Doves on horizon

"Heads up!" The muffled shout came from my right. I turned just in time to see a mourning dove speed down the fencerow, then drop low over the cut milo. Before I could raise my shotgun, Jimmy Peeler dropped the bird with a clean shot.

"Nice shot," I called. Then Jimmy's brother Lewis was yelling, pointing behind us. "Birds comin' in." Three doves blazed by like bantam kamikazes.

When they were in front of me, I shouldered my shotgun and fired at the lead bird. It faltered as the load of No. 9s dusted its tail but kept flying. Not a perfect shot, but the bird fell 40 yards out. I ran to retrieve it.

Before I was back in position, someone called "Birds!" I dropped to a squat as five doves winged by out of range. Lewis downed two. The rest skedaddled for safer air space.

Two veered my way. I shot twice and missed. Jimmy lowered the boom on one; the other hugged the ground as it rocketed out of the field. I pulled three shells from my second box and pushed them into the belly of my gun.

This all started with a phone call to Lewis to see if he and Jimmy wanted to get together for some September dove shooting. The season opened earlier that week, and while scouting, I had located a dove-hunting hotspot.

Before the season opens, it pays to scout your hunting area, looking for heavily-used flyways doves travel when moving from one activity area to another.

Doves usually fly from night roosts to watering holes shortly after dawn, then quickly move to feeding areas where they stay until midday. They loaf at perching, watering or graveling sites near the feeding area for an hour or two around noon, then return to the feeding area for the remainder of the afternoon.

Before going to roost, they stop to drink again. By determining the exact time and locale of these activities, you can ascertain the best place and time to hunt a particular site.

To determine dove patterns, drive slowly through a likely area, stopping occasionally to scan the countryside with binoculars. Scout before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m. when birds are more likely to be moving. Watch for doves in the air and on the ground, then stop and scan the spot for 15 to 30 minutes. If more birds follow, you've found a potential hunting site.

Most aficionados hunt feeding areas, usually fields of harvested seed crops like milo, sunflowers, sorghum, corn or wheat. Additional scouting when you have zeroed in on such a field can improve your dove score tremendously.

Try to determine when doves enter and exit the field, and examine each locale thoroughly, looking for different types of "structure" to which doves orient. A dip in the perimeter timber of a field may be a well-used travel lane. Field corners may funnel doves in and out of a field. Open mid-field humps may be preferred feeding sites as they provide a better view of approaching danger.

Doves often light on dead snags or power lines before landing or while loafing. Points, ditches, borders between stubble and plowed ground, fence and tree lines, tall trees, waterholes and other structure all serve as reference points for flying doves. If your scouting indicates numerous doves are flying near such spots, you've found a place to take your stand.

Shooting doves as they come to water also offers fast action. And last September while hunting a small farm pond, I got a taste of it.

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 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.

I always scout 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 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 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.

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.

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 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.