It’s September 1st- the first day of mourning dove season that serves as the official kick off to HUNTING SEASON! For me, the “first day of dove” is an ice breaker. I also like to think of it as launching pad for the fall/winter hunting season and all that it might bring.
Mourning doves are the most widely distributed game bird in North America- and they’re also the most hunted. Probably more tons of lead has been hurled at doves than any other game bird combined.
Where The Doves Cry
Some haughty types may call it dove “shooting”, but I like to be a little more down-to-earth and refer to it as dove “hunting”. In southern states, hunters thrive on formal dove shoots in manicured dove fields bordered by sunflower plots. These shoots come complete with tents for shade, hot bar-b-que grills, and cold beverages. But here in Pennsylvania, you’ll find dove hunters on the edges of grain stubble, standing corn and cattle pastures. Experienced dove hunters know where to stake their claim in these fields for pass shooting opportunities. When field edges are bordered by a row of trees, it’s best to find a natural “break” in the trees and set up there. For some reason doves seem to prefer to fly through or over these naked spots providing a consistent trickle of overhead shots. Another trick is to post under a ubiquitous dead tree in the middle of a field. Dead leafless trees are dove magnets and they offer good incoming shots.
But some of the best places to hunt doves may sound a bit unorthodox, especially to hunters that are used to southern dove shoots.
The Rock Fields
I was brought up hunting doves in the rock fields of south central Pennsylvania. The “rock fields” are actually working stone quarries. Some of the greatest hunts of my life (big game included) have been in dusty old limestone quarries with friends and family. After the workers clock out for the day and surrounded by idle construction equipment, my dad, brother and I have experienced phenomenal dove hunting in quarries, perhaps only to be rivaled by exotic places like Argentina. I’m talking about as-fast-as-you-can-load your-gun action with doves plowing in from all directions… and hunting partners hollering out your name from across the quarry, “Comin’ in from your right- your left- BEHIND YOU!” It’s a euphoric experience that every dove hunter would love to experience at least once in their life. On the first day, we typically leave the quarry with limits of doves and smiles on our sunburned faces. We usually crown the day by stopping at McDonalds to celebrate with cheeseburgers and cold Cokes.
Hot and Hazy
The best weather for dove hunting is a hot, still, overcast day. I’ve even experienced great dove hunting on days when it’s threatening to rain but not quite raining. The last two hours of daylight are generally the peak shooting hours but a hunter with limited time can often get some fast and furious shooting in the last fifteen minutes of daylight by setting up on the edge of a roosting area like a thick stand of pines bordering a feeding area.
All types of shotguns come uncased on the first day of dove season. The perfect dove gun would either be a side-by-side, a pump, an autoloader, an over-and-under, or a single shot in a gauge somewhere between twelve and twenty-eight sporting a 26-30” barrel(s) with an improved cylinder (I/C), modified, or full chokes… Really, all types of firearm configurations work well for doves in varying conditions. My dad has always been deadly with his only gun, an 12 gauge L.C. Smith choked modified and full with 30” barrels while my go-to dove gun is a Remington 870 that happens to be the Special Purpose Magnum model with a screw-in I/C choke that was actually designed for waterfowling.
Early season doves tend to present close-in shots that are perfect for an I/C choke but after a few days of hunting pressure they quickly learn to fly high presenting full-choke shot opportunities; and while a 20 bore is more than adequate for doves, I like my twelve with 1 1/8 oz. of number 8 shot.
While Dove hunting doesn’t require a ton of gear, other than my 870 SP Magnum, there are a couple things that I wouldn’t go into the field without: My Filson tin cloth shooting bag loaded with shells, leather shooting gloves, a folding stool, sunglasses and sunscreen, and woe to the dove hunter that forgets to bring small cooler with cold drinks.
The spoils of the hunt come to fruition about a week after opening day when it comes time to eat the harvested doves. Rivaled only by woodcock, I consider doves to be the filet Mignon of game birds. Try my method and recipe with your next limit of doves-
Step One: After returning home weary from a successful dove hunt, simply put the undrawn and unplucked doves on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator lined with newspaper.
Step Two: Close the door and walk away.
Step Three: Return in 5-7 days. The birds will be perfectly aged and ready for the grill. Pluck and draw the birds. (A lot of hunters simply breast out their doves but I prefer to take the time to pluck mine…and they’re easy to pluck too.)
Step Four: Rub the doves with sea salt and black pepper. Then, coat the whole doves with Worcestershire sauce for a few minutes and allow them to reach room temperature before arranging them on a super-hot grill.
Step Five: Cook the doves medium rare- about four minutes on each side.