Streaking down out of the sky like the legendary Flying Tiger fighter pilots of World War II, the doves rolled, darted, pitched and turned to avoid the lead in the sky, seeking the sunflower seeds scattered over the ground.
By harvesting portions of his sunflowers over time, Bo Prestidge of Wildlife, Inc., in Schlater, had provided seeds on the ground over an extended period, helping to ensure that the hunters would find birds on the field for the hunt. Also, the standing sunflowers provided a blind where the hunters could hide from the birds.
Dressed in Mossy Oak camo, we hid in the sunflowers and high weeds on the edges of the field, hoping to take our limits of doves.
A Mississippi dove hunt is as traditional as cornbread, sweet tea, a bowl of grits and a spreading magnolia tree. But what can you do to ensure you’ll have doves in the field when the big day arrives?
Often hunters find the mourning dove, often called the gray ghost of the southern skies, as elusive as its namesake, John S. Mosby, a Confederate cavalry battalion commander during the Civil War. Mosby would appear one day, fight a battle and then vanish, leaving no trace of where he’d come from or where he had headed next. Like you, I’ve attended many dove hunts where a field loaded with doves two days before turns up mysteriously empty on the day of a dove hunt.
A landowner or a hunting club can do everything legal and proper to feed, grow, produce and hold doves. However, a temperature change or the birds’ getting a notion to pack up and leave can ruin a potentially great shoot.
“Doves may choose to leave a field for a variety of reasons, including climate change (a cold front or a wet front) and new and better food sources becoming available,” said Scott Baker, wildlife biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “If a nearby landowner harvests a field of grain, that can pull doves away from surrounding areas. Of course, the doves may decide to leave a field on opening day just to make the hunters, the landowner and the hunting club look bad. They’ve got a mean streak in them.”
Oftentimes by feeding doves just prior to the nesting period, you can encourage the doves to nest near the field you plan to hunt on opening day of the season.
“Normally a dove will nest several times throughout the spring and summer, laying two eggs at a time,” Baker says. “So a dove may have three nesting attempts, and probably raise four to six offspring.”
By feeding doves, you can help to raise the birds that you plan to take at the beginning of dove season. Good places to feed doves include the edges of roads on the property where you hunt. These roads often will have gravel and small stones on or near them that the birds can pick to help them grind and digest the seeds.
“You can feed doves all year,” Baker said. “But all the feed must be gone 10 days before you hunt the site. However, the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks never recommends feeding wildlife.”
During the last week before the 10-day cut-off, spread plastic on the ground, and pour the feed on the plastic. That way, you easily can remove all the seed 10 days before your hunt. Spreading wheat for doves has become very popular among dove hunters.
“You can spread wheat as long as you’ve prepared a seed bed, and you put out no more seed than the approved planting rate,” Baker said. “I always recommend 90 pounds of wheat seed per acre — the amount of wheat most farmers will plant for winter grazing or to create a wildlife food plot. The wheat must be planted for winter grazing, soil erosion or a wildlife food plot, and you also can hunt doves over that wheat.
“Top-sowing wheat is legal as long as it’s done for one of the mentioned proven agricultural practices. Once the wheat’s put out, you can’t go back and put out more wheat. The wheat must be planted at a time of the year that’s conducive to growing a crop, and most wheat is planted in late August or early September.”
Planting for doves
“To have a legal dove field, you can plant any crop and manipulate it in any way, as long as the crop remains in the field,” Baker said. “You can’t remove a crop from a field and then bring it back for the purpose of luring in doves. However, you can hunt behind the combine, bush hog the crop, burn it, disc it, spray it or run hogs through it, which is known as hogging, and that crop will be legal to hunt over.”
Try to plant your crops to keep a portion ready for harvest before you plan to stop feeding the doves. This way, the doves you’ve fed most of the summer will continue their normal routine of coming to the field to feed. If you’ll harvest your crop at different times during dove season, you can ensure that there’s plenty of small grain on the ground for the doves to eat throughout the hunting season.
“Plant your crops at different times in the spring, so that those crops will mature at various times during the summer and early fall, especially if you plan to hunt all three seasons,” Baker suggested.
A lot of seed remains in the field after the harvesting of a grain crop. A cool-season burn will clear up the litter, expose the seed and make the field more inviting to doves, which always prefer to walk on clean ground. However, make sure you know all the laws that apply to burning in your area before you begin to burn a field for doves.
Feeding doves before the season and staggering the harvest of your crops can boost your chances of success. But remember, dove hunting offers no guarantees.
One year, my brother Archie did everything right. He fed the birds heavily prior to the season and began harvesting his crop just before the 10-day cut-off. The week before the opening Saturday of dove season, a gray cloud of doves would rise from the field whenever a car drove past. So, on opening day, more than 50 people headed to the dove field after a delicious barbecue lunch. With smiling faces and full stomachs, we went to the field and waited.
But very few doves showed up. The temperature had dropped 3 degrees the day before the hunt, which we considered the only possible explanation for why most of the doves that had happily fed in that field all summer had vanished.
Practice, practice, practice
Many Mississippi hunters never hunt with shotguns except during dove and turkey seasons. Even a field full of doves can’t provide a great dove shoot if you’re not shooting up to par. Go to a sporting-clay or a trap-and-skeet range for some practice. Get your cheek down on the stock, look straight down the barrel and see the bead on the shotgun — although that’s not a natural shooting position. Most of us tend to bring our heads up somewhat on the stocks, look through our riflescopes and expect to see deer. However, if you put your head in the same place on the stock of a shotgun where you generally put it on the stock of a rifle, you’ll miss the doves.
Many dove hunters start moving and preparing to take the shot before the dove’s in range. Although the dove has a very small brain, it has extremely good eyesight. Therefore, if the dove sees you moving as it’s coming in your direction, it will flare and avoid your stand site. Remain still until just before you’re ready to take the shot. Then bring the gun up quickly, swing on the bird and fire. If you’ll use this tactic, you can get the doves in closer and take more birds on every outing.
When I first started dove hunting, people knew me strictly as a subsistence hunter who hunted doves to put meat on the table for my family. I rarely, if ever, went on a dove shoot. However, when I began to attend dove shoots, I discovered that what I’d learned in my elementary-school days of hunting doves really paid off for identifying the most-productive places to take stands on a dove shoot.
• Find the places where doves water. The hot weather combined with the stress of being hunted will cause the doves to need plenty of water.
• Look for resting spots. In the middle of the day, search for a particular tree or a group of trees, usually on the edge of a dove field, where the doves will sit in the shade and wait until they get hungry to fly in to the field.
• Talk to the landowner. Ask him where previously most of the birds have entered and left the field. More than likely, most hunters will set up on the edges of the field at the spots where the doves have entered and flown out of the field. However, if you move 50 or 100 yards away from the field along the route the doves travel, not only will you have a productive place to take doves, but you’ll hunt in an area where the birds haven’t experienced hunting pressure. Using this tactic, you’ll get better and closer shots than the sportsmen hunting the field.
People will laugh at you and assume you don’t know anything about dove hunting if you take a spinning-wing dove decoy and set it up about 20 to 30 yards in front of your stand. Most Mississippi hunters, especially duck hunters, know about spinning-wing duck decoys, but you may not ever have seen a spinning-wing dove decoy like the MOJO Dove.
The first time I took this decoy out in the field and turned it on, I got some jeers. But when the men who’d teased me saw this decoy’s ability to cause a dove to put on brakes, turn sideways and come into the decoy, all the kidding stopped. I suddenly had many new friends who wanted to hunt right beside me with this most-effective dove-hunting aid.
However, doves drawn in by the MOJO Dove decoy often come in so fast, hard and low that you have to hold your shot, until they turn to climb before you take them. If you use the MOJO Dove decoy, remember not to shoot low birds that come into this decoy. Wait until they turn to escape and start to climb for altitude before you take the shot.
Limits, seasons and zones
Mississippi has several dates for its dove seasons and two dove zones. The Northern Zone’s seasons are Sept. 4-26, Oct. 9-Nov. 3 and Dec. 26-Jan. 15. The Southern Zone’s seasons are Sept. 4-12, Oct. 9-Nov. 4 and Dec. 13-Jan. 15. A hunter legally can harvest 15 mourning doves per day. On opening day, you only can have 15 doves in possession, but after opening day, you can have up to 30 doves in possession. Shooting hours run 30 minutes prior to official sunrise until sunset.
Mississippi has no limit on ringneck doves.
“The ringneck dove is an exotic species that came into the U.S. from Cuba, possibly blown here by a storm,” Baker said. “Exotic species, like the ringneck dove, aren’t governed by the rules of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so you can take as many as you see. You’re more likely to spot them around farms and homesteads and in cities. As you leave populated areas, you’ll see fewer of them. Apparently ringneck doves like to be around people.
“To date, the number of ringneck doves showing up in hunters’ dove vests has been less than 1 percent of the doves hunters take. Ringneck doves are larger than mourning doves and resemble pigeons — each with a black band around its neck.”