The small field behind my house that I remember being full of Washington Parish watermelons when I was young had been lying fallow over 15 years.
Except for the occasional cutting and baling of hay, this little piece of ground seldom saw any action.
For years I had observed that the field would probably make a good, albeit small, dove field. I wasn’t looking for acres and acres anyway, but the two acres sat silent.
The shotgun volleys that erupted hardly two miles up the road every September got my attention, but it was never enough for me to get off my butt and get to work.
What’s the saying? When you ask a man to do something, he’s going to do it: You don’t have to keep bugging him about it every two or three years.
With a son headed to eighth grade last summer, I finally followed through upon years of empty promises that we’d make it a dove field, and I broke dirt in June 2015.
Our circa 1960 heirloom Massey Ferguson 135 tractor plugged away, pulling a disk over years of bahiagrass. After what seemed like hundreds of passes, I finally relented and decided it was as good as it was going to get.
Twenty pounds of browntop millet seed and four sacks of 13-13-13 later, I had a planted dove field that just needed a little rain.
We wound up shooting 36 birds over the course of three days.
My son’s batting coach ribbed me a little bit when I told him we shot 36.
“Thirty six? That’s all?” he quipped. “Man, we shot over 200.”
I got it: Thirty six wasn’t anything to write home about. If we could actually hit a dove, we would have had several more.
But considering our inaugural dove shoot was literally 100 yards out my back door, I rang it up as a successful weekend.
Three days later, the shotgun volley two miles up the road erupted once again. I found out later that night that their tally was just more than 250 birds.
Bound and determined to add more dove breasts to our grill, we decided to hunt our little field again the next weekend.
We didn’t even see a dove.
A couple of days later, I heard my neighbor and his friends opening up again.
It was time to go directly to the source.
Bruce Knight has been shooting doves at his place in Washington Parish going on 30 years or more. If there is anybody on the Lake Pontchartrain’s Northshore who knows how to attract doves by the hundreds, it’s Knight.
Although he readily admits doves can seemingly disappear overnight, he also knows how to ensure he can have more than one successful hunt per dove season.
“More than anything I start early,” Knight said. “We hunt all native doves that were raised right around here, so I plant some early millet at the end of April.
“It’s only an acre, but it keeps them hanging around.”
To keep birds focused on this field, Knight sprays glyphosate on the field to burn the vegetation down, and then he simply lets the seeds fall when and where it may.
“If I was to go in there bush-hogging and got a rain right after, all those seeds would sprout,” Knight said. “By spraying the field, the seed sticks to the plant and will eventually fall out. At some point in time, I’ll eventually bush-hog it, but as long as the doves are feeding I’ll leave it standing.”
Over the last 30 years, Knight has tried a plethora of plants to attract doves, but he long ago settled on browntop millet with some sunflowers thrown in for good measure.
“I tried milo, provost millet — you name it,” Knight explained. “I didn’t see any difference between provost and browntop, but browntop is what’s readily available around here, so I use it. They really like sunflowers, but it’s so hard to keep the deer off of them.
“What you want is your sunflowers just about dead right before the season begins so the seed will fall out, but I have seen them light on sunflowers and peck the seeds out.”
So the whole key to attracting doves in the first place is starting early getting something in the ground that will keep them hanging around.
The problem is keeping them there once they find the food you have for them.
In Washington Parish, where hay fields are plentiful, Knight said he’s seen doves on his place disappear overnight when a neighbor starts cutting hay.
“What attracts doves quicker than anything is crab grass,” he said. “When the farmers go to cutting that crab grass about the time dove season opens, the birds will scatter.
“Thankfully, there isn’t but one man around me who still cuts hay, so it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be.”
Although he understands there is no guarantee, Knight tries different things to try to make sure he and his friends can experience more than one hunt over his field.
His most-successful technique is having a lot of friends who have their own dove fields. This allows his group of hunters to hunt several fields without putting too much hunting pressure on the birds.
“Everybody may not have that option, though,” Knight acknowledge. “So the next thing I’d say to try is spread out a few different fields on your property, if you have enough room.
“If that’s not an option, plant whatever field you do have in different stages to make sure you’ve constantly got seed on the ground during dove season.”
Knight estimated he has five acres of millet planted in three stages. After planting the first part, he waits until it gets up 6 inches before planting the second. Then he waits for the second planting to get up to 6 inches before planting the third section.
“The plan is to not run out of food,” Knight said. “And with all the resident birds we hunt, it works fairly well as long as all the other variables work out in our favor.”
Some of the other variables Knight mentioned included things like the natural dove mortality rate, bad weather and poor nesting conditions.
“I’ve heard that about 90 percent of doves die every year, and hunters are way down on the list of reasons why,” Knight said. “Doves don’t build much of a nest, so they’re at risk of poor nesting conditions like bad weather and animal predation.
“Assuming all that works out, I can hold a lot of birds as long as I have a lot of food.”
I figured out last season that it’s pretty easy to figure out if you’re field is holding birds or not. Our evening ritual during the weeks leading up to opening weekend was to ride the UTV way to the other side of the field and use binoculars to get a general idea of how many birds were on the ground feeding.
Since not all the birds using my field were there all at the same time, Knight told me it was a pretty safe bet to estimate how many you can see and double it.
“That’ll get you close,” he said. “And you need to get a good idea of when doves are feeding in your field. At my house, they feed more in the afternoon than in the morning, so if I went out in the morning and tried to get a count I’d be pretty disappointed.”
Whether it’s by design or not, Knight doesn’t hold dove shoots at his place during the weekends. Rather, he schedules them during the middle of the week whenever all his long-time friends can make it — some from as far away as South Carolina.
“I don’t have a giant field, and I’ve got a lot of people wanting to hunt with us,” Knight said. “If I had 50 acres I’d put a sign by the road letting everybody know they’re welcome. I have a lot (of hunters) as it is, but we put safety first and foremost in everything we do.”
Knight wasn’t sure hunting only weekdays allowed him to have more birds trying to escape the hunting pressure of his neighbors, but he definitely didn’t think it would hurt to let everybody else scatter the doves around and have them find his place full of food but no shotgun blasts.
“Probably the best way to make sure you can have a second shoot is to not hunt multiple days in a row,” Knight said. “I give it at least a full week before we make another shoot.
“Some years you get the second shoot and some you don’t.
When he used to be a regular at Sandy Hollow Wildlife Management Area, Knight saw the effects of hunting multiple days in a row. Whenever dove season opened, somebody was shooting every day of the week.
“We’d have 1,000 to 1,500 birds on opening day,” Knight recalled, “but after about the third day of solid shooting, the birds would leave. They won’t stick around with all that pressure.
“But if you’ll let them settle down for a week, you can get in a second shoot.”
With the advent of morning hunting last season, Knight said he is a firm believer that morning hunts run off birds a lot more quickly than afternoon hunts.
As for the second split, Knight said it’s been a few years since he’s had a great dove hunt that late into the season.
“One of my neighbors used to let his cows into his standing corn to eat later in the year,” Knight said. “Man, it brought in the migratory birds, and we used to have some great hunts just hiding in the corn stalks.
“But the last five years, it hasn’t been nearly as hot as it used to be.”
Knight believes the general lack of success shooting migratory doves during the second split has to do with to mild winters that have kept migrating doves from having to fly all the way down to South Louisiana.
“If we were to get a big cold front during the second split, that might push more birds down from north Mississippi,” Knight said. “The same weather that pushes ducks down pushes doves down, too. If we don’t get that weather, we don’t get the birds.”
Hopefully, 30 years from now my kids will remember this same little piece of ground we turned into a dove field last year.
And, with Knight’s advice, hopefully we’ll be able to make more than one successful hunt on it this year.
Washington Parish watermelons are delicious, and my dove field would make some great ones, but I’d much rather be retrieving little gray rockets than picking 20-pound watermelons.
I think they feel the same.