For many hunters, Labor Day weekend is synonymous with the soft coos of the mourning dove. Every year, roughly 350,000 people in Texas are seduced by this avian siren song and harvest about five million of the four-ounce birds—that’s about 30 percent of the total number shot in the U.S. Why is dove hunting so popular here? “Texas has more dove than any other state,” says Corey Mason, who oversees the game bird program for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “It’s an inexpensive, social sport that can be enjoyed by almost everyone.” Before you dust off your 12-gauge, note some favorable new regulations: The statewide daily bag limit has been upped to fifteen birds, and the north and central zones now enjoy longer, seventy-day seasons. (Visit tpwd.state.tx.us for more information on your area’s season.)
Doves can be found all over the state, but according to Tom Stephenson, the owner of the Dallas-based hunting-and-fishing-guide company World Wide Blast and Cast, Central Texas is their primary flyway. For a weekend hunt, lease at least two fields in a twenty-mile radius so you can move if an area winds up being bird-light—and because a single spot will support only two hunts before the birds get wise. The optimal landscape includes seed-bearing plants and bodies of water (to attract feeding doves) and small trees or shrubs (for easy concealment). Morning hunters should set up no later than 6:30 a.m., but “if the birds aren’t flying by 7:40, it’s time to move,” adds Stephenson. Evening shooters will be most successful right before dusk, when the doves return to roost.
For a high-yield hunt, you need three things: appropriate equipment, practiced technique, and total stillness. First, when buying ammo, spring for the good stuff. Most hunters use the less expensive one-ounce No. 8 shells, but Stephenson recommends loading your shotgun with high-brass No. 9 shells (for more punch) and adding a skeet barrel (for wider spread). Second, know how to mount your weapon quickly. “Practice in the mirror so that every time you throw your gun to your shoulder it lands in the same place,” says Stephenson. Finally, take a tip from Elmer Fudd: Be vewy, vewy quiet. When a bevy of doves flies by, resist the temptation to stand up and pop off a shot. Remain motionless until the birds cross into your range of accuracy (for most shooters, that’s forty yards or less), then in one swift motion, stand, mount your gun, and, keeping your eyes square on the target, lead the birds and pull the trigger.
When the birds fall, immediately find your way to them (or send a retrieving dog if you have one trained). Check each downed dove’s leg for a band attached by the state: Last year, says Mason, 20,000 birds were tagged as a way of tracking their movement and population counts, so you can help TPWD’s research by calling the number on the band. Some hunters breast the doves (cut off the wings and head and separate the breast from the back) in the field, though many return to camp first before processing the birds. Once you fill your bag, go crack a cold beer, fire up the grill, and cook your fresh game the traditional way—wrapped in bacon with a slice of jalapeño. As any dove hunter knows, there’s no greater delicacy.