Glen was dangling his legs from his tailgate, plucking a dove pulled from his swollen game bag as I approached. Six empty Diet Dr. Pepper cans littered the bed of his truck, casualties of the sweltering September heat. A sizeable pile of gray and white feathers had accumulated on the ground below his boots. Pesky bits of plumage clung to his fingers as he worked.
“How many did you get,” I asked, hoping envy wasn’t dripping from every word.
“Got a limit,” he grunted, desperately trying to be nonchalant about his good fortune.
“I heard you getting into them pretty good,” I continued, fumbling for words that might extract the reason for the lopsided upset.
Fighting with all his might against the temptation to do the boo-ga-loo victory dance at his best friend’s expense, he humbly countered, “I was sitting next to a dead tree and it seemed like every bird that flew over the pasture would detour right by me. I guess I was just in the right spot today.”
Many hunting seasons have passed since I learned that valuable lesson: dead trees = dead dove.
The daily habits of mourning dove are well documented. They leave their roost tree early in the morning for a drink, and then it is off to the field for a seed breakfast. Dove prefer open ground to forage, as they have short legs and lack the ability to scratch debris like chickens. After eating their fill, dove will gravel, filling their gizzards with small rocks that help grind ingested seeds. Then it is off to a shade tree for a siesta.
Come afternoon, the birds feed again, take in happy hour at the local watering hole with their buddies, and then retreat to their roost for the evening.
While dove exhibit a certain degree of predictability, they are very cautious creatures. They like to loiter in treetops to scope things out on the ground before landing. A thick jacket of leaves blocks viewing lanes and diminishes the effectiveness of a live tree as an observation point. The skeletal remains of a dead tree provide unobstructed views in all directions, and dove consider them the gold standard of watchtowers. Hunters should, too.
If time allows, you should scout the area you intend to hunt. Mourning dove utilize the same flyways and are easy to pattern. Like tiny cruise missiles equipped with a terrain-hugging guidance system, mourning dove key on different landmarks, such as fences, creeks, sloughs, roads, and trees. Identifying a flyway across a field is a good start to a successful hunt. Focus on the bird’s entry and exit points, in addition to their flight path. The best times for scouting are early mornings and late afternoons when birds will be flying.
Unfortunately, many hunters don’t have the luxury of scouting a day or two before a hunt. Instead, they pile out of the truck, stoked by adrenaline and caffeine, don their vests, unsheathe shotguns, and take to the field. In this scenario, dead timber can pay serious dividends. When hunting in a group, the savvy bird hunter takes a quick survey of his surroundings and then hotfoots it to the best intercept point.
For safety’s sake, dove prefer the middle of a field to feed over the edges, and typically enter and exit a field via one of the corners. A dead tree near the corner of a pasture or food plot is a prime place to intercept moving birds.
As mentioned, dove use landmarks to navigate and have a propensity for winging down tree lines. A gap in the timberline featuring a dead tree is a promising ambush spot.
A tree doesn’t even have to be completely dead to attract dove. Trees hit by lightning often loose a major branch or two, and dove alight on the dead wood. Commit these trees to memory, as dove will use them for many years until decay and gravity take their final toll.
Watering holes are another classic spot to jump incoming birds, but not all sides of a watering hole are created equal. Think like a realtor—location, location, location. Due to their small stature, dove must stand right next to the water in order to bend down and get a sip. A flat, barren bank allows the birds to loaf by the water and keep a sharp eye out for approaching danger. Sharply contoured shorelines or those with tall vegetation are not nearly as safe. A dead tree near a flat, open shoreline of a farm pond is a dove magnet.
Mourning dove are migratory and new arrivals filter into your area as the season progresses. Since they are not yet acclimated to the new countryside, a dead tree is a comforting spot for the newcomers to rest and reconnoiter.
Hunters should set up shop near—but not directly under—a dead tree. Sitting 20 or so paces away provides a clear shot at approaching and departing birds. A small hunting stool will help minimize your silhouette.
Most clean kills occur within 35 yards. Granted, long-range hero shots occur every now and then, but in reality, sky-busting mostly wounds birds and burns up ammo—two terrible wastes. Marking the edge of your effective range with small branches provides a visual reference that encourages good shots. The branches provide triangulation markers for locating downed birds.
Dove are so taken with dead trees that hunters can erect their own avian perches on the day of the hunt. Simply cut a dead sapling to size and mount it in a Christmas tree stand. The faux roost is highly portable and is a great tool for snookering birds traversing a barren field.
If there is one thing dove love more than a dead tree, it is a dead tree with a few decoys in it. Dove delight in company, and a handful of plastic decoys will get a passing bird’s attention. Even if the dove don’t land, chances are they will swing within gun range for a look-see.
Dove decoys are especially helpful when hunting alone or in a small group. A large group of hunters ringing a field will keep the birds stirred up, so decoys don’t add a lot of value, but a few strategically placed decoys can be helpful allies when the number of hunters is low.
Mount your decoys as high as possible to increase visibility. To get decoys into the top of a dead tree, heave a fishing weight connected to some monofilament over a branch, and then hoist the decoy into place. Flambeau decoys have a small loop molded into the backs for this purpose.
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department statistics reveal that Texas dove hunters average 3.75 birds per trip; not an impressive number at first glance. Vernon Bevill, TPWD program director of Small Game Habitat Assessment, keeps track of all the game birds in Texas, and provided some insight on the numbers: “The average includes several groups of hunters, and the calculated average is a bit deceiving. In our sample, there is a large group of hunters who are very successful, and another group of hunters who are not as successful. The lower producers drastically skew the average downward.”
Even if the statewide average is somewhat skewed, it is a lot lower than the daily bag limit of 15 birds per day for North Zone hunters and 12 birds for those hunting in the South and Central zones.
Ammunition manufacturer statistics show that dove hunters squander roughly seven shots for every dove taken. Put another way, the average dove hunter burns though a box of shells to kill three dove.
The two statistics above are telling. Simply put, hunters miss a lot more dove than they hit, but have an ace in the hole they can play to their advantage: mourning dove have an affinity for dead timber. Set up station near a dead tree on your next dove hunt, and you will bag more birds. It is then up to you whether you do the boo-ga-loo victory dance at your best friend’s expense.
Story by Greg Berlocher