By Aaron Pass This article was originally published in the 1978 edition of Outdoors in Georgia.
Dove shooting is usually the simplest form of the various types of hunting. It demands the least of the hunter in terms of traditional hunting skills. Beyond the ability to sit relatively still, no great amount of woodscraft or intimate wildlife knowledge is required. Likewise, the associated paraphernalia for dove hunting is much less specialized than most other hunting gear.
Waterfowling has given us the duckboat, duck calls, decoys and three common retriever breeds. Quail hunting is responsible for a whole class of shotguns, several breeds of dogs, a style of hunting clothes and even specially rigged vehicles. Deer hunting contributes a host of treestands, fluorescent orange, several rifle calibers and even two varieties of deer scent.
Dove hunting is usually conducted with whatever shotgun comes to hand and a considerable quantity of shells of the "quail" load class. Camouflage clothing is often worn but isn't absolutely necessary. Dogs, decoys and calls are not generally used. So far, dove shooting's main contribution to the sporting goods business seems to be a camouflaged version of a camp stool known as a dove seat and the ventilated shell vest for hot-weather hunting.
A great degree of woodscraft and specialized equipment simply aren't necessary for the style in which most dove hunting is done. The classic southern dove shoot has been well described as a social event. Often preceded by a barbecue or other generosity on the part of the host, the participants (perhaps as many as 200) meet at midday and leisurely proceed to the field(s). The doves have been located in a large, recently harvested field and, barring bad weather, that is where they will be. Cars are often driven right up to the shooting stations — so much for woodscraft. The seemingly large number of hunters is important to the dove shoot strategy as they are necessary to keep the birds moving from one field to another and even from one end of a large field to the other.
The solitary dove hunter is looking for a different situation and here is where the dove hunting ceases to be simple.
Doves are pretty single-minded and are loath to give up on a field that they like. If the owner is wise, he can furnish several quality shoots per season by not allowing late evening shooting and by resting the field between shoots. Likewise, camouflage clothing helps, but a hunter who is fortunate enough to pick a stand along a preferred flight line is going to get a lot of shooting even if he is dressed in a purple and orange Hawaiian shirt and an electric green baseball cap.
Of course, things can and do go wrong. A sudden cold snap will foul up an otherwise good field, and the sudden harvest of peanuts or some other dove delicacy on adjoining farms is sure disaster for the best planned shoot. But on the whole, the big-field, big-crowd dove shoot is about the most consistent and proven of dove hunting methods.
This is great if you have access to both a big field and a big crowd, but let's suppose that you don't. Perhaps you don't care for the mob scene or maybe you have a day off that doesn't fall on the weekend. In such circumstances the traditional dove shoot is not your cup of tea. Even if you could get permission to shoot some of the weekend fields (unlikely since the manager usually wants them to "rest"), you would not be very successful. Doves are no fools. If someone is shooting at them in one spot, they are perfectly capable of avoiding that spot.
The solitary dove hunter is looking for a different situation and here is where the dove hunting ceases to be simple. Again, not much pure woodscraft is involved, but considerable knowledge of dove habitat is required. Besides food, doves need two other commodities — water and grit. They also tend to follow established flight lines in their movement. These factors are the keys to successful solitary shooting.
Water is your best bet. Doves prefer open water with clean approaches, i.e., they are not going to land and walk about on a brushy stream bank. A sand bar is perfect for it produces grit as well. With a few scattered trees for loafing, you could be looking at a dove paradise. Walk into such a spot and spend a few minutes one evening before the season. If you see no doves, something is wrong. Western hunters have long used stock tanks for dove shooting. However, in the East, heavy rains which make mud puddles available will temporarily cut down water hole utilization by the birds.
Pass shooting is another alternative. Doves tend to habitually fly along a general "lane" as they go about their daily routine. Find these aerial avenues and you can have good, consistent, if somewhat difficult, shooting all afternoon.
Another possibility is the small field. Find a small (1-3 acre), harvested grain field (usually corn in this small a unit) and get shooting permission. This can be productive at any time but is particularly good when the big shoots are going on nearby. The small field is usually overlooked by the hordes of hunters but not by the doves. You may need a couple of partners to exploit the small field, but it is still less nerve shattering than a really big shoot.
How do you find such places? Through a bit of work and observation. Travel out to some known dove shoot areas before the season and look around. Avoid the big fields themselves but try to circle them on country roads. Pause on open hilltops (doves even prefer to fly over open land) and watch. Pay particular attention to stock ponds in the late afternoon. Binoculars are useful here, and if you're really serious, county road maps (available from the Department of Transportation) are invaluable.
When you locate an obvious flight lane or water hole, approach the landowner for permission to hunt. Then and only then go back and specifically look over the intended shooting site. Never trespass, even for just a look around. Again, binoculars can be very useful.
This type of shooting is enhanced by some paraphernalia. A good dove gun and camouflage clothing are obvious needs, but dove decoys and calls are useful as well. A half dozen decoys will pull wide passing birds into range and the dove call may also help. The call is particularly useful for locating birds during scouting forays in the late afternoon.
This sounds like a good deal of trouble and, frankly, it is. It is also less successful (on a consistent basis) than the organized field shoots. Seldom will a flight lane or water hole produce more than 25 shots in an afternoon. So why bother? Well, there are some advantages like the earlier example of a mid-week holiday when you are on your own during dove season and simply want to get away for a few hours. It is also a great way to introduce a youngster (dog or child or both) to actual hunting conditions without the distracting turmoil of a "real" hunt. There is no competition for the young shooter and the young retriever can be hunted without excessive discipline to control his natural desires to retrieve every downed bird regardless of who shot it.
I know a small, pastured creek bottom where a neighbor's cattle keep the banks worn clean (water), beside a railroad track (grit) and near a pine stand (cover) which has always produced dove shooting. Overlooking this little valley is a high pastured knoll from which one can see the Appalachian Mountains some 50 miles away. On the knoll there is a stand of pines, a stock pond and a dove flight lane going down to the valley. A boyhood friend and I have shot this spot for years, and I wish that I could buy back every shell fired there at its original price. We've never killed a limit that I remember, but on a couple of occasions we've had shooting when our elders who went to "real dove shoots" got skunked. He is training his oldest son there now.
It may take a few trips over several seasons to find such a spot, but once found it is a gem. It is a secret worth being guarded and protected. For in the otherwise hustle and bustle and heavy competitive world of dove shooting, here you can spent a quiet afternoon.