The first day of dove season is the most popular hunting day of the year, which means you probably won’t celebrate it alone. On some public land, you may not always be shoulder to shoulder with another hunter, but you often may be a little too close for comfort. And of course you are there to bring home some doves for the grill, but hitting them isn’t like lining up a clay at the trap range. For all that, you need a plan:
Step 1: Bring Protection
Hunters know that safety comes first, which is why even crowded dove openers routinely come off without a hitch. But in a situation like this, it’s just common sense to take a little extra care. Mistakes can happen. The last time I hunted a big public field, someone took a pellet to the cheek. The victim wasn’t seriously hurt, but lesson learned just the same: Wear shooting glasses.
Even cheap glasses can stop a load of 7 1/2s at close range; I know because I have shot them to find out. Glasses can help you see birds better, too, if you choose the right hue. Avoid dark green or gray lenses, even if it’s bright out. You need just enough tint to keep from squinting. Light bronze or rose is the way to go. Earplugs should be part of your combat hunting armor as well.
Step 2: Beat ‘Em or Join ‘Em
If your scouting reveals the proverbial hot corner, wake up very early, get there first, and be prepared to defend the spot with flashlight beams. Or you can be devious. A friend of mine once identified a sunflower field as the best spot on a public area, then recruited several buddies and told us all to drive separately. The half dozen trucks parked around the small field deterred latecomers, and we had the field to ourselves.
Being neither strident nor sneaky, I tend to let the crowds limit out and leave. Then I show up around midmorning to hunt between the early and late shifts. There are usually plenty of hungry doves that couldn’t get into the field earlier coming back for another try.
When you can’t beat the crowd, join them. Try being friendly. Speak up in a tone of cooperation. Odds are the people next to you are reasonable folks and safe hunters just like you. I did this the last time I hunted a big public field, and the party next door was as nice as they could be. We didn’t poach one another’s shots, and we all helped find each other’s downed birds.
Step 3: Don’t Overchoke
Opening day, lots of competition, skittish birds. You’ll have to make some longer shots to get your limit, right? And that means using a slightly tighter choke and maybe bigger pellets, right? Wrong. That’s what the other guys are thinking—and you need to do just the opposite. Use an open choke and small pellets, and wait for close shots. In a recent Texas study, experienced hunters whiffed a whopping 68 percent of shots at doves beyond 30 yards. Besides, spooked doves often just fly faster (not higher), and more pellets from an open choke will help you hit those speedsters.
Step 4: Look Ahead
Speaking of which, at times in public fields you secretly root for a dove to get past everyone else so you can drop it. But by the time the third or fourth hunter has emptied his gun, that bird is on alert and crossing full tilt. It’s one of the toughest shots you’ll encounter all year, especially if you’re a swing-through shooter, like most hunters. This is the perfect time to try sustained lead instead, which will help you get in front of the bird without rushing. Focus hard on your target, start the gun ahead of the dove, and train your eye on the bird’s head to keep your hands swinging at the right pace as you pull the trigger.
Step 5: Bust the Beak
Spinning-wing decoys are fairly common on the public fields where I hunt. For safety’s sake, everyone lines up on one side of the field, with their spinners out front and no one beyond. It is a fact that the more spinners in a field, the less effective each becomes, but a lone dove will sometimes decide that your decoy marks the eye of the storm and will pitch in, making for a deceptively difficult shot. A decoying dove floats down, making little dips along the way. You will miss if you try to track the dips or be too fine in your aim. Instead, keep the muzzle below the bird so you can see it, look at the beak, and shoot. If you don’t tend to handle that shot well, put your spinner to one side so it draws birds past you for short, easy crossing shots.
Step 6: Play it Cool
Doves will also frequently come straight at you, high overhead. This is a tricky shot under any circumstances, but on opening day, there will be any number of people watching—and rooting for you to miss (see Step 4). The natural temptation is to mount the gun early and track the bird. Don’t do that. The dove will see you, and you will start aiming. Instead, wait for the bird to get into range. Then mount the gun and swing the barrel through from behind it. Shoot as you blot the bird out with the barrel. Time it right, and the bird will land at your feet. With all of your opening-day competition watching, you get to take a bow.