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Upland Bird Hunting in California: Dove Hunting

September 16, 2019

 

 

Dove Hunting

                                                                                                     

Dove season opens September 1st, 2019 and goes through September 15th, 2019. You can shoot 15 doves a day (read your regulations before you go out). Of which only 10 can be white winged doves. There is no limit on spotted doves, ringed turtle doves and Eurasian doves, but before you decide to go over your 15-bird limit make sure you study some photos online of the various doves, so you don’t accidentally get a ticket for going over your limit.

 

Dove season in California is a split season. You have the early season in September and then season opens again on November 10, 2019 and goes to December 24, 2019. There are several varieties of doves in California. Morning Doves, White Wing doves and Eurasian Doves (often called white dove) are the three most common types of doves that you can legally hunt in California.

 

Mourning Dove

 

 

There are very few things in bird hunting as fun as shooting doves. When you’re in the right spot they come at you fast and furious. Mourning doves have been clocked at speeds of 55 MPH and with a good tail wind they can even top that’s all while doing air acrobatics that dazzle the mind. I have seen them crossing the freeway traveling full speed and a truck crosses in front of them and they immediately put on the air-brakes, shoot strait up in the air and continue to fly right over the top of the truck. If you have never hunted doves before you need to give it a try, but a word of caution, you might become a Dove Addict!

 

White Winged Dove

 

 

Dove eat grain and must have water therefore you will find them around any open country that has grain and water. Some of the absolute best areas are cattle ranches with large dry pasture lands that have been grazed off with a water source nearby. Large grain fields or other agricultural lands like what you find in the Sacramento valley that have been harvested are also wonderful places to hunt. There are plenty of public areas to hunt for doves in California and I will cover those areas towards the end of this section.

 

Most people who hunt doves are normal. They are not like me, I am a dove hunting junkie. I know it sounds crazy, but I have always said if I could only hunt one animal one time all year it would be doves. I am so bad about it that I actually make a schedule for the first 15 days of dove season and try to get a full and complete bag limit by the end of the 15-day season, I haven’t made it yet but maybe I will. It would take a lot of scheduling, good shooting and some long days and in between I would have to eat as many doves as I could because the possession limit is triple the daily bag limit. But I do love eating them so there is a chance and I love a good challenge.

 

Eurasian Collared Dove 

 

 

It doesn’t take a genius to hunt doves. Maybe that’s why I like it so much, but it does take some work. You can be the best skeet and trap shooter in the world and miss 80% of the doves you shoot at.  During the September hunt it is usually very hot and dry and that’s what you want in Northern California. But in Southern California you want it to be cold and wet up in Northern California, so the Doves will move down. In the summer doves both the adults from last year and the new birds that just hatched in the spring have less feathers and less insulation from the cold. What happens is when the wet weather moves in up north of Sacramento and in eastern Oregon and northern Nevada the birds move down to the southern San Joaquín Valley around Bakersfield and from there they eventually work their way down to the Imperial Valley and into Arizona and Mexico.

 

In the summer the doves usually fly in small groups of 1 to 3 birds but by the time the late season opens in November the doves are flying in larger migratory flocks. They are a much denser bird with thicker breasts and noticeably heavier feathering, so they can handle the colder temperatures and wet weather.

 

Doves prefer to roost in trees at night off the ground away from predators. I say they prefer too but it’s not a requirement for them. Doves will also roost on the ground or in small bushes at night in areas where there are no trees at all. They may also roost on telephone lines, small trees, inside barns and on top of hay stacks and fence lines. But if there are trees around they will usually end up there about 10 to 20 minutes before its too dark to see.

 

In the summer they wake up with the sunrise and fly off the roost. The first things that they do is fly to water or feed. Doves have no problem flying several miles to feed and water. Usually, during the hot September season they fly to water first. This may be a stream, canal, ditch bank, an irrigated field, a leaky water trough or a pond. Anywhere you find even the smallest trickle of water you may find doves. Doves have very high metabolisms and require a significant amount of water for their size and due to the September heat they will water very quick and then take flight to a nearby field to eat. During the late season in November and December the doves take flight at first light and haul butt around as fast as they can. They do this in the morning as soon at they can to bring up their body temperature and to go find the food before other birds get to it. They do this again just before dark to bring their body temperature up before they go to roost for the night.

 

Doves eat mostly grains and seeds. Turkey mullein or dove weed is one of there favorite native foods. It is a light green invasive weed that you will find in almost every dry cattle pasture or dried field. Mullein seeds are very small about the size of #12 shot and are black.

 

Turkey Mullein

 

 

Thistle seeds from various varieties of thistle are also a favored dove food. Milk thistle is a tall thorny plant with a purple flower. It is also called Horse Thistle and is often found pastures and disturbed areas. These flowers produce an abundance of seeds and as summer heats up the plant dies, and the seeds fall to the ground and the dove eat it. A large field of milk thistle that has dried and been turned under or stomped down by cattle can be a good place to sit for some early morning dove action.

 

Milk Thistle and its seeds

 

 

 

Agricultural crops are about the best locations for dove hunting. If you can find a field of dry sunflower, safflower, corn, wheat or barley that has been turned over or disced up you are in “Dove Heaven”. Fields of melons, tomatoes, beans and any plant that produces a seed that has been knocked off the plant or fallen to the ground and dried and is small enough for a dove to eat will work well for doves. Compared to other birds, doves are small so you would think they can only handle small seeds but they can eat seeds much larger than you think. They can easily handle dried beans, pumpkin seeds and love other melon seeds lake watermelons after the farmers have turned the fields under during post-harvest activities.

 

After the doves have watered and eaten they will usually fly to nearby trees or find a place to park it out of the sun. Doves also need “Grit” in their diet in order to digest their food. They eat hard grains and the grains won’t digest on their own. The stomach on a dove or any bird that eats grain (dove, pheasant, ducks, geese ect.) looks like a small muscle in the shape of a fist. The doves eat grain and then they ingest small pieces of grit, which can be sand, rock, broken walnut shell anything small and hard. The muscle called a gizzard contracts and grinds the grains against the grit and this digests the food in the gizzard, so the dove can absorb the food. For this reason, you will often find doves along the edges of a road picking up grit or around gravel bars, gravel plants and river beds where there is little feed but plenty of grit. It you remember water, food and grit, and you have a general area where there are doves you should be a very successful dove hunter.

 

Let’s discuss what to look for when trying to find a spot to set up and hunt doves. There are so many ways to hunt doves that I could rattle on forever, but I will only cover the most productive. Most dove hunters hunt from a stationary position. They look at an area and evaluate where they think the birds will be either flying over or where they will be landing to feed, water, grit or roost.

 

Doves are navigational fliers and use land marks to move from location to location. As they fly they cross fences, road intersections, outbuilding, water pumps and junk yards, river beds barns and all kinds of things they are mapping their routes to and from food, water, grit and roost. In addition to this they have the unique ability to navigate as other migratory birds do for long distances through generations of migrations that we humans have still not been able to comprehend.

 

Let’s say its first light about 30 minutes before the sun rises, the doves hop off the roost and take flight, they usually orbit two or three times in a big circle maybe ½ half mile around. Then they head to a field to eat, they cross a fence line with a tree, go over a red barn and then cross a road intersection and drop down over the southeast corner of a sunflower field and start eating. About 9:30 am they pick up and fly out of the field on the west end over a prune orchard and drop down to a drain ditch to water and eat grit off the road. Then they take flight and go land in a pepper tree or in the shade of a bush and sleep through mid-day. You can almost bet that the next morning those dove will do the same thing. They will do this for several days as they move from food location to location and other doves in the area may have similar patterns. To our human eyes they look like they are all flying helter skelter all over the place in no particular pattern, but in reality, they have a feeding and watering pattern.

 

Prior to dove season, go sit and watch your dove field in the early morning and late season, and note how the doves are moving, what time they are fling in, from what direction they are entering the field, where they are feeding and what time they are leaving and what part of the field they fly out of, then you will know where to set up.

 

You can do the same thing if you don’t have a feeding or watering location. If you have located a tree line or an outbuilding, or a specific fence line with some type of outstanding feature that the doves are navigating off of, you can set up within 50 yards or so of that location and bang a limit of doves as they pass over you. To tell the truth this is how most hunters who are hunting public land have successful hunts.

 

Doves and cattle seam to mix well, the cattle stomp down the plants, and distribute seeds, they churn up the dirt and with cattle comes water for the cattle, if you can find a set or corrals or an old pole barn (outstanding feature) for them to navigate off of in the middle of this mess your going to be burning up shells.

 

I have several places that I hunt doves, and every year, they come in from the same location, at the same time, and we knock them down like crazy. Trust me, if you figure out their flight patterns half your job is done.

 

The other half of your job is finding public land or private land you can hunt. In most cases especially big game hunting, private land is difficult to get permission to hunt, but farmers don’t seem to mind as much when you are shooting doves. Don’t hesitate to ask and if you have your kids with you why not take them to the door, It couldn’t hurt anything. Any dry agricultural field or even a canal bank though agriculture should produce dove.

 

Public land is abundant for dove hunting.

 

Stay out of the trees and timber and hunt the open flats of BLM land.

 

Wildlife Areas are a very good place to go. There are WLAs all over California. For dove hunting most the WLA s that are for waterfowl hunting like Type A and B are not generally open to dove hunting during the early season, so I would stick to the Type C areas. But remember if you are hunting any state property or property administered by DFW you have to use steel shot. There are some affordable steel shot loads out there for doves that run about 75 cents a box more than lead shells.

 

Some of the best dove hunting I have had is on wildlife areas. Check out the link below for wildlife areas.

 

https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Lands/Places-to-Visit

 

The BLM lands near Tehachapi and the DFW areas in Imperial County offer some excellent dove hunting.

 

Imperial is very good during the later season in November and December. But prior to the early season DFW actually plants Safflower for the doves with money raised from selling Upland Bird Stamps, so if you have the opportunity to hunt the area you should.

In Northern and Central California almost, any type C Wildlife Area will work. The ones in the valley floor seem to be the best.

 

Do you need to wear camouflage? Not really, but it may help.

 

Doves have unbelievable eyes sight. I think most birds do. I read an article years ago on dove hunting. And they did a study on opening weekend of dove season. On opening day there was no real difference in the success rate of hunters wearing full camo and hunters wearing camo shirts and hats with blue jeans. But the second day was totally lopsided. Hunters wearing full camo outshot the hunters wearing blue jeans. In just two days the doves had learned to spot the hunters in the blue jeans and avoid their area.

 

In my oh so humble opinion you should at least wear drab colors that blend in and a drab hat and sit still till they are right on you, then snap up and pull the trigger. No matter what your opinion is on color, dove can see movement and they will avoid you after opening day.

In addition, set up away from your truck, they will learn to avoid your vehicle after opening weekend.

 

One mistake I see dove hunters making is using cheap ammo. The reason you buy cheap ammo is because doves are hard to hit. The problem with cheap ammo is that it really is cheap and often lack the velocity to reach the dove. Instead try this, if you are going to buy cheap ammo up the size of the shot and if your going to buy expensive ammo up the size of the shot. Instead of using #8 or #7 step down to #6. You will see a significant change in the amount of birds you kill using #6, this shot seems to drop them cleaner and you can reach out farther than #8 or #7 and if your using steel shot absolutely use #6.

 

Your choke should be Improved Cylinder for lead and for steel. There is no need at all to use modified or full choke on doves. This tighter patter will result in significant misses. So remember, to increase your hits on doves, increase your shot size to #6 and open your choke up to improved cylinder and use medium grade ammo, not the cheap stuff and not the expensive stuff.

 

I love bird hunting with a dog. You will see that my dogs go everywhere with me and if I can't take them bird hunting someplace or with someone I just wont go. But there is one thing I would not suggest and that’s taking a new or young dog dove hunting for its first time in the field. This is why a new dog that has never been shot over can easily become “Gun Shy” a fear of loud noises. Many and I mean many new and young dogs have been ruined by taking them dove hunting or duck hunting and suddenly blasting a shotgun over their heads. Their hearing is so good at that age and they are so sensitive to loud noises that you can easily damage their hearing. Its not only loud to a new pup but it is actually painful to them like you are sticking a sharp stick in their ears. This is especially true when duck hunting and they are in tight quarters with you like inside a blind and you start blasting 3 ½ inch mags over them. Even a trained dog that has been through gun dog training can flip out and take off running. If you don’t believe me go to and refuge on opening weekend of duck season and you can find some good looking dogs wondering around scared lost from their owners.

 

The other issue with young dogs is their sticky mouths. They get hot and sweat through their mouths and they are panting heavily. When you handle dead doves, their small light little feathers fluff off and go everywhere. Live crippled doves are even worse so when your dog runs over to fetch them up with their wet sticky mouth they end up with a gob of wet feathers stuck to there tongue and the inside of their mouths. The dogs end up sucking the feathers down their throats and gagging on them. The end result is a dog that refuses to fetch up doves.

 

Prior to dove season work on your dog with dead pigeons. Dogs seem to like them, and the feathers aren’t as bad. Another thing to do is after you shoot a couple of doves take them home and soak them in a bag of water for about an hour. After their feathers are soaked put them in the freezer and freeze them solid in a position as if they were roosting with there wings folded to their bodies. Then when you work your dog toss a frozen bird out and let the pup pick it up and bring it back. The cold on their teeth won’t bother them too much but the frozen feathers won’t fluff off. This is also a way to introduce a new dog into fetching dead birds. You see, fresh dead birds with the fresh warm blood taste good to dogs and new pups will bite down hard on them to get a good bloody mouth full, they will then progress to chewing them up and then eating them. A dog can't chew a frozen bird as fast and they just don’t taste that good. After several dozen retrieves in the yard over a few weeks your dog will learn to handle the birds correctly and not eat them. You can re-freeze the birds several times for continued use.

 

Prior to bird season introduce your dog to gun fire. Don’t just baptize him in gun fire his first day. The proper way to introduce them to gun fire or to correct a dog who has developed a fear of guns or is gun shy is to slowly and Positively (without any punishment) introduce your dog to gun fire.

 

Take your dog to a training area (not the city park) with your wife or buddy. Have the shooter stand 100 yards away from you and the dog. Then have the shooter take a shot in the air. Have the dog sitting at heal and watch. Then toss a bumper out about 30 yards and when the dog brings it back give him a big praise, maybe even a piece or your jerky, something to switch his brain on “I’m going to be safe" mode. Then move closer to the gun and do it again. Maybe 10 or 15 yards at a time. Each time give that dog as much praise as you can and do not scold him even if he bolts just bring him back and start from a farther distance 200 yards if necessary or use a small caliber gun like a .22 pistol. This is how you break a dog from being gun shy. I am sure you have read stories or your someone told you that if you bang pots and pans over your dog while your feeding it that you can train them to not be scared of gunfire. This is total and complete horse manure. Think about it, would you bang pots and pans over the top of your 2-year-old while they were eating, I hope not but if you did that kid would have some serious issues as he got older and this would by law be considered child abuse.

 

If you ever have a dog trainer tell you to bang pot of your dog, take your dog and walk away, he’s an idiot. The same goes for shooting over a pup while its eating. Most dogs that are gun shy are that way because of poor ownership not genetics.

 

Okay time to get off my soap box

 

 

 

 

 

Dove hunting reports always vary from hunter to hunter and from area to area and there are many things to consider when deciphering information.

 

During the 2018 Dove Season I had a blast. Several reported crazy shooting and doves everywhere while one report told me his hunt was horrible and the only doves they seen where few and high. This report was of special interest to me because of his location. When I spoke to him I learned that he was only ¼ mile away from my location and he said they got few shots and all the doves were out of range. Where I was 6 people got limits before 9:00 am two days in a row. I was perplexed to say the least.

 

In talking to him he was hunting the Tisdale Bypass in Sutter County, a public hunting area. I was hunting just south of there on the edge of a sunflower field. After talking I learned that he was facing north on the north side of the bypass. The roads on the bypass are about 15 feet higher than the bypass and the fields around it, inside the bypass there are large cottonwood trees along the edge and in the center, there is an open area about 150 yards wide and the entire length of the bypass. He was sitting high on the edge of the road watching over the fields on the north side and had trouble engaging any birds and only had a few shots. I am going through this in detail to explain why he probably didn’t get too many shots.

 

Without knowing him personally or his dove hunting techniques but knowing this bypass area very well I think I know what the problem was. The south side of the bypass faces several hundred acres of sunflower fields. I spoke with shooters on this side opening day and they all did very well. On this side you can see the birds coming and as they fly in and out of the sunflowers they pass over the bypass flying low and settle in the trees or stay high and travel out to another field.

 

On the north side of the bypass for almost the entire length it overlooks hundreds of acres of rice. The rice has not been harvested and is still flooded and the rice is very high. Doves do not like to get wet and wont land in water. They will land near water to drink but absolutely can not fly if they get soaked. The birds flying over the rice have no reason at all to land, they gain altitude to go over the tops of the cottonwood trees and then drop down into the sunflower. Once they feed they fly out and have no need to be in the area he was hunting.

 

 

This is from Tisdale bypass facing north. Too wet, doves wont land in wet rice, they will fly high over the top to a dry field

 

No cover on the top of the road, if you do hunt here park your vehicle and walk about 100 yards away to set up. After opening day doves avoid hunters and vehicles.

 

Another reason he might not have done to well is that the bypass is public land, and a lot of people hunt this area on opening day so there are probably 20 vehicles parked on the roads on both sides of the bypass. Dove quickly learn to avoid hunters and their vehicles and maybe the doves were flying higher than normal to avoid shooters.

 

 

Compared to the Tisdale Photos this is a better location to hunt. On the left is food sunflower. On the right is water, in the center on the dirt road is grit.

 

Notice the shade tree for concealment and shade for you and your dog

 

Grit on the road

 

Sunflowers not yet harvested 

 

food, water grit

 

An awesome bird dog Ms. Sadie

 

Remember to keep your dog cooled off. They can suffer heat stroke easily when you add up hot weather and the excitement of the hunt. They will get so into the hunt they will forget to drink and cool off. If they wont get in the water make them. The rule is, 1 minute. If a dog is hot, for it to cool off it needs to actually be in the water for a 60 second count. Jumping in and out of the water and acting crazy really does little to cool them off.

 

 

The group I was hunting with had one of the best if not the best opening weekend shoots I have ever witnessed. We had all the requirements of a good dove hunt. Feed, water, grit and trees to roost in. My only complaint was that there is only a 15-bird limit.

 

 

My happy and tired dog Sadie with a limit of birds

 

I breast the birds out like you would chicken breast, no bones.

 The Final Product

 

 

 

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