figuring out the spots where doves are most likely to fly by, as well as analyzing natural barriers and obstacles that might leave a wingshooter swatting at mosquitoes and little else.
Steve Stidham, a late dove hunter from Wolfe City, Texas just to the northeast of Dallas, had honed his ability to read a dove field to a razor’s sharp edge. Prior to his untimely death a little more than a decade ago at the age of 57, Stidham, a retriever trainer and a skeet-shooting expert, had developed quite a reputation for knowing when, where and how to hunt for doves in the North Texas region.
So good was the Hunt County resident’s skill at this early autumn wingshooting game that he routinely bagged a limit, despite hunting in an area of the state that is marginal for the best dove-hunting prospects. In fact, for more than 20 years, he bagged an opening-day limit.
Such a reputation attracts attention, and in Stidham’s case, that included the attention of the late Ray Sasser, the longtime outdoor writer for the Dallas Morning News. Sasser wrote frequently about dove hunting across the Lone Star State and Stidham was one of his favorite interviews.
After interviewing the dove-hunting expert a number of years ago, I quickly understood why. Stidham was a PhD-level professor in the wingshooting game. Whether on Sept. 1, during the mid-season, or at the buzzer, it didn’t matter because Stidham knew how to dove hunt with the best of them.
One of his most enduring lessons for successful dove hunting was that it simply wasn’t enough to find a spot teeming with the flighty birds. Why is that? Because even in places where the birds were swarming about, most fields and waterholes had low traffic areas and dead spots that should be avoided.
If not, even a "can’t miss" hunting spot could produce a virtual dud of a hunt, offering little more than a morning or afternoon session of frustration and/or boredom.
"If you take a 100-acre maize field, doves don’t distribute themselves across that field like people at a football game do," said Stidham. "They tend to pick three or four corridors into this field. It may be by flying past a certain fence post, through a gap in the tree line, or any number of things, but they have an ideal flight line into a field."
Stidham would not only note such preferred flight lines, but he would also figure out where he could hide best from the eyes of inbound doves zipping by.
"I disdained the idea of using shooting stools many years ago," said Stidham. "I have found that breaking up my outline is very much to my advantage (when hunting doves)."
Like an investment broker analyzing financial market trends and predicting future portfolio strategies to a client looking to maximize his or her money, Stidham would also take a careful look at his yearly hunting spots, trying to figure out the food sources that were available at the time and might be available in the future.
What does that mean? As the season approaches, look for the hottest fields—milo is a good bet, as well as fields filled with native sunflowers—and note the spots where the birds are flying in most frequently.
That’s usually where the most waste grain is at in a harvested agricultural field or where the most native seeds are lying around on the ground in a pasture-type setting. It could also be where there’s simply enough bare ground showing for a small-game bird that doesn’t like to spend too much effort scratching around in the daily search for dinner.
But also take a few notes—in your mind, at least, or better yet in a journal of hunting notes—about food resources that might pay off with big wingshooting dividends a few weeks from now.
"Thinking about what would happen later in the season, I’m on the lookout for good stands of dove weed with clean understory," said Stidham. "We’ll make a note of that (while scouting) and check back later on, usually after the second week of the season. The shooting pressure is dying down then, and the doves are likely to be there. That’s because those seed pods are ripening out by then and doves love dove weed. Make notes of these types of places on your scouting missions."
While the preferred foods of doves will vary in different regions of the country, the idea that Stidham taught is sound just about anywhere. And the North Texas wingshooting expert had proof that his idea worked.
"While doing some pre-season scouting one year, we found a place with lots and lots of dove weed and with very clean ground," said Stidham. "I told my buddy that by the end of September, we’d be shooting here. We checked it on Sept. 15, and there was nothing. We checked it out again on Sept. 20, and again, nothing. But a week later, there were 200 doves on the last two sections of power lines next to that place."
Not long afterwards, Stidham and his hunting pal were back with their favorite shotguns in hand.
"My buddy, Phil Tanner, killed his limit with 13 shells and I killed mine with 14 shells," said Stidham.
Stidham pointed out that doves quickly adapt to changes in food availability, changing weather conditions, and hunting pressure.
"We’re not taking it for granted, this idea that some have that doves are kind of dumb," he said. "They are not dumb and can get more challenging as the fall goes along. Have you ever hunted doves in the winter? They’re a much tougher bird then."
But even then, closer to Christmas than Labor Day, Stidham was usually successful when he chased doves, even at a time when others were after ducks, deer or simply an easy chair next to a warm fireplace with a good book in hand.
For Stidham, the best book of all was in the great outdoors. And his willingness to learn how to read that book gave him the ability to decipher dove-flight patterns and hunting strategies like few others. Whatever the season’s natural code was, he would eventually figure out how to crack it.
And when he did, good wingshooting was likely to follow.
"I think they follow some type of geographic marker into the field even though that’s not always obvious (to us)," said Stidham. "But that doesn’t matter," because they’re obvious to the doves and a hunter has got to try and figure that out.
Read a dove field correctly, and your next reading assignment will be to scour the game and fish cookbooks—or the gameandfishmag.com website—looking for a new recipes to try out this fall.