I think, without a doubt, almost all American hunters would agree that dove season is the unofficial start of fall and the official start to the fall hunting season. I don’t care which state you live in or what coast your closest to, all hunters are excited for the start of dove season. Most hunters nowadays identify with a particular game animal. Some hunters identify as elk, deer or waterfowl hunters, but after a long summer, every one of these folks identifies as a dove hunter, at least for opening day. For some unprepared hunters, opening day can be frustrating because they have not prepared properly. However, I have five simple tips that can assure that your opening day is a success.
1. Pick the right gun
The right gun is the foundation for making the opening day successful. Some hunters use opening day to bring out vintage or old guns to try in the field, and while this can be a fun way to end the day, I would recommend using the most effective gun in your safe to start the morning off. I have seen all too many “grandpa” guns fail on opening morning. This will undoubtedly lead to needless frustration. I would always suggest using a 12 gauge when hunting dove. Some people think this is overkill, but it offers the widest variety of shell choices and if you are having a rough day you can always pick up the 1 ⅛ oz and get after ’em.
2. Pattern your shotgun
Most hunters dust off old “trusty rusty” for opening day. This can be a great day to bring grandpa’s gun out from under the bed and into the field, but no one wants to look like a fool in front of your pals when the doves start flying.
There is a simple way that you can use that family heirloom and knock the birds down. If you just take your gun to the range with a piece of cardboard you can pattern your gun and save yourself some needless misses.
3. Pick the right shell
Choosing the right shell can have a great impact on your success. Let’s take 12ga loads as an example. Some of the common loads include; ⅞ oz, 1 oz and 1 ⅛ oz of shot and the shot size can range from 7 ½s to 9’s. There is a lot of variables with this many choices. The difference between picking 9’s over 7 1/2 ‘s can mean over 200 more pellets per shot. That’s a lot of potential lead in the air to knock down the birds. Although the size difference does translate to knockdown power, if your shots are going to be within 30 yards, I would always choose to shoot 9’s. It doesn’t take a lot to knock a dove down and if you shoot a modified or full choke you will have more than enough to take the birds down very effectively.
There are several great ways to practice for opening day. Of course, the most obvious thing to do would be to hit the range and shoot some sporting clays targets. This is absolutely a great way to warm up the hands and eyes for some fast flying, darting dove. If you choose this option I would suggest some of the harder shots that a dove presents in the field. It always seems that when you shoot at a dove it is never coming in a straight line. So I would suggest shooting targets that offer harder angles, including fast crossing targets and tower birds going away. Don’t forget to shoot in the same position that you are going to be using in the field. For example, I often shoot from the seated position when dove hunting. So take a folding chair to the range and shoot a few targets sitting down so that you know what the shot feels like and what the sight alignment looks like. If you don’t have access to a sporting clays course, the skeet range is the best option for you. In my opinion, a skeet field offers the most realistic dove hunting experience in 8 stations.
There are some other options that you can take advantage of when getting prepared for dove season. Some invasive, non-native species can offer a great hunting opportunity as well as unrestricted access. I am referring to Pigeons and European Starlings. These two species are not regulated under game laws and are often easy to gain access to hunt. Perhaps the most important thing that they offer is a realistic flight pattern to a dove. Both starlings and pigeons exhibit an erratic flight pattern, as anyone can tell you nothing about a doves flight is predictable. These two species can offer a great training opportunity for the opening day dove field and help rid the landscape of a deleterious non-native species.
Scouting can be the most important part of a successful opening day. Doves are “fair-weathered” birds and can be heavily impacted by changes in the weather. I have seen a couple opening days greatly impacted by an early cold snap or a large storm. However, although it is good to be aware of weather-related events, they are ultimately out of your control. The main things that you should be focused on are water, food, and grit. Food sources are usually easy to find, sunflower, corn, and soybean fields are great places to set up and wait for the birds to come in. Like most birds, Doves are dependent on water. They will usually visit a water source shortly after they eat in the morning and they will hit the same source on the way back to roost. Grit can be an overlooked factor when considering where to hunt. Grit or small stones that the birds pick up for their gizzards to grind up their food is just as important as food and water. This is often why you see doves on gravel roads or near sand pits. The perfect scenario would be to have all three of these resources close together. If you can find a sunflower field with a gravel road running through the middle of it to a waterhole, then you have got it made. But if you are not that lucky, one or two of these will make for a great hunt. Just make sure you get out before the season and make sure the birds are using that particular resource.
By following these simple tips you can greatly raise the chances of having a successful opening day. Although nothing is guaranteed and you are still hunting a wild animal, anything that you can do to nudge the success needle closer to your side is worth it. Either way, come opening morning, get out and chase one of the most hunted and fun birds that we have.