Break bad habits, bag more doves

Courtesy Keith "Catfish" Sutton

When I was editor of Arkansas Wildlife, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission's conservation magazine, I spent time one fall going through back issues and pulling quotes from different authors for a special anniversary issue we were working on. Many good writers contributed to the magazine during its long history, and I found hundreds of wonderful tidbits I saved for future reference.

Two quotes from those files seem particularly applicable to this article on dove hunting. The first, in a story by Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Famer George Purvis, was written in 1968. "Dove hunting," he said, "can be the best and least strenuous of all hunting sports, and at the same time possibly the most difficult." A true statement if ever there was one.

The second line, written in 1986 by another Arkansan, Dick Gregory, notes quite simply that "Most hunters don't care to admit how many shells it takes them to bag a mourning dove, proving it's a challenging sport." Another classic truism.

A friend of mine who was a dove hunting fanatic, but not a writer, had a way with words, too. His favorite saying related to his favorite game bird was unforgettable: "Doves aren't hard to hit, just easy to miss."

I think this last line, even more than the others, holds a great measure of truth. Hunters usually miss more doves than they hit due to their own errors, not because doves are exceptionally evasive or acrobatic. It's never too late, however, to change bad habits.

Bad habit #1: Failure to focus.

To bag a dove, you must focus on that dove and that dove alone. Yet many hunters fail to do this.

When you see several birds approaching, choose a single, and concentrate on proper aim and follow-through. Don't think about trying for double. If you miss a shot, adjust, but stay with the same bird. Don't attempt to bag a different dove. Get one on the ground before thinking about a second.

Here's another helpful hint: load only one shotshell. Knowing you have only one chance improves your concentration.

Bad habit #2: Stopping your swing.

Many doves are missed because hunters don't maintain a proper lead when shooting. They swing the shotgun properly to begin, but stop when pulling the trigger. This causes them to shoot behind.

The best cure is practice. Shoot at a skeet range, remembering to swing your shotgun from behind the target, through it, then ahead of it in one fluid motion. Keep swinging even as you squeeze the trigger.

If necessary, seek professional help. A good instructor can observe and determine what you're doing wrong, then explain ways to correct bad habits. Things learned on the range can be employed in dove fields.

Bad habit #3: Shooting too far.

Dove hunters often use heavy-load shells, thinking they can transform a shotgun into a long-range weapon. The fact is, most distant shots are not missed due to a lack of penetrating power. Instead, establishing the proper lead on flying doves becomes increasingly difficult with distance, causing misses on long and/or high shots.

Also, shot patterns become less effective with distance. Beyond 50 yards, the holes in a shotgun pattern are such that doves can fly through without a scratch.

To rid yourself of this bad habit, remember to focus on a single bird. Ask yourself, is it within proper shooting range? If not, let it pass. Don't waste shells on a bird you'll probably miss or wound. Light loads easily down doves that aren't too far.

Bad habit #4: Setting up in the wrong place.

Some hunters rush into a field and set up without hesitation. Not good. If you're improperly positioned, birds may never fly close enough, or in the right direction, to offer good shots.

Avoid this problem by scanning a field with binoculars before you take a stand. Determine where most doves enter and exit. Pay attention to structures that serve as reference points for flying doves — field corners, borders between stubble and plowed ground, fence lines, tall trees, etc. When observations indicate numerous doves fly over one particular spot, you've pinpointed a good stand.

Sit so you're comfortable with most shots you'll be taking. Let's say, for example, you hate "coming-at-you" shots, but usually connect when swinging right to left. If you determine doves are passing by a particularly tall tree as they enter the field, then sit on the proper side of the tree, facing the proper direction, so most birds pass from right to left. You'll bag more birds.

Bad habit #5: Watching with your head, not your eyes.

Sharp-eyed doves will flare away if they see hunter movement. Often, it's the hunter's moving head, turning this way and that as he scans the sky, that birds see.

"Learn to watch with your eyes, not your head," a veteran hunter once coached me. "Keep your noggin still; move only your eyes. Fewer doves will spot you."

That's good advice. It's also wise to wear a full set of camouflage clothing, including a face-net and gloves. This is one more advantage that will improve your "doves-killed-to-shots-fired" ratio.

Bad habit #6: Failing to mark your birds.

Here's another bad habit to avoid: taking your eyes off the spot where a dove goes down. Even the most stoic hunter is humbled time and time again by this action, for few things are more difficult than passing up shots at passing birds while searching the field for a dead or crippled dove. You have a sportsman's obligation, however, to find downed game before downing more game. When you pull the trigger and a dove falls, keep your eyes on the spot and walk it out. It's the right thing to do.