The Glorious 12th of August, the opening day of red grouse season in Britain, is the starter’s pistol for the beginning of the game season. Such is the passion among wingshooters for this occasion that top restaurants compete to be the first to serve the new season’s grouse. Helicopters fly the birds shot in the first drives to London, where the birds are served at the lunching tables of those sportsmen who could not find a place in the line. The first restaurant to serve the first grouse is declared the winner in this informal annual competition and is written up in daily papers like the Times and the Telegraph.
America has its own equivalent of the Glorious 12th: the opening day of dove season. The actual date varies according to state, but from September 1 on there is dove shooting across the country, kicking off the start of the wingshooting season.
This year I will be shooting red grouse August 13 but will be racing back to the US for Labor Day weekend—the annual start of the dove season in South Carolina. I wouldn’t miss this occasion for a free week of shooting in Argentina! Why?
Don’t get me wrong; I love shooting in South America and have shot doves in Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and many times in Argentina (I even offer wingshooting schools there). Argentina is special to me, and the people, food, accommodations and shooting are sensational.
Perhaps I am growing old, but high-volume dove shooting does not hold the same appeal to me that it once did. On arrival at the estancia I am as keen as anyone, and for that first afternoon and following morning I shoot like a whirling dervish. But by the afternoon of the second day I’ve had my fill and would sooner assist my fellow Guns in shooting better.
The opening day of dove season in the US is an entirely different matter; here it is the challenge of taking a limit using the lowest number of shells. Yes, I realize that many shooters keep track of cartridge:bird ratios in South America, but it is different there because of the huge volume of birds and the variety of shooting opportunities they present.
The mourning dove is the most abundant and widely distributed gamebird in North America, ranging from southern Canada to Mexico. In the US the population is estimated to be 350 million. In comparison, the dove population of the famous Cordoba Province in Argentina has been placed as high as 50 million birds. So why is it possible to shoot unlimited numbers in Argentina while there are strictly enforced limits in North America?
The eared dove of Argentina is a close cousin of the mourning dove, but it is a more prolific breeder and migrates to a lesser degree. (With the abundant food, protected habitat and temperate climate of the region, why would the birds leave?) The extensive crop damage that results is reason enough to encourage visiting sportsmen to shoot high volumes of birds. (For a more detailed explanation see Conservation, p. 48.)
Mourning doves in North America are spread over millions of square miles, and they migrate a fair distance. Between 17 and 20 million mourning doves are shot per year in the US, but because of the short duration of the season and the strict enforcement of limits, shooting has little, if any, impact on the population.
Stacking the “Dove Deck”
Even with all of the birds moving about, opening day in the States can be a crapshoot. One year in Virginia I struck out completely when a weather front swept through and pushed the doves south. Twenty of us shot a total of one bird that day. By the same token, one year in Alabama there were so many birds that it was like being in Argentina.
The majority of my dove shooting has been in South Carolina and Georgia, and opening-day events have ranged from informal gatherings of friends who have chipped in to plant food plots to formal days on private plantations where the shooting is followed by cocktails and dinner.
Whatever the quality of the food plots, the opportunity you have to take your limit is determined by the weather, the number of shooters in the field and the position you have drawn. If you are off the flight lines, then you had better hope that you’ve practiced long, crossing shots on the shooting grounds.
The army adage that “time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted” could have been written for anyone who hunts migratory birds. Whatever species they are, “birds of a feather” roost together, fly together and eat together. They often fly the same flight lines up and down the country every year. These flight lines are like freeways to them. It is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to draw these birds off of their chosen routes to fields or water where they don’t typically go.
You have to put in the time to learn the roosts, favorite feeding areas and water holes as well as the flight paths that the doves use to travel between them. Of course, if you are invited or paying to shoot, your host or guide should have done this for you. Armed with this information, you establish the position where the birds are entering and leaving the feeding areas. You need to position yourself, your friends or your guests at these spots or somewhere along the routes the birds are taking. If there is not room for everyone, then as one person takes a limit, another should be moved to that position.
As migratory flock birds, doves are susceptible to decoying, and a few well-placed decoys on a flight line can really help draw birds into range. A little movement like that from a “robo-dove” can also work wonders. When setting decoys, remember that sitting birds don’t like to have the wind at their backs, as the airflow lifts their feathers and chills them. When the wind is blowing—and particularly when it is cooler—doves will all face into the wind to avoid this. On still, warm days they can and will face any direction, so set your decoys accordingly.
Kitting Out for the Day
A dove bucket is an essential bit of kit, and the best are fitted with revolving lids that allow you to sit and swivel. You also can carry your shells and water in the bucket, and it will work as a bird bag. Clothing should be appropriate to the weather conditions, and always remember to blend with the background. Camouflage works best, but for more “formal” attire choose khaki or green in shades that are neither too light nor too dark. If you stand out as a wrong-colored blob the doves will flair, jink and avoid you.
Depending on the region where you are shooting, it may be really hot, and if you don’t have a dog, you’ll have to look for your downed birds yourself. If this means walking in tall crops or cover, a pair of snake boots is a sound investment; otherwise, any upland bird boot fits the bill.
A hat with a wide brim will not only protect your head from rain or sun, but also will shade your face. You also may want to put some sunblock and bug spray in your bucket. If it is really hot, take a small cooler to keep your water cool and your downed birds fit to eat.
Wear gloves even on hot days, as your hands will sweat and rust your barrels. On cold days gloves will keep your hands warm.
You can use any gauge and any type of shotgun, but I recommend a 20 or a 28. I have a fondness for the 28-gauge. Like the old saying about 16-gauges—that they “carry like a 20 and hit like a 12”—the 28 recoils like a .410 and hits like a 20. There is something extremely satisfying about putting a cartridge the size of a Chapstick in the chamber of a shotgun and folding a dove at 30 yards.
The bottom line on choke and cartridge is that you need sufficient downrange pattern density for three or four pellets to hit the bird and for one or two to penetrate vital organs. This requires enough pellet mass and velocity, at range, to penetrate feathers, skin and muscle. The 28-gauge using I oz of No. 8 shot and a Light Modified choke works for me for the 25- to 30-yard distances at which most doves are shot.
Migratory birds are hard-wired to react to movement, and they will flare and jink to avoid a raptor’s attack. They will react the same way if you fidget or stand up too soon to shoot. Stay seated and still until the right moment, and more doves will pass within range.
Visualize that you are sitting under the center of a clock, with 12 o’clock directly in front of you. When a dove is coming into range, consider where it will enter and exit the clock. If it enters at 3 o’clock and is headed for 9 o’clock, this will help you visualize the line of flight and the angle that the dove will be in relation to you so you can pick the optimum place to take a shot.
The angle between you and the bird and the distance of the bird determine the forward allowance required to place the pattern on a collision course with the dove. For example, a dove flying 40 to 50 mph at 30 yards at a 90-degree angle to you (the angle that requires the most lead) needs approximately six feet of lead. The more acute the angle, the less lead is required. The more obtuse the angle, the more lead is needed.
Don’t move too soon! The proper timing of the shot is essential. As the dove comes into range, you should, while still seated, turn smoothly and slowly, adjusting your feet to the correct position to take the shot. The muzzles should be continuously pointing at the dove and, as the bird nears the place you have chosen to shoot, you should stand smoothly and slowly, beginning your gun mount as you rise. By the time you are standing your gun mount should be complete and the gun brushed out in front of the dove, and the shot should be taken without hesitation. Be sure to stay in the gun until you see the bird fold and fall. If the shot is executed correctly, the dove will have maintained its line of flight.
I hope that by following these suggestions on opening day you will be the first Gun out of the field with your limit. Shoot straight and shoot often!
Chris Batha’s book, Breaking Clays, and his DVDs, “Mastering the Double Gun” and “Take Your Best Shot,” can be ordered by visiting www.chrisbatha.com.
- By: Chris Batha