Looking for Doves in all the Right Places

By Dan Small - September 1, 2011
So, you want to kick off the fall season with a dove hunt, eh? You've heard about how much fun dove hunting is and how hard the little critters are to hit, and you'd like to give it a try yourself. But if you've never hunted doves, you'll quickly find that the advice you get from books, videos and other hunters on how to lead them, what shot size works best and whether to go with an open-choked fast-swinging gun or a tighter-choked gun with a longer barrel for sustained leads is all for naught if you can't find a couple dozen doves to shoot at.

When it comes right down, to it, the most important factor in a successful dove hunt is location. Mourning doves are the most abundant game birds in Wisconsin - and across the U.S., for that matter - but they are not evenly distributed across the landscape. Pick the right spot, and you'll enjoy fast shooting and an opportunity to bag a limit of birds. Pick the wrong spot, and you'll spend the morning or afternoon swatting mosquitoes and watching empty skies.

Mourning doves are seed-eaters, and they prefer to feed on the ground. The best places to look for them are harvested fields of wheat, oats, rye, barley, sorghum and corn. This summer, farmers across Wisconsin have been harvesting small grains. Later in the fall, they'll harvest corn. Most stubble fields attract not only doves, but also ducks, geese and turkeys, which quickly clean up the waste grain left by even the most efficient combines.

Since they are rather small birds, doves are hard to see when they're on the ground. Geese and turkeys, on the other hand, can be easily spotted from roads. If the big birds are feeding in grain stubble, odds are good that doves are there as well.

The mourning dove's habit of resting on electrical wires is another giveaway. Savvy dove hunters simply drive the back roads looking for the familiar silhouettes perched on wires. When you find a concentration of doves, there has to be food nearby.

Water also attracts doves, but a pond must have a sand or gravel shoreline where doves can easily walk to the water's edge and drink. Find a small pond near a grain field and you should have a winning combination for a good dove hunt.

The simplest way to hunt a grain field is to find a woods edge or fencerow that provides enough cover to conceal you. It doesn't take much, just some tall grass, a few shrubs or some trees to provide shade and break up your outline. Sit on a camouflaged bucket or chair and don't move until doves are in range.

Most dove hunting is done early and late in the day, when birds are active. Observe doves as they fly to and from food and water, and you'll soon recognize their travel patterns. Pick a place near where you see birds flying and where you have a clear view of the field. Sit with the sun at your back or at least over one shoulder.

Doves like to perch in dead trees between feeding sessions. The hunter who sits next to a dead elm in a hedgerow that borders a stubble field will have easier shots than the hunter who simply picks a spot along a field edge at random. Incoming birds that are about to land are a lot easier to hit than birds crossing at full speed.

Doves habitually go to water in late afternoon after feeding and just before going to roost. Some hunters stake out a pond for the last two hours of the day and get good shooting at birds as they come and go.

Decoys can be helpful, especially near ponds and dead trees. Some hunters make a "decoy tree" out of a wood or dark-colored PVC pipe. Fasten decoys on the branches and stand the "tree" where approaching doves can see it from a distance.

It's too late for this year, but if you have a field you want to manage for dove hunting, sunflowers are the best crop to plant. When the seeds ripen, shred and disc the entire field or simply make a few passes around the edge of the field with a brush hog or combine to knock the plants down in a 20-yard swath. This puts seeds on the ground, where doves can get at them, and it makes it easier for hunters and dogs to retrieve shot doves. State and federal law allow for this kind of manipulation of a field, but it is not lawful to place seeds in a field or move them into a pile to attract doves.

This year, the dove season runs from September 1 through November 9. The daily bag limit is 15 birds, and the possession limit is 30 birds. A small game license and HIP certification are required, but it is not necessary to purchase a state or federal migratory bird stamp. A free Department of Natural Resources publication, "Mourning Dove Hunting in Wisconsin," lists other requirements, such as limiting shotgun capacity to three shells and tagging requirements if you give birds to someone else. The Wisconsin small game hunting regulations lists shooting hours and other rules.

Mourning doves are challenging targets, but if you get enough opportunities you should start hitting them with fair consistency. This week or next, spend a few days scouting. When you find a concentration of doves, it should not be difficult to get permission to hunt them. When you look for doves in all the right places, you'll find this sporty bird provides a great way to kick off the fall hunting season.

Author Dan Small
Dan Small
Dan Small is host/producer of Outdoor Wisconsin on Public Television and Outdoors Radio. He is also contributing editor of Wisconsin Outdoor News. He has written several thousand articles for national, regional and state-based outdoor publications since 1972. Listen to his syndicated weekly radio show on stations throughout Wisconsin and here on Lake-Link. For more information visit www.dansmalloutdoors.com.