For a hunter, dove season is the appetizer before the waterfowl and deer main course. And summer’s the time to start prepping for the dove season. The last time most hunters used their shotguns: spring turkey season during which we replaced our regular shotgun shells with the mini-grenades called turkey loads. My arm and my ego are still recovering . . .
Dove hunting is the perfect intro into the outdoor world. This year, I invited female colleague and Texas Firearms Festival Marketing Manager Devon Joyce [above, right] to partake in this rewarding ritual. This will be Devon’s first hunt, so practice will play a big part in her confidence level and, ultimately, her success in the field.
Throughout the years, I have found that there are five critical steps to preparing for dove season. Here’s what I shared with Devon:
1. Shotgun selection
To harvest migratory birds, a semi-automatic shotgun is the obvious choice, for both its additional on-board ammo and lower recoil. However, be sure you’re not compromising reliability for an additional shot — chances are you won’t need it. With birds, your first shot is your best shot. If you’re lucky you’ll get a double.
Some auto-loading shotguns (especially gas-operated) are prone to failure due to the amount of stress on the gun between cleanings. Regular maintenance is a must. If you’re not into servicing your shotgun, consider something simpler and more reliable.
Note: many hunters buy a semi-auto for the presumed recoil reduction — only to find that the selected gun doesn’t manage recoil to the degree they expected. More reasons to try before you buy (did I mention the wide selection of shotguns at the Texas Firearms Festival?) and buy the right gun. The Benelli Super Black Eagle II [above] is my favorite field gun because of its virtually non-existent recoil and rock solid reliability.
Because of the large number of doves you’re likely to shoot at — and hopefully harvest — recoil management is a critical consideration for a successful season. If your shotgun is a punishing provider, this is the time to equip your gun with recoil pads and/or get the protective clothing necessary to make it a great experience. And practice with the new set-up.
Although, a semi-automatic shotgun is my choice of firearm for dove hunting I fully understand the practical and emotional appeal of a traditional over-under or side-by-side shotgun. Some suggest that the patterns created by side-by-sides are wider and thus more conducive for bird hunting. I find it’s easier to track the doves’ irregular flight with an over-and-under; it gives me full view of the birds’ atypical high and low flight patterns. YMMV.
The O/U Beretta Silver Pigeon 20-gauge is one of my favorite dove-hunting shotguns. It’s lighter shooting than its 12-gauge cousins, ammo is relatively cheap and readily available, and the gun’s wonderfully light/more maneuverable. Sharing a Beretta Silver Pigeon with guys sporting 12-gauge shotguns, nine out of 10 end up preferring my 20 gauge. But if you’re limited to one shotgun for year-round bird hunting, a 12-gauge is the way to go.
That said, I dislike training women on a lower-caliber smoothbore. They become partial to the lesser recoil and smoother shooting 20-gauge — which forever prejudices them against any other shotgun. So Devon and I headed out to the Capitol City Trap & Skeet in Austin, Texas with a Browning Citori O/U [above left].
The Citori is a heavier gun. Its longer barrels were a definite challenge to my petite 5’3″ friend. Still, it’s best to present a new shooter with all the options and then, once their style has been developed, let him or her find their desired platform. Despite a less-than-ideal fit, Devon started killing clay pigeons straight away, falling in love with shotguns, generally speaking.
Just for fun, we tried out a Stoeger P-350 12-gauge shotgun. While I don’t consider a pump an ideal field gun, you can buy a very reliable example of the genre for as little as $300 that will serve you well for both hunting and home protection. Also, shooting a pump can be fun — if you have the upper arm strength and stamina for repeated shots and long days in the field.
2. Ammo Selection
The biggest challenge with doves: staying on top of the bird. With their erratic flight pattern you need to be right in front of a bird to down it. The kill zone for a dove is within two inches in diameter and they’re usually shot from a distance between 20 and 40 yards.
With a proper pattern, all you need to take down a dove are #7 ½, 8, or 9 loads. A #7 ½ or #8 round contains roughly 345 – 410 pellets, which is plenty to stop your target.
When patterning your gun, shoot between these distances, marking on your target an area the size of your doves’ vital organs. Remember: the heavier the shot, the farther you can shoot. But without proper recoil management you’ll be paying the price for “extra” range before the day ends. Not to mention the fact that your accuracy will decline as your tired and achy shoulder says hello.
3. Choke selection
A shotgun choke patterns your shot, helping you place the pellets within a desired radius at a given distance. For example, if I estimate that I’ll be firing at doves from about 40 yards, I’ll choose a choke that ensures the pellets will be placed within a given radius at my chosen range.
For doves, I prefer an improved cylinder or modified choke. That puts 50 to 60 percent of the pellets within a 30-inch circle at about 40 yards. Either choke will do well. With doves, we’re talking about a bird with a two-inch kill zone flapping around erratically. You’ll need a relatively generous pattern.
I hated geometry in school. Just when I thought I would never need it, here I am using it all the time during dove and waterfowl seasons. Be warned: trying to figure out the cosine of an angle to determine your shot placement — using distance, speed and yards — can easily blow your mind.
You have to lead your bird about one inch from the perspective of your sights, which translates into a certain number of feet in front of your bird, depending on the distance to target. Simply put, you need to to spray pellets ahead of your bird so that your dove will fly into them. As a general rule, you should fire about [what appears to be] one inch in front of your bird. If you miss, adjust accordingly.
To maximize your dove harvest, practice leading your birds. Shooting clay pigeons isn’t even close to shooting doves, but it’s an effective way to practice firing a shotgun at a moving target. Another easy way to practice: step outside, put your eyes to the sky and practice following birds. Don’t wait until the season opens to go out and observe your enemy.
Bird hunting is sometimes portrayed as an old fat white guy’s game. Success actually requires a fairly high level of physical fitness; standing in a shooter’s position for hours at a time can be brutal on your shoulders, mid-back, neck, and arms. Strength training helps prepare your body for the ballistic burden. Remember: your glutes and legs support your upper body, so don’t skip leg day at the gym.
Devon and I will be headed on a dove hunt this fall. I look forward to updating you with our results.