Hunting season is just eight days away, or at least what most people consider to be the beginning of the real hunting season, the opening of dove season on Sept. 1.
Next to the opening day of deer gun season, the dove season opener is the most anticipated hunting day in the state. It’s the traditional kickoff to the fall hunting seasons, even though most people don’t shoot doves after opening day or opening weekend, as the doves can get pretty scarce afterward.
Last year in Oklahoma, more than 23,000 hunters in Oklahoma shot an estimated 421,000 doves, and probably 80 percent of those birds were taken either on opening day or the opening weekend of the hunting season, said Josh Richardson, migratory bird biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
With opening day of dove season falling on Labor Day this year, it could mean a heavy turnout of wing-shooters around the state if the weather is good.
If other holiday plans prevent you from a dove shoot on Labor Day, the following weekend will be a good time to go and introduce someone new to dove hunting. Oklahoma’s annual free hunting days will be Sept. 6-7, and no hunting licenses or HIP permits are needed.
Richardson said there should be plenty of birds to shoot — or shoot at — this year. Doves are challenging targets. They are small, fast and difficult to hit. The shooting can be fast and furious in a dove field, and, like in baseball, if you bat .300 or better with doves, you are doing something.
In southwest Oklahoma, there are reports of bunches of doves this year. From now until opening day, birds should be forming in large flocks, Richardson said.
“It’s looking good from what I have seen and heard so far,” Richardson said of dove sightings. “Most people (in the Wildlife Department) who were out dove banding (this summer) were seeing a pretty good number of birds.”
Richardson said this year’s dove call survey by the Wildlife Department, which provides an index of adults pre-nesting, was up by more than 20 percent, a considerable boost from last year.
Finding the food and water sources that doves prefer are the key to finding doves. Heavy rain in parts of the state has reduced some of the normal food sources, as most waste grain in wheat fields has either sprouted or soured, he said.
However, the summer rain also has produced more native habitat like sunflower, snow-on-the-mountain, croton (doveweed) and other food that doves like.
The Wildlife Department manages several dove fields on the public hunting areas around the state through mowing, disking and burning, so seeds are on the ground to lure birds.
On some wildlife management areas, wheat is planted as part of a farmer’s land lease agreement that requires 10 percent of the crop to be left for wildlife management.
If you can’t scout out a location for yourself, it’s a good idea to call the biologist for the wildlife management area nearest you to find a dove field.
Richardson said Beaver, Kaw and Cross Timbers are areas where biologists are working dove fields, but the premier shoot remains at Hackberry Flat near Frederick in southwest Oklahoma.
“It’s been a little tougher with absolutely no water out there the past couple of years because of the part of the state it’s in, but just about the entire thing has good dove habitat throughout,” he said. “I would still call it our top area.”
Hackberry Flat (where steel shot is required) also gets a lot of hunting pressure, so it can be difficult to get far enough away from other hunters to keep stray shotgun pellets from raining on you. Hackberry Flat is so popular on the opening day of dove season, the Wildlife Department assigns extra game wardens from around the state for the hunting area.
The opening day of dove season also is the second busiest day for Oklahoma game wardens as far as contact with hunters, only behind the opening day of deer gun season, said Robert Fleenor, head of law enforcement for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
A common violation on the opening day of dove season is hunters forgetting to plug their shotguns if they are using an autoloader or pump, Fleenor said. The shotgun must be capable of holding only three shells in the magazine and chamber combined.
Of course, if you are using an over/under or a side-by-side, you don’t have to worry about this.
Another common violation is dove hunters simply not carrying an HIP Permit or license, Fleenor said.
“A number of them just forget to buy a license or don’t have their HIP Permit with them,” he said.
Shooting across a road is another issue game wardens often encounter during dove season, he said.
And if you are lucky enough to get permission to hunt doves on someone else’s property, pick up your spent shells if you would like to get invited back.