Dream if you can a courtyard…an ocean of violets in bloom…animals strike curious poses…they feel the heat…the heat between – POP! POP! POP!
Ah yes. Dove season is upon us again. And in case you haven’t already heard, California’s DFW has posted new rules and regs stating there will be NO BAG LIMIT on Eurasian collared-doves this season – statewide. Season lasts September 1 – 15 and from the second Saturday in November extending for 45 days.
Now, if you’re an avid dove hunter this is BIG news. If you’ve ever asked a wing shooter how their dove hunt was, you likely got this answer: “It was HOT. It was crowded. We bagged our limit in 20 minutes and got drunk the rest of the day.” Not exactly the material with which to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning story from.
But for 20 minutes on opening day it’s REALLY exciting. And you want to go opening day because everyone else goes opening day. In fact, 99% of dove hunters in California hunt opening day. You can say it’s because the birds are gun shy after that, or it’s because there’s a lot fewer of them, but I think it’s because hunters just don’t want to be left out of the water cooler talk on Monday. On September 3rd, when a fellow hunter asks them, “where did you hunt the season opener?” they want to be able to contribute to the conversation and allow you to celebrate with them in triumph, or commiserate over defeat.
I’ve been dove hunting before. Once. I did my first season opener last year. It was pretty unremarkable…except for the gut-busting act that my partner-in-crime committed.
Dove season commences on Labor Day weekend every year here in California. Last year, my husband and I had already booked a trip up north to Sonoma to visit some friends and fellow outdoorsmen. The plan was to maybe float down the river and do a little fishing on the lake. We already had our season’s upland game licenses so we brought along a couple of shotguns just in case we were presented with an opportunity to hunt some doves.
This was NOT, mind you, a planned dove-hunting trip per se. But a true hunter always comes prepared. One of our excursions that weekend included a drive out east past the Sac River to have a look at a private duck club. Though we hadn’t yet decided about signing on the dotted line, the manager was kind enough to invite us down the street to an olive ranch that he was the caretaker of as well.
It was 10 am and already 90 degrees. The air was still and dry. As we pulled up to the ranch we saw a couple of heavy-duty pick up trucks already parked off to the side of the grove. Two chocolate labs were meandering up and down the rows with their noses to the ground while cottontails darted in and out of their holes to lap up runoff from the drip irrigation system where it pooled in little shady depressed pockets of earth.
We parked the truck, put our vests on, loaded up our pockets with ammo and each slid three into our chambers. Then we got in a huddle.
I turned to my husband and said, “okay, you know what a dove looks like, right?” (I pulled a couple photos up on my iPhone to show him – just to make sure and in all honesty, to remind myself being my first dove hunt too.)
Satisfied that we all knew what we were after, we turned around and just before spreading out spotted a mottled gray bird on the ground in the middle lane – the one right in front of my husband. It couldn’t have been more than 45 yards away.
We both started to encourage him, “look! Right there! Take it! It’s all yours! Get it! Hurry up! Before it takes off!”
BANG! My husband had nailed the first bird of the day.
I was very proud as I started to head down my own lane, when over the treetops I heard, “do doves have yellow breasts?”
I doubled over with laughter right there. When I finally recovered enough to stand up, I quickly hurried over to the scene of the crime.
He’d nailed the first bird of the day all right. But it wasn’t a dove. I tried looking it up on my iPhone. Was it a yellow-bellied Western King Bird? A partridge? A finch? I had no idea.
But apparently the morning had been slow, because the other hunters were eager to help us celebrate and as we saw them approaching us on quads, we quickly ditched the yellow-breasted whirly bird over the barbed wire fence and into a thicket of thorn bushes. Nothing to see here fellas.
We hunted for a couple more hours as a couple of guys ran their quads up and down the rows flushing birds our way. The temperature finally hit 100 degrees. I’m pretty sure I sailed a couple of doves into the other group’s rows but one of them must have picked up the pair because I looked all over for my kills and couldn’t find them. We ended up walking away just after 2pm with only one dove to show for our efforts. It was hardly worth greasing a skillet for.
It was the only dove hunt I went on in 2012. And up until 15 minutes before I began writing this article I was fairly sure it was going to be the only time I ever went dove hunting again. But in retelling this story I think I might give it another shot.
So, in hopes of helping myself and other beginners prepare for the upcoming dove opener, I went looking for someone who actually knows what they’re talking about to share some tips on where to go and how to maximize your next dove hunt. The first person that came to mind was my friend, Jim “Rambo” McWhirter. He’s a retired Marine and Kung Fu San Soo Master, who has 45 years of hunting experience under his belt and is an incredible trap, skeet and pot shooter (who by the way has taken more than his fair share of my hard earned money in pot shoots over the years).
Knowing that hunters can be a tight-lipped bunch, and before asking the first question, I reminded Rambo of all the installment payments I’d made leading up to this interview and told him he’d better share the goods on where to go and what to do.
“Well, I’ve hunted dove in a lot of places over the years but my favorite spot has to be Yuma (Arizona)” Rambo offered. “I’ve been going there for 25 years and have always been able to find good to excellent concentrations of birds. In fact, I’ve never had a hunt day that did not result in a limit of birds – despite the intense pressure opening day puts on them.”
Regarding what it takes to have a successful trip, Rambo says that preparation is everything. “I always study the maps of the areas we plan to hunt, and spend at least one full day of scouting to determine the flyway.”
[A “flyway” tends to refer to a “line” along the ground where a dove is likely to travel back and forth between their roost and their food – it might be a tree line, a strip of freshly turned dirt, or a row sunflowers the farmer missed on his last pass. You’ll often see doves resting on fence lines or telephone poles too. These can often serve as perches from which doves can survey any dangers below. ]
“I shoot a .410 with a 1/2 oz. of lead shot. But a 12 ga. and some 7 1/2 or 8 oz. bird shot will do the trick too.” Chokes Rambo recommends include: modified, improved cylinder and skeet. “It’s not necessary to wear camo, but you shouldn’t wear bright colors either – dressing light is the key to staying comfortable.”
When I asked Rambo what his most memorable dove hunting experience was he started to tell me about the years when his sons were younger and they would camp out at Wister. “We would get there two days early and scout from Niland to Braley in the mornings. Then we would break out a box of clays and shoot all afternoon. Opening day morning we would be up by 3:00 A.M. and in the field by 4:30 A.M. We always limited out 8:00 AM.”
The key to finding good to excellent concentrations of doves, Rambo says, is finding “feed, grain and water – if any one of these three things are missing – you won’t get the numbers you’re looking for.
if you’re hunting in an open dry desert area look for a flyway connecting a body of water with dense coverage like mesquite brush. Doves also like almonds, grapes and citrus orchards.
Just watch where they’re flying. Doves are very predictable they’re going to fly back and forth from their nest to their feeding area. If you’re in an area off that fly line – maybe just on the edge of it– use decoys. Robo doves are effective in pulling doves off the fly line and into shooting range.
Then, find a bush or tree to stand behind or next to. Don’t move until you are ready to shoot.”
The best part of dove hunting – as Rambo or anyone else will tell you is that “there’s lots of action – lots of birds flying, lots of shooting, greater bag limits.”
Personally, one of conflicts I’ve always felt towards dove hunting has to do with these larger bag limits. Are dove hunters really taking the time to breast them all out and make a meal out of them? I find breasting a dozen widgeons a moderate annoyance – but breasting an unlimited number of Eurasian doves just sounds like torture. And I don’t think doves are quite big enough to beer-butt. So what does one do with all these birds?
“We always prepare all the birds taken on opening day for dinner that night. Just about everyone has a favorite recipe. Mine is simply wrapping the breast with a strip of bacon and barbequing it for 6 to 8 minutes.”
Rambo tells me he’s never hunted anything but public land and has always done real well. But, if you happen to live next to some private land that you’ve noticed has a healthy population of dove on it, and you know the owner, Rambo says, “simply ask him for permission – offer to give him some of your dove. If you can’t locate the owner, ask a supervisor of the property, he can give you permission as well.”
[Make sure to get this permission in writing to avoid any trouble. You can pick up carbon-copy permission slips at most sporting goods stores that carry firearms, your local DFW or forest range station.]
I asked Rambo for a “top five” dove hunting areas list. His recommendations include: Salton Sea (Niland, Calipatra, El Centro), Yuma (AZ), Bakersfield (CA), Blyth (CA), Delano (CA).
So get out there this year. What do you have to lose? At worst, you’ll drive too far to drink some beer and swap stories about “the one that got away.” At best, you’ll drive too far to drink some beer and have some really exciting shooting…for 20 minutes.
Compared to other kinds of game hunts, dove hunting is pretty casual. All you need is the latest area map, some 70+ full spectrum UV sunblock, a couple of citronella candles, and 9a 30-pack of cold beer. Don’t forget your hunting license and upland game bird stamp. And remember – safety is most important. Don’t crowd other hunters’ space. Be respectful. And don’t litter either (that means pick up your discarded shells. Your mother doesn’t work here.)
Heck, I’m not doing anything special that weekend, and I did pass a course in advanced compass/map triangulation, maybe I’ll check out a couple spots in San Jacinto. If you’re in the area, look me up. Maybe we can kill a couple cans of Coors light over some bacon-wrapped dove.