Here in Nebraska, where I live, there are a few things that serve as reminders that fall has officially arrived: the State Fair, Husker Football, tall corn and (one of my favorites), dove season. Doves are one of the first migratory birds to fly south every fall, and their migration is normally very early when compared to other migratory birds. Dove hunting is a terrific way to get started with the sport, allows you to do some hunting when the weather is fine, and it's a lot of fun. Even better, doves make excellent table fare.
So how do you get started? The first stop should be your state's Game & Parks or Game & Fish website. Check into the regulations and season dates. (The NRA has a state-by-state list of contacts here.) Most of these sites allow you to search for public land where you can hunt.
Focus on land that has a food source (sunflowers are a favorite crop). You'll also want to find a place that has water nearby, and here's why: Doves are creatures of habit. They will travel to food throughout the day and, in the evening, they usually travel to water. The trick is getting between the food and water. Pass-shooting doves (e.g., shooting them as they fly over) is probably the most common method of hunting them. However, doves will respond well to decoys and there are many different decoys on the market. A favorite of mine is from Mojo Voodoo. Add a few stationary decoys and you'll have an effective and affordable set.
In truth, nearly any shotgun will work for doves. However, if you're in the market for a shotgun specifically for doves, here are a few points to remember. First, they are small birds and they fly quickly and erratically, so you'll want a gun that handles fast and points well. Check out the Franchi Affinity or Mossberg's new "Duck Commander" lines. (I had the pleasure to review both for NRA Family Insights over the past year: Franchi Affinity, Mossberg Duck Commander.)As for ammunition, if you are going to be hunting over water and on state land, there is a pretty good chance you'll need to be using non-toxic shot like Federal Top Gun Target - Steel. If you're hunting private land or land that's open to lead shot, that is always a top choice. Doves require more pattern and less pellet mass, so 7.5 or 8 shot "trap" loads are perfect. Because doves are migratory birds, you'll also want to check your local regulations to see if you'll need to use a plug (a device that limits magazine capacity to two shells). If so, odds are you'll need to install your plug before hitting the field.
Most newer shotguns come with screw-in choke tubes. Because they're such small, fast-flying birds, they are tricky to hit. Improve your chances with a more open choke, like Improved Cylinder. Modified and Full chokes generally do not pattern well with steel and will throw a tight pattern with lead, which makes it tougher to hit birds. When you do score a direct hit with a Modified or Full choke, it can have a very undesirable effect on the meat. I strongly recommend that you get out on the sporting clays range a few times before the season to get the blow out the cobwebs.
After you shoot your first mess of doves, it's time to clean them. They don't have a lot of meat, but on the upside, generally bag limits are fairly high. Eight or 10 doves will make a very nice dinner for two. When cleaning doves, most people simply "breast" the birds out. This can be accomplished by pinching the skin at the base of the breast bone, just above the abdomen, and tearing the skin and feathers toward the birds beak. This will expose the breast meat. Now, simply take a small, sharp pocket knife like KA-BAR Adventure Baconmaker folder, and carefully cut the breast meat away from the breast bone. This will leave you with two pieces of meat about 2 inches in diameter. Wash the breast well, dry, dredge in seasoned flour, then egg wash, dredge in seasoned flower again and pan-fry in olive oil. Be careful not to overcook,as wild game is very lean, and overcooking can make it tough and chewy. Dove breasts are also great on the grill.
Dove hunting is a great sport for the family and ideal for young hunters. The action is fast, so take plenty of ammo and plan on a lot of shooting when the migration is at its peak. Dove hunting will likely become one of your favorite fall pastimes once you get the bug. Dove hunting is definitely a fair-weather sport, so don't forget your bug spray and sun block.
Photo courtesy Colorado Division of Wildlife