The September opening of dove season is one of Arkansas’ biggest galas. In fields throughout the state, thousands of hunters gather to celebrate the break of the long hunting drought. It’s not unusual for 20 or more people to assemble for a dove shoot during the early days of the season.
Most doves killed each year are harvested during the season’s first few days, but almost as soon as it’s started, the jubilee is over. After a week or two of barrel-hot gunning, flocks have scattered, dove guns go back in cabinets, and hunters shift their attention to deer, ducks, squirrels and other game.
This creates a dilemma for those who truly love dove hunting. Arkansas had two dove seasons this fall and winter: Sept. 1-Oct. 25, and Dec. 26-Jan. 9. That means the season remains open for a few days yet, and plenty of birds are available, but finding a hunting partner often is difficult during the last hunting segment. For many hard-core aficionados, dove hunting during the final split becomes a lonely affair.
Lonely doesn’t necessarily mean unproductive, however. The solo hunter who knows a few tips for success still can enjoy superb dove action right up to the season’s end. Here are some of those tips if you decide to go it alone.
The first key to dove-hunting success is being in the right place at the right time. This is especially true when hunting solo because you can’t depend on other hunters in your party to keep the birds moving. It’s critically important to choose a stand where dove activity is high and shooting opportunities are abundant.
Fortunately, doves are predictable birds, and the lonely hunter can use this fact to advantage. Doves start the day by flying from night roosts to watering holes shortly after dawn, then quickly move to feeding areas, where they stay until midday. They loaf at perching, watering or graveling sites near the feeding area for an hour or two around noon, then return to the feeding area for the remainder of the afternoon. Before going to roost, they stop to drink again. Scouting before each hunt allows you to determine the time and locale of these activities so you can ascertain the best hours and places to hunt.
Do this by driving or walking slowly through a likely area, stopping now and then to scan the area with binoculars. When you locate birds, stop and spend 15 to 30 minutes watching for more doves in the air and on the ground. If birds are plentiful enough, you’ve found a potential hunting site.
Focus on small fields
Most dove aficionados hunt fields of just-harvested seed crops such as sunflowers, corn, wheat, oats and millet. When several hunters are participating, these fields may cover several hundred acres. But when hunting alone, your success rate will soar if you stick to fields covering no more than 1 to 5 acres. Smaller tracts keep the birds in proximity, and if your first setup point isn’t as productive as you hoped, you can quickly move to another stand.
Several dove decoys placed near your stand can entice more birds to fly by at close range. You can purchase these from sporting-goods businesses. Full-body and shell decoys help, but especially effective for the lone hunter are robo-dove decoys with spinning wings.
Place decoys on open ground or on nearby fences, dead trees or even on a pole with a crosspiece brought especially for that purpose. Fence decoys should be about a foot apart on the top strand of wire. Tree and pole decoys should be placed as high as safely possible. Face all decoys into the wind; doves take off and land into the wind.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, doves continually go over there when we’re over here. When that happens, try jump shooting — flushing feeding or resting birds from the ground in feeding fields. This is a great way to hunt during hours when doves are seldom flying and may be the only way to find doves when a long stretch of bad weather keeps them grounded.
As you sit, watch for birds fluttering to the ground, mark their location carefully, and then walk toward the doves while keeping your shotgun at the ready. If the field still has some stubble or short grass, you can often approach closely before the doves jump, but be prepared for snap shots. You’ll have only seconds to bring a dove down before it flies out of range.
Watering holes are also excellent hunting spots for go-it-alone hunters. One might think such a striking game bird would prefer sparkling, clear water, but doves generally drink at muddy ponds, seeps, puddles or streams. A stretch of lakeside or river bank with a broad, vegetation-free border is ideal, especially when near roosts or feeding areas. Shallow ponds that fell to low levels during the summer drought and have large areas of open earth around the remaining water are great, too. It’s easy for doves to land here and easy for them to flush if there is danger.
Another deciding influence is the availability of perching places. Doves like to water, then fly to a dead tree to preen before moving on. Others circle the watering area and land on a perch to look for danger before flying down. If no dead snags are nearby, look for nearby power or telephone lines. A sure sign of a winning watering hole is a number of doves perched on adjacent wires or dead trees.
Some may tell you it’s not possible to hunt doves effectively alone. Don’t buy it. You may have to do some extra scouting to find the right place and right time to hunt, but if you want to spend more time afield in the later weeks of the season, there’s no reason not to go it alone. Even a lonely dove hunter can enjoy success. And when your hunting buddies find out you’re coming home with birds in your game bag, chances are you’ll soon have a friend to tag along with you.