First Shots Of Fall: An Introduction to Dove Hunting
Editor Ben Shadley on the basics of dove hunting, including a few observations from years in the field.
Years ago now, when there wasn’t much space between hunting and everyday life, about this time of year, I’d take my camo to school.
Impatiently waiting for the bell, then shucking on my too-big realtree pants and shirt, I’d watch for my Dad’s green car with the yellow shield on the door, always wearing a little county road dust. Guns and gear across the back seat, we’d head off to a local dove field.
Cool mornings and shortening of days remind me of those early hunts. On the edge of my fourth decade,“few” may not fully cover it. But the memories are still sharp as the smell of freshly fired shells.
On paper dove isn’t the first hunting season; squirrel opens mid-August. Instead of chasing bushy tails, the heat usually found us fishing instead of sweating in the woods. Cool streams provide at least a partial respite from the sauna we call home.
So for us, Dove season was the real kick-off to fall and huntings seasons to follow; a private celebration of switching from rods to guns. We’re somewhat of a shotgun family, and if you like to shoot, dove season won’t disappoint – that is until you burn three boxes of shells and your pile of doves doesn’t reflect the effort.
With the season upon us, here’s how to stack the odds in favor of a safe, legal, and pleasant hunt.
Indiana Season & Regulations
Indiana mourning dove season has three sets of dates: September 1 to October 17; November 1 to November 21; and December 1 to January 1, 2022. That means you can indeed hunt doves for the rest of the year, notwithstanding the breaks. The best hunting, however, is typically at the top of the season. By the time it’s too cold for you, it usually is for the doves as well.
The daily bag limit is 15 birds, with a possession limit of 45. To legally shoot at these agile fliers, you must have a hunting license, HIP number, and a migratory bird game stamp. Keep in mind migratory birds are managed by the Feds, so screwing up here means you're breaking state and federal law.
If you luck into killing a few, don’t throw everyone’s birds in one pile. The conservation officer will not have as much faith in your mental tabulation as you do. Keep one pile, or game bag, per hunter; it also makes for easier ribbing.
Guns must be plugged, which means they can hold no more than three shells. A typical pump or auto will hold a total of six (five plus one in the chamber), so some sort of plug must be inserted into the tube magazine to take up three shells worth of space. [Adjust the math for your gun as needed]
If you find yourself in the field with an unplugged gun, your day isn't over. Find a stick of appropriate diameter, trim to size, install, and you’re legal.
Every year I read the regs for what I’m hunting; you should too. Regulations sometimes change, game laws are often complicated, and close enough to legal isn’t.
Being migratory birds, literally and in legalese, finding doves includes a combination of timing and habitat. Hopefully and typically, in the general vicinity of opening day, migration patterns usually start delivering a good number of doves to the Midwest. Not all migrate, but our numbers significantly increase as the travelling doves make their way south for the winter.
Classic dove hunting habitat includes sunflower fields (often planted specifically for doves), wildlife food plots, and some types of common farm crops. Gravel pit operations tend to draw doves as well. Birds are looking for a combination of cover, an abundance of small seeds, and water. They also need small bits of gravel or sand to aid the grinding of their seed-based diet.
Water sources can be as small as puddles and cover can be as simple as trees or structure doves can land on to stay clear of danger, and possibly use for roosting.
Finding places to hunt is another story in itself, but the first step is understanding what doves are looking for. The DNR does have a nice map of public hunting locations, many of which include doves.
One of the beauties of dove hunting is the short list of required gear. You can take a truckload of equipment, but can get by on just a few essentials.
With the exception of your 10 gauge, any shotgun will do. Hunters looking for a more sporting experience may shoot a 20 or 28 gauge, but the most common gun you’ll find in dove fields is a 12 gauge.
Shot sizes of 7 and 7 ½ seem to be the right balance. Pair them with a modified choke tube, or something close.
An auto will burn shells faster but doesn’t kill them any deader. There’s an advantage on follow-up shots with an auto, but a skilled shooter with a pump can be awfully fast. I started out shooting doves with a single-shot .410 and did just fine, so don’t overthink it. Stack the odds in your favor and take what you’re most comfortable shooting.
Opinions on camouflage are mixed. Unlike turkey hunting, for example, which requires full concealment, doves aren’t quite that sensitive. I usually hunt in a camo t-shirt and heavy work pants to bust the brush.
But I’ve also seen hunters limit out wearing solid color, button down shirts fit for a nice post-hunt dinner. My take is that camo helps, but staying in the shade, standing still, and hiding your silhouette is just as important, if not more.
Consider taking something to sit on. A handy option is some sort of shooting bucket that has storage, a handle, and a lid that doubles as the seat. You’re going to need shells, lots of them. You can only stuff so many shells in your pants pockets, so a sporting clays-style vest or belted carrier is a must. You’re picking up your empties, so allow space for them as well.
Rarely do you stand in one place for whole hunt, so a game bag is useful for carrying your take and keeping track of your count.
Eye protection is a must. Some of the best hunting is in the evening, so you’ll be battling low-angle sun, not to mention the benefits of safeguarding your vision in close proximity to firearms.
If you’re hunting near a body of water, a way to retrieve splash landed birds is a good idea.
Murphy’s law applies to hunting; if birds can fall where you can’t get to them, they will. Waders, a kayak or canoe, or a fishing pole with a floating (preferably treble-hooked) lure can all work depending on the situation. The other option is waiting for the wind to blow your bird ashore.
Until recently I was agnostic on decoys. Just this season, a friend brought a motorized dove to a gravel operation we've been hunting. There were enough birds to make it interesting, but the shooting was inconsistent. As the evening wore on, after hunting all over the operation, we couldn't deny the decoy was working. As shooting hours came to a close we all gravitated toward the big pile of gravel with the motor dove perched atop.
Compared to the other 30 or 40 acres we'd been milling around in search of the sweet spot, birds wanted in to that gravel pile. The place was generally homogenous, nothing special other than the toy-like bird flying in place. I'm more sure than not that, at least on that hunt, the decoy made a difference. I bought a pair I'll use this season. We'll see.
Shooting & Hunting
A pre-hunt tune up on sporting clays is a good idea. Even shooting off a simple trap is better than nothing, just remember to shoot a variety of shots.
From experience, if my normally ok shooting falls apart in the field it’s one or a combination of simple things. I’m either A: Not fully mounting the gun or getting my cheek on the stock; B: Not leading the birds and following through; or C: taking shots that are too long because I’m just real excited.
Much like fly-casting, great form in the yard can fall apart in real-world scenarios. When in doubt, go back to the basics.
Even if you seem to be shooting blanks, and the ridicule is rising, hold on to your hemlock. Doves rightly qualify as one of the toughest winged game animals to hit. They’re small, they’re fast, and their agility means they flare hard at the first sign of trouble.
Hunting doves looks much like standing, or sitting still until birds come into range. Find a spot out of the sun that hides your silhouette. Pay attention to where the birds want to be and get as close you can.
Like other feathered game, doves can sometimes take more punishment than seems reasonable. Typically, a solid hit results in a downed dove. But sometimes all you get is a poof of feathers, a few wobbly wing beats, and the dove looks no worse for the wear. My theory, however, is any bird that’s clearly been hit is not ok, and attempting a follow-up shot is the best practice.
The in-between scenario, the cripple, is tougher. When a dove is hit and makes a semi-controlled crash landing, or looks fine but lands when it should shooting skyward, it’s time to start fast-walking.
Find a marker where the dove went down, make sure you’re loaded, safety on, and be ready to shoot the flushing bird as you approach. If it can see you coming take a route that gives cover on the way in, then make the ambush and be ready to shoot. For birds that haven’t yet expired, run it down if you can and use your preferred method of quick dispatch.
What about shooting other hunter’s cripples he or she hasn’t found or can’t get to? Whether in the air or on the ground, if a wounded bird is in danger of getting away, the answer is “yes.” It’s the ethical call, and if someone gets their feelings hurt. don’t say anything – just keep the bird.
Know A Kid, Take A Kid
I started going on dove hunts early. My job was to run down birds and solve problems with my BB gun. By the time I was shooting at the ripe old age of seven, I knew the ropes. But more importantly, I was hooked.
Clear as a bell I remember the evening I dropped a couple birds with my .410 faster than I could pick them up. I was proud of my shooting, but my little heart nearly burst when I realized my Dad stopped shooting to watch. His smile meant more than all the doves that ever were.