Sitting on my porch at daylight one morning last week, I noticed that the electric wires above the road were lined with doves.
When a few flew down to pick grit on the street in front of me, I savored the sight. It signals that soon hunting season will begin. And dove season will kick it all off.
Hunters will see similar dove and early Canada goose seasons and bag limits, both of which open Sept. 1, as part of Pennsylvania's 2010-11 migratory bird seasons. Dove hunters, once again, will have a triple-split season. During the first season (Sept. 1-28), hunting will start at noon and close at sunset daily. The second and third splits will be Oct. 23-Nov. 27, and Dec. 27-Jan. 1, with hunting hours a half hour before sunrise until sunset. In all three seasons, the daily bag limit will be 15, and the possession limit will be 30.
Dove hunting is a lot of fun, which translates into a lot of shotgun shells used. Doves are tiny targets; it takes three or four to make a serving at the dinner table. I call them feathered rockets because their speed and aerial antics make them mighty hard to hit. Someone once told me it takes six or seven shotgun shells fired to bring down one dove, and I believe it. On average, you'll miss a half dozen doves for every one you bag. Nevertheless, dove hunting ushers in the official start of the fall hunting season for most hunters.
Once you locate suitable habitat, hunting doves is usually a waiting game, which surprises many hunters. The first time I ever hunted doves, I thought we would tramp through fields and brush and boot them out and take quick shots, sort of like pheasant hunting, with which I was much more familiar.
Instead we wore camouflage clothes and took up posts near flyways where doves flying from one field to another would be likely to cross. Dove hunters have already scouted the likely "passing lanes'' doves use as they zip from cornfield to cornfield or grass field to grass field.
Then, like turkey hunters, sitting still is a must. Doves will be spooked royally by fidgeting hunters. Try to position yourself so that your shots will be at crossing birds. Shots at these speedsters are difficult enough without trying to bag birds coming straight at you.
One piece of equipment that helps a lot is a portable seat. Not a cushion you use for turkey hunting but a small seat with legs. I have a very lightweight seat with long fold-up legs that is easy to carry or even to clip onto a belt if I wish. Some hunters tote along a bucket to sit on. Whatever is most comfortable for you. Trying to shoot at streaking birds while sitting on the ground is awkward at best. Standing on watch is fine if you are 20 years old. A seat gives you leverage for your feet, a great help when wing shooting.
Most dove hunters prefer a shotgun with a modified choke and shot sizes from 7 1/2 through 9. To have any chance at all, you need a shot pattern that spreads well. When action slows down in the flyways, a group of hunters often spreads out in a field and slowly tramps through, trying to jump the birds, much like pheasant hunting. If you have all day to hunt, a combination of tactics probably will offer up the most chances for shots. When a dove drops, keep your eyes peeled on the drop site. Unless you have a retriever along, a dove dropped into grass can be mighty hard to locate
As with all wild game, the key to finding them is habitat identification. Migrating flocks of doves look for grain, corn and overgrown weedy fields. They flit from one to the other and quickly learn the spots from which lead has come flying at them, and they learn to avoid those areas. So dove hunters wear camouflage clothes and take up stakeouts near brush that helps to hide them.
Doves prefer to feed early in the morning and late in the afternoon. They often land on power lines to survey fields before they commit to landing there. But don't shoot at doves on a power line; that's asking for big trouble.
Pennsylvania's dove population is estimated to be more than 7 million. Knowing that your entire season's harvest number can be about 20 tells you how challenging they are to hunt and then to hit. Remember that to hunt doves, you must have a migratory game bird license.
They are delicious table fare, however. Cooked in barbecue sauce or pan fried like chicken, they are a great dark-meat wild feast.