That glad and glorious day so beloved by hunters, the opening of dove season, lies just under a month away. This year finds one noteworthy change from practices which have prevailed for years. Rather than a daily limit of 12 birds, hunters will be allowed a limit of 15 doves.
The first segment of the season will begin on Labor Day afternoon, and for those who have not yet made arrangements for a place to hunt, it is high time to do so. Likewise, any hunter will benefit by a bit of preseason shooting practice, for rest assured that even the keenest of shooting eyes will be off some after months of inactivity.
FINDING A PLACE TO HUNT
Locating a place to hunt can be a considerable problem. While there is every indication that local doves are once more plentiful, with the grey-winged speedsters adorning power lines and dead trees in large numbers and their mating calls being audible at daylight and dusk about anywhere you listen, gaining access to a place to hunt is sometimes difficult.
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Proper preparation and care of dove fields are arduous tasks, ones in which longtime hunters take considerable pride. Traditional dove shoots are a ritual for many, but such hunts normally involve a tight-knit group of family and friends and have no room for outsiders.
For newcomers to the area or those lacking such connections, the best bet is probably to try and locate a commercial operation or check out opportunities offered at one of the public fields provided by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (note -- some of these are draw hunts). Increasingly, farmers have come to realize that setting aside a few acres with dove hunting in mind can be profitable, particularly if they time the crops right and harvest them in a way likely to attract doves. There are a variety of crops favored by doves, with sunflower seeds, millet, and harvested corn being among the favorites. No matter what the grain is, however, the weak-legged birds will want clean ground on which to walk and feed, and it is a real plus if there is a watering spot nearby.
Hunt operations of this sort are sometimes advertised in newspapers, but word of mouth or checking with local sporting goods stores is probably your best bet. Often these hunts will include a fine pre- or post-hunt meal, something which is an integral part of a true Southern dove shoot. Prices for participation are normally in the $50-$100 per day range, depending on whether or not a meal is included. If you truly enjoy dove hunting, you might also want to look for a hunt club which sponsors shoots once or twice a week and has seasonal rates.
Ammunition manufacturers dearly love dove hunting, and with good reason. National studies have shown that, on average, hunters take one bird for every five shells they shoot. Doves, particularly when wind driven or at times they are dipping and diving, can be devilishly difficult targets.
Although it isn't quite the same thing, some practice on clay birds will certainly help sharpen your eye, reflexes, and marksmanship. Most sporting clays ranges feature a portion of the course intended to replicate the flight patterns of doves, and you can also get in useful (and enjoyable) activity with a one-trap clay pigeon operation.
In addition, it helps to be sensible in your shooting when the season actually opens. The average hunter has a pronounced tendency to shoot at doves that are too far away or to aim rather than point. Pick your shots wisely, keeping the limitations of your gun in terms or range and pattern in mind, and your percentage of birds to shots will improve markedly.
Yet it should be recognized that accurate shooting is, at best, but a small part of the dove hunting experience. As longtime friend and opening day hunt partner Roy Turner puts it, "it's Christmas Day in September." There's the excitement of renewal as the delicious aroma of burnt gunpowder drifts across the landscape and heralds the advent of another season of hunting. There's togetherness, with good-natured jibes about missed birds and hearty congratulations on fine shots, and on a proper shoot, there are tables groaning with fine food to celebrate a festive occasion. In short, dove shoots lie at the heart of what the Southern hunting experience is all about, and that is precisely why so many of us eagerly look forward to the smell of burnt gunpowder wafting across the sere fields of September.
As this week's column suggests, this is a prime time to get in some shotgunning practice in anticipation of opening day of dove season. For the fisherman, the heat suggests considering an escape to mountain trout streams or maybe dawn outings on a nearby farm pond in the quest for bass, bream, or catfish.