Clean your shotguns, spruce up your camouflage clothing and shoot a few practice rounds. Dove hunting season is almost here. This year the season opens September 2 at 12 noon. Half-day hunting will continue through September 6.
From September 7 through October 14 all day hunting will be permitted. The season then reopens from October 19 through November 2 and again from December 31 through January 11. Both of those segments allow all day hunting as well.
Here are some strategies I've learned for bagging more of these speedy gray flyers over three decades of hunting them.
First off, use the right load. Although doves are strong enough to fly hundreds of miles, they're actually small-bodied birds and weigh just a few ounces. Because of this, early season doves are best brought down with a light load of #8 or #9 shot. Later in fall, as they gain weight from feeding, go with size 7 ½ shot in heavier high brass loads.
Use the right gauge. Any gauge from 12 to .410 will work, but the truth is only expert shots should use a 28 gauge or a .410. Stick with a 16 or 20 gauge if you have a young or small-framed hunter you are introducing to the sport. The "kick" from these guns is very modest. Most hunters will be happiest with the 12 gauge.
Select the best choke. There is no single optimum choke for dove hunting. In some situations a wide-open skeet bore is good if birds are passing 15 to 25 yards from your position. For a more typical situation of shooting birds at random distances out to 35 or 40 yards, go with improved, modified, or in a double, a combination of those two chokes. A full choke is seldom needed for dove hunting.
Wear camouflage or drab clothing and avoid movement. Blaze orange has its place in hunting, but not dove hunting. These birds see color and will flare when they detect bright-hued clothing that sticks out from its surroundings.
Avoid moving when a bird or flock is in view. Once they've been exposed to a bit of hunting pressure, doves become particularly wary and will flare if a hunter repositions himself or starts to raise his gun before they are in range.
Get out early. Opening day is the best time to hunt doves. The birds have not been shot at yet and they often fly close, presenting easy shots. Another reason to be in the field on opening day is that lots of other hunters are out. That tends to keep the birds moving from field to field, giving you more shooting opportunities.
Bring the right gear. Extra equipment besides your gun for a dove hunt should include ear plugs, sunscreen, insect repellent, a hat with a brim to keep the sun out of your eyes, snacks, cold drinks or water, binoculars to track dove movements and shooting glasses or sunglasses. Decoys are an optional item you can add to the list.
Pre-scout before the season opens. Spend at least a couple of afternoons scouting before dove season opens. Stay back far enough that the doves aren't alarmed by you or the vehicle and simply watch, using both your naked eyes and binoculars. Generally you'll see most flying activity from 2 or 3 p.m. onward. Try to figure out what routes the birds are using flying into fields and pick out several prime ambush points.
Focus on the right stand locations. When selecting a site for a dove stand, search for spots that are different than the surrounding habitat. Look for a lone tree sticking up along a fence row, a point of unplowed weedy land jutting out into a cultivated field, the corner of a field where it adjoins woods, a dip or gap in an otherwise straight line of tree tops.
Don't break your swing. This is one of the most common mistakes in shooting doves. Pull up on the bird, keep your cheek down tight to the stock and fire as the barrel covers the quarry, but continue swinging. Otherwise your shot will go behind the quarry.
Watch for spurts of dove activity. Some hunters think all the best shooting will occur in the final hour or two of daylight. That's not always the case. Often throughout the afternoon there will be "flurries" of dove activity when several groups of birds fly in and out of fields for five or ten minutes, followed by a lull in activity. Be ready when those waves of flights occur.
Don't raise your gun too soon. If you do this, you lose the natural swinging motion that makes wingshooting a fluid, rhythmic activity of raising the gun, aiming and firing. Another problem with raising your gun too soon is that the birds might see your movement and flare out of range or swerve, making for a more difficult shot. Wait until the dove is just about into shooting range, meaning 40 yards or less, and then raise the shotgun in one smooth motion, firing as the barrel tracks ahead of the target.
Find the food. Good crop fields for doves include cut corn, wheat, millet, sorghum and sunflowers. Weed seeds such as thistle and croton are also favored by these birds.
Take care of your bounty. Dove hunting often takes place in hot weather, making spoilage of the game a concern. Don't pile doves up in the back of a hunting vest, but rather, lay them out in a shady area spread out so their body heat can dissipate. Alternately, you can carry a cooler with ice and put them in that, but be sure to spread them out.
Take cover. You don't need to build a blind, but try to locate a bit of natural cover to sit or stand next to. Find a cedar, fence post, brushy point or uncut row of corn to hide near. You don't have to hide yourself as well as you would to lure in a flock of wary ducks, but standing out in the open is a sure way to make doves flare out of range.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.