It's a question that I've asked myself countless times in a quarter century plus of September outings that have found me chasing mourning dove across the Southern Great Plains while the searing heat of late summer fades into early fall.
While the exact words have varied, the general idea of this mental gymnastics meet in my noggin goes something like this: "If ‘X’ marks the spot, then where in the heck is the ‘X’ in this location?"
This might help to explain a few of the strange looks I've gotten from other hunters through the years as they slowly shake their heads and wonder just whom it is that I'm carrying on a conversation with.
Nevertheless, here are a few answers that I've come up with over the years:
Look First, Hunt Later
A few years ago, while interviewing a nationally known white-tailed deer hunting expert, I learned a nugget of truth that applies just about any time a hunter wanders afield.
Here's what the gentleman told me: "I'd rather give up a day or two of hunting so I can intensively scout from afar so that when I do finally hang a stand to hunt, I'm right where I need to be from the word 'Go.'"
Believe it or not, this woodsy wisdom applies to dove hunting too.
When you arrive at a field or a waterhole location, spend a few moments gathering Intel as you note the aerial preferences of doves already rocketing their way into and out of the area.
Once you've located a good flight pattern, don't waste any time in getting there.
Dove adjust their flight routines into and out of a feeding field or watering hole quickly as the area's hunting pressure mounts. You should do the same thing as the aerial preferences of these speedy little game birds change.
In my younger dove hunting days, I was somewhat reluctant to alter my location, thinking that it would only be a matter of time before a few more birds winged my way. More times than not, that was not the case.
Today, realizing that I don't live in the best dove hunting region of Texas, I'm much quicker to adjust and make a move to where the birds are actually flying.
If 10 to 15 minutes goes by and the majority of the dove are flying "over there," it will not be long before I'm on the move.
Hunt the Edge
Wildlife, including dove on the wing, are generally creatures of the "edge."
That is, the place where two types of cover and/or habitat converge. And when a hunter can figure out where the edge is in a dove hunting field, that's always a good place to start looking for the proverbial “X.”
To illustrate this, let me use an example from the world of bass fishing.
One way to locate bass relating to underwater structure is to fish along a breakline, a spot where shallow water quickly falls into deep water.
Ditto for fishing a region where the bottom composition changes suddenly from something like sand to hard gravel.
In dove hunting, I'm quick to look for the edges that are made by the end of a grain field pressing up against a grassy location; plowed field edges against a grown up area; or something like a crevasse, ditch or waterway running through the middle of a field.
Like an old mossback largemouth bass holding tight to a lone stick-up on a shallow-water flat, doves are attracted to irregular features.
From a lone dead snag next to a waterhole, to a gap in a tree line, to a power pole sitting in a field, to rusting farm implements around an old corral, out of the ordinary features can often attract the attention of a passing dove on the wing.
Position yourself accordingly – and legally – to such objects and you might have some easier shooting for birds flying in, slowing down and turning on a dime, and preparing to light.
Find the Food
When most dove hunters think of food for mourners passing through their part of the world, they tend to think of harvested fields like wheat, corn or milo (grain sorghum).
To be certain, these great little game birds will certainly be willing to swing by and tackle a harvested field containing scattered seed leftovers from such crops as wheat, corn, milo, barley, oats, canola sunflowers and millet.
But in more recent years, I’ve also learned that dove like more natural food sources too, things like native sunflowers, dove weed (croton), ragweed, pigweed and even Johnson grass.
Hunting harvested fields can be a good choice for finding good numbers of dove but don’t overlook natural food sources, such as native sunflowers. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
Learning to identify these more subtle feeding spots not far from dove roosting sites and watering holes can often be a key ingredient to successful dove hunting later in the season as the leftover food of harvested crops begins to play out in your area.
Since most dove hunters tend to ignore these harder to identify native food source locations, finding a good patch of native foods can be the key to some great hunting all by yourself.
One of the ironies of dove hunting in my home state of Texas is that the vast majority of the 250,000 or so dove hunters that take to the field each year apparently consider dove season to be a short running affair.
In fact, most of those wingshooters hunt from the traditional September 1 opener, through the Labor Day holiday and into the following weekend.
After that, it's truly "Lonesome Dove" time.
Some recent studies have proven that. One published report a few years ago found that as much as 62 percent of the annual dove hunting harvest in the northern two thirds of Texas actually took place during the first half of the month.
Following that period, the number of dove hunters out and about decreases noticeably as other hunting seasons – and football season – thins out the ranks.
The truth is, however, that the dove hunting itself often gets better and better in many places as the season rolls along into late September and through the month of October.
Though the locally raised birds will be gone by then, millions of other migrant dove will be pouring down the Great Plains and into the Lone Star State on each passing autumn cool front that turns the wind direction to the north.
With nary a wingshooter left in the fields to greet them.
But that's not just true in Texas where the UT Longhorns, the Dallas Cowboys or the local version of a Friday Night Lights' football team play their weekly games.
It's also true across the south where archery deer season, the early teal and resident goose hunting seasons conspire to make late season dove hunter numbers dwindle there too.
So with all of that in mind, why not grab your hunting buddies and put a few of these ideas into play? Because if you do, you might happen to find the proverbial “X” in a dove hunting spot near you.