Most people get excited about Fall because it means football, falling leaves, and pumpkin spice lattes. For hunters, Fall marks the beginning of hunting season, which for us is far more exciting. In many parts of the country, the opening day of dove hunting season (which typically falls on or near Labor Day weekend) marks the kick-off to our all-time favorite time of year.
Doves are migratory birds, meaning they fly South to warmer weather before Winter arrives. Compared to other migratory birds, doves pack their bags and hit the road pretty early, so September is perfect for dove hunting.
Hunting doves is a great way for beginners to get involved in the sport. However, getting started can feel overwhelming for newbies, especially those without an experienced mentor. This article will guide you through the basics of hunting these fast-flying birds so you can have everything in order before sunrise on opening day.
Before you hit the field, your first stop should be your state’s Department of Game and Fish website. Wildlife agency websites are the easiest way to stay up-to-date on season dates, bag limits, and other regulations.
Many states allow you to purchase your hunting license right from the website. Since doves are migratory birds, you may also need a special migratory bird stamp in addition to your regular hunting license. Specific licensing requirements differ by state.
Keep in mind, the money you spend on hunting permits does more than keep you legal. One hundred percent of those fees go to your state’s fish and wildlife agency, where it is applied to game management programs and hunter education. Even if you come home empty-handed, the money you spend on licensing fees is money well spent.
While almost any shotgun will work for hunting doves, some are better suited to hunting these small game birds.
Doves are relatively tiny birds that fly fast and erratically. Some mourning doves have been clocked at speeds of 55 miles per hour. Add their in-flight agility, and these birds can be pretty hard to pull a bead on. To be most effective, you need a well-balanced weapon that is easy to aim and maneuver.
Pump action and double barrel shotguns are fine, but an autoloader is better for quick follow-up shots. Choose a 20-, 16-, or 12-gauge for best results.
You’ll improve your hit chances by using a shotgun with an open choke like an improved cylinder. Tighter chokes (like modified and full chokes) throw a dense shot pattern that can make it tough to hit these compact birds. Plus, if you do manage to hit one with a full or modified choke, you’ll be left with little more than dove hamburger as the pellets completely pulverize the meat.
If you’re in the market for a dedicated dove gun, the Remington 11-87 Sportsman 12 gauge and the Browning Citori 725 Field 20 Gauge are both well-suited for dove hunting. Both these shotguns feature interchangeable screw-in choke tubes, so you can be sure to have the right choke for the job.
Doves are small, lightweight animals. Their compact body structure requires a higher quantity of pellets (rather than heavy pellet mass) to bring them down. Stick to smaller shot sizes like #7 ½ or #8. These smaller shot sizes provide more pellets per shotshell, which increases your hit potential.
Dove hunters tend to go through tons of ammunition. However, spending a little extra on specialized target loads, like those designed for competition skeet and trap shooting, may increase your success rate. Federal Top Gun is a great option. These specialized shotgun loads are manufactured to tight tolerances and will offer more consistent performance than your standard economy load.
If you are hunting public land, or will be shooting birds over water, local regulations may require you to use non-toxic, lead free shot. Remington Premier Nitro is a great option for lead-free dove hunting.
Dove hunting takes some major shooting skill. Hitting birds on the wing is a whole different ball game than shooting stationary targets. The best way to hone your shooting ability is to load up your shotgun and shoot some sporting clays.
Clay shooting is a great way to reinforce muscle memory, so you can instinctively hit these swift-moving game birds. Skeet shooting is also perfect for learning proper leading and follow through.
If you own your own land, hopefully you planned ahead and planted some dove-friendly crops like corn, sunflowers, millet, or sorghum. These crops work like dove magnets, making the edges of your food plot perfect for ambushing in-coming birds. Once the birds have identified a reliable food source, they'll keep returning to that source until they head South.
If you aren’t a landowner, you can locate potential dove hunting areas by finding public access land. Your state’s fish and wildlife agency probably has a list of public land on their website.
Another option is to drive some back roads, look for some land with a water source, roosting trees, and some harvested crops, and then ask the landowner for permission to dove hunt. Farmers are often more willing to grant hunters permission to shoot doves than they are deer. The worst that can happen is you get “no” for an answer. However, you just might gain access to a top quality hunting area.
Doves have incredibly keen eyesight. They can easily spot bright colors and odd shapes that don’t belong in their favorite field. Once spotted, they will instantly change their flight path to avoid that area.
To be a successful dove hunter, you will need to be well-concealed. Start with clothes in a quality camouflage pattern. However, your regular deer hunting clothes may not cut it in the heat of early September. Instead, look for lightweight, breathable camo for maximum comfort.
Traditionally, pass shooting was the go-to method for dove hunting. Doves are creatures of habit, so finding a spot of concealment between food and water sources is a great tactic for catching them flying between the two.
However, doves are also social creatures and respond well to decoys. The MOJO Voodoo flying decoy is an effective motorized option that simulates a landing dove. The movement is usually enough to catch the keen eye of a passing dove. Add a few clip-on dove decoys, and you’ll have a set-up that doves can’t resist.
Unlike deer hunting, where solitude gets better results, dove hunting can be a highly social affair. Dove hunting is a great time to hang out with your buddies, show off your shooting skills, and engage in some friendly competition. There’s no need to hunt for doves all alone. Instead, call some of your hunting friends for a fun afternoon hunt. Position shooters around the perimeter of the field to make sure all corners are covered, and then share your spoils when the day is over.
A great way to launch Fall hunting, dove season provides fellowship, fun, and a pretty tasty reward. These basic tips will help you get your doves in a row before the fast-shooting action of opening day. Just be sure to follow proper gun safety. Even though most shots will be at birds on the wing, you should be aware of the exact location of your fellow hunters. Always know your target and what lies beyond. When in doubt, don’t pull the trigger. No dove is worth risking the life of another hunter.
Credit: Alice Jones Webb
Alice Jones Webb is a writer, long-time hunter, experienced shooter, and mother of four up-and-coming outdoor and shooting enthusiasts. She grew up flinging arrows and bullets at Virginia whitetails, turkey, and game birds, although her favorite hunting experience is chasing bull elk in the Colorado back country. Never content to sit still and look pretty, she is also a self-defense instructor and competitive archer. Alice currently resides in rural North Carolina with her children, non-hunting husband, and a well-stocked chest freezer.