Will this year mark a turnaround for dove hunters?
The sporty birds have been in short supply in recent years. A few of us were discussing the issue the other day, trying to decide if the last good dove year occurred five or six years ago, a time when doves were plentiful in early and late season.
None of us were overly optimistic about Saturday’s opener, but we hoped we would be proven wrong.
Doves are not the only legal game that will attract wing-shooters this weekend. The special teal season and early Canada goose season also begin. But doves offer a form of wing-shooting that is unique.
It begins during the week preceding opening day. Hunters drive around the countryside looking for cornfields that have been cut for silage. Doves will flock to these fields. Birds sitting on utility wires adjacent to a chopped corn field are the tip-off that doves are using that particular field — the one you want to hunt.
On opening day hunters scatter around the edge of the field, putting out a few dove decoys in front of their position. Hunters should be well-distributed to prevent incoming doves from landing in an “undefended” part of the field. You want to keep them flying.
After that, it is simply a case of waiting for doves to approach and begin shooting.
Doves are tricky targets. Not only are they fast fliers, they jink left or right, dip or suddenly rise in no apparent order, causing many a shot to miss its intended target.
Why doves have been less than plentiful in recent years is anybody’s guess. I have not heard a good explanation. The first spring after our last banner dove season five or six years ago was cold and wet. I thought the thin numbers resulted from poor reproduction. But subsequent years produced more normal weather without a significant increase in numbers of birds.
This year’s early, warm and dry spring and summer remains problematical. In my casual observations I have not noticed an abundance of nesting doves or a strong reproductive effort. In good weather years doves are known to raise two or three broods over the course of the spring and summer. This year I have seen only one very late nesting. Only time will tell what this means for the size of our fall flight.
Also, in most years silage-cut corn fields are rare on the opening weekend. Most of these rarities are cut the week before the season opener, and the scarcity of these sites concentrated feeding doves.
But this year’s drought has prompted many farmers to cut their stunted corn for silage rather than allowing it to ripen and harvesting the grain. Not only are more fields being harvested for silage, but farmers have been chopping it earlier than normal.
This has created an abundance of cut fields that will allow feeding doves to scatter, eliminating many of the concentrations that greeted opening-day hunters in normal weather years.
I also am something of a nut when it comes to dove decoys. I have conducted various experiments over the years, including making and deploying plywood dove silhouettes the size of small turkeys. The best thing I have found are European wood-pigeon decoys repainted to reflect that two-tone tan plumage of a mourning dove.
Wood-pigeon decoys are the size of an average city pigeon, and significantly larger than the average commercial dove decoy. They are easy to repaint. The most important thing is that they work. Doves are attracted to them, sometimes fatally depending on my shooting. They are available on the web from specialty mail-order houses.
This weekend will not find me gunning pastures or rural estate ponds for geese, or shallow sloughs for blue-winged teal. There is plenty of time for waterfowl hunting in the coming months.
Instead, I will stand vigil over a silage-cut cornfield, sitting quietly under a warm September sun while waiting for the tan speedsters to streak across my rig of re-painted wood-pigeon decoys.
James H. Phillips is a columnist for this newspaper. He can be reached at