In most parts of the country, dove hunting is the most challenging wing shooting you will find. They fly high, use evasive maneuvers, and are small targets. In this article we will show you how to ensure you find the doves and bring home as many as possible.
As a child, my first experience with bird hunting was walking my grandfather’s hog farm and hunting doves. My first shotgun was a 410 as I was young and could handle the blast. It was a single shot, so I was forced to be accurate with my very first shot.
As we would walk up and down the dirt paths, doves would swoop in to pick up the grain that had been scattered for the hogs. It reminded me of ground artillery trying to shoot down a WW2 fighter plane as the bird ducked and dodged most of the shots. We went through a huge number of shells, but we always came back with dinner.
If you are not prepared for the challenge of dove hunting, you will come home empty handed.
Deciding where to hunt, when to hunt, and how to hunt are absolutely vital to dove hunting success. We are here to provide the dove hunting tips needed to ensure you have lots of fun and reach your bag limit.
Scouting for Dove Hunting
The week or so before dove season opens may be the most important window for dove hunting success.
Many dove hunters consider the first three days of the season to be the only time to hunt. Doves are very sensitive to hunting pressure.
After even just a few hours of hunting grain fields on opening day, doves may start to move out of the area and retreat to the forests. Your initial strategy is vital if you want to bag any doves in the early season.
There are several variables to consider when scouting:
Dove Food Sources – One of the biggest advantages that you have when seeking out doves is to target specific food sources. Doves like to go after grains, especially after the climate starts to dry out.
They love grains like wheat, barley, corn, and sunflowers. If you set yourself up near these fields, you will have a very good chance of seeing doves.
Dove Water Sources – Doves are water sensitive. They will typically try to stay fairly close to a consistent water source, and they prefer a stationary one such as a pond or lake. You can even find doves drinking from potholes in gravel roads from time to time.
Try to stay within a couple hundred yards of a water source, and you will have better luck.
Dove Perching Opportunity – Doves often like to sit in trees at the edges of fields and scope out the field before going in to feed. Having some tall trees close by will give them an area to do this. They also sometimes will stop at these trees after they are spooked from a field.
Dead trees and branches provide the best perching opportunities as they do not have to work around the leaves to land. Keep these trees close by, and the doves will be more likely to stay close.
Cover – Doves have incredible eyesight. This means you must be hidden or they will alter their course to avoid your shot range.
Try to find a spot in our around your field that has tall brush or trees to help hide your location. You will then have the best opportunity for the element of surprise.
Sun Location – Never forget that with doves you are typically shooting at an upward angle. This means that with the wrong location you could be shooting into the sun.
For me, this is a huge issue. Even with sunglasses, I cannot accurately shoot into the sun. Consider what time of day you will be hunting, and position yourself so the sun is behind you, to your left, or to your right.
Dove Hunting Solitude – One of your biggest challenges on opening day could be other hunters. I have been to fields that have dozens of hunters evenly spaced across the entire area. Your odds are obviously better if you have less competition.
You cannot cover an entire field by yourself, but there is a point at which other hunters are shooting your doves.
Try to find private land or public land that is in the middle of nowhere. If you can get your own real estate for opening day, it can make a huge difference. Also, always have a secondary spot picked out in case another hunter beats you to your ideal location.
Dove Direction of Flight – In any given area, doves are likely to enter and leave a field in a specific direction. This information is vital if you want to set up in a good shooting lane.
I suggest you stake out your field both morning and evening a few days before your hunt, and determine the directions of flight. This will ensure the birds are as close as possible to your stand.
When to Hunt Doves
Depending on the regulations in your area, you will probably have two primary windows for dove hunting.
As with most animals, doves are most actively feeding in the early morning and late evening. That being said, you only a small window before doves are scared off by hunting pressure so do not want to limit yourself to only these times.
For morning hunting, I suggest you try to be the first hunter in the field. Often, other hunters will have scouted the same area and plan to set up in the same spot. You may have to be in place an hour before daylight to beat out your competition. Be ready for doves to start flying at first light.
Evening hunting can be quite unpredictable. Doves may start feeding right at dusk, or they may start several hours before. Because of this, I like to be set up at least two to three hours before dusk to maximize my opportunity.
Mid-day hunting can be much more difficult, but other hunters know this. Most hunters will clear out within a few hours of dawn. This will often leave your field more open for the warmer hours.
If you really want to hit those first few days of the season hard, stick around for late morning or early afternoon.
Dealing with Other Dove Hunters
Whether you bring a group of hunters with you or you enter a field full of strangers, working with other hunters is a huge challenge for early season.
Doves are not especially sensitive to noise, so make sure you communicate with everybody around you.
It is vital that you set up a system to determine which doves are fair game as they cross a field.
For example, I sometimes like to set up right next to another hunter. I will then take every dove that comes in from the left, and the other hunter will take anything that comes in from the right. Once the bird crosses the centerline it then crosses into the next hunter’s shooting lane.
When you bag a dove, you must be very careful about walking out to get your bird. Always try to find a landmark so you can still find your dove if you have to wait for a little while.
Once incoming doves die down for a moment, let everybody in the area know that you are collecting your bird before you take a single step. Wearing a hunter orange hat and vest is very important when doing this.
If there is any dispute as to which hunter has shot a particular bird, let it go and move on. You can miss three or four more birds arguing about the one on the ground. Be diplomatic and keep the hunt going.
Another aspect of dealing with other hunters is dove hunting lottery areas. In some states, there are several conservation areas that require you to visit their office in the morning for a lottery to reduce the number of hunters.
You can choose to avoid these areas altogether like I often do. However, if you are willing to wake up a few hours early you might get lucky and draw a prime spot for hunting doves.
Firearm, Shot, and Choke for Dove Hunting
When hunting doves, the equipment and ammunition is vital. You will be shooting doves at 30 to 40 yards, but they move so fast that you need a wide pattern along with your distance.
To accomplish an accurate shot, there are three primary factors to consider:
Dove Hunting Firearms – Your choice of shotgun can be imperative to your dove hunting success. Both 20 gauge and 12 gauge shotguns are commonly used. I personally like my 12 gauge simply because it is what I have most often used, but a 20 gauge is normally a bit lighter for easier barrel sweep.
However, the action of your shotgun has much more effect on your success. A semi-automatic shotgun will give you the most opportunity for multiple shots followed by a pump action shotgun.
The first shot you make is typically the most accurate, but with dove hunting you will often have to take more than one shot. We suggest a semi-automatic if at all possible.
Dove Hunting Shot – Most dove hunters use a 7 1/2 to 8 shot for dove hunting, but this can destroy your meat at close range. The smaller pellets can also lose velocity at further distances.
Switching to a 5 or 6 shot can give you a solid pattern even at further distances. Most importantly, bring lots of shells. It is not uncommon for me to run through one or two full boxes on a good day of dove hunting. They are some crafty little creatures.
Dove Choke Tube– I always suggest using either a modified or improved-cylinder choke tube for dove hunting. Many hunters use a choke tube that provides a tight pattern.
This simply will not work for the speed, size, and maneuverability of the dove. By opening up the choke tube you have better odds of bagging the bird, and are less likely to tear up the meat at close range.
Dove Shooting Tips: 6 Game-Changers
Where the rubber meets the road is the shot itself. Dove hunting is different than just about any other kind of wing shot. The birds come in at incredible speeds.
If they sense danger, they can change direction on a dime. Often you will fire at birds over 30 yards away that are about the size of your fist.
These shooting tips will help you land more shots this season:
Increase your Lead – When leading a dove, you need to fire further in front of the bird than you might think. Many of your shots will be at short range with the bird crossing your shooting lane, so your reaction time will lag a little.
You want to aim over six feet in front of the bird. As a general rule, one inch of barrel movement equals one foot of lead for the bird.
If you shoot like you are going to miss in front of the bird, you will likely put the dove right in the center of your shot pattern.
Find a Stable Shooting Position – Having stable footing when taking your shot is essential to an accurate shot.
Often your first shot will be high if your feet are not planted, and your follow up shots will be all over the place. If you are on a bumpy field, take a minute to flatten everything out before you start shooting.
Seated shots are completely fine as long as you use good form. You may want to shoot some clays from a seated position to practice the process.
Surprise the Doves – With the advanced eyesight that doves have, you cannot stand up as soon as you see a bird on the other side of the field. They will likely see you and adjust their flight path.
Wait until the dove is just starting to enter your range, quickly stand up, plant your feet, mount to your shoulder, and take your shot.
If you are comfortable shooting from a seated position, this reduces your movement even more.
Make a Solid Gun Mount – One of the biggest mistakes that wing shooters make is to rush their shot. They shove the stock of the gun loosely in the general area of their shoulder and blast away.
Without a solid mount to your shoulder, the stock will move and the barrel will raise. You will miss high almost every time. Take an extra second to get a solid mount on your shoulder, and you will be more accurate.
Shoot at a Single Dove – When birds come down in groups, it can be tempting to just fire at the group. It is a shotgun after all, right? Wrong. You need to focus on one particular dove if you want a good chance of taking it down.
Leading Below Doves – There are two scenarios in which you actually want to aim below a bird to lead them properly. One is when they come in from behind you.
In order to lead a dove that is moving away from your sights, you need to shoot slightly below the bird. This will give it time to move into the shot. Also, if you have a bird preparing to land start your aim below the bird and fire once the barrel blocks out your target. This will account for any downward movement.
Dove Hunting Clothing, Blinds, and Decoys
With many types of wing shooting, clothing is not all that important. When quail or pheasant hunting, you move so much that camouflage does very little. However, with doves you must stay absolutely hidden.
If they spot you they will change direction and you will not get a shot. I suggest camouflage from head to toe with the exception being your hunter orange clothing.
Blinds are a good option for the same reason. You need to be sure to choose a blind that allows you to pop up and shoot in all directions, so a tent style deer blind is not ideal.
You need something two-dimensional. Do not be afraid to use natural materials to build a blind for dove hunting.
Some dove hunters use decoys to draw in other doves. These are typically either stationary foam replications of the bird, or they have moving wings to make them more realistic.You can place these on the ground, on the grains, or on fences and other structures. If you are having trouble bringing in the birds, you might give them a try.
Late Season Dove Hunts
Do not get discouraged if you are unable to hunt during the first few days of the season, or if you have no luck.
Dove season lasts several weeks in most states, and often the fields will be empty after the prime early season window. This gives you a great opportunity to take advantage of reduced hunting pressure.
One precaution you must take later in the season is to determine which fields have been cut and which ones have not. You may have a favorite sunflower field for early season hunting, but by late September it could be cut and tilled already. Scouting can be just as important during the late season, but for different reasons.
In addition, if you have the time I suggest you play your odds. Instead of hunting all day for two or three days straight, maybe just hunt mornings and evenings for a week solid. With hunting pressure reduced, mid-day hunting loses much of its benefit.
Dove Hunting: Break Out Your Shells
There is no other type of hunting that will hone your wing shooting ability like dove hunting. It is a great deal of fun and an excuse to spend time with family and enjoy the fall weather. As enjoyable as it may be, it can be frustrating without the proper preparation.
There is no ideal way to practice your shot for dove hunting because of the complexity of their flight pattern. You can shoot clays flying perpendicular across your shooting lane to maximize your leading experience, and practice from a seated position.
Do your scouting, remember these tips, and hunt as often as you can.
NOTE: My partner is a doula named Mallory Jacks (birth coach) and she recommends pregnant mothers forego the dove hunting experiences until after childbirth. The child can be sensitive and shotguns create a lot of force. Please always be mindful of this.