The HuntingLife Guide to Dove Hunting
Dove hunting is often the first serious bird hunting event many hunters experience. In September, every year in almost every state across the United States, tens of thousands of hunters will step into the field to shoot wild dove. Dove season is a great opportunity to experience the camaraderie of hunting and it is one of the best opportunities to introduce new and young hunters to the sport of hunting. Dove are quite sporty and fantastically fun to shoot. Our HuntingLife guide to dove hunting will cover everything you need to be successful in the field this fall. Dove hunting is pretty simple: all it requires is a shotgun, shells, a license and your HIP (Harvest Information Program) number. Everything else comes down to a little knowledge, time and practice.
North American Dove
The American Mourning Dove populations are at an all-time high across the country. Current estimates place the population of dove close to 475 million. In an average year, almost 20 million doves are taken by hunters in the United States. Some years, as many as 70 million dove are taken by hunters.
Dove are gregarious birds who love to be in the same area with lots of other dove. Dove like structure and topography; it makes them feel safe. Dove generally stay on the edges of woods, tree lines and power lines as well as in open and semi-open fields. Dove survive by eating seeds; and only 1% of their diet is made up of insects. They must find a good supply of gravel, grit and sand in order to help them break down the seeds they eat. Dove also visit water at least a few times a day. If you find the combination of great topography, roosting trees, plenty of food on the ground and access to grit and water you will most likely find an abundance of dove.
Dove are most active before 9 a.m. and after 3 p.m. They will be seen moving between feeding, water and roosting locations. Dove will move from roost to water and then to feeding areas. In mid-day, doves will perch or hang out on lines, snags, trees, or water and gravel sites. Doves hit the feeding fields for the remainder of the afternoon, head to water and then to the roost for the evening.
Dove are prolific breeders and can have up to six broods of two young each in a single year. Mortality rates on mourning dove are high so the prolific breeding and hunting has almost no effect on the population numbers year to year. Mourning dove are generally monogamous pairs. Males and females work together to raise the young. It is difficult to tell males and females apart. There are three subspecies of dove across North America with the collared dove growing across the North American Range. Some states have an unlimited season on the collared doves so check your state regulations.
Dove are primarily attracted to amaranth, canary grass, canola, corn, marijuana, millet, pine nuts, pokeberry, rye, safflower and sunflower seeds. Sunflower fields are hot spots for dove hunting.
Dove are strong fliers capable of speeds of up to 55 mph, though they average 35 mph. High speeds make these birds sporty and a blast to hunt in the early fall. Doves are migratory birds and travel along flyways. They run north from March to May and south from September to November. Young birds usually begin the migration first with mature adults following. Some doves remain local and do not migrate. This is especially due to the growth of bird feeding over the last 40 years.
Set up and Scouting for Dove Hunting
Success in the dove field relies on scouting and being in the right location throughout the season. Dove are attracted to power lines, conifers, trees, fields and water. Dove are most importantly attracted to other doves. Doves are flock birds that need to see other doves around them in order to feel safe. So when you see doves in the field, on power lines, on the limbs of a tree or near water, stop and be patient. Look around with your binoculars. If you start to see other birds in the area, this is probably a good area to hunt. If you see other doves around watch the flyways and how they are moving and put yourself in the shade so you can pay attention to everything from the wind to the sun line as well as the flight pattern.
Pay attention to the terrain, the sun lines, the prevailing wind and the elevation. Put yourself in a location where you can pay attention to what is at your back. Keep your body screened from being highlighted on high locations and keep your body from being silhouetted.
As you approach a field to hunt dove, look for areas that have holes or low spots in the timber for doves to use as natural flyways. Watch the corners of fields and high spots within the field; doves like to use these high spots for feeding, for safety, and for keeping a lookout for predators. Watch for reference points on these fields and pay attention to everything from fence lines, tree lines, dead trees and the direction of the sun and the wind as you set up.
Pay attention to watering sites: doves like to drink on ponds, mud-holes and banks that have free view to danger around them. You will not see them land on lakes with heavy weed cover because they do not feel safe in these locations. Water-filled potholes on sandy roads are often a favorite of dove.
As you scout, always look for sandy banks and gravel sites. Dove really do need this grit to break down the seeds in their gullet and will almost always hit these locations right after feeding. If you are not seeing the doves in the field look for the gravel sites and the water sites.
Ray Estrada gave us a great tip on paying attention to the weather: “One of the things that my Dad taught me was to pay attention to the weather. Dove will usually fly right at dawn to find water and food. If it turns out considerably cooler on opening day than the previous few days before, the birds will roost longer until it gets a little warmer. So if you think you’ve found a good spot with water and food around be patient and it’ll probably be a good hunt.”
Troy Reeves gave us a great comment, “Shoot them where they will fall in the right place! Not in surrounding crops! And even if they land on disc ground, never take your eye off where they land! Unless you have a dog, forget doubles! Or even shooting them in some places, unless you enjoy searching for the little boogers!” Great dove hunters put themselves in locations where they can hit birds on crossing shots and where the birds are going to land in easy-to-retrieve locations.
Shotgun Shells and Choke Selection for Hunting Dove
Shots for dove are best taken between 15 to 30 yards. Experts agree that the standard shots for dove require boxes of shells ranging from 7½, 8 or 9. Dove are hardy, sporty birds but it doesn’t take much to drop dove out of the sky. These loads will be your go-to rounds for just about anything between 10 to 35 yards. If you are looking to take high birds at a bit more distance, use 6 shot to get a little more oomph or 7½ loads in tungsten to get that slightly heavier weight out there.
Experts agree that taking the time to shop for high-quality shells with heavier loads can increase your success in the field. Look for high end skeet and trap loads that are set up to provide tight patterns consistently. Buy your shells early and as our buddy Jim Richman shared, “One box is never enough!” It can be, but having the same shells day after day helps you to be consistent.
As well, experts all agree that a quality open choke on your shotgun is important. You want a full pattern at around 3 feet in diameter for doves. Take the time to pattern your shotgun for the choke you have and your chosen shells. Modified is the recommended choice by most professionals. A select group will shoot double barrels with either modified/improved or modified/full chokes on doves. Match the choke to what you are seeing in the field.
Regardless of which shells you shoot, Roger Metz provides this advice: “My dad, who didn’t hunt, taught me to always pick up my empty hulls. Didn’t matter where I shot, he always asked me if I had taken time to clean up. Years later when I had my own field, I was amazed how many guests I invited to shoot left the field without picking up empty boxes or hulls. Leave things cleaner than when you got there…a motto to live by.” Roger, we absolutely agree!! Pick up your shells and leave the land better than you found it so you can continue to have a place to hunt.
Tune up your shooting for dove hunting
No matter what choke or shells you select, tuning up your shooting with a few practice rounds on the trap or skeet range is vital to your success in the field. Most shooters are behind birds when they shoot. Because of this, one of the best shooting tips we have heard is to focus on the tip of the beak and move out about 6 feet on your lead so that your quarry runs right into your 36-inch pattern. If you still find yourself missing behind, continue to increase your lead until you begin knocking down birds. Each of us are different shooters so you have to find the lead that work for you.
Monie McMurtry had a hunting buddy who told him, “Don’t shoot with your crooked eye.” Keep your eyes on the bird and don’t focus your crooked eyes on the bead. Focus on the bird and swing through the bird as you pull the trigger. The bead on your shotgun is a reference but your focus should be on bird and your point should be ahead of the dove about 6 inches.
One important step in wingshooting that is often overlooked is matching the speed of your target with the speed of your muzzle. This allows you to focus on your lead; your shotgun is traveling at an equal speed as your target. If you can learn to match the speed of your target, you can focus your eyes on the target and clearly keep your lead ahead allowing you to shoot more birds.
Success on doves requires you to know your shooting stance and practice mounting your shotgun. Practice mounting your feet, mounting your shotgun and mounting your cheek before you head out so you can be ready before opening day. Once you are in the field, wait until the dove is close enough to shoot and then mount your shotgun firmly to your shoulder.
Shooting dove is sometimes done while sitting. Dove can be right up on you quickly and you may find yourself shooting from the chair or your dove bucket. Shooting from the chair is acceptable but requires a strong mount and a little practice. Focus on shooting birds between two points so you can maintain your swing through the bird and make successful shots.
Scott Breedlove gave us a quick tip: “Never shoot the group. Always pick a bird.” Selecting just one bird allows you to focus on your lead and make a quick, clean ethical shot. Flock shooting is never ethical and almost always leads to a miss or a wounded bird.
Most importantly hunting is exciting. This does not mean, however, that your shooting must be rushed. Take your time, plant your feet firmly, lift your gun to a solid mount and pick your shot with confidence. Let the birds come to you and take the shot that feels right to you. Success in the dove fields comes with confidence and some good shooting practice.
Camouflage for Hunting Dove
Dove have good eyes and because of this, objects that look out of place in a field will be avoided by these wary birds. Focus on camo that matches your surroundings and is light enough to handle the hot sun of the early season. Hats, pants and a shirt are generally enough to keep you concealed. Face painting is optional but it can help keep the birds from flaring.
If you can build a blind to set up in front of you, it can only help. Blinds can be simple, easy-to-set-up structures made of natural material or cloth. Anything that breaks up your silhouette is helpful.
More important than wearing camouflage is keeping still in the field. If you are constantly moving, dove will pick you off with their excellent sight. We all know that guy who is fidgety and cannot stop moving. Or the one who runs back and forth to the truck to get gear, more shells and lunch. Don’t be that guy. Get into the field, set yourself up and then remain as motionless as you can. Dove hunting is HUNTING so make a conscious effort to sit still and hunt these wary birds.
Dove Calls for Hunting
Dove make a fairly consistent six-note call and it is easy to recognize. The first 3 notes run together with a woo-hoo-woo and 3 drawn out notes of woo-woo-woo. You can use some of the calls that are on the market or use your hands to make this call. A straight whistle with a single note from a teal or wood duck call also seems to turn dove towards the call. On pass-through locations this can work effectively. Calling dove in combination with working decoys can increase your odds dramatically and keep your interest for longer periods of time in the field.
We like the following dove calls for hunting:
The Haydel’s D-90 is a simple fluted tube call. Blow through the whistle end with your thumb over the bottom of the clear base. You make the first note with your finger on the call, your next with the finger removed and the next four with your finger on the call. The first three notes run together and you draw out the last three notes. It takes a little practice to become quite good with this call and the tone is realistic. This is our favorite call for dove hunting.
The Primos M-362 is uses the same system to call with a hole for the accent note. It is easy to use and is loud enough to compensate for the wind noise which is so prevalent in areas such as Nebraska and the Midwest.
The Faulk’s call comes from a long line of duck calls. It has the feel of a duck call with wood and cork making up the construction. The tone hole takes a little getting used to and blowing this call takes a bit more practice but the sound is realistic. While not as loud as other calls, the Faulk D-8 has a full sound.
Flextone Dove Call
The Flextone call produces the call of the mourning dove and the sounds of dove while they are in flight. The call also allows the hunter to control tone and volume through adjustment.
Regardless of which call you use, one of the keys to success in calling is practice and keeping your body still while calling to ensure you are not seen. Calling doves keeps our focus on the hunt. Once you start to see dove turn in flight and come in close in response to your call, you will be hooked on the action of dove calling.
If you are tired of pass-shooting at doves as they fly between watering, feeding and roosting locations, it might be time to consider decoying doves. Dove decoys have come a long way in the last decade. We have everything from silhouette decoys, shells, full body, robo-dove decoys and even spinners that attract doves to the ground.
Dove decoys are meant to bring in other dove which are looking for safety and food. Decoy spreads in areas of feeding, watering or roosting locations can make dove feel at ease. Set up your decoy spreads to look like areas of feeding, loafing or roosting areas. Consider placing your decoys facing into the wind as dove always take off facing into the wind. Typically, due to the high mortality of mourning dove, they generally do not catch on to the concept of avoiding decoys.
We caught up with Terry Denmon, President and CEO of MOJO Outdoors and asked him about their Spinning Wing Decoys (SWD). “The MOJO® Voodoo Dove Decoy has proved to be a very successful tool. Many hunters think of SWD’s as a finishing tool, much like other decoys, and they do function as such in most cases, but their main advantage is as a long-range attractor. Doves can see them from long distances, several miles on a clear day and are attracted to them. Wing flapping decoys will make your spread look more natural, and the motion can be easily seen by doves once they get within a certain distance, but they do not offer the long-range attraction aspect. The addition of a number of static decoys around the SWD gives your decoy spread a much more natural look and tells other doves that your location is a popular spot.”
When setting up your decoys, focus on placing them so the birds can clearly see them and they look natural. If you are near a waterhole, set up your decoys on the shore arranged in an area where you have a large landing area and doves in flight can readily see it is safe to land. In feeding areas, place your decoys on the ground to look like a feeding set up. We like a combination of the MOJO Dove a Flickers and the MOJO Voodoo Dove along with static dove decoys. In other areas where you are looking to provide a loafing or roosting set up, check out the MOJO Dove Tree to get your decoys off the ground where dove can see them from long ranges and keep them coming in with a feeling of safety.
Terry Denmon added, “The use of decoys not only adds to the success of the hunt, but adds satisfaction to the hunter as you are now ‘hunting’ instead of just ‘shooting’”
Whether you are hunting doves with friends on private land or hunting public land alone, dove season is a tremendous opportunity to get out in the field and experience some great shooting and hunting against a worthy prey. Dove hunting provides a tremendous amount of options whether you are looking for pass-through shooting or you want to get active and do some decoying, calling or a combination of the two.
And for when you begin to have some success, Phillip Loughlin offers this great tip: “Pluck your birds whole, while they’re still warm in the field. You can pluck a couple while you’re waiting for the next flight to come over. Some states require you to leave a wing, so mind your state laws. Like a lot of dove hunters, when I first started dove hunting, I was taught to just breast the birds out. It’s quick and easy. However, plucking a warm dove is just as easy as breasting it out, and you get the benefit of that fat skin when you cook. Whole doves, rolled in a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, then grilled to medium, make for an amazing meal and a real change from the standard, bacon-wrapped poppers.”
Hank Shaw, one of our favorite wild game chefs and the author of many great wild game books, mirrored Phillip’s comment about wild dove and plucking them in the field. We cannot recommend Hank’s books enough and we are thankful that he has a great collection of dove recipes online at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. These are some fantastic dove recipes and we suggest you get out into the field so you have birds to test these recipes out.
You don’t have to be a rich man on private land to enjoy the passion of wing shooting and dove hunting. You don’t need much more than a shotgun and some shells, in all honesty. You can hunt on public or private land in almost every state for dove. Check your local regulations and head out for some dove hunting action. Remember that this time of year and this type of hunting is a great time to introduce new hunters to the field.
If you enjoyed this article, please share it. If you have a favorite dove recipe or a tip that was passed down to you from a favorite hunting partner, please take the time to comment below and share the wisdom. Thank you!