Is it just my imagination, or has the shooting sport of dove hunting been gaining popularity over the last few seasons? I have heard more talk among hunting contacts that indicates an upsurge in dove hunting interest.

This is a good thing. Dove hunts are great fun.

When I was growing up in Southeast Missouri, dove hunting was a big deal. It was something my dad always did and always took us kids along to join in the fun even before I was old enough to handle a shotgun of my own.

In terms of building wingshooting skills, there is nothing better than slinging lead at a flock of silver missiles. It's a great hunting sport for initiating young hunters to shotgunning, hunting safety and the social aspects of hunting.

Like any other shooting sport though, dove hunting requires a gathering of critical gear to make the day afield more enjoyable and successful.

Field essentials

"Traditionally, dove hunting starts around the first of September or Labor Day weekend," said Vicksburg hunter Jim Harper. "Usually it's as hot as blue blazes. We try to do an early morning hunt when it's cooler, but we often add an afternoon hunt, too. By then the sun can scorch and the humidity can wring out the sweat by the quart. This means bringing along a few things for protection from the heat and to maintain hydration which is critical", says Jim Harper a Vicksburg dove hunter.

"We always bring an ice cooler full of bottled water."

It may be hot with the sun bearing down, but the best protection is to wear lightweight clothing, but make sure the shirts have long sleeves. Kids and some adults may be inclined to wear shorts, but long pants are better. Have sunscreen and bug repellant too.

Always wear a hat, and a bandana around the neck is a good idea, or several of those gel cooler neck wraps to trade off back and forth from the ice cooler. Sunglasses are a good bet as well, but try to position your shooting set-up with the sun to your back not your face. That is not always possible.

Have a good, sturdy pair of lightweight boots or ankle-covering chukkas for walking fields to pick up birds. A turned ankle is not fun, nor is picking up red bugs around the ankles from wearing tennis shoes or low cut boots. In high grass, pant cuff wraps are not a bad idea.

Bring fold out seats, too. Nestle them up against a fencerow or other hideout cover, or build a blind to hide behind. Doves will easily spot hunters standing out or moving a lot. Seats will help facilitate patience until the white wings get within the targeted range.

Other items to consider having are field-gun stands, a metal or plastic rod pushed into the ground to hold a shotgun for upright access. A small ground mat, fold-out table or box may be useful for keeping ammo at the ready. Have a bag to store the doves in the cooler during the hunt.

Bring along a camera to document the fun and memories, and always have a cell phone handy just in case. I've seen vehicles break down, and once we had to carry a fellow hunter to the hospital with an attack of kidney stones. Hunters should be ready for anything these days.

Gunning gear

Everybody has their own idea of what constitutes the best dove gun. Whatever works for you, well, it works.

I've been dove hunting in several states and with a wide variety of hunters and groups. Over the years, I've seen just about every type, brand and gauge of shotgun one could think of using. Good wing-shooters can shoot with just about anything. I cannot.

My own preference is an older Beretta 301 semi-auto in 12-gauge with a modified choke. This gun was given to me upon graduation from college by my mother. It is my quintessential dove gun. My back up smoothbore is a 12-gauge Browning Citori over and under with one modified tube and one full choke for long shots.

For kids just starting out, a good bet is a 20-gauge. Please, never, ever start a young hunter out with a .410 shotgun. Some parents like the safety concept of a break-open single shot, but be mindful many of these guns kick like a mule.

If your young shooter can handle a pump, then start them there. Going with a semi-auto is not a bad idea, but I recommend loading one shell at a time until they're used to the action. Add a slip-on recoil pad if needed.

It's best not to overpower for doves, according to Chris Bates of the Mean Mallard, an upscale outdoor store in Ridgeland.

"Despite what many might think, 3-inch magnum shells are not needed for dove hunting," he said. "Repeated shooting with magnum loads will take its toll on shoulders. A good 2¾-inch load is plenty for dove shooting.

"The tough part is finding a factory load that reaches out with a sustained pattern in your gun."

Choice of lead shot size is important. Most dove hunters start with No. 6s or 7½s, but some pick 8s or 9s. The choice should be based on what patterns best, so try different loads on paper. Of course, heavier shot carries farther than light shot, but light shot loads have more pellets per load. This is an area where some experimentation is best.

Dove hunting is great fun. Get your gear together, invite some friends and take along the wife and kids. If you haven't tried it in a while, get back in the game.