Mourning doves can be tricky. Many times they are like dogs and children. When you think you know what they are going to do, they will do the opposite.
For example, a week before dove season last year I realized that I had not received an invitation to participate in an annual shoot on a South Carolina plantation. This is one of those shoots that you postpone weddings or just about anything else that can be postponed so that you don^t miss the shoot. The barbecue served after the shoot is legendary.
The guest list usually reads like an abbreviated whos who of politics, sports and show business. But the best part of this annual shoot has been the doves. There have been so many doves in the air that you have to wonder how a shot can be fired without knocking down a double. It happened many times, but you still wonder.
When you don^t get invited to this kind of event, paranoia sets in. You begin to worry about such things as deodorants, you try to recall conversations at cocktail parties, but mostly you try to convince yourself that your lack of invitation is just an oversight.
When the first of September was real close, I telephoned the plantation owner to remind him that he had left one important person off his guest list.
"I don^t think I^m goin^ to have a shoot for a while," he responded. "Don^t have any doves. They were here two weeks ago, but I don^t know where they went."
I could not believe what my ears were telling me. This plantation not having doves is kind of like the Atlantic Ocean going dry.
"What happened?", I asked.
"I think it^s this farm situation," the plantation owner replied. "I only planted 400 acres this year while I usually plant 4,000 acres. I figure that the less land I plant the less money I lose. Most of my neighbors were thinking the same way. I don^t think there^s enough food around the county to hold birds like we did."
The plantation owner held a shoot during the second season when some migrating birds showed up, but it was less spectacular than usual because there were less doves.
There is a good lesson to be learned from this experience.
Doves are very mobile creatures. Changes in agricultural practices and severe weather conditions can have a profound affect on where they can be shot. You can hunt them anywhere, but the trick is hunting them before the season and shooting them after the season opens.
Some of the most successful dove hunt organizers I know spend more time on the road during the last two weeks of August than a fleet of traveling salesmen. They do a lot of bird watching during this traveling, but the only bird of interest is the mourning dove.
I called one Mississippi operator on the day before the season a couple years back and asked him where he was holding his shoot.
"Right now, I couldn^t tell you," he replied. "We^re looking at birds in three counties and I can^t make up my mind. I^ve got four buddies going out this afternoon and we^re goin^ to get together in the morning at my place and decide. Give me call at 10 o^clock and I^ll tell you where to be a shooting time."
When I called the operator in the morning, I found out I had 130 miles to drive to get to the dove field he had selected, but the drive was well worth the effort. There were nearly 100 guns in the large field and there did not seem to be a bad spot in the field as the many doves kept gun barrels hot all afternoon.
That Mississippi operator didn^t own all of the land he was scouting over three counties, but you can bet he was on a first-name basis with everyone of the landowners. For him, getting permission to hunt dove fields is a year-round job.
He doesn^t mind spending some time in the spring taking a landowner fishing when he knows he will be welcome to dove hunt in September.
If you are a landowner. you don^t have to chase doves all over the state. The trick is with some planning before planting time, you can have the doves coming to you in the fall.
Rut Connor, who owns Rocks Pond Plantation near Eutawville in South Carolina, keeps the doves in mind when he plans his farming operation.
You can bet that somewhere on the several thousand acres of land there will be a field planted in sunflowers.
Another good bet is none of those sunflowers will end up on grocery shelves as sunflower oil or in health food stores as snacks. Most will end up in the craw of the doves that frequent the plantation.
Weather permitting, as much of the field corn as possible will be harvested as early as possible at Rocks Pond because the combine will leave enough kernels of corn to keep thousands of doves in the area.
Also, Rut will have a field or two scheduled to be plowed in late August and planted with winter wheat. He knows that the doves like to feast on the shallow planted grain.
There is pretty good shooting on the Rocks Pond Plantation and, obviously, it is not accidental.
"I like to give doves a choice on my place," Rut pointed out. "If they can^t find what they want to eat on the Rocks, shame on me."
Rut does a lot of scouting on his own land so he knows what fields are attracting the most birds when it is time for gunning. This month, the winter wheat fields might have the most birds early. After the corn is cut, they may or may not change their diet to corn. During the late season, when the sunflowers fall over, they could be utilizing this food.
However, you could be tricked if you don^t do some scouting
before the day of the shoot.
After the hunter has found a good dove field or manipulated a field into a good shooting area, there are some tricks that separate the good hunters from the ones that shoot less than a dozen times during the same day that hundreds of rounds are exhausted.
The first thing I do when entering a strange dove field is to study the tree line that surrounds the field. I look for the tallest trees. Then I look for tall dead trees that have no foliage on the limbs. These are prime.
If there is a tall, dead tree on the edge of the field, I don^t hesitate in moving to it to take my stand. I know that if there are any other experienced dove hunters in the group that site will not be available very long.
The reason for this is that doves like an observation post to land in to survey a field before going in to feed. If there are no leaves on the limbs, there is nothing to obstruct their vision. Doves are not smart. Their instincts tell them it is not a good idea to land in a field where predators are lurking.
My numero uno choice of tall dead trees would be one in a corner of a field rather than somewhere in between. In years of observing dove activities, I have found that if the opportunity presents itself they will come into the field from a corner.
Even tall, dead trees can be enhanced by the placement of three or four dove decoys in the bare branches. There are many times when decoys are a waste of time because there are more birds than you can legally shoot, but at other times decoys can mean the difference between getting your share of the shooting and getting more than your share.
In the course of a hunt, many birds that would have entered the field just out of range will spot the decoys and alter their flight pattern just enough to be intercepted by a load of No. 9 shot.
When doves see decoys, they interpret it to mean conditions are safe. Doves sitting in trees are not being shot at. I have seen them land in with the decoys when shots were being fired all around a field.
Only a fool tries to climb a dead tree to put out dove decoys. The trick is to tie enough monofilament line on a decoy to reach the highest limb twice. Tie a one-ounce sinker on the other end of the line. Toss the sinker over the limb where you want the decoy. Then pull the fake up so that it appears to be sitting on the limb and make the line fast.
Besides putting decoys in trees, the can be placed anywhere they can be seen from a distance. An electric power line is an excellent place to put decoys because of the long range visibility. Decoys can be put on electric lines with the sinker and line method used for trees. When there are no lofty perches for decoys, you use the highest one available.
It could be a bob wire fence or a bush no more than six or eight feet tall.
The smart dove hunter also pays close attention to flight patterns in both strange and known fields.
In a strange field, one might notice that many early flights are entering the field over a section that does not have a gunner. If three or four flights fly over that area in a short period of time and none or few birds have given you shooting opportunities in the site you have selected, move.
And do it quickly because someone else will.
If you hunt a field year after year, pay close attention to the predominant flight patterns and make mental notes. I have seen fields where one location would provide six or more hunters and opportunity to fill their bag limit while hunters scattered around the same field had sporadic shooting.
Obviously, there was one good place to be on that field. There are other fields that may have several prime locations. That is because the doves are coming from more than one location. They could be coming from a roost, a pond, a graveling area or several fields in nearby farms. When moving from one area to another, doves fly a direct route. It is only when they are being shot at that they act like they don^t know which way they are going.
Should you shoot the same field over several years, you can get a good idea of flight patterns and take advantage of them. Also, with close observation, you can have a good idea where the birds will be coming from at various times of the day. In the morning, the will be coming from a roost. At noon, they could be going to gravel or to a roost. Sometime in the afternoon they will be heading for water. By watching the flight patterns, you can pick the best stands for the time of day.
There is another trick that I have used on doves several times to get my limit. This tactic works best on very large fields, but I have also used it on crowded smaller fields when I did not have a choice stand.
The trick is simple. You just put a stand in the middle of the field.
In large fields, many times doves will land in the middle of the field and feed even though there is constant shooting on the perimeter. They are perfectly safe because they are far out of range. You either have to go out in the field and chase them or station some gunners in the field to keep them from landing.
In smaller fields, you get shots at the doves that escape the perimeter shooters, which is quite a few even though all the perimeter shooters profess to be crack shots.
When setting up a mid-field stand, it is a good idea to take a half of a dozen branches with leaves to place upright in the ground. Just enough to break up your image is enough.
I like a folding chair to sit on, but I have shot sitting on the ground.
The good part of a mid-field stand is that you can see the birds coming for a long way. The bad part of this situation is that they have been shot at recently and will be as spooky as a puppy in an alligator pond. They will put on some moves that defy description.
One trick that will lessen the aerial antics of doves is to limit your mobility on stand. If you see a bird heading in your direction, freeze. Don^t move anything but your eyeballs until it is well within range. Doves pick up movement and react. The hunter that throws up his shotgun at a dove 70 yards out may never get a shot at that bird as it flares to the right or left. Sometimes, they will soar straight up out of range. This is especially true after they have had several shots whistling near them.
In conjunction with remaining still until just before shooting, it is a good idea to utilize any cover that will break up your image. Back into a hedge row, kneel down in some tall weeds or get under a tree. Many times a hunter will find himself forced to hunt in an area with no concealment.
The few minutes it takes to gather the materials needed to construct even the skimpiest blind are time well spent.
The best trick of all isn^t a trick at all. It^s just good common sense, but it is amazing how many hunters ignore it. That is knowing where your shotgun shoots and how it patterns.
Most hunters know they should shoot their shotguns before the season, but few get around to it. Likewise, few can kill a limit of doves with less than a box of shells. A few rounds of skeet before the season could put more doves in the bag than all the other tricks mentioned. If there is not a skeet range near your town, at least shoot some trap. Skeet is the more desirable shooting because the thrown clays come from all directions.
Like most dove hunters, I never paid attention to shot patterns until I began field testing a lot of shotguns about 20 years ago. Every once in a while I would find a barrel with holes in the pattern big enough for doves and even larger birds to fly through.
Pattern is easy to check by setting up a one yard square sheet of paper at 25 yards in a safe place and firing at it. It you can draw a full size bird without covering a single hole, you probably need a new barrel or gun.
Even if you use all of these tricks, you are not going to trick all the tricky doves. Afterall, we need a few for next year.