Gerald Almy: Dove season opens soon

Gerald Almy

September means one thing to upland bird hunters in the Shenandoah Valley: dove season is here.

It’s time to dust off your shotguns, pull your camouflage clothing out of the closet and shoot a few practice rounds. Dove season marks the unofficial start of the hunting year for most sportsmen.

This year the season opens at noon on Saturday. Hunting will continue through Oct. 28 for the first segment, with all-day hunting allowed after the first day. On Saturday, hunting will only be permitted from noon until sunset.

The second season will run from Nov. 21-28. The final segment of dove hunting will run from Dec. 22-Jan. 14.

Unlike many upland bird species such as quail, which have declined over the years, doves are plentiful in Northwestern Virginia. That’s evident by the generous bag limit of 15 birds per day.

Here are some tactics, equipment tips, and strategies you can employ that will help you bag more of these speedy gray flyers over the next few months.

Start off right by using the best shotgun load. Although doves are strong enough to fly hundreds of miles, they are small-bodied birds and weigh just a few ounces. Because of that, early season doves are best brought down with a light load of No. 8 shot. Later in fall, as they gain weight from feeding, go with size 7 ½ shot in heavier high brass loads.

Select the right gauge shotgun. 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 modest. Most hunters of average build will be happiest with the 12 gauge.

Choose the optimum choke. There is no single perfect choke for dove hunting. In some circumstances, 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 or modified. In a double barrel shotgun, a combination of those two chokes works very well.

Wear camouflage or drab-colored clothing. 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.

Bring the right gear. Extra equipment besides your gun for a dove hunt should include earplugs, 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 for eye protection. 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. Try to figure out what routes the birds are using flying into fields and pick out several prime ambush points.

Pinpoint optimum 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 treetops.

As you raise your gun to shoot at a dove, be sure to follow through with your swing. This is one of the most common mistakes in dove hunting. Pull onto the bird, then 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 dove.

Be alert for sudden flurries 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. Be ready when those flight waves take place.  Be careful not to raise your gun too soon. If you do this, you lose the natural swinging motion that makes wing-shooting a fluid, rhythmic activity of raising the gun, aiming and firing. 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.

Dove hunting often takes place in hot weather, making spoilage of the birds 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. Doves are too delicious to risk having them spoil.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.