Dove Hunting, A Beginner’s Guide
I was about thirteen years old when I tagged along with my Dad for a few days of fishing down in North Carolina. We ended up at some sort of camp with a bunch of his friends, and it was here he told me we were dove hunting that afternoon. When the time came, he brought me to the perimeter of a huge rectangular field and handed me my Remington 870 20 gauge and a box of shells. He turned a bucket upside down and told me to sit there and if a dove comes my way, shoot it. Some other kids and I were at one end of the field, and my Dad and his friends would be at the other. That was the extent of my dove hunting tutorial. Really? People do this? Is this a thing? Or is this a snipe hunting type trick to keep all the kids sitting quietly on buckets for a few hours while the men pile into a pickup and head out to a bar?
Well, it turns out it really is a thing. And that afternoon there was very little bird activity down at the far end, and even fewer birds at the kid end of the field. But in one spirited volley at the far end, dozens of shots were fired at a cluster of birds. Some went down, some retreated over the treeline behind the hunters, and one lone dove flew straight toward me. The shots silenced as he flew out of range of the adults, and I watched him for a while as he approached. I loved the idea of hitting this dove that my Dad and his buddies all missed. This is called, “counting your chickens before they’re hatched.” But I had an easy, low, straight flying bird coming directly toward me. I put the bead on him, waited until I had a nice short shot, and pulled the trigger.
Let me interrupt this story to begin my list of Helpful Hints for the Beginner Dove Hunter:
1. Be aware of the status of your gun’s safety.
In the time it took me to realize the safety of my gun was on, the bird slipped safely and quietly over the tree line behind me. It was the only bird that came my way that afternoon. I unloaded my Remington, put the three pristine yellow 20 gauge shells back in the now full box and closed it and my dove hunting chapter, not to be opened again until almost four decades later. Yesterday.
My friends Chris and Anna invited me to come out dove hunting with their dogs Wyatt and Luna on a stunningly beautiful, blue sky day in rural Virginia. Considering how my first experience went, I was excited to give it another try. We got to the field early and then Billy, the host who set up the shoot, gave us some ideas on good spots. We chose an area where some power lines intersected with a tree line at the far end of the fields. The terrain was brutally difficult to walk in. Deep, irregular mounds and ridges of firm ground – an artifact of a chisel plow early in the season – made it feel like you were walking on bowling balls. But we navigated the obstacle course the several hundred yards with all our gear and set up for the day. Anna was working the dogs and taking photos, Chris and I would be shooting. Here is the spot I chose, some cover of overhanging limbs and plenty of shade, but with a good view of the fields and open sky. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
The gun I brought, a 1952 16 gauge Winchester Model 12, is one of my very favorites. Light and comfortable, the 16 gauge is built on the 20 gauge frame. I’ve often said of this gun that I could shoot it all day long, but on this day I did exactly that. And the simple, brilliant Model 12 design just makes this gun aim where you’re looking the second you throw it up to your shoulder. However, aiming and hitting are two different matters when it comes to dove.
Chris chose a spot more out in the open, sitting against the base of a phone pole about 75 yards away from me to my right. He immediately started shooting single flyers racing by him from behind. Here is Chris and Wyatt with the first bird of the day.
Wyatt making sure I got a good close up before he gave the bird up.
Watching their flight pattern, it doesn’t take long to identify and recognize these birds. We didn’t get any photos of them in flight, but here is a file photo of a common migratory mourning dove. Note the distinctive shape:
Early on I had opportunities but just couldn’t get a handle on shooting these things. Chris’s success, I determined after observing for about ten minutes, was due to better instincts on where to sit and where to watch, faster reaction time, and better shooting than I exhibited.
2. Have better instincts, react faster, and shoot better.
I brought over 100 shells and within the first hour I had burned through maybe 20 and I’m not sure I even scared a bird. Chris graciously let me sit in his spot for a bit, probably to let his gun cool off and give his shoulder a rest, and before long I had another chance. Three doves whipped around the phone pole I was leaning against, I picked one and quickly took two shots at it. Miss, miss. I took my time on the third and connected, downing my first dove ever. Chris is a truly good friend, and he exhibited this with a genuine, spontaneous celebratory outburst when those feathers flew. I know he would have traded all his birds to that point just to see me hit one. Anna brought Wyatt over to find the downed bird in the thick millet and he made quick work of the task. Here we are sharing the glory.
Breaking the ice with this one helped a lot. I felt like I started to shoot better and react better. But I was still leaving a lot of opportunities in the field. Some lessons learned:
3. If you stare too long at one distant part of the field, birds will appear very near you in the other direction.
4. When #3 happens, and people try to bring it to your attention by yelling, “LOOK UP!!”, you would be surprised how vast an area “up” is and how easy it is to not see something there.
5. If you put your gun down to pee, you will miss birds.
6. If you hit a bird on your second or third shell, reload before you go to find it. Doves are watching you, and if they count three shots and don’t see you reload, they will come and land on your shoulder or roost on your dove stool till you get back.
7. When you watch a huge field for doves, your brain will send you some false alarms. Dragonflies look like doves. Butterflies look like doves. Trust me, it happens. I had the safety off and the bead drawn on a big, beautiful orange butterfly half a dozen times.
8. If you switch places with someone because you haven’t seen action in a while and they’ve almost limited out, birds will stream toward your original location like your cooler is the very place they are migrating to.
Luckily there were enough birds around that despite my missed opportunities and missed shots, I was having some success. And having the dogs there to find downed birds was just key. We spoke to some guys on our way out who were shooting a lot of birds but not finding many. We didn’t lose a bird all day. Here is Luna with our first joint effort together.
Anna tucked into the shade and sent dogs as needed.
9. Bring a dog.
Chris, as predicted, got his limit of fifteen birds, and took just under fifty shells to do it. That, from what I know of dove hunting, is pretty fine shooting. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
These dogs worked their butt off in very difficult terrain for a long, warm day. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
As for me, I ended up with seven, and took about 70 shells to do it. Not too bad, considering I burned an entire box before I even hit one.
But more importantly, I had an absolutely fantastic time. Shotgun shooting is my favorite kind of shooting, and dove hunting is as exciting as shotgun shooting gets. It’s really a blast!
10. Don’t get frustrated, everybody misses these birds. A lot. Just remember how much damn fun it is, hit or miss!
I’m exploring recipes, and will do a follow up post on eating these dove breasts. It’s always rewarding to me when a hunt becomes a meal.
I’ve come a long way from that upside down bucket in a North Carolina field a couple hundred yards across from my Dad, watching that solitary bird over the barrel of my Remington as he slipped above the trees. And I think if you told me that afternoon as I placed those three unused shells back in the box that one day I would be writing that in dove hunting I’ve found perhaps my favorite type of hunting, I would have disagreed strongly.
But it’s true. It’s fun, casual, social, challenging, rewarding and exciting. And I can’t wait to do it again.