No matter where in Oklahoma you want to go dove hunting, September was made for that kind of shooting.
By Bob Bledsoe
Put the plug in the shotgun, dust off the camo and stock up on shotgun shells: It's dove season in Oklahoma!
In the Sooner State, as in most Plains states, a dove hunt can mean anything from sitting at the edge of a waterhole or feeding field, waiting for incoming birds, to stalking roost areas or ambushing doves from beneath heavily used flyways.
Good dove hunting can be found both on private and public lands in our state. My friends and I have bagged limits and near-limits of doves on several wildlife management areas, especially on some that are on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands around lakes.
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When I was a youngster in northwestern Oklahoma, we bagged limits of doves, as well as many pigeons, which are also legal targets, by positioning ourselves between a giant grain storage elevator and a roosting area about a half-mile away.
Railroad cars were loaded with grain at the elevator, and wheat spilled during the loading process drew flocks of doves to the loading area. Local doves found that generous buffet long before the season, and when Sept. 1 arrived, there was usually some fast and furious shooting in the area. We sometimes bagged as many pigeons as doves.
Decades later my son and I paid a fee to get access to some corn and milo fields, in the process of being harvested, where we bagged quite a few pigeons as well as doves. That was surprising since pigeons tend to be urban birds and, at least in Oklahoma, aren't usually found in big numbers out in rural areas.
Pigeons cook up just like a super-sized dove. Both pigeons and doves are in the columbidae family of birds and their flesh is pretty much the same.
I should probably add that, if you plan on searching out an area near grain elevators, which operate in nearly every small town in Western Oklahoma, you should make sure you aren't creating a safety hazard for anyone working around the grain storage and handling facilities. And, of course, always obtain permission from private landowners, and make sure that whatever community such a spot is in doesn't have ordinances against discharging firearms within municipal boundaries.
Hunting near grain elevators isn't the norm, of course, but hunting feed fields, roosts and flyways are usually the most productive methods of hunting doves.
Opening Day Doves
On opening day, feed fields typically are the most popular spots. In many counties, farmers supplement their incomes by manipulating harvested fields to coincide with opening day of dove season and charge access fees by the day or by the season.
Some of the best dove hunts I've had over the years were on such fields, where milo crops or corn were just harvested or wheat stubble was just disked or hay meadows were just mowed.
Many of the Wildlife Department's game management areas also feature food plots — sometimes managed in conjunction with local farmers who grow crops and leave some for the birds.
Grain fields are good in the early days of the season, while more "natural" feeding areas like patches of sunflowers, croton (also known as dove weed) or other seed-producing grasses and forbs draw doves later in September and October.
A few seasons back, a couple of my hunting buddies and I spotted a small field loaded with three-seed croton. It happened to be owned by a rancher we knew and who gave us permission to hunt there on opening weekend. It wasn't the fast-and-furious shooting that you can often find on harvested milo fields, but we managed to eke out limits for several hunters for the first three days of the season.
Sitting in the shade of trees bordering the field, and with a rotating-wing decoy placed in front of us, two of us bagged limits with mostly close and easy shots. Sometimes doves approached the decoy and just hovered like helicopters within a few feet of the decoy, making virtually stationary targets.
Croton patches often attract many doves when their seeds are dropping. I used to ride my bicycle on the streets of a big, new housing addition that had many still-vacant lots awaiting homes. Croton grew in abundance on several of those lots and, day after day, when I would ride past on my bike I would flush doves by the dozens. After that experience, I started watching for croton patches when scouting for hunting spots and it has paid off in birds on several occasions.
Sunflowers are another natural food here in Oklahoma that attracts doves. Sunflower patches have provided a couple of great dove shoots for me on public land on the shores of Lake Oologah. Usually, sunflowers aren't dropping seeds yet when dove season opens, but later in the year sunflowers can be a key in finding a dove-shooting spot.
On private lands, grain crops or newly mown hay meadows typically are the most productive spots for early season dove hunting.
On public lands, crop fields are sometimes an option as well. On some WMAs, the managers plant food plots, or contract with local farmers to grow grain and leave some standing grain to attract birds.
But, more often, good dove hunting on public tracts is found around natural foods like sunflower, croton and a handful of other grasses and forbs that produce lots of seeds in early autumn.
Hunting Water Sources
And, of course, hunting around water sources can be very productive on both public and private lands.
That is especially true out in semi-arid Western Oklahoma, but I've had fast and furious shooting around some Eastern Oklahoma farm ponds as well.
My friends and I once spent an opening day in sweltering heat and bagged only about six or seven doves between the four of us. That was from first light until about 30 minutes before sundown.
As evening approached we split up and sat on the banks of three small ponds. I was by myself on a pond not much bigger than a two-car garage. With only about 30 minutes of legal shooting time left, I was suddenly covered up with doves swooping down to the pond. I finished my limit in about 5 minutes and sat there, listening to my buddies shoot at the other ponds. All the while I watched another couple of hundred doves land on the pond banks within 60 feet of me.
Where those doves had been all day, I haven't a clue. But all three ponds were suddenly invaded by hundreds of doves as the sun disappeared and the light was fading.
When looking for a good pond for dove hunting, it pays to find ponds that have some bare soil around the edges. And in late summer, when the water level in ponds typically is a little lower than normal, it usually isn't that difficult to find such a spot.
Doves like to land on open ground, a few yards away from tall grass or brush that can conceal predators, and so they'll choose a pond that offers them a safety zone between the water and the surrounding vegetation.
A friend and I also had a productive hunt one day right on the "beach" at Lake Eufaula where the shoreline had been seeded with millet to attract waterfowl. Doves were landing both to get water and to pick around for millet seed.
Public Vs. Private
When searching for dove-hunting spots, I would recommend private lands first. Some hunters are lucky enough to have family farms or friends who have farms or ranches suitable for dove hunting. But there are quite a few landowners and hunting guides and outfitters who prepare fields for dove hunting each year and either lease the fields for the season or charge daily access fees. Local classified ads in newspapers, flyers posted in sporting goods stores, or ads on Web sites like Craigslist can sometimes help hunters find a good spot for reasonable fees.
Public-land hunting, though, is usually a lower-cost option and can sometimes offer lots of shooting action.
Not every public tract is good for doves. The heavily timbered mountain tracts in Southeastern Oklahoma, for example, usually are not great dove spots. But many of the Public Hunting Areas around big lakes, and some of the WMAs in northeastern, central and Western Oklahoma produce good hunts at times.
Hunters can go to the "where to hunt" pages at wildlifedepartment.com and find descriptions of each public tract managed by the Wildlife Department, including information about whether food plots are planted or whether managers target doves with their management practices.
Lands near Oologah, Eufaula, Keystone, Kaw, and Canton lakes have given me several days of good dove action. Another likely choice down in southwestern Oklahoma is Hackberry Flat, a WMA created a couple of decades ago on an old natural wetland that was drained for farming back in the early 20th century. The wildlife managers restored the area as managed wildlife habitat.
The Sandy Sanders WMA, also in the southwest, is sometimes good, and the Black Kettle National Grasslands, north of I-40 near Cheyenne, is another likely prospect.
At all the Western Oklahoma WMAs, I suggest checking out the ponds at mid-morning and late in the afternoon. Waterholes are scarce out there, and so some of them attract huge numbers of doves each day.
A rotating-wing decoy placed on a suitable pond bank can be helpful in drawing doves into shooting range. A couple of seasons back, on a weekend when doves were particularly scarce in the area we hunted, we eked out limits shooting over a decoy at the edge of a small pond when most of the other hunters in the area were getting very little shooting action.
Season Opens Sept. 1
Hunters must carry a current Oklahoma hunting license, and with the exception of those who are exempt, a Migratory Bird Hunter Information Program (HIP) permit as well. Permits available online. Both state and federal law now require most hunters to carry their HIP permit with them while hunting. Only those younger than 16 years or older than 63 years are exempt.
Dove season opens on Sept. 1 this year. The weekend of Sept. 2-3 is "Free Hunting Days" in Oklahoma. On that weekend, hunters can hunt without a license. A spokesman for the Law Enforcement Division of our Wildlife Department said game wardens will not check for licenses or HIP permits on those two weekend days, but cautioned that on any other day of the season (including opening day, Sept. 1) hunters must carry a license and HIP permit.
Shotguns used for migratory bird hunting must be plugged to carry no more than three shells. Hunters on federally managed areas, including national wildlife refuges and some state refuges, must use non-toxic shot.
Oklahoma hunters have three species of doves that are fair game during our two-month dove season. Mourning doves always make up the bulk of the harvest in Oklahoma, but Eurasian collared doves have become more numerous in recent years. And white-winged doves, which used to be a real rarity in Oklahoma, are being seen more often, especially in western parts of the state.
Hunters can take up to 15 mourning doves and white-winged doves per day. Collared doves, like pigeons, have no daily limit, but hunters must keep the head or a feathered wing attached to the bird while afield or traveling so that it can be identified as a collared dove.