Hunting365: Targeting wingshooting's opening act

Dove hunting season opens across many areas of the nation in the next few days, with hunters eagerly anticipating September wingshooting action. Lynn Burkhead

In a matter of days, as Sept. 1 dove season openers arrive around the country, legions of wingshooters will go afield, hoping to take a limit.

For some, such an exercise will lead to a pile of empty shotgun shell hulls and a supply of tasty dove breasts for the barbecue grill.

Others will find disappointing results  if they have any results at all  because they failed to do their pre-season homework.

But all it takes to find the best dove hunting in any given state is the ability to find the magic triangle: feeding, roosting and watering sites, all in close proximity to one another.

When it comes to feeding hotspots, there are two primary types.

The first, most hunters know to look for: agricultural staples such as wheat stubble, especially early in the season, along with sorghum (known also as milo or maize) and even corn.

For the second type, look for food sources like native seed-bearing plants, such as sunflowers and croton, according to Mike O'Meilia, a migratory bird biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

"A good native sunflower patch, you can't beat that," O'Meilia said. "I'd say that universally, that's probably the best dove feeding area.

"Sunflowers are a weather-dependent thing. Sometimes they're ready early, sometimes they're ready late, depending on the weather."

In addition to food sources, scouting hunters should look for flight paths into and out of a field, preferred landing and feeding areas, and terrain or irregularities that might affect doves' flight. Some examples of the latter might include a crop field edge that transitions from stalks to bare dirt, gaps in a treeline, or even a lone snag in the middle of a field.

O'Meilia cautioned that there can be too much of a good thing: "You certainly don't want a site with a lot of ground cover. You're generally looking for something in the neighborhood of 25 percent open ground, although the best is up around 50 percent. Remember, doves aren't built for cruising around on the ground."

Naturally, some of the most critical features of any terrain will be the wettest ones.

"When it is hot and there is a lot of daily activity from feeding flights or hunting pressure, doves probably need to water twice a day," said Jay Roberson, a dove biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department since 1993.

"Remember, they're not eating an insect diet with water contained in it," he added. "They have to pick up their moisture from an open water supply. That's how they cool, too, so water is pretty important to doves."

O'Meilia agrees with his Texas counterpart.

"When you go farther west, waterholes become more important," he said. "The sheer amount of dove usage (in that area) and the fact that there is less water out in that country mean that we can have fabulous waterhole shoots."

One thing both biologists are bullish on is that dove hunters shouldn't focus their wingshooting efforts just on the season opener  some of the fall's best dove shooting occurs well after Sept. 1.

"Despite our 60- and 70-day seasons, the average number of days spent (dove) hunting is three or four," Roberson said.

"I think dove hunting is an underutilized resource. There can be some great dove hunts later on, particularly in October, as the northern birds are filtering in, although there are more adult birds and they can be a little smarter and harder to hit."

Said O'Meilia: "After the first half of September, there are some die-hard dove hunters out there  I'm one of them.

"But after first two weekends have come and gone, you can have some of these places pretty much to yourself and you can have some fabulous shooting."

Once the opening day fusillade comes and goes this Labor Day weekend, it's time to get back out, scout again, and acquire some new intel.

"It's one thing to go out on opening day and go to your favorite waterhole or your favorite maize field and shoot doves. But after opening day, you've got to start looking for the birds (again)," said Phil Bellows, a Gainesville, Texas, wingshooter.

"You've got to go out and find the birds (again), then you've got to hit them then, because if you wait, they may be gone a day or two later, due to changing weather patterns or whatever."

Those who have done their homework to find active feeding fields, busy flight corridors and enticing waterholes can expect a grand show as September's rocketing gray ghosts swoop in to feed or water. And those who stick to their studies will find those rewards well into autumn.