A limit of Carolina doves on Labor Day weekend is no great feat
Anyone can shoot a limit of Carolina doves in early September.
Want to really prove to your hunting chops? Send your buddies photos of a limit in early January after the local birds have been harvested or moved to warmer climates.
Filling your hunting vest during the late season takes a lot more planning and a little more skill. Follow these tips to maximize your chances for success.
Find the Food
As the season progresses through fall and into winter, hunters are forced to rely on migratory birds to fill their fields. Look for these transplants to concentrate in areas that contain food sources left over from the early season.
Crops such as brown top millet generally don’t stand the test of time and will be unavailable as winter’s cold winds begin to bear down. According to Michael Hook, small-game program leader for S.C. Department of Natural Resources, “Birds are not going to be there if they don’t have something to eat. (We) typically plan (for) dove fields to have something left during the late season. Whether that be corn or sorghum or Egyptian wheat, (we) plan to have some type of grain available for them. If you plan to hunt private fields, you’ll need to have that available as well.”
Watch the Weather
Late-season migratory doves are pushed south along the edges of cold fronts moving down from the north. Hunters need to keep a careful eye on the weather, paying special attention to cold fronts moving into the mid-Atlantic states.
Migratory birds tend to stack up against these cold fronts, following them south first and then back to the north as they recede.
“Whether it be doves or woodcock, as a cold front comes down and pushes in, it’ll move birds down from the northeast, but if it pushes further south, then as the cold front recedes, those birds will follow it back north,” Hook said. “It’s definitely not a ‘these birds move from New Jersey to Florida, and that’s it’ kind of migration. They follow that cold line as it moves.”
This means birds that were in your field the week before a big arctic blast but moved south ahead of the weather may be back a couple days after it subsides.
“It goes back to watching the birds,” Hook said. “If you want to be successful in the late season, you’ve really got to pay attention to their movements.”
Scout, Scout, Scout
If you want to be successful in your pursuit of late-season doves, you must put in your time scouting. If possible, routinely check fields likely to hold doves throughout the winter. Look to see if their numbers start to increase ahead of predicted cold fronts and be ready to call the boys and hit the field as soon as they start to show up.
For public dove fields, Hook suggests that you maintain contact with the wildlife agency biologists responsible for each field.
“Call … and ask: ‘How did your dove fields turn out this year?’” he said. “‘Do you still have crops standing? Are you still seeing birds using the field?’ Usually, these guys are willing to spread the word because they want to see folks succeed. They want to see those fields used.”
Terry Walters has been shooting doves in South Carolina’s Lowcountry for more than 60 years. To keep up with bird movements throughout the fall and winter, he keeps in close contact with a group of like-minded friends.
“We try to stay in touch with each other to see who has birds or who has had birds,” said Walters, who has a unique scouting strategy for checking on his local dove fields, “My scouting strategy is based on the weather, to be honest with you. If it’s real mild weather, usually the birds don’t feed until 2 or 3 o’clock. If it’s kind of windy or unusually cold, they’ll tend to feed earlier, so I like to be there around 12 or 1. Weather has a lot to do with the time of day that the birds will fly.”
An important tip to keep in mind: late-season migratory doves are here today and gone tomorrow. Those birds might not stay in the field until Saturday when everyone is off of work. You may have to hit ’em with fewer shooters than you prefer or burn a day of vacation to get out there. If you want to bag a limit of doves with Ol’ Man Winter, you need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
“If you see birds on Wednesday, they might still be there on Saturday, and if you see them this Saturday, that doesn’t mean they’ll be there next Saturday,” Walters said.
Bagging a limit of doves in December and January requires vigilance and flexibility. You need to know where the doves are likely to be and keep a careful watch to see when they arrive. Once they do, you’ll need to organize quickly to maximize your chances of success. Follow these simple steps, and you’ll keep that retriever busy long after the hot, dusty days of the early season are gone.
It pays to read the field
Aside from being a crack shot, Terry Walters has a knack for always being where the shooting is heaviest. This isn’t a result of persistent good fortune.
“While I’m scouting, I try to read the field. I find a low spot in the tree line or a gap in the trees that might serve as a marker for birds trying to feed,” he said.
Also, pay attention to weather conditions on the day of the hunt.
“The direction of the wind makes a big difference on how birds enter and exit the field.,” Walters said. “Most of the time, birds will try to enter the field from the same direction as the wind instead of flying against it.
“As a matter of fact, I have seen birds — fighting the wind — fly all the way around the tree line until they get to the side where the wind is coming from before they enter the field.”
Depending on the weather, water availability could also be a factor.