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.
Sandy and I and all the dogs met up with our friends Anna (of AKG Inspiration) and Chris and their two dogs to run around the woods, get some exercise and hunt for antler sheds. This is not the type of activity that Sandy and her dogs would normally join us for, and while it was nice to have them along, I did get the distinct feeling that things would get interesting. So come along on a photo tour of our day…
The recent snow and quick melt made for muddy conditions, but Finn and all the other dogs had a blast running around in the muck.
Wyatt came up big early, finding this T-Rex thigh bone. He was very proud, as well he should be.
Finn: “Is this an antler?? I think I found an antler!” (He found several deer parts portable enough to bring back to me in varying stages of decay. I praised him for this, as I felt it was a short leap from finding and fetching leg bones to finding and fetching antler sheds.)
Winnie: “Dude. You are an idiot. Antlers don’t have joints, and they don’t reek like buzzard breath. Which you now have.”
There were a few creek crossings that got pretty interesting. Here Sandy crosses with Monkey, but Petey is no fan of water, so he wouldn’t cross here.
Speaking of Petey, I didn’t get a lot of still photos of him today as he was on a leash with Sandy. But here is a video dramatization of Petey when he timidly tried to venture out a bit off leash.
Okay this happened. Luna and Winnie are watching a scene unfold.
Here is that scene: We were walking along the margin of a wooded area and a dead cornfield, and we stopped to watch many, many deer in an adjacent field. They were running back and forth and one of them darted into the field we were in. She was maybe 150 yards away when some of the dogs saw her and took off. Finn was in the lead with Wyatt and Monkey not far behind. I had the e-collar on Finn but a firm “Here!” caused him to break off his chase and circle back. Wyatt also broke off his chase and came back. While I was congratulating myself for what a good boy Finn was, we realized – if a little slowly – that Monkey was not coming back without a deer. He had visions of himself, like a lion dragging a gazelle into a tree, just hauling that deer back to us as everyone would cheer and hold him up in the air and celebrate his bravery and prowess.
Perhaps he was imagining the cheering as he ran through the dried corn and dimly heard people shouting his name. These “cheers” only propelled him faster. Two hundred yards. The deer spots him. Three hundred. The deer is hauling ass now. Four hundred. Yelling is fruitless at this point (even more fruitless than it was when he was within ear shot). At one point, the white dot moving in the distance changed course, and Sandy said, “he’s coming back.” But I knew better. He had taken a bad line on the deer, not realizing that when things are a thousand yards away moving at forty miles an hour, you can’t run to where they are, you have to run to where they’re going to be. A quick thirty degree course correction and he was off again. Easily half a mile away now, a small dot in an enormous plot of land, it was hard to get a perception of the speed involved. I once watched the International Space Station make an arc across the night sky. A dim, white spot lazily crossing from horizon to horizon in a couple of minutes. This was like that. It doesn’t look like it’s going 17,000 miles an hour, but you know in your heart there’s no way you can catch it.
Still, Mommies do what Mommies do, so Mommie dropped some extra baggage and took off in a jog after the International Monkey Station. As he neared the treeline maybe three quarters of a mile away, several other deer spooked at the frenzy of activity and took off after the lead deer. To us in the distance, it just played out in surreal slow motion. The other deer, five or six, were trampling through the corn in a panic, basically right where Monkey was. I thought, well if he doesn’t get killed right here, he’ll have to be scared enough to turn back. Nope. He now had a half dozen new targets ahead of him, and he slipped into the treeline and vanished.
By this time Sandy had reached the general area and, I presume, was calling him. I can only imagine what I would have been yelling at that point, but we couldn’t tell what she was yelling, what with the vast distance involved. When she stopped running, I knew she had spotted him and he was on his way to her, and we all could relax enough to really laugh quite hard at the entire incident. So we waited, oh I don’t know, a half hour or so for Sandy and Monkey to return. Perhaps this photo gives an idea of how far that distant treeline is. Actually the treeline here is the short way across the field. To the left, where Monkey ran, the edge of the field is probably four times as distant.
When he returned from running the scale-adjusted equivalent of me sprinting from our house in Virginia to Dayton, Ohio, the other dogs were quite interested in what happened. “Did you catch it? How close did you get?? Were you just FREAKING when those other deer almost ran you over??? You’re so BRAVE!!”
While Monkey had his sights set on live deer, we still hadn’t found an antler shed. Despite covering, depending on which of our party you were talking about, between six and forty-five miles. Sandy finally kept us from getting skunked when she found this nice little one! Being a great steward of the environment, she returned it to the earth to let nature take its natural course. And by “being a great steward of the environment,” I mean, “Having shallow pockets and not really paying attention to stuff falling out of them.” But at least we got this photo of today’s find.
Here is our team of shed hunters: Luna, Wyatt, Winnie, Finn and Petey. On the end there, doing things his own way as he always does, is Monkey, the dog with the biggest heart of all. He’ll sleep for two days, and deserve every minute. And as I watch his feet twitching in his sleep, and his mouth quivering just a bit, I’d like to think that in his dream, he gets that gazelle all the way up the tree.