Q: What would make a man like Wayne Edwards of Meridian, who hasn't dove hunted since 1986, drive 60 miles to get back into the sport?

A: The Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks' dove field program.

The MDWFP has been working with private landowners across the state to increase public opportunities for dove hunting. The dove field program began with one field in 2004. The success of the program's trial field was immediately apparent, and more fields were incorporated into the program in following years.

There are a multitude of factors that attract hunters like Edwards to the MDWFP fields.

"Part of the reason I returned to dove hunting was because of the Kemper County field and the program," he said. "The permit costs are very reasonable, and I know I'm hunting on legal and secure fields."

The aim of the program is to provide more opportunities for hunters.

"We know numbers of hunters are declining across the nation," MDWFP wildlife biologist Scott Baker said, "and we are looking for ways to increase public hunting access."

MDWFP designed their dove field program using ideas gathered from programs in several other states. 2007 was MDWFP's fourth year conducting the program.

"We had eight, 11 and nine fields in 2005, 2006 and 2007," Baker said. "We hope to have at least nine this year."

Field signup will be open through the end of July. Permits go on sale Aug. 4.

Participation rates have been good, but they could be better.

"We had one field in 2007 that only sold two permits," Baker said.

The best explanation for that anomaly is a lack of publicity about that field in the local area.

"If that field is not counted, then we sold 88 percent of available permits last year," Baker said.

With numerous fields available and participation on the increase, how do you decide which field to hunt? Obviously, the closest field is usually the most convenient, but what about hunter success rates?

While the fields in the Delta counties are often excellent, last year the Kemper County field had the highest harvest rate.

Preparing the field

Mark Fleming and Jay Wadsworth manage the Kemper County field near Scooba.

"We plant corn, millet, wheat, sunflower and milo, and we have volunteer natural foods like goatweed and foxtail grass," Wadsworth said.

By planting a diversity of food crops, the managers offer doves foraging opportunities throughout the year. In addition to providing a variety of food items, the 90-acre field is surrounded by woods and contains a pond in the center. This set up provides doves with food, cover and water - everything they need in one place.

A county extension agent told Fleming and Wadsworth about the program in 2004, and they began preparing the field for participation the next year.

"Involvement is really simple," Wadsworth said.

Because MDWFP shoulders the responsibility for liability, permitting and assigning stands, all the landowner has to worry about is preparing the field.

"We have provided hay bales the last three years to mark stands and give the hunters some shade and cover," Wadsworth said. "If the weather allows, we will continue to do so."

Edwards, who has hunted the Kemper County field for the last two years and plans on participating again in 2008, was pleased with the organization of the hunt.

"The best thing about it is the way it is organized," he said.

The first two days, hunters have assigned places. After that, it's on a first-come, first-served basis.

"It's good to know I have a spot reserved for me those first two hunts," Edwards said.

Most landowners lease fields they use for farming, but the Kemper County field is all about the doves.

"(Fleming) cuts some hay off of this field, but the sunflowers, millet, corn and milo are all planted specifically for the doves," Wadsworth said. "The whole point is to give people a place to hunt, especially a place they can bring their children and introduce them to hunting.

"When I was a young child, I was out in the dove field with my dad every Saturday."

Now most people hunt only opening weekend. Wadsworth was particularly pleased that during opening weekend in 2007, over half of the participating hunters were children.

Brian Kelly and his son Pearson also hunted the Kemper County field last year. In fact, Pearson took his first dove.

"I knew it would be safe because the MDWFP was involved," Kelly said, "so I thought it was a great opportunity to take my son."

Kelly also had a pretty good hunt, taking his limit on the first day.

Kelly takes his son hunting and fishing as a way to spend quality time together.

"By taking my son hunting, he can learn about firearms and firearms safety and our country's outdoor history and heritage, but the most important part is that we're doing something together," Kelly said.

Permit types

Hunters can buy three different types of permits.

"Permit type 1 allows hunters to hunt an individual field the entire season, including opening weekend," Baker said. "Permit type 2 allows a person to hunt a specific dove field on opening weekend and all dove fields after opening weekend. With a type 2 permit, the hunter may choose the field and stand they would like to hunt on opening weekend.

"Permit type 3 allows a person to hunt all dove fields after opening weekend.

"Hunting is allowed on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoons during the first and second dove seasons."

This prevents a field from being over-hunted. Permits can be purchased online or by phone. Information about participating fields including size, cover type and directions to it are also available from the MDWFP web site.

"I don't think a hunter can find a paid hunt anywhere that could give him as much as we are giving them for the same amount of money," Baker said.

Edwards and Kelly both agreed that the price is well worth it for the number of hunting opportunities you gain.

Edwards buys a type 1 permit, and is very pleased with the cost.

"A private-field paid hunt would cost you as much as these permits for just a two-day hunt, and we get two full seasons," he said.

Aside from the affordability, having MDWFP officials involved with the development of the field and on-site during the hunts makes many hunters feel more secure about safety and regulations.

"I enjoy having the MDWFP officials there," Edwards said. "It's reassuring to have them on site."

Edwards has hunted the Kemper County field for two years now, and said doves have always been available on the field.

"Harvest opportunity is there, and I have always had a great time," he said. "I was looking for a good, legal, safe place to dove hunt, and that's what I found.