LISTEN: (10 minutes, 52 seconds)
EXCITEMENT AMONG TEXAS DOVE HUNTERS always spikes as August fades to September, because they know good times and hot barrels are just around the corner. Opening day of dove season begins 30 minutes before sunrise on Sept. 1 in the state’s North and Central Zones; Sept. 14 in the South Zone.
Dove season is the first domino to tip in a long line of hallowed hunting seasons that will come and go between now and next spring. More than 1 million Texans will head to the outdoors in the meantime, including close to 300,000 men, women and youngsters who call themselves dove hunters.
As hunter participation goes, dove hunting ranks second only to deer hunting. It represents a plump cash cow that pumps more than $452 million annually into the state’s economy, much of it spent in rural communities that roll out the red carpet to shotgunners each year.
One of biggest annual celebrations happens in Coleman, where dove hunting generates about $5 million annually for area businesses. The local chamber of commerce throws a party for dove hunters each year at the Bill Franklin Rodeo Grounds. Fittingly called the Coleman County Dove Fest, the gathering features a catfish dinner with raffles and multiple shotguns awarded as door prizes. Passes are $20.
If it sounds like dove season is a big deal in Texas, that’s because it is. Even in a poor year, Texas dove hunting is way better than most states thanks to abundant populations of birds and a wealth of places to hunt them on private and public lands.
One of the most attractive things about dove hunting is it doesn’t cost a lot to play the game. There are dozens of reputable outfitters across the state who lease property in good dove country.
Expect to pay $75 to $200 per day for a day hunt on private land, possibly more or less depending on the area of the state, date and services rendered. Others offer inclusive packages that include lodging, meals and bird cleaning for a steeper price.
Good outfitters will have pre-scouted fields and should be able put you in position to have a chance to bag a few birds, but they can’t work miracles. Doves are challenging targets to hit. Plus, the migratory birds are weather and pressure sensitive. Just because a field is buzzing with birds one day doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll still be there the next.
The best hunting is always where the doves want to be. Places with abundant forage like harvested grain fields, sunflowers or goat weed patches are magnets for doves, as are watering spots like
tanks or ponds with plenty of bare ground along the edge.
Hunting in areas of the state with rich histories of holding lots of birds is sure to boost the odds of enjoying a good shoot. Brown, Throckmorton, Coleman, Taylor, Medina, Bexar, Uvalde, Williamson, Bell, Karnes, Live Oak, Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron, Atacosa and Matagorda are among the top dove hunting counties.
The Texas Dove Hunters Association’s website (texasdovehunters.com) is a good starting spot to shop for a dove hunting trip. The TDHA maintains a lengthy list of outfitters divided by hunting zones. Most list the county, acreage, available facilities and whether or not you’ll have the option to hunt around grain, water or both.
Hunting on Texas Parks and Wildlife’s private lands dove and small game leases is even less costly. TPWD has 106 private lands leases totaling more than 38,000 acres available this year, according to Kelly Edmiston, TPWD public hunts coordinator. The leases, which range in size from 60 to 2,000 acres, are situated in areas with good dove habitat.
Season long access requires a $48 Annual Public Hunting Permit available where licenses are sold. The permit provides annual access to nearly 1 million additional acres of public hunting land.
Hunters are required to register when entering or leaving these dove leases using the My Texas Hunt Harvest mobile app on the department website, tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/hunt-harvest-app/dove.
Many of the dove leases are within a short drive of the Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston/Beaumont, San Antonio/Corpus Christi and the Austin/Waco areas. To review the public dove leases, check out tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/public. The properties are shown as clickable gold stars on the interactive map.
Another public option is hunting on national forest property around eastern Texas. Some areas can be accessed for free. Others are on state managed wildlife management areas that require hunters to have the APHP.
The key to success on any public land is scouting ahead to find areas the birds are using to feed frequently. Some of the best national forest hunting happens around new clear cuts — places where tall timber has been removed and the open ground left behind has grown up seed bearing native weeds and grasses like goat weed and dove weed.
There are a number of things hunters can do to help increase their chances of having a successful hunt and pleasurable experience in the field. Here’s a random list:
• Scout: Scout hunting areas ahead of time to find out if birds are present and learn something about their flight patterns.
• Picking a Spot: Sit in the cooler shade whenever possible, preferably with the sun at your back. Hunting with the sun behind you will make it easier to see incoming birds and more difficult for birds to see you.
• Be Mindful of Movement: Doves have exceptional eyesight and they become inherently spooky once shot at. Wear drab clothing and be still when birds are approaching. Keep your face downward until the last second.
• Be Mobile: Don’t hesitate to change hunting positions if doves are consistently flying out of range, but don’t infringe on others.
• Use Premium Ammo/Choke: Premium ammunition will pattern better and may eject easier from autoloading shotguns than cheap shells. No. 7 1/2 to No. 8 are good shot sizes for doves. Improved, skeet or modified cylinder chokes are good for dove hunting.
• Decoy: The spinning wings of a battery-operated dove decoy will sometimes lure passing birds close.
• Don’t Litter: Always pick up spent shot shells and other trash before leaving your hunting spot.
• Find Your Bird: Mark the location of downed birds immediately. Make every effort to locate it before shooting another.
• Clean and Care: Keep harvested birds away from fire ants and clean them promptly after the hunt. Bring along an ice chest and plastic freezer bags to keep cleaned birds cool.
• Daily Limits: Each hunter is allowed 15 doves daily. A limit may include all 15 mourning doves, 15 white-winged doves or a combination of two, but no more than two white-tipped doves. You can’t kill a limit in the morning and another limit in the afternoon.
• Don’t Co-Mingle Birds: Keep your birds separate from other hunters in case you get checked by a game warden before reaching your final destination.
• Shotgun Plug: Pump and auto-loading shotguns must be plugged to accept no more than three shells, including one in the chamber.
• Hunter Ed & License: Hunter education certification is required of every hunter in Texas (including out-of-state hunters) born on or after Sept. 2, 1971. Hunters are required to carry proof of certification while in the field. All dove hunters need a valid Texas hunting license and migratory game bird endorsement; hunters under 17 are not required to have the endorsement.
• Avoid Baited Areas: It is illegal to hunt migratory birds around areas that have been baited. If you suspect an area has been baited it would be wise to leave before the shooting starts and contact a local game warden. Ignorance is no excuse.
• Legal Shooting Hours: Legal shooting hours are 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset, except during the special white-winged dove season, noon to sunset.
• Transport Documents: A Wildlife Resource Document is required anytime you give your birds to another hunter for transport. The document should list the shooter’s name/address/hunting license number, receiver’s name, number of birds and the place of harvest. Handwritten WRD’s are acceptable.
• Bonus Eurasian Doves: Eurasian collared doves are exotics that don’t count towards your limit. Leave the feathers on all collared doves for identification purposes until reaching your final destination, just in case you get checked by a game warden.
• Stay Hydrated: Be sure to bring plenty of cool drinking water along to stay hydrated. The same applies for dog handlers. An active dog can overheat quickly in hot temperatures.
• Look out for Others: Always know what is in front of and beyond your target. Never shoot in the direction of other hunters.
• Don’t Swing on Game: Swinging on game hunting accidents usually happen when the hunter is tracking a dove or quail, then pulls the trigger as the muzzle crosses paths with another individual they may or may not know is there.
• Play Some Defense: Never assume anything. Always let other hunters around you know your whereabouts and be mindful of what is going on around you.
• Eye/Ear Protection: Wear some eye protection while in the field to help prevent injury from stray pellets. Shotgun pellets can pierce the skin or put out an eye from 200 yards or more. Ear plugs will dampen the sound of a shotgun blast.
• Bugs and Snakes: Spray clothing with a good insect repellent to deter chiggers, ticks and other biting insects. Good snake boots are advised in rattlesnake country.
1⁄2 pound of ground dove breasts
1⁄2 pound fatty ground pork
2 packages of Goya Empanada Dough (20 discs) Make sure you thaw it overnight before preparing meal
Vegetable oil for deep frying
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tbs. sweet paprika
1 1⁄2 tsp. dried oregano
4 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt, plus extra
Freshly cracked black pepper
3⁄4 cup low-sodium chicken/game stock
1/3 cup golden raisins
5 Spanish Queen green olives, rinsed and coarsely chopped
HEAT DOVE & PORK Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add ground dove and pork to the skillet, allow the bottom to form a crust before stirring and continue to cook. Transfer meat to plate or bowl with a slotted spoon, and set aside. Lower heat to medium.
SAUTÉ BELL PEPPER & ONION In the same pan, add an additional tablespoon of oil, onion, bell pepper and a pinch of salt. Sauté until softened, but do not brown.
ADD CUMIN & OTHER SPICES Stir in cumin, paprika, oregano and garlic for 30 seconds.
ADD BACK MEAT & ADD STOCK Next, return ground meat to the skillet and season with about 1 1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt, freshly cracked black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste. Add chicken stock and simmer until mixture is no longer watery, but still moist, stirring occasionally. Take off heat.
OLIVES & COOL MIXTURE Stir in coarsely chopped olives (about 1⁄4 cup) and raisins. Allow mixture to cool before filling empanadas. Mixture could be made a couple days in advance.
FILL EMPANADAS Add the remaining butter to the hot pan and baste the fish. Increase amount of butter as desired. BRUSH, FOLD & CRIMP Brush the edge with water and fold over to form half circles. Crimp with a fork. FRY & SERVE Heat frying oil to 325-350° Fahrenheit. Fry empanadas in batches until golden on both sides and drain. Keep warm in an oven and serve hot.
Notes from the Chef: Today, there are as many versions of the empanada as there are grandmothers in any given region. The version I’m offering is associated with Buenos Aires, the capital and largest city of Argentina. Che Bio – Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley
Jenny, who immigrated to the US from Vietnam, was first introduced to hunting in college and started a cooking website, Food for Hunters. Since then, Jenny has written for numerous hunting and outdoor magazines, and co-authored – with her husband, Rick Wheatley, – the book, Hunting for Food: Guide to Harvesting, Field Dressing and Cooking Wild Game.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS