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Lovin' Doves
Many wing-shooters target doves only at the beginning of the hunting seasons, but for these two hunters, it's a year-long passion.

By DAN KIBLER

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.
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 Kent.

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: “priceless.”

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.

Doves are fast-fliers that are tough to hit. For the average hunter, the shell-to-kill ratio is at least three to one.
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 programs around.”

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.

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.
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 until 4.

“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.

Decoys come in handy to draw doves to your position in the field.
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.”