In Mississippi, we celebrate September and the onset of the harvest season in a special way — action-packed dove shoots. Forget about Labor Day or weekend football games. Fall officially begins in the Magnolia State with the opening of dove season.

Dove hunting is a wonderful game where fast-flying birds test our wing-shooting skills. But a Mississippi dove hunt is actually much more than a hunt — it is a social event enjoyed among family, friends and neighbors. Many of the most fanatical dove-field shooters are guys who may not hunt any other time of the year, yet they show up for this annual event that is often as much a tradition as fireworks on the 4th of July.

Landowners take great pride in preparing and managing dove fields for these social gatherings. Oftentimes, local bragging rights for the entire year are on the line. And while few will remember the final score of last year’s Super Bowl, every dove hunter in the county can tell you who had the hottest dove field the previous season, whether they were fortunate enough to hunt there or not.

Know the game

In order to gain a thorough understanding of what makes up a successful dove field, it may be helpful to know a little more about these feathered rockets.

The mourning dove is the single most popular game bird in the country. In Mississippi, the annual mourning dove harvest is greater than any other game bird species. And only the squirrel outranks it as the most hunted small-game species. The dove’s popularity among hunters is due primarily to its quick flight, erratic movement and its quality for table fare.

According to Dave Godwin, research coordinator with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, just over 65,000 hunters took part in the dove season in the Magnolia State last year. During the three separate seasons that ran from September through mid-January, hunters harvested more than 1.4 million birds. Spending just three to four days afield on average, dove hunters in Mississippi experienced a 90-percent success rate, and bagged an average of 6.4 doves per day.

Mourning doves are migratory, and their range extends from Alaska to South America. But many mourning doves will stay in Mississippi year round. Whether they migrate depends heavily on their habitat and food needs being met and the severity of the weather in early winter.

Mourning doves have a very short lifespan, living not much longer than one year on average. The mortality rate for first-year doves is around 70 percent, while adults have an average mortality rate of around 55 percent. Because of their high mortality rate, most doves that are not harvested by hunters will die over the course of the winter from exposure, disease or starvation.

“Hunters can annually harvest 15 percent of the mourning doves in the fall hunting seasons without impacting the population as a whole,” Godwin explained.

In Mississippi, roosting sites for doves are usually not a problem. Doves prefer to roost in trees or tall shrubs at an average height of 15 feet from the ground. A good roosting site is one that provides protection from predators as well as cover from the sun in summer months and cold in the winter. Coniferous trees are preferred roosting sites, since they offer cover from predators all year long.

Doves have four basic habitat requirements: food, water, cover and grit, or gravel. When planning a field for mourning doves, select a location that meets each of these needs. Doves will travel for food, but prefer food sources that are nearby.

Selecting a dove field

When selecting a dove field, there are three primary factors that should be taken into account: size, location and soil type.

While most of us have hunted doves in fields ranging from just a few acres to several hundred acres, the larger dove fields have far more disadvantages than they do advantages. A large field will require a greater number of hunters to keep the birds flying. Most large fields also lack adequate cover for the hunters. This allows doves to light in the middle of the field, well out of gun range.

It only takes a dove a few minutes to fill its crop with seed and return to a resting site to digest the food. You can be assured that such a bird will be in no hurry to become airborne and offer a hunter a passing shot. Some of the most successful dove fields are those in the 10- to 40-acre range. These smaller fields require fewer shooters to keep the birds flying. And even if you have a large party of hunters, small fields can still be your best bet. Several small fields scattered throughout an area will provide better hunting than one large field.

The location of your dove field is very important. Doves prefer to feed and drink as close to their roost as possible. The perfect dove field should be located adjacent to roost trees, and offer a good source of water in the form of a stock pond or small stream. Once the field has been planted or prepared in a manner so as to provide a good source of food, you will have all the ingredients necessary to attract and hold a large population of doves.

The most important consideration in planning a dove field is soil type. It can vary from clay to sandy, but it must be well-drained. A soil test will help you determine what soil nutrients may be lacking for the particular crop you plan to grow. Soil sampling kits are available at your local Extension Service office. Apply lime and fertilizer at the rates recommended by the soil test results. Keep in mind that poor soil fertility equals poor yields, and your primary objective in planting a dove field is to produce high seed yields.

What to plant

Although doves will feed on a variety of different seeds, there are a few that stand out above the rest. Some are the result of harvesting a crop, others must be planted and managed specifically for doves, and still others simply need a little manipulation.

Corn, soybeans and milo are three common row crops grown in Mississippi that fall into the first category. However, unless you are close friends with a farmer who just happens to be harvesting one of these crops two to three weeks prior to dove season, then you are out of luck.

Some of the better ones that fit into the second category (planted and managed specifically for dove fields) include Peredovik sunflower, dove proso millet, browntop millet and wheat.

Peredovik (black oil) sunflower is often referred to as the “ice cream” of dove foods. It is one of the best plants for attracting doves, but requires considerably more effort to establish and maintain than some other crops. High seed cost, expensive herbicides to control weeds and depredation by deer are just a few of the negative aspects of Peredovik sunflower.

Browntop millet and dove proso millet are the easiest plants in this category to establish and manage for a dove field. While both types of millet are adapted to most soil types, browntop tolerates soil acidity and drought better than dove proso millet. In addition, browntop millet seed will persist on the seedhead for a long period of time. Therefore, you can plant all your fields at the same time and delay mowing if you want to use a specific field for later season hunts.

Wheat is often overlooked, but can be an excellent crop for a dove field. Wheat can be utilized in two ways for dove fields. One method is to plant wheat the fall prior to when you intend to use it as a dove field. Once the plants mature and produce seed in early summer, all you need to do is mow, burn or disk the standing wheat prior to dove season to expose the seed. The second method involves planting wheat as a normal agricultural practice. The seeds that fail to be covered in the planting process will attract doves by the droves.

There is an old saying, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” Such is the case when it comes to native vegetation. Native vegetation such as goatweed, crabgrass and barnyard grass should not be overlooked. With a little manipulation, these native plants can produce excellent dove fields. Haying or mowing and burning works best on grass fields. However, mowing alone can be effective in manipulating goatweed fields. And the best part of all is that you have very little expense involved in manipulating native vegetation.

Producing an abundance of seed won’t guarantee you will have a successful dove field. Other factors must also be taken into consideration. For example, the seed in the field must be easily accessible to the doves. Doves prefer to feed on the ground in light cover.

Because they have weak feet, doves seldom scratch for food. They seek out open areas where the ground is clean. Therefore, seed must be exposed or found among very light ground litter. And finally, a successful dove field should be located in an area traditionally used by doves. Quite often a well-prepared field will receive little use by doves simply because it is located in the wrong area.

Attention to detail

There seems to be one in every dove field. You know the kind: The guy who always seems to be in the right place every time. You are unable to buy a bird while he enjoys shotgun action so fast and furious that he has to take a break just to let his gun barrel cool. And before you have a matching pair of birds in your game bag, he is busy gathering up his gear and heading for home with a limit of doves. Is it dumb luck, or does he know something the rest of us don’t?

In Southwest Mississippi, one of the aforementioned hunters would be the local veterinarian Dr. Eddie Lipscomb. “Doc,” as he is better known in these parts, can shoot a limit of doves faster than anyone. After a littler coercion, he finally shared a few of the secrets to his dove hunting success.

“The average dove hunter rarely pays enough attention to detail,” said Lipscomb, a self-proclaimed dove addict from Port Gibson who hunts every chance he gets.

Lipscomb believes that doves hone in on specific physical topographic features in every field.

“There are always certain objects or conditions that draw birds to specific locations in a particular dove field,” Lipscomb explained. “It may be a small pond, a powerline, a clump of trees, a small opening in the treeline or even a change in the lay of the land. Every dove field contains certain characteristics in specific locations that naturally attract incoming birds. The key is to set up within shotgun range of these locations.

“Remaining undetected is just as important as finding the best location in the field. The best camouflage money can buy is worthless if you can’t stay still. I try to remain perfectly motionless until the birds get into range. I also like to use a small stick-up ground blind and natural vegetation to help break up my outline and keep my position undetected by incoming doves.”

Another integral part of Lipscomb’s dove-killing arsenal is his canine companion, a 14-year-old snow-white Eskimo Spitz named Pistol.

“I wouldn’t think about going dove hunting without Pistol,” said Lipscomb. “He is one dove-finding machine. For every dozen birds that go into my game bag, Pistol is responsible for finding three to four of them in some of the worst conditions possible. A good dog is invaluable when it comes to locating downed birds in thick cover.”

Like most successful dove hunters, Lipscomb isn’t necessarily the greatest wing shooter in the world. However, he more than makes up for the occasional missed shot through preparation, planning and applying the right tactics in the dove field.