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Opening-day doves: Part II

9/5/2008
Courtesy Keith "Catfish" Sutton

Of the various ways to hunt mourning doves, I think shooting as they come to water offers the fastest action. Last September while hunting a small farm pond, I got a taste of that action.

At dusk, doves started pouring in. Some streaked in 90-to-nothing from across the pond. Others blazed in behind us. As I swung on one, several more appeared, flaring as our guns boomed. For 10 minutes the action was non-stop, and then a short lull. I found, to my amazement, I'd gone through more than half a box of shells. The barrel of my shotgun was hot, my knees were weak, and in the midst of all that bedlam I only downed two birds.

One might think such a striking gamebird would prefer sparkling, clear water, but doves generally drink at muddy ponds, seeps, mudholes, or stream banks. A farm pond, stretch of lakeside or river bank with a broad, open dirt or mud border is ideal, especially when located near roosts or feeding areas. Doves circle swiftly, eye the waterhole for signs of danger, and then, if all looks safe, swing in to alight at the water's edge.

When scouting for potential waterhole hunting sites, I always watch for shallow ponds that have suffered a dry summer and have large areas of open earth around the remaining water. It's easy for mourning doves to land here and easy for them to flush if there is danger, just what thirsty doves are looking for.

Another deciding influence is the availability of perching places. Doves like to water, then fly to a dead tree to preen before moving on. Others circle the watering area and land on a perch to look for danger before fluttering down. If no dead snags are nearby, look for power or telephone lines passing close. A sure sign of a winning waterhole is a number of doves perched on nearby wires or dead trees.

When you've pinpointed a productive waterhole, watch for patterns as the birds come and go. For example, one pond I've hunted many times is about 200 yards below a ridgetop highway. Running along the highway is a telephone line. Birds watering at this pond light on the wires before flying to the pond. As they fly down, they pass by a clump of bushes where I wait in ambush. Every bird passes within 25 or 30 yards, moving from left to right. That's my best cross-shot swing.

Not all waterholes are as easy to figure out as this one is. Nevertheless, every suitable waterhole has birds traveling the same flyways day after day, especially when doves have been in the area for some time.

Graveling sites are overlooked by many hunters, but these are also important to doves. Gravel roads, sand bars, gravel quarries and other graveling spots close to feeding, watering and roosting sites make an area more attractive to doves, and if your scouting reveals activity patterns, these areas, or locations near them, can provide alternative hunting sites during midday when doves aren't feeding in fields.

My friend Lewis Peeler bags numerous doves during midday hunts at gravel quarries near his home.

"Doves are drawn to gravel pits for several reasons," says Peeler. "The main attraction is water. A lot of pits aren't well drained, and water fills the holes left by digging. The water is usually muddy from runoff, and for whatever reason, doves like to drink muddy water. Few plants grow around the water holes, so the banks are open. Doves like that, too, because it lets them watch for danger while drinking and fly away quickly if there are any threats."

Another gravel pit attraction, says Peeler, is the readily available source of grit.

"Doves pick up little bits of grit every day so their gizzards can grind the seeds they eat," he notes. "That's why you see doves sitting on gravel roads and on the shoulders of highways. And that's why they flock to gravel pits. There's plenty of sand and other grit, and there's no traffic to disturb them while they're getting it."

Open perches are an added enticement.

"Anyone who hunts doves very much knows how they're attracted to dead trees," Peeler says. "If there's an old snag on the edge of a field or watering hole, they'll light in it and sit a few minutes to rest or watch for danger before they fly down. That's another reason doves like gravel pits. When workers are digging gravel, they push dirt up around trees, and the trees later die. So there are usually several dead snags for birds to use.

"When you have all three elements — water holes, graveling sites and dead trees for perching — together in one small place, then you've got a topnotch dove hunting area. If you can add to those a nearby feeding area — a field of milo or other grain close to the pit — then the shooting can be almost unbelievable. Positioning a few dove decoys in the area improves it even more."

Regardless of where you hunt, it's important to continue scouting right up to the day you hunt. Doves activity patterns may change due to adverse weather conditions, changes in feeding field conditions and other factors, especially early in the season. To have the best opening day hunt possible, be prepared. Identify several potential hunting sites. Visit them often. Watch doves throughout the day. Determine when and where they're flying.

Personnel in the game division of your state wildlife agency can provide information on public lands open to dove hunters, and details about specific tracts planted with grain crops attractive to doves. Most prime dove hunting lands are privately owned, however, and most sportsmen must turn toward private lands to meet their hunting needs. Always visit with the landowner(s) prior to hunting or scouting, and continue with your activities only after you've been granted permission. Show respect for the landowner's property while visiting, and be sure to express your thanks after the hunt by sharing game, sending a thank-you note and offering to assist with chores on the property. If you want private landowners to be your friends, be a friend to them.

Whether you choose to hunt them along an afternoon flyway, in a field where you can jump them from a rainy day meal, or by bagging them as they come in for water or gravel, doves can provide exciting shooting throughout the day. Thorough pre-hunt scouting increases the odds you'll take some home — if you can hit them.