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Freelance Doves

Freelance Doves

Article by Henry Chappell

 

Photos by Russell Graves, Wyman Meinzer,
and David J. Sams 

 

When Texans say “dove hunting,” they usually mean “dove shooting,” a party of shotgunners positioned around sunflower or grain fields waiting for doves to fly in to feed. Often, these outings are reunions of family and friends complete with spirited competition, good-natured raillery and post-hunt celebration. Others are gatherings of strangers at fields leased by hunting outfitters.

When weather cooperates, hot barrels are the rule the opening two or three weekends until the birds head south with the first cool front. Good shots get their limits by mid-morning.

Even purists enjoy these early shoots, but by mid-September, some hardcore bird hunters long for less hectic outings and a chance to work their dogs. Conventional wisdom dictates big grain fields and gunning parties to keep the birds flying, but patient hunters who know the birds’ daily patterns can enjoy plenty of shooting and solitude too.

Both Mourning Doves and White-winged Doves follow a daily routine: roost, feed, water, loaf, feed, water, roost. Timing and positioning are crucial. Hiding in the middle of the most productive sunflower field in the state at midday is more conducive to heatstroke than to good hunting.

Doves feed almost exclusively on seeds. They leave their roosts just before sunrise and fly to feeding areas which vary from large grain fields to feed lots to patches of native forbs such as ragweed, pigweed, bundle flower and croton.

After feeding—usually before mid-morning—they fly to stock tanks, windmill reservoirs, puddles and other standing water. Doves choose sites with bare ground at water’s edge because heavy ground cover conceals predators.

The birds spend the midday hours loafing in the shade of trees and other woody cover. An hour or two before sunset, they head back to feeding fields, then on to water and roost before dark. On rainy days, doves may leave their roosts later in the morning and return to fields earlier in the afternoons. Don’t pass up rainy or overcast days.

Most Mourning Doves are migratory. With the arrival of the first autumn cool fronts, local birds typically head for South Texas and Mexico. Juveniles and adult females migrate first. Hunting in North and Central Texas usually slows in mid-September, then picks up again when non-resident birds from the Midwest pour in ahead of cold weather.

Doves move locally depending on food availability and shooting pressure. Scouting is critical. Ideally, hunters could drive back roads, looking for concentrations of doves perched on utility wires and fences. However, most Texans hunt doves on leases, wildlife management areas or other public lands.

Effective scouting, then, is a matter of “patterning” the birds or finding their flyways, feeding fields, water holes and loafing cover on available land. Scouting begins shortly before opening day and continues through the season. Although binoculars and boot leather are the primary scouting tools, a phone call to a landowner or other local contact can be the most efficient way to learn that local birds have headed south or that migrants have arrived.

A lone hunter confronted with a feeding field larger than a few acres may find that the birds fly in beyond shotgun range, feed unmolested then head for water. Solitary hunters can tip the odds in their favor by taking advantage of doves’ tendency to navigate by land features. Look for anything different, structure that stands out from the surroundings: utility poles, a lone tree, a clump of trees. Set up at the end of a long, brushy row. Corners can also be good.

Lacking any kind of structure or obvious flight pattern, hunker in the middle of the field (so long has you have it to yourself) and break up your outline with available vegetation. If there’s a utility pole or swale out in the field, all the better. Don’t be afraid to experiment. If you’re seeing doves but can’t get shots, move. Again, timing is critical. Try to set up before the birds arrive. Better to bake in the mid-afternoon heat than to arrive late and spook incoming birds. Furthermore, you can make quick adjustments based on the routes of the first few birds that trickle in.

Doves prefer company. A half-dozen decoys will often draw wary birds into range. Think maximum visibility when placing decoys. Dead trees or bare limbs are excellent spots. In general, the higher the better. Decoys can also be placed on fences or even on the ground. Doves have excellent eyesight.

Opening day birds can be incredibly naive, but they wise up fast. As the season wears on, concealment becomes more important. Drab or camouflage clothing helps. Leave the hunter orange game vest in the truck. Keep to the shadow when possible. Use available cover but make sure you have a good view and room to swing your gun. A pair of hunters working as a team can maintain a 360-degree field of view.

Doves tolerate noise, but will flare at the slightest movement. Don’t get antsy; keep still until an incoming bird gets within range. Even then, late-season birds, having been shot at all the way down the Central Flyway, will flare when you swing your gun. Little wonder shotshell manufacturers love doves.

In fields with standing sunflowers or crops, feeding doves can sometimes be flushed within shotgun range, although your movement may spook incoming birds. Always consider how your movements affect other hunters in the field. You may be freelancing, but other hunters may be sitting on coolers and jawing with half a dozen buddies while hoping for a frantic hour of shooting.

Jump-shooting is best during the middle of the day. Strips of trees along the edges of feeding fields and nearby creeks often serve as loafing cover. Although doves usually flush from a tree on the side opposite the hunter, stealth and persistence nearly always earn a few decent shots. Partners walking along both sides of a row of trees can be very effective. Move deliberately to get as close as possible and be ready to mount your gun.

Many freelancers prefer water hole hunting to all other methods. During unusually wet autumns the abundance of standing water scatters the doves, and hunting suffers. But during normal to dry years, hunting over stock tanks may be the solitary hunter’s best chance for a limit.

Avoid the temptation to set up next to water. A few shots will chase birds away for good. Instead, take a stand 50-60 yards away, along a flight path. Birds that get past you can drink then fly to their roosts. Chances are, they’ll be back the next afternoon. Decoys placed in bare trees around a water hole can work wonders.

Although doves fly to water after feeding in the morning, they seem to descend on stock tanks in greater numbers just before sunset. Be sure to quit hunting while the birds still have time to drink. Good waterholes are a precious resource. Don’t hunt a tank twice the same day.

Pack light and stay mobile. Leave the ice chest and case of ammo in the truck. Carry only a box or two or shells in a lightweight vest. Bring plenty of water for yourself and your dog. A canvas stool with a carrying strap will spare your knees. Don’t worry about fashioning elaborate blinds. Stick to natural cover and mind your outline. Don’t forget the sunscreen and insect repellent or you’ll be in sorry shape for the next day’s hunt.

Even well-conditioned dogs can overheat on a September afternoon. Keep your retriever at heel when she’s not fetching. Take every opportunity to let her drink or swim. Wipe feathers from her mouth and tongue after every retrieve. Don’t let fear of rattlesnakes keep you out of the field, but they’re out there. Don’t send your dog into heavy brush on a warm day. Put on your snake chaps and fetch the bird yourself.

Freelance dove hunters rarely take a quick limit. They value solitude or the company of a favorite hunting buddy over fast and furious shooting. They’ll pick up a bird here and there, move when the birds aren’t flying, and rely on their knowledge of the birds’ habits. They might work all day for half-dozen doves—or none at all.

Years ago, I loaded a 9-month-old German shorthaired pointer pup and drove from my home in the Dallas area to the Rio Grande Valley for some late-season dove hunting. I had missed the whitewing hunting; the local birds had split for Mexico weeks before, but contacts assured me that I’d find plenty of Mourning Doves. As is the case most years, dove season in that zone overlapped the first week or so of quail season.

For three days, we hunted a patchwork of rangeland, sorghum fields and sunflowers. The temperature rose into the 90s by late morning. Cover was green and rank from an unusually wet summer. Mosquitos swarmed, and hordes of cotton rats kept me more mindful of rattlesnakes than of doves and quail. There were no morning or evening “flights” of doves; just two or three here, one there, often out of range.

We’d set up in a likely spot before sunrise. An hour later, with only one or two doves in the bag, we’d start moving. That first morning, I kept the pup on a leash, and doves flushed from patches of ragweed and pigweed and low brush, and we picked up a few more.

Then we flushed a covey of quail, so I let her hunt, and she pointed her first wild bobwhite, a single, and I missed it. But we got two more out of that covey, and headed for the truck. I ran the air conditioning full blast while she sat in the passenger seat and panted and slobbered all the way back to our motel.

Late that afternoon, doves flushed from trees along fence lines, nearly always within range. I kept the pup at heel until time to retrieve so she wouldn’t overheat or flush birds out of range. We spent as much time hunting shade as hunting doves.

By feeding flight time, my three water bottles were empty, but I noticed a nice heft when I picked up my game vest. I let the pup run, and she bumped a covey of bobwhites on the way back to the truck. The birds needed time to covey up before dark, so, to the amped-up pup’s horror, I snapped a lead on her collar and pulled her bug-eyed and wheezing back to the tailgate and water bowl.

The hunting varied little the following two days. Bug-ravaged, sweat-soaked, itching, sunburned, a few doves short of a limit, two or three bobwhites, I wanted nothing so much as a cold shower and cool bed. I kept at it only because I’d driven so far.

That pup, Maggie, turned 16 this past March. I have to carry her up the steps to my office where she naps while I work. Every now and then, she’ll raise her gray muzzle and look at me with cloudy eyes, and I’ll remember the solid liver face and bright eyes and hide stretched tight over muscle. We’ve seen a lot of country and gotten into a lot of birds since that hard, hot, unconventional, freelance adventure in deep South Texas, but I remember and cherish that hunt above all others.



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