September 1st means one thing to most Wyoming hunters-big game. The first day of September signals the unofficial start of the archery season and the big game hunting season for elk and deer.
There’s a much smaller cadre of Wyoming hunters that look forward to September 1st as the official start of dove season. Most Wyoming wing shooters see dove season as a way of getting in some early season sport, improving their shooting eye and hunting with family. The physical season can be short and sweet, but sportsmen in the know who partake in the often-abbreviated dove season are aware that it can produce exciting and challenging sport.
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“The dove season isn’t as popular as some of the other seasons because of the short window of opportunity,” said Martin Hicks, Wyoming Game & Fish wildlife biologist who works out of the Wheatland office. “For many though it signals the start of the hunting season and it’s become kind of a tradition. I know some of the first hunting I did was for doves.”
Indeed, dove hunting can be a family affair that the whole clan can participate in. It doesn’t require bunch of equipment, it’s not strenuous, it takes place during a nice time of the year, (although it can be on the hot side) and everyone from youngsters to elders can participate. Many have family ranches where everyone gathers for what has become a family tradition and celebrates the start of hunting season. “Most ranchers are pretty good about letting people hunt doves on their property if you ask,” said Hicks. Hicks added that many of the Walk-In areas produce exceptional dove hunting, too.
A lot of the doves that Wyoming hunters encounter on opening day were born and raised right in the Cowboy State. “There are a lot of doves that nest here,” said Martin. “We had a late-season snow that might have destroyed some of the nests of ground-nesting birds, but there were still some pretty good numbers of doves produced this year.” Martin was quick to point out that the resident doves are pretty thin-skinned and will vamoose at the first hint of cold weather. That same cold front that sends resident doves south will typically bring in an influx of new, migratory doves from farther north. Hot shooting continues until about September 15 when the majority of doves disappear.
Finding doves is not difficult. Most times you’ll see them perched on phone lines and in dead trees. Doves like to land, survey the situation and then fly down to the ground to feed. For every dove you see on a perch, there’s probably several more feeding on the ground.
To find concentrations of doves, you need to look for three things- food, water and a roost. Doves are very adaptable and will feed on a variety of cultivated and natural seeds. Harvested wheat, millet and corn can be a big draw for doves, but they are equally fond of natural foods like wild sunflowers, kochia, and ragweed. “Doves love wild sunflowers,” said Martin Hicks. “If you can find a big field of sunflowers, you’re almost assured of finding doves.”
Wild sunflowers are perfect because doves like to forage on the ground rather than perch on a sunflower head like a black bird would. Doves like wild sunflower because once the seeds ripen and fall to the ground there’s plenty of open space underneath sunflower where doves can forage, and still be protect from predators above.
Once doves fill their crops with seeds, they like to get a drink. That doesn’t require a lot of water. It can be a puddle, a seep, windmill or a cattle tank. Doves like lakes and ponds that have plenty of open shoreline where they can land and then walk to the edge of the water to get a drink. Watering holes can be prime places to set up, especially from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, when doves have a full crop and are coming to get a drink.
Doves prefer to roost in trees. They feel safe off the ground at night. Shelterbelts that feature conifers, such as juniper or pines, are a magnet for roosting doves. Right at dusk you’ll see hordes of doves piling into shelterbelts. When conifers are not available, doves have an affinity for cottonwoods, but almost any tree will do.
Wyoming is home to two kinds of doves that are available to hunters. The mourning dove is the most common dove in the state. In recent years, the Eurasian collared dove is becoming more and more common. “We’re seeing more and more of the Eurasian collared doves,” said Hicks. “It use to be that you’d only see them in the city, but we’re seeing more and more of them outside of the city limits.” Hicks said that Wyoming hunters will also see the occasional white-winged dove, but they are rare. The Eurasian collared doves are twice the size of mourning doves and seem to fly much slower, although that may be due to their larger size. They like to hang out near ranches, homesteads and cattle pens. Besides their size, their square tail and the black and white bar on their neck can identify Eurasian collared doves. Mourning doves have a pointed tail.
During the 2014 season, 2,235 Wyoming hunters harvested 27,791 doves in 6,857 hunter days. In 2013, 2,310 hunters harvested 23,485 doves in 6,730 hunter days. Because Eurasian collared doves are not native to Wyoming and considered an invasive specie, there is no season or limit on them. Mourning doves can be harvested from September 1 until November 9, but as mentioned previously, huntable numbers of mourning doves are rarely found after late September. Eurasian collared doves on the other hand are quite hardy and with an ample food supply will stay year round. Wyoming migratory bird hunters must have a Wyoming game bird license, Conservation stamp, and a Federal Harvest Information Program (HIP) stamp. The limit for mourning doves is 15 per day with a possession limit of 45.
One of the main attractions of dove hunting is its simplicity. You don’t need a special shotgun. In fact, just about any shotgun will do. Many favor a 20-gauge shotgun for doves because they’re lighter than a 12-gauge, have less recoil and are perfect for kids. Regardless of the shotgun you choose, it helps if that shotgun has an open choke or screw-in chokes so you can use a more open choke. Most hunters use skeet tubes or improved cylinder when hunting doves. Doves are small, relatively frail birds and it doesn’t take much to bring one down. The idea is to use fine shot sizes, such as 7-1/2, 8 or 9 shot, to get a lot of pellets in the air and open patterns to increase your chance of hitting speedy doves. Most shots will be at 35 yards or less so fine shot with an open choke is the perfect medicine for doves. Expect to shoot plenty of shells. It’s estimated that the average dove hunter shoots a box of 25 shells for every four or five doves they harvest.
Shooting doves can be tricky. They are speedy birds under normal conditions, but a dove that has been shot at can really produce some evasive maneuvers, dipping and darting, just when you have a bead on them. If you’re continually missing doves, chances are you’re shooting behind them.
Besides being a great way to fine-tune your shooting eye, early-season dove hunting is a perfect way to get your retriever some work. Doves are small birds that can disappear in waist-high grass so a trained retriever can come in handy. Take extra care to keep your canine friend hydrated during hot September weather.
Other than a shotgun and shells, all you need hunt doves is a comfy seat. It’s best to dress in camouflage or drab clothing, but not absolutely necessary. Standing or sitting in the shade will make it more comfortable and you’ll be less conspicuous to passing doves. Again, drink plenty of fluids to keep from dehydrating. Shooting glasses can be an added plus for keeping gun powder and seeds out of your eyes and for spying incoming doves. A wide-brimmed hat will keep the sun out of your eyes and off your neck. Decoys can be a plus for attracting doves close to your position.
Some people question why anyone would shoot doves because they’re so small. People eat shrimp don’t they? Take a jalapeño pepper, stick it in a dove breast, wrap it in bacon and soak it in apple juice overnight. Grill it the next day until the bacon is crispy and you’ll understand one reason sportsmen hunt doves. Hunters harvested an estimated 14,529,800 doves in 2013 across the United States.
I was invited to an afternoon dove shoot with Clay and Brian Stecklein to a ranch Clay manages near Pine Bluffs, Wyoming a couple seasons ago. It was a week or so into the season, but it was obvious there were still plenty of doves around.
Brian gave me a prime position at the end of the driveway next to the shelterbelt where doves typically pass while he went to the other end of the trees. I’d barely sat down when the first dove came loping by. I swung ahead of the dove, squeezed the trigger and it tumbled in a cloud of feathers. My Lab, Keifer, found the dove in short order in the waist-high weeds.
There was barely time to reload when a pair of doves came speeding by and I dropped one of them and then another coming from the other direction. Shooting was fast a furious. Even with your head on a swivel, some birds slip by and it’s too late when you hear their whistling wings.
I called Brain on the cell phone after about an hour and fifteen minutes.
“You’d better come down here,” I said.
“Why?” he replied.
“I’ve got my limit,” I said.
“I didn’t even hear you shoot that much!” he said.
“It’s been non-stop!” I said.
The Wyoming dove season doesn’t last very long, but it can produce red-hot action while it lasts.