New Years’s Fireworks

January’s skies are full of doves that blaze by hunters at the speed of bottle rockets.

I think the first time I ever noticed the abundance of doves during winter, I was duck hunting in the flooded rice fields of Northeast Louisiana.Adjacent to our waterhole was a dry field where row crops had grown earlier. Wave after wave of mourning doves flitted in and out of the field, obviously having found something to their liking.

Had I known then what I now know, I’d have excused myself from the duck blind — the ducks weren’t flying anyhow — replaced my steel shot with some 7 ½ lead loads, and parked my carcass out on the dry field to take advantage of the only birds that seemed to be flying that day.

A little-known secret is that dove hunting during late season can even surpass that of the steamy days of September.

For most dove hunters, the season is three days long. It opens at noon the Saturday before Labor Day, continues the following day and ends at sunset on Labor Day. After that weekend of fun and barbecue under a shade tree followed by taking to the fields where sweat and sunburn predominate, it’s over for the year and time to start thinking about teal hunting, bow hunting, squirrel hunting, et al.

Hunters interested in the spirited wing shooting afforded by these gray ghosts of the skies can take heart. Hunting doves during the late season can be as exciting and more comfortable than slinging lead at them during the sweltering days of September.

According to Fred Kimmel, Upland Game Study Leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, dove hunting can be quite good around the state late in the season if hunters understand the difference in hunting them in September and in January.

“They’re going to be feeding on different things in winter. The fresh-cut green fields won’t be available to them, but find where a farmer has cut his corn or soybeans, and the fields of stubble can be full of doves later in the year,” said Kimmel.

“Waterholes are important in September because the weather is usually pretty dry then. Find a water hole on a sweltering day, and you can have some great dove shooting,” he added.

“In winter, we usually have had more rains, which means there is more water available and birds aren’t likely to concentrate on one waterhole. However, if a water source is located next to some of these stubble fields, it can be a great spot to try for doves later in the year.

“In areas away from the agricultural regions of the state, look for goat weed patches; the seeds will have fallen, and doves love goat weed.

“Another thing to note is that the birds you’ll be hunting late in the season are of a different feather than the ones we shoot in September. Most of these early birds are resident doves; they nested and grew up here.

“By the time cold weather gets here, these resident birds are long gone, but they’re replaced by migrants that move in as weather to the north chills down.”

One thing to consider in comparing early season doves and those that arrive later is that on the celebrated opening weekend around Labor Day, we have dove “shoots.” You stand along a fence row, and when doves fly by, you shoot. No real hunting is involved.

When you go after migrant birds later in the year, you engage in something more akin to actual “hunting.” First, it is necessary to do some serious scouting to find out where the birds are hanging. While hunting other species of game, be sure to take note of doves in the area, as I did that day on my duck hunt.

Try to determine what food source is attracting concentrations of doves to an area. Find out if there is a good water source in the area — ponds with clean banks are hard to beat.

Spend some time on the phone to farmers in the area or drop in for a face-to-face with landowners of areas holding doves. Chances are that a farmer who wouldn’t think of letting you come on his place to hunt deer or ducks would be more likely to oblige if the quarry is doves.

Since late-season doves tend to pick up and leave upon the arrival of a cold front, be sure and check your area of choice immediately before planning your hunt.

However, the birds that leave will usually be replaced by others that had congregated to the north, moving down and filling the void as new cold fronts arrive.

A good time to plan a hunt is dictated by watching the Weather Channel. Timing it right by being in your favorite spot just before the arrival of the next front can lead to some spirited shooting as the birds move about and feed just before taking wing and heading farther south.

That doves are great travelers is a well-documented fact. In John Madson’s excellent little book, The Mourning Dove, he points out some interesting habits of these vagabonds.

Madson observed a great variation in length of migration and flight speed during the migration journey of doves.

“A dove banded in Fairmount, N.D., was recovered in central Mexico 1,900 miles away,” Madson wrote.

“In early October, 1950, 157 doves were dyed orange and released in northern Florida. Some of those birds were killed near Miami three days later — 450 miles away. That adds up to 150 miles per day, but the non-stop record was surely set by a dove that landed on a ship 1,000 miles from land.”

That fast-flyer zipping by your ambush point, then, may not be headed to the next field to feed; he could be bound for Mexico!

Madson’s book also gives a clue as to where our migrant birds come from. According to research on banded birds, the birds that migrate to Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast were born east of the Appalachians and in the upper Mississippi valley. Thus, he points out, we get a mix of eastern and Midwestern mourning doves migrating to Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states in winter.

Madson also points out a characteristic of migrating doves that may be unique to Louisiana.

“The situation is really confused in places like Louisiana where local doves are mixed up with Yankee doves coming in for the winter,” he writes. “In the last half of September, there may be an almost complete exodus of doves from northern and western Louisiana when those doves move farther southwest.

“Before long, those Yankee doves begin entering the state from the north. The situation hardly has a chance to sort itself out before there is another influx in December and January when birds in the southwesterly wintering areas begin working back up to the breeding grounds in northern Louisiana.”

Another thing to consider in hunting doves in late season is comfort. Keep in mind that on September hunts, a camo T-shirt and matching shorts are usually the attire needed to keep from suffering heat stroke.

A January hunt, however, can be downright cold. Since you’re not likely to be moving about jump-shooting birds, hunkering down at an ambush point calls for warm clothing.

In September, most of your effective shots will be at fairly close range as doves fly by the brushy fence row where you’re waiting.

Late in the year, much of the foliage will be long gone, meaning that there will be fewer of those close-quarter “easy” shots like September offered.

As a result, most dove hunters who go after late-season birds opt for a bit more firepower. Instead of shot size in the No. 8 or 9 range, catapulted from an improved cylinder choke, late-season hunters might have better success shooting No. 7 ½ through a modified choke.

Because of the scarcity of good cover once frost has knocked back the foliage that covered you in September, hunters might want to consider taking along a portable ground blind.

Turkey hunters are familiar with the type of blinds that conceal them as they wait on a wary gobbler to make his approach. These blinds, consisting of camouflage material, are held together by a series of stakes, either wooden or metal, that are spaced evenly apart. These blinds transport easily when rolled up but can offer plenty of concealment by a hunter sitting on a low stool or bucket behind the mesh blind.

As much fun as doves are to hunt, they’re also welcomed on the dinner table. A number of mouth-watering recipes feature these little dark-fleshed birds. A good dove entree, however, begins in the field.

Fortunately, doves are the most easily cleaned of all game birds. The simplest way is to pull the skin away from the breast — it peels away easily — lift out the breast and cut it free. Some, however, prefer to pick their birds, cooking them whole.

The sooner a dove is cleaned after being shot, the easier it will be to pick or de-breast. Having a cooler of ice along on the hunt helps. Dropping cleaned birds or breasts into a Ziploc bag as you clean them and keeping them on ice ensures their freshness.

One recipe that is sure to receive raves is also one of the simplest. All you need to do is use whole picked doves, season them to taste, wrap each dove in bacon and double-wrap in aluminum foil. Then toss them in the oven or on the grill, and cook them like you would potatoes. It’s simple, and delicious.

Whether you choose to hunt doves during the heat of September or the chill of January, you’re assured of a sport that is among the most entertaining.

Joe Herring, retired secretary of the LDWF, once offered this quote about hunting doves in Louisiana.

“Dove hunting would be the last type of wing shooting I’d ever give up. I’d tearfully turn my back on ducks and bobwhites if necessary but stay faithful to doves to the end.”

What better testimony could you ask for than that? You already enjoy hunting doves in September. Why not leave the deer stand and duck blind long enough this winter to give late-season dove hunting a try? It’s my guess you’ll be impressed.

NOTE: Louisiana’s late dove season dates are Dec. 17 through Jan. 9 statewide. Bag limits are 12 per day; 24 possession. Shooting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to sunset except on Dec. 17-18, when shooting hours are from noon to sunset.

About Glynn Harris 477 Articles
Glynn Harris is a long-time outdoor writer from Ruston. He writes weekly outdoor columns for several north Louisiana newspapers, has magazine credits in a number of state and national magazines and broadcasts four outdoor radio broadcasts each week. He has won more than 50 writing and broadcasting awards during his 47 year career.

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