A lone mourning dove coasted across the goatweed field. The incoming silhouette against the late-afternoon sun was unmistakable, even to a junior-high rookie on his first wingshooting adventure.
I was crouched against the fence on a small farm about 30 minutes south of Houston. Major drama, this!
The dove was 20 yards high and aiming right at me. I huddled lower against the rough post and thumbed back the hammer of the 12-gauge single-shot Stevens.
The incomer was right out front. I rose and shouldered the Stevens. The long barrel swung through the bird and I pulled the trigger. The gun went "Bang!" And, amazingly, the dove folded cleanly.
Photos: Joe Doggett
It fell with a puff-bounce maybe 10 feet from my position. Several feathers drifted against the clear September sky. I broke open the action and the sweet smell of smokeless powder wafted around the paper-hulled Peters shell.
The dove was mature, with a long tail and cream and pink plumage on the plump breast. A single red spot marked the lucky pellet. The incomer must have been clipped on the fringe of the close pattern---just as well, since a clean kill is a clean kill, and the centered bird at close range probably would have been mangled.
No matter, I was a legitimate wingshooter and a natural talent, at that. One chance, one shot , one bird. Nothing to this program, I thought.
Naturally, that smug attitude was quickly dashed.
But, glowing like that long-ago sunset, is the true image of that first shot. That experience instilled a passion for dove hunting that only seems to grow.
Thousands and thousands of Texans "cut their teeth" on doves and many of those ranks remain avid. Dove hunting is second only to deer hunting, with somewhere north of 350,000 participants per season. There is a reason for this: Dove hunting probably is the finest overall wingshooting available.
Birds are plentiful (especially with the expansion and proliferation of whitewing doves across much of the state), the limits are generous (15 in the aggregate, not to mention the non-game, no-limit Eurasian doves), and the hunting is accessible and affordable (day-hunt operators charge perhaps $50 to $150, depending on location).
But, more than that, dove hunting is supremely enjoyable. And the little scuppers are excellent on the grill.
Photos: Joe Doggett
Ive always been partial to the traditional afternoon hunt, and I prefer the South Zone opener during late September (Sept. 21 this year). I dont care for the dawn patrol, when low-flying birds look like jumbo mosquitoes buzzing across the fields, and I dont like the Central/North Zone Sept. 1 opener, which almost always is too bloody hot. Its still in the dregs of summer.
No, the best of it is during early fall under a bluebird sky and promise of a fireball sunset with a hint of cool weather in the long shadows. Also a plus, most of the doves are fully mature; conversely, borderline fledglings often are fluttering about during early September.
But thats just my opinion.
Dove hunting in Texas, whenever you engage, is a quality experience. And, significantly, theres no such thing as a typical hunt. Or, for that matter, a typical shot. Or even the typical gun. Think about it.
North, south, east or west, the situations afield are diverse. You have grain-field shoots with flocks and singles flying randomly to feed. You have pass shooting opportunities, when high flocks are trading overhead and the shots are long.
You have jump-shooting chances, when you flush ground-feeding doves springing and corkscrewing from low stubble. Or, you have roost shoots, with flocks returning to high trees (legally, ahead of sunset).
Best in my estimation is the water-hole hunt. The classic South Texas "tank shoot," with mourners swirling from all quadrants, dropping from on high above frilly mesquite tops, rivals any wingshooting experience in the world. Its enough to say that every Texas-based sporting artist of note has labored to replicate the mood and the setting.
Jack Cowans "Hot Tank"---well, enough said.
And, regardless of setting, the shots at doves are diverse. The first chance might be a creampuff floater into the breeze at 25 yards but, if you "take em as they come," the next might be a downwind scorcher at an honest 45 or 50 yards, taxing the limits of choke and lead.
You must deal with incoming shots, crossing shots, passing shots, and going-away shots---most likely, all during a given hunt.
Truly, the sum of a season will demand all of wingshootings disciplines and the really exceptional dove shot can pretty much hold ground under any circumstance. I dont care where youre hunting or what youre hunting---you arent showing the dove master a shot he hasnt seen before.
You want a dove gun? Take your pick anywhere this side of a magnum goose or turkey boomer.
A double (over/under or side-by-side) is a pleasure to use, offering trim fit and quick choke selection, but you can make a good case under a strong flight for having the third shot in a pump-action or autoloader (doves, unlike quail, are classified as "migratory," so the three-shot plug must be used).
If flocks are plentiful and many chances are close, you can equip with a 20- or 28-gauge quail gun. Conversely, if doves are scarce or long, and each reasonable opportunity must count, a 12-gauge gun is the realistic choice.
Dont let anyone ever tell you that a proper 12 is "too much gun" for diminutive doves---not when they are blasting past in a 20-knot wind. While were at it, a longer 28- to 30-inch barrel helps smooth things out on the deliberate swings.
As another plus, the dove field is an excellent venue for an old hammer gun or a high-dollar game gun. The uplands are dry and the conditions are controlled. And light loads will handle most shots.
Without getting too technical, its hard to pick the wrong gun for the dove season. Its pretty much whatever you like; however, Im not a fan of the tiny .410--- especially in the hands of a small kid getting started.
The little gauge is great for teaching field safety, or when potting cans or the occasional squirrel or rabbit, but the pattern is too sketchy on a small flying target. A 20 with light loads is a much better confidence-builder.
Regardless of gun or gauge, keep the choke reasonably open for all-around use (opposed to the specialized tight choke for long-range pass shooting or jump shooting). An improved cylinder or modified choke is the percentage choice inside an honest 30 or 35 yards---and that arena covers the effective "comfort zone" for most shooters. At least, it does for me.
The double gun offers quick choke selection but, if a single choice must be made, pick "Imp. Cyl." and fill your shell pouch with quality 7 1/2s and go enjoy the best wingshooting weve got.