By DAN KIBLER
|Photo by TODD MASSON
|Early season doves, like this one
shot by Jessica Hutchinson of Central, are almost always residents.
Migratory birds don’t arrive until the second and third splits.
“Faster than a speeding bullet” was supposed to be Superman’s
deal, but to hunters across Louisiana, the phrase best fits a
mourning dove, buffeted along by a tailwind, sailing across a
cut grain field, its afterburners at full bore as it draws fire
from everybody in the parish who owns a 12-gauge. Forget Clark
There are few sights that will more quickly get a wingshooter’s
heart beating a healthy, 120-per-minute lub-dub than a dove that’s
barreling his or her way, quartering in from the right at what
looks like 90 miles an hour, at 60 yards and closing. It’s a rare
mano-a- mano battle, dove vs. improved cylinder.
More often than not — maybe 80 percent of the time or better
— the dove wins, sailing past to the tree line, its flight unbroken,
leaving you muttering to yourself about the bird’s canine parentage
as you reload, replacing the three empty hulls that are now lying
around your feet.
This year, the muttering will begin shortly after noon on Saturday,
Sept. 7. Louisiana hunters will be able to mutter on 70 different
days, with the usual three-way season split in effect again. The
first segment runs from Sept. 7-15, the second Oct. 12-Nov. 24
and the third Dec. 21-Jan. 6. The daily bag limit is 12 birds
— somewhere between two to three boxes of shotgun shells for most
people. At $4.50 per box, that’s works out to about $1.15 for
every two-ounce dove breast that gets wrapped in bacon and dropped
on the grill.
And you thought prime yellowfin tuna was expensive by the pound.
When it comes right down to it, compared to the price of deer
and duck leases, when a standard arrow with broadhead can run
you $12 each, when you’re feeding an English setter year-round
to find two or three coveys a day, a dozen times a year, a case
of shotgun shells for dove season really doesn’t cost that much.
The enjoyment is just what the credit-card commercials boast:
Mark Atwell of Lake Charles and Charles Dagate of Houma have
no doubt that it’s possible to have “priceless” dove hunts in
Louisiana on a regular basis. It’s a matter of locating or preparing
areas where there will be enough food to attract local doves throughout
the offseason and migrating doves once the shooting starts.
Customers of Atwell and Corbello Guide Service (337-598-3229)
will have the opportunity to shoot over a handful of fields that
have been carefully planted with sunflowers and brown-top millet,
with shooters rotated among the fields to keep birds around from
Labor Day through New Year’s Day.
Dagate has, for the past 20 years, planted three tons of seed
in fields around the Houma area, where he regularly entertains
business customers – often upwards of 50 to 75 at a time – with
top-flight hunting over brown-top and dove proso millet, wild-game
sorghum and Egyptian wheat.
But it’s not quite as easy as throwing some seed out – “plant
it and they will come” – and hoping for the best. Atwell and Dagate
put plenty of time, effort and thought into how they want to set
up their dove fields: what and when to plant, when to strip-cut
or bush-hog, how often to shoot, where to place hunters, that
kind of thing.
|Photo by DAN KIBLER
|Doves are fast-fliers
that are tough to hit. For the average hunter, the shell-to-kill
ratio is at least three to one.
“I love to shoot doves; that’s what got me into this,” said Atwell.
“We duck and goose hunt and do some fishing, and we just started
planting dove fields five or six years ago, just to have a good
time, but it grew, and over the past couple of years, everybody’s
wanted to come dove hunting.
“We plant 11 different fields and shoot Saturdays, Sundays and
Wednesdays. We run a hundred people on Saturdays, 30 on Sundays
and 30 on Wednesdays, and we’ll hunt three or four different fields
at a time. I break ‘em up pretty good to try and leave people
plenty of room, and I try to rest each field a week at a time.”
Dagate staggers his plantings so that different fields are ready
at different times. He might have one or two main fields ready
for the first segment of the season, and he’ll try to keep the
food coming when the second season – his favorite – arrives in
mid-October. When he plants his fields, he tries to have some
of them coming into the ready stage even for the late season,
after New Year’s Day, when doves ordinarily have picked over much
of the available food and are more likely to be tempted by a field
that’s full of seeds.
“I’ve spent a lot of time over the years hunting doves and planting
fields for doves,” said Dagate. “We have one of the best dove-hunting
According to Atwell and Dagate, preparing a field for the season
comes before anything else. Atwell plants sunflowers, brown-top
and white proso millet in his fields, sometimes planting both
in the same field, and the sunflowers take longer to grow and
mature, so he plants them in April and May. The millets usually
mature in 60 days or less, so he doesn’t plant them until late
June or the first week of July.
“What I normally do is mix sunflowers and millet in a field.
If I’ve got a big-enough field, I’ll plant the outskirts – the
first 100 or 150 feet from the edge – in millet, then I’ll plant
the middle of the field in sunflowers. I know the millet will
be ready first, for the first season, and I can cut it and hunt
the outskirts of the field first, and have the sunflowers for
the October and November season, which is by far our biggest and
best season as far as the number of birds we have,” Atwell said.
“Sometimes, we don’t have to cut the millet. If I have some that
was planted a little early, a lot of the seed will have already
fallen on the ground and the field will be loaded with doves.
If they’re in it, why cut it down? As long as you can hold it
on the stalk and you have birds, just leave it.
“Then, we’ll strip (cut) the sunflowers for the second season.
In some cases, if we’ve had to cut the millet, a lot of times
you won’t have to touch the sunflowers. If you don’t have a lot
of grass around the bottom of the sunflowers, you won’t have to
touch them. The seeds will fall down on the ground, and if the
ground’s clean, the doves can get down and find it.”
Dagate has millet fields that will mature just in time for all
three seasons. He watches them as the summer progresses, and a
week or two before Opening Day, he’ll go to his chosen fields
and bush-hog them, clear-cutting the millet, as it were. Often,
if the seed hits the ground and gets a good rain, it will regrow,
giving him new millet as the second and third seasons approach.
For hunters who are interested only in hunting a handful of times,
he advises them to plant millet, then bush-hog it and burn it
just before Opening Day. “That’s ideal for doves if you don’t
want to do any more hunting after that first few times,” he said.
|Photo by TODD MASSON
|Gordon Hutchinson, a.k.a.
The Shootist, retrieves a dove he downed on an opening weekend
hunt last year. Hutchinson plants a small tract of land near
his Central home.
Dagate strips some Egyptian wheat along field edges, ditchbanks
that may bisect his millet patches, or even down the middle of
some of his bigger fields, and leaves the wheat – which may reach
five or six feet in height – to provide cover for his hunters.
He’ll occasionally throw in some wild-game sorghum, which matures
in three months, grows to a height of about 18 inches and will
add to the amount of seed on the ground.
For the second and third seasons, he’ll cut his millet or sorghum
about two weeks before the opener, because he knows that the majority
of second- and third-season birds are migratory, and he’s got
to put more grain on the ground to attract them.
“The early season, in September, all you’re shooting is local
doves; the migratory birds come in October and November,” he said.
“You get some migratory birds in northern Louisiana for that first
season, because you get some cool fronts that bring in birds,
but they bog down before they get to south Louisiana.
“The local birds, you shoot them the first season, but they
aren’t going anywhere. They’re born and raised down here, and
they’ll stay here. They get a little more shy after you’ve shot
them three or four times, but in the second season, you get a
lot of migratory birds in here.”
Dagate says that serious dove hunters need to take into consideration
which doves they’re shooting when planning hunts. Early season
hunts for resident birds don’t need to start until mid- or late-afternoon.
Second-season hunts for migratory birds can start at noon or,
when legal, in the morning just after daylight.
“That first season, it’s so hot, guys who get in the field at
noon and stay a couple of hours, sometimes they can’t take the
heat, so I try to keep them out of the field until at least 2:30,”
Dagate said. “Most of the time, your resident or local birds,
they won’t come into a field until 3 o’clock. Those local birds
are healthy, well-fed, and they’re in the area year-round, so
they’ve got good weight on ‘em. They can come into a field at
3, and in an hour or hour-and-a-half, they can feed all they need
and go to roost. I’ve hunted fields where birds didn’t come in
“The migratory birds, they’re worn down from migrating, kind
of poor, and they’ll stay in a field all day, feeding,” he said.
“You can start shooting them at 12 o’clock. I like to put guys
in the field and let them shoot until about 3:30, then pull them
out, because the birds will keep coming into the field, and they’ll
stay in there until about 5, feeding, and the next day, they’ll
be back and you can shoot them again.
“We hunt in the morning when we can, and then, you don’t have
to wait. Those birds have been on the roost all night, and they’re
hungry, and they’ll come in right at daylight, about 7 o’clock,
to start feeding. Then, as the day goes on, they’ll go get grit,
and they’ll get water and go to the roost, then they’ll come back
to the fields to feed. In the morning, 99 percent of the birds
will be in the field within a half-hour of daylight.”
Atwell loves the second and third seasons much more than the
first, because of the potential for incredible numbers of doves.
|Photo by DAN KIBLER
|Decoys come in handy to
draw doves to your position in the field.
“A lot of people feel like there aren’t any doves because it’s
late in the season, but we have some of our best shoots in October
and November,” he said. “It’s hard to say we have more doves then,
because we have so many all the time, but we sure don’t have less.
I love to run dove hunts in October and November. We smoked them
last year in the second season with the guys we had in who hunted
ducks in the morning and wanted something to shoot in the afternoon.
I just wish people realized that hunting can be great in October.”
Picking out places for hunters to sit isn’t a haphazard deal,
either. Cover is essential, and Atwell said that he likes his
hunters to wear camouflage clothing, because it allows them to
stay hidden until doves are well within range and keeps them from
ducking and darting away until it’s almost too late.
“There are going to be places in a field that are better than
others, but when you’ve really got birds, everybody will have
opportunities,” he said. “Before the season opens, I’ll buy these
little 4-foot wooden stakes – they come 50 to the bundle, and
I’ll drive them into the ground between 275 and 325 feet apart,
to spread the hunters out a little. I like to give them enough
room, for safety, and I like to leave some extra places in the
field so people can move to them if they aren’t getting shooting
where they are.”
Dagate said that he has several fields with trees along the
borders, and trees can be great magnets for flying doves, especially
trees without leaves. They give doves a place to land before entering
a field, and doves like to be able to land in a tree where they
have a good view of the field.
Power lines are natural dove magnets, Atwell said; along with
dead trees, they provide great stands, especially in the second
and third seasons. He’ll also use dove decoys – full-bodied plastics
and silhouettes – especially in the second and third seasons,
and especially in smaller fields. They can be put on the limbs
of dead trees, along the top strand of wire on a fence, or even
on a power line (using a fishing rod to cast over the line and
snub the decoy against the wire).
“They do work,” Atwell said. “I’ve seen those things really
make a difference sometimes.”
Now, about shooting. Both Atwell and Dagate like to have people
in the field who shoot a little in the offseason, whether it’s
sporting clays, trap or skeet. Dagate said that his average hunter
is going to take around five birds with a box of shells, but about
10 to 15 percent may take seven or eight birds with a box of shells
and have an easy limit in a half-hour.
“I like to shoot No. 8 or 9s, with a 12-gauge, improved cylinder,”
Atwell said. “Late in the season, or in the third split, I might
use modifieds, because the birds get a little more wise by that
time. One thing I believe in is using a load with at least one
ounce of lead at the minimum. I don’t like the 7/8-ounce loads.
You can kill birds with them, but you’ve got to have them in your
face, and any kind of wind will blow them off line.”
Dagate is even more particular. He special-orders his dove loads
– No. 9 Remington Express high brass with the power piston.
“That’s the best dove load there is,” he said, “especially if
you’re shooting an open field. It doesn’t take much to knock a
dove down; you’ve just got to hit him, and those shells with the
power piston, they can go a long way, plus you’ve got a couple
hundred more pellets with 9s than with 7-1/2s. The only thing
is, on a windy day, 7-1/2s won’t drift as much as 9s. I read one
time that, at 40 yards, with a 15 to 20 mph wind, shot will drift
about 6 or 8 feet.
“I shoot a 12-gauge with a 24-inch barrel and improved cylinder.
Or you can shoot a 20- or 28-gauge with a modified choke. I tell
the guys who show up with full-choked barrels to take ‘em to the
gunsmith and take that choke out.”