As winter arrives in North Carolina, the final segment of dove season kicks off, allowing a wingshooter crouched in a hedgerow one final hoorah.
Late-season dove hunts can be just as rewarding and predictable as the Labor Day flurry. Even with the majority of the eastern flock vacationing further south, the dedicated dove hunter can quickly score a limit in the right place just a few miles from home.
With a population of nearly 300 million individuals across the continent, the mourning dove is America’s most-popular gamebird, with more than 20 million taken annually, one 15-bird limit at a time. While two-thirds of the dove harvest occurs in the first season that begins Labor Day weekend, the final month of the season can offer wingshooters with fast- paced action often overlooked by many avid hunters across the Tarheel State.
North Carolina dove hunters have a 3-segment season, with the second running Nov. 21-26 and the third opening Dec. 17 and finishing up Jan. 13.
The dove begins its southerly migration in August and will continue through mid- to late November. Even though doves migrate to warmer climates in the South, many flocks will overwinter just below the Mason-Dixon Line, within the rich a agriculture belt of the Carolinas. Even though doves are considered migratory birds, their range is limited, and some will not migrate at all — contributing to the size of the resident flock. They can be easily convinced to stay behind when a rich food source is present.
North Carolina’s farming community offers overwintering populations with groceries rich in protein, fat and carbohydrates. While most crops have already been harvested, many leftovers remain available for doves to eat, including corn, soybean, sunflower, millet, sorghum and other small grains scattered throughout. But these leftovers have many takers. Deer, turkey, rabbit, rodents and other birds will feast on the spilled grains, quickly decimating the food source.
Keith Taylor, the huntmaster of Round Tree Hunt Club in Robeson County, believes late-season hunts can be spectacular when all the right conditions are met.
“We hope for less-efficient harvesting to provide enough grain to sustain the extent of the early and late seasons,” said Taylor, who strives to provide his fellow club members with lively dove shoots from opening weekend through the entire season.
“It’s imperative to have a good food source around to keep the birds local during the late season,” he said. “The cold fronts of fall will push the birds out of the area when the food source is limited.”
Finding a grain field abundant with food will harbor a flock suitable for a good hunt. A few weeks before a scheduled hunt, Taylor rides from county to county, scanning available agricultural fields and powerlines for doves.
“If you find them camped out on a good food source, they will be bunched up together and hell-bent on staying close by,” he said. “With little food available in early winter and cool temperatures, you can shoot them, and they will just come right back.”
Fields with late harvests or less-efficient harvesting methods will usually be the fields holding late-season flocks.
Doves prefer fields abundant with either leftover grain or natural weed seed in plain sight. Doves will often shy away from fields infested with high grass and weeds for fear of predators hiding amongst the greenery, even during the late season when food is less available.
“Doves basically like a clean plate,” he said.
Doves are not excavators and will only eat what they can see lying on the ground; they will not dig for their food. Doves prefer to forage on seeds lying along freshly-tilled or prepared earth as well. A good late-season dove field will have lots of exposed soil.
Luckily, standard farming practices offer overwintering doves with ideal food sources. While farming practices differ around the state, many farmers will follow the typical fall regiment. After summer crops are harvested, farmers will plow or disc-in the remaining litter and plant a cover crop of wheat or oats to last throughout the winter. Even though most wheat and oat crops are shallow-drilled into the soil, many seeds become exposed from heavy rainfall, making an ideal situation for doves. As a bonus, wheat seed is considered one of a dove’s most-preferred foods. These historic farming practices provide doves with an ideal food source right in the middle of the late season.
Preferred and available foods will be somewhat concentrated in certain areas during the winter, with a newly-planted wheat field becoming a prime place to encounter overwintering doves. Fields with prime roosting cover adjacent to these food sources will be “the destination” for bagging a late-season limit before the sun climbs above the tree line.
Roosting cover in close proximity to a rich food source plays a vital role in the success of a late season dove hunter. Roosting cover can be mature trees, young trees or even overgrown shrubs. Doves prefer roosting in pine-dominated forests, with a preference for pine plantations between 10 and 25 years old — with a few taller trees available. These young to middle-aged forests are dominated with bushy tops providing protection and ideal roosting habitat for doves. Hedgerows and field borders covered with bushy vegetation and the occasional mature tree loaded with limbs make good roosting cover for doves any time of year as well.
Taylor expresses a likeness for the occasional tall tree, living or dead, adjacent to a dove field — and for good reason.
“Doves are drawn to the tallest trees around near their feeding areas,” he said. “They will use them to scan the area for predators before entering the field to feed.”
Habitat manipulation can offer hunters with ideal places, too. Creating ideal late-season dove fields can be as easy as leaving strips of standing grain along hedgerows, tree lines or adjacent to watering areas. But if there are not any agriculture crops available and only fallow fields are available, strips along the hedgerows and field borders should be disked to expose soil and to make grass and weed seeds available for doves. While most agriculture crops preferred by doves mature earlier in the fall, farmers willing to work with hunters could delay the planting of a few choice crops to mature just in time for a late-season dove outing. Taylor prefers sorghum plantings for late-season hunts.
“Doves love the small seed that sorghum produces, and few animals will predate the plants before they fully-mature,” he said.
Timing the delayed maturation of a dove crop can be ideal for the late-season hunter. Jerry Allen, huntmaster of Carolina Dove Club, plants a variety of crops under a unique pattern.
“We plant a little bit at a time to prolong availability. As the season arrives, fields will be in different stages with crops maturing at different times,” said Allen, who plants three fields specifically for doves. Each field is stagger-planted by alternating eight rows of corn, 24 rows of sunflowers, and a 50-foot section of white millet.
“We plant white millet almost specifically for the second and third seasons,” Allen said. “It matures late and will not start falling off good until after a good frost.”
Sesame seed is also a good late-season crop with few issues with predation before maturation. The stalks grow to five to six feet in height and out of reach of the most-premature consumers, allowing the crops to mature.
While agriculture fields bring exceptional dove-hunting action in fall, sometimes access to these areas can be unavailable for hunters. Allen finds heavy use of clearcuts by doves in winter.
“Recent clearcuts promote the growth of poke berry that doves just love,” he said.
Exposed soils, scattered seed and flooded wheel ruts also provide doves with an excellent food and water source. Additionally, most areas where timber has been harvested have scattered trees across the site that are ideal for roosting.
The best dove fields during early and late seasons will be adjacent to a substantial water source. Doves must drink throughout the day, and they seek out watering areas close to or within their feeding grounds. Ideally, they prefer water holes with exposed dirt along the margins. In addition to water, the exposed soil near water will have larger sand grains and pebbles available for them to pick up to be incorporated into their digestive system. Some of the best watering areas are in rain puddles in low-lying agricultural fields. These areas offer good visibility from predators as well as a good source for water.
Hunters and farmers together can improve water hole usage adjacent to dove food sources. Light mowing and disking around the water’s edge will expose soil inviting doves into the area.
Finding an adequate food source plays a vital role in predicting a productive dove hunt, but late-season flocks have made it through the first two seasons by avoiding dangers. Remember, the older, adult birds migrate last and are smarter than the juvenile flocks of Labor Day week. Stealthy maneuvers and effective camouflage should be incorporated into every late-season dove hunt.
“Doves become wild in late season. Movement scares them,” Allen said. “Their optic lobe is highly developed, and being still is most important.”
Whether hunting over a freshly cut agriculture crop or residual grain from an earlier harvest, the late-season dove hunt can be rewarding. The final weeks of North Carolina’s third dove season can offer lead-slingers with a final flurry of high-paced action.
Recognize flight patterns
The late-season hunter with few other hunters in his party can still have great shooting if set up in the right spot in a field.
To the novice, doves always appear to be buzzing in from several directions without any pattern or detail, but the seasoned dove hunter understands this is not true at all. Doves will travel along recognizable flyways. While some variability exists, doves will travel into a field following a typical flight path.
Most flight paths will have common origins, but they will differ somewhat each day and throughout the day as determined by wind and other environmental factors. Hunters should set up in the field and observe the flight paths of doves entering the field. After a recognizable pattern is developed, hunters should move into their flight paths. As the path changes throughout the day, hunters should be able to pick up and adjust their locations to continue productivity. Generally, flight paths and the origin will remain somewhat constant for the flock of doves visiting the field. When other flocks come in from other areas, they will follow a different flight path, often coming from a different direction all together.
Being able to recognize the flight path is a critical skill set for dove hunting. Learning how to locate these paths and moving into these flyways to intercept doves will greatly improve success for the late-season dove hunter.
Target natural and unnatural perches
Even though the late dove season can be just as action-packed as the early season, few hunters will break away from the deer stand to bag a limit of doves. Small groups of avid hunters must capitalize on the dove’s natural instincts to set up in certain fields and certain areas of fields.
Productive fields come in a variety of sizes and shapes, with an overwhelming majority of the fields larger than 10 acres. Even though very small fields, under ideal conditions, can still keep a shotgun barrel too hot to touch, the best dove hunts generally require a decent crowd to keep the doves on the move, preventing them from landing and feeding in an out-of-range part of the field. But a small group of hunters can still pick up on the action if set up in the right place in the field.
While doves will fly in from high altitudes and quickly descend all the way to the dirt to feed, they really prefer a staging area to perch and make sure the area is void of any predators. Keith Taylor, huntmaster of Round Tree Hunting Club in Robeson County, is addicted to a good powerline in a dove field.
“Powerlines are my favorite place to set up in a dove field,” he said. “It almost seems like cheating. Doves will head straight for the powerlines, especially when a few decoys are visible.”
In addition to powerlines, doves will key on hedgerows and scattered trees along the field edges or in the fields themselves. Doves will fly in from their main roosting areas and land on these elevated perches before descending to the ground to feed. These protrusions are prime places for hunters to gain a fair advantage and opportunity to take a limit of doves when a limited group of hunters is available. Even if there are not enough hunters to adequately cover the entire field, these hedgerows, isolated trees and powerlines will always draw doves, making for an ideal hiding place.
The majority of available dove fields will have an associated treeline, hedgerow, or powerline, but some locales will lack these key ambush features. Hunters can easily create perches for doves. Cable can be erected on a series of 4-by-4 wooden posts strung together to resemble a powerline, and doves will readily use these for perching before descending to the ground to feed.
Use decoys: static and dynamic
Any serious dove hunter should incorporate decoys into his essential gear. Plain and simple, doves are suckers for decoys. The late-season dove hunter needs every advantage possible to lure doves into a small section of the field. Static or dynamic-type decoys will improve any hunters success ratio.
Predators of the aerial and terrestrial variety take many doves each year. Doves and other birds will congregate in groups as a critical defense mechanism against becoming something else’s dinner. Doves will key in on other doves in a field to gain a sense of protection while chomping down on the area’s most abundant food source.
Traditionally, the non-moving variety of decoy is commonly used for luring doves into range. These types of decoys work very well, but they should be used with two or more together. Higher numbers of decoys gives the approaching dove a better sense of security, directly improving a hunter’s chance.
Keith Taylor, huntmaster of Round Tree Hunting Club in Robeson County, loves to use decoys throughout the season, but he will rarely go without a spread in the late season. For Taylor, the doves seem to have few reservations when approaching a few decoys placed in a likely perch near food.
“Decoys are deadly on powerlines and trees. I like to use three decoys at a time,” he said.
Even though doves will appear to be traveling in medium to large flocks, they really are groups of three to four doves within a small clique congregated over the same food source. Taylor’s decoy trio resembles the natural social group doves could recognize, easing their inhibitions when approaching an area.
The overwintering dove flock must have a rich food source nearby. Doves fully endorse the safety-in-numbers survival mechanism. For this reason, decoys are very effective for luring doves into range in the late season. The new generation of motion decoys with spinning wings really seems to turn and lure doves in close. Up close, the spinning wings appear to have the ability to distract a passing dove. But at further distances, the spinning wing perfectly resembles a group of doves in landing mode. The white flash is recognizable from great distances, drawing doves into the hunters kill range from afar.
Decoys should be placed at different levels with some feeding, some standing erect on the ground and others perched on the limbs of an isolated tree or other erected device. Decoys can also be attached to a fake powerline, further drawing doves into the area.
Using a combination of static and dynamic decoys is the best option to effectively attract doves into range during any one of the three segments of the season.