It is probably safe to say that the dove may well be the most diverse and confusing game bird on the American continents. Statistics indicate that since Europeans first set foot on these land masses more dove have been killed than any other game bird. However, in some regions of the country debate still rages over the dove’s status as either a game bird or song bird.
Although doves are one of the most regulated species in the country many of the regulations governing their harvest can have little scientific data to back up their implementation and until recently little research has been aimed at understanding how to manage them more effectively for future generations. Currently a number of organizations are working with federal and state agencies with the goal of better understanding how to manage this Georgia native for future generations. Many of the arguments tossed around the table relating to season length, shooting hours and baiting restrictions remain unchanged after more than five decades of debate and in many instances have as much to do with politics as with sound game management.
Although the dove can be an extremely challenging target it has been relegated the honor of ‘first bird’ for many aspiring wing shooters. The science of calculating speed, lead, pattern, elevation and velocity of shot combined with developing the necessary hand eye coordination and follow-thru necessary to be a proficient wing shooter have been honed on these darting gray demons since the shotgun first arrived in Southwest Georgia.
Novice and experienced wing shooters are frequently startled to have the principals and physics of successful wing shooting reinforced by shooting at the first bird in a passing drove of dove only to see the third or fourth bird fall erupt in a shower of feathers before falling out of the sky. Repeat this process enough and eventually even the densest student of the shooting sports will get a mental grasp on the principles involved. Every now and then a pretentious wing shooter will appear on the dove field boldly declaring before the birds start to arrive on the field that they’re only there to sharpen up and get in a little practice for an upcoming attempt to harvest a far more glamorous species of water fowl, pheasant or grouse. As if they needed an excuse to be out shooting such plebeian a species. Generally this shooter who arrived with such self acclaimed expertise may be the first to leave with a feeble excuse designed to draw attention from their empty shell bag and equally empty game bag.
It would be an easy bet to assume that more shells are expended on these darting targets annually than any other single winged species. Variables such as wind, light, and flight patterns only add to the challenge. For the true dove shooting aficionado “getting a limit” is only the first step in measuring their prowess on the field the real measure comes in the ratio of sells expended to birds retrieved. At one time I recall the national average for success on the dove field was one bird for every seven shoots or about 4 birds per box. Most honest aficionados of the wing shooting will admit that dove offer some of, “the hardest easy shots” you are likely to face on any given day.
The old adage, “When you’re hot you’re hot and when you’re not, you’re not,” can likely trace its genesis to the dove field. One thing’s for sure though when you are on a hot streak you will be applauded and when you’re in a slump you will be cajoled. The social setting of most dove shoots does not offer the luxury of anonymity to the shooter in a slump.
The social setting of the dove shoot may be one of its strongest appeals. Maybe that’s why these festive occasions are referred to as shoots instead of hunts. (Note to transplanted Northerners; NEVER say “dove hunt”). When it comes to hunting traditions none may be more popular then the opening day shoot and any real wings hooter will make sure that they have done whatever is required to insure a stand on a field on opening day. The pomp and circumstances of the event may range from a handful of hunters meeting in the corner of a field for a sandwich before the shooting begins to a full blown barbeque with all the trimmings and a band. The pre-shoot conversation will be flavored with reminiscences of shots and shooters from seasons past, but every shooter knows that the post-season talk will be peppered with comments regarding today’s shooter’s ability or lack thereof. No other game species provides the shooter such an open stage in front of their peers.
The social aspect of dove shooting and the number of “guns” needed to have a successful shoot have lead to pay shoots and dove clubs. During the season posters announcing pay shoots can be found at sporting good and cross-road groceries across the region. Civic clubs and churches in rural areas may also use the dove shoot as a fundraising mechanism. For those not blessed with farming friends the opportunity to shoot dove can be found on State Wildlife Management Areas in the region.
Another endearing quality related to the dove is that it can be successfully hunted in a variety of conditions, utilizing a variety of methods. When dove are hungry they will feed in sweltering heat, driving rain and freezing flurries. They are drawn to fields of varying sizes and topography to consume almost any grain. They may flock to sandbars and watering holes as well as gravel pits for water or grit. However, they can also be extremely finicky in their choice of feeding areas. It is not uncommon for birds to bypass one grain field entirely, while flooding into an identical adjoining one. In fact as most shooters know much to their dismay that even when you may be on the “right field” you may not be in the “right spot”. You may get no shooting throughout the day while the shooter in the next stand has the opportunity to limit out with ease.
The only actual equipment required for a productive shoot are a shotgun, shells and a license all other items may be considered mere luxuries. However, the tools of the sport serve a variety of specific purposes. The dove stool not only provides comfortable seating, but also serves as a storage compartment and carryall for the adequate reserve of shells necessary to come close to achieving a limit. The wise shooter will also make room for sunscreen, bug spray, sun glasses and drinking water. A wide array of camouflage and portable blinds are available to hide the wily shooter if hay bales, weeds, corn stalks or peanut hay aren’t available on the field. Decoys now range from simple silhouette cut outs to mechanized “robo dove”. Others sets of decoys come as pop-up power line and roost spreads.
A good retriever makes an excellent companion on the field whether it comes in the form of a two legged child or grandchild or a four legged professional. Regardless of which retriever you choose to take they better be well behaved. Nothing flares birds away from a field quicker than an uncontrolled dog or child. Mix a few kids shagging birds and neophytes learning how to handle shot guns among the seasoned shooters and things start to get down right interesting. Lessons of safety and etiquette are easily learned when taught by example in such a setting. When you take your retriever afield regardless of the leg count, be sure you have enough water along to insure they don’t suffer from the heat, particularly during the early part of the season. The value of a good retriever can’t be understated. The mark of a real dove shooter’s ability is not the number of birds they “knocked down” but the number of birds they, “picked up”.
For many the lessons, camaraderie, friendships and memories created on the dove field will cross into other arenas and last a lifetime. For many youngsters across the south no more formal coming of age ceremony could compare to being, “big enough to go” on their first shoot.
Albany resident Tom Seegmueller is an outdoorsman, historian, disability rights advocate and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.