Dove at First Sight
By Marty Benson, DNR Communications
Are you relatively new to hunting?
Or have you looked forward to each hunting season for decades?
No matter your experience level, you probably got your start hunting small game.
And if you haven’t hunted yet, the first few times you do, you will probably be targeting small game—most likely squirrels and rabbits. They’re easy to find. Hunting them requires relatively little equipment, and the chance for success is high.
But remember, a small game license, with the addition of a Game Bird Habitat Stamp and HIP registration, also allows you to hunt doves. Doing so, although more challenging, still boasts the same selling points, plus a few others.
And if you’re a seasoned hunter, remember that dove hunting can be a great way to introduce a friend to hunting. Even if you don’t usually hunt doves, it may be time to rediscover them for that worthwhile purpose.
As with squirrels and rabbits, you can find doves almost anywhere, and the gear needed is minimal. And with doves, once you find your spot, you often can just wait and enjoy the outdoors.
“All you need is a shotgun, shotgun shells, and a stool or a bucket to sit on,” said Luke Louden, R3 specialist for the Division of Fish & Wildlife. “And I know a lot of dove hunters who don’t wear camouflage while hunting doves. They just sit in some shade or tall vegetation.”
A 12- or 20-gauge shotgun with No. 7, 8 or 9 shot is ideal. You can find a basic shotgun for less than $500. A box of shells costs from $20 to $25. If you will be hunting state land, you will need to use steel rather than lead shot when hunting doves.
While finding doves is easy, hitting them when you shoot at them, particularly when they are airborne, is not.
“If you are new to dove hunting, go to a gun range and get some trap or sporting clays shooting experience first,” Louden said. “When you are shooting a dove, for the most part, the dove is crossing in front of you rather than flying away from you. Go to a place where you can practice shooting at different angles.”
The most popular time to dove hunt, by far, is the first two days of September.
“It is a signal that it’s the start of the fall hunting seasons, because dove season is generally the first thing that opens up,” Louden said.
Many hunters will hunt doves only on those two days.
“After the doves flying in have been shot at several times, the doves figure out that those fields aren’t the places to be,” Louden said.
A lot of those one- or two-day dove hunters change to hunting other species until the next September. Instead, Louden recommends waiting. Doves are migratory. Before long, different doves will hit that same field for food. Start hunting doves again when that happens—or, if you want to go sooner, find a different place that hasn’t been hunted heavily for doves.
“Scouting for doves is very easy and can really help lead to a successful hunt,” said Zachary Schoenherr, property manager at Hovey Lake Fish & Wildlife Area, who is an avid dove hunter. “Just look around at areas you have permission to hunt a few days before you plan to hunt there.
“If you see a lot of doves in a specific area, chances are it’s going to be good hunting the next couple of days.”
Like Hovey Lake, most Fish & Wildlife areas across the state manage fields on their properties specifically to provide high-quality dove hunting opportunities.
“Those fields are primarily planted with sunflowers or other crop and then mowed in late summer to provide feeding areas for doves,” Schoenherr said. “Those dove fields can offer some of the best dove hunting around and a great introduction to the sport.”
Dove season is divided into three sections, Sept. 1–Oct. 17, Nov. 1–21 and Dec. 11 to Jan. 1. All can be great times to hunt doves, even though dove hunting may not be popular during most of those days.
No matter when it’s done, dove hunting is usually done over a sunflower or grain field because those places provide what doves eat. Because doves typically fly there to feed in the morning or evening, those are the times to hunt. Shooting is done as doves fly into the field and land, or as they fly over.
“Doves typically fly following tree lines, fence lines, ditches, really any sort of barrier that might serve as an outline for their pass,” Louden said. “When you are looking for a spot to sit, generally you would want to try to get to where you can shoot them when they are flying over on that flight path.”
Even though doves don’t feed in the middle of the day, you can still hunt then, using a different approach. That’s when doves roost in hedgerows or smaller tree lines to digest what they have eaten.
“You can walk those areas and flush the doves, similar to how some people hunt pheasant or quail,” Louden said. “When they fly up, that’s when you shoot.
“As long as there are small trees and shrubs that they could be hiding in, it’s a spot worth checking out.”
Hunting for doves on state land on those first two September days usually requires participating in a draw because there are more hunters than there is productive space to safely hunt doves. You can sign up for the draws at each respective state property’s website at wildlife.IN.gov. If you don’t get drawn, standby spots often open on site. After those first two days, you can just show up at the property, follow the sign-in procedures, and hunt.
If you have a hard time finding a place to hunt doves, want a new place to hunt them, or find that state land isn’t handy or productive, Louden recommends driving around farmland after harvest and watching for big flocks of doves feeding on waste grain.
“If you stop and ask a farmer if you can go out in their cut cornfield and hunt doves, you have a fairly high chance of getting permission,” he said. “There also is a lot of farming that happens at the state properties, so you can drive around and look there too.”
If you think you may sometime want to get permission to hunt bigger game on private land, getting permission to hunt doves there first can serve as an inroad.
“Sometimes getting permission to hunt turkey or deer on someone else’s property can be challenging, but dove hunting doesn’t make as much impact, so it’s often easier to get permission to do it,” Louden said. “Dove hunting a private property can be a gateway to building a relationship with the owner so you might get to hunt other things on their property.”
Once you shoot doves, your first step after collecting your birds will be to gut and clean them, but Louden says you don’t have to do that right away, as you do for a deer. Although Louden packs a cooler to store his doves after cleaning, he says most hunters don’t. Doves are small and lose body heat quickly.
“You can wait until you are finished hunting,” he said. “If it’s a very hot day, put them in the shade.”
Another attraction of hunting doves is their performance on a dinner plate. Most people just filet out the breast meat. Louden recommends plucking the feathers to get the rest.
“Because they are small, doves are easier pluck than other birds,” he said. “And doves are a good place to start if you want to get good at plucking larger birds.”
Come September—especially beyond its first two days—grab a shotgun and some shells, a bucket or stool—and maybe a friend—and enjoy hunting the flying side of small game. And remember the other two periods for dove, too.