Way back in the day when doves were teaching me the fine art of wingshooting, “hunting” them consisted of plunking oneself down within shotgun range of virtually any stubble field or pond anytime between dawn and dusk. I must admit that, although the good old days have been gone for decades, I’m still struggling to adapt to the realities of 21st century dove hunting.
I took several big steps in that direction when I read a 33-page “2014 Mourning Dove Population and Status Report,” which I found secreted within the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website. On the off chance some of you might not find the mountain of data MDC professionals Thomas G. Kulowiec, Ron Reitz and Julie Fleming compiled as fascinating as I did, I’ve sifted out a few highlights that may help you decide, when, where or if you’ll hunt doves this fall.
I was sadly gratified to learn that my impression that there weren’t as many doves as there used to be wasn’t just sour grapes. Both the number of dove hunters and the number of doves harvested in Missouri peaked around 1975 and, despite an occasional brief uptick, have steadily declined ever since. Worse yet, harvest numbers have declined faster than hunter numbers. In 1975, approximately 92,000 hunters harvested approximately 1,700,000 doves, but in 2012–which was actually a slight uptick–hunter numbers had fallen to 27,975 and doves harvested to 500,585.
Math whizzes will note that there isn’t much difference in the number of doves harvested per hunter between 1975 and 2012, but the figures are skewed by the fact that 2012’s hunters would almost surely have killed more doves if there had been as many doves available as there had been in 1975.
I was well aware of the fact that most dove hunters don’t take advantage of the full 90-day season, but I was flabbergasted to learn how few did. Research gleaned from several Conservation Areas that are highly managed for dove hunting showed that 74.5 percent of hunters went once, 17.4 percent went twice and 4.4 percent went three times. In other words, it’s safe to assume that by the end of the second weekend in September, 96.3 percent of all dove hunters will have gone home for good. Since opening days are a must-do in every sport and since opening day this year will fall on a Thursday, it’s likely that this year’s first weekend will also be the last weekend for most hunters.
I’m normally a two’s company, three’s a crowd kind of guy, but having other hunters in the immediate area often increases dove hunting success. The prospect of having something approaching the right number of hunters on hand is going to tempt me to spend more of my dove hunting time on public land, including some of the specially managed areas.
If you’re considering joining me on a specially managed CA, be sure to contact the area manager in advance regarding special regulations. Some of these areas are only open at specific hours or times and some require advance reservations. Be forewarned that several areas prohibit the mere possession of lead shot, let alone the use of it, so be absolutely sure you know the rules before you load your shell vest.
I don’t understand why — and the report didn’t cover this point — but dove limits and season lengths don’t seem to correlate with population trends. During the glory days in Kansas, the daily limit was usually 10 with an occasional increase to 12. This year Missouri’s daily limit is 15 with a 45-bird possession limit. Perhaps the rationale is that the limit doesn’t really matter, since almost nobody will be hunting after the first week anyway.
To tell the truth, I’ve always liked the 10-bird limit. When I was a teenager, the fact that dove loads cost about a $1.65 a box didn’t keep me from having to limit myself to one box per hunt. Once I got the hang of it — and, yes, it took awhile — killing 10 doves with less than 25 shots usually wasn’t that much of a problem.
But raise the limit to 15, slow my reflexes and reduce the number of days I can get away to hunt, and killing a limit with one box of shells gets pretty doggone iffy. So iffy, in fact, that I’m usually forced to slink back to the truck for a second box, a maneuver, I still find both embarrassing and frustrating.
Even so, I feel a little better about my declining abilities after reading the statistics from the MDC’s specially managed dove areas. On average, dove hunters fired 78 shells to bag 15 doves. No wonder my good friends at Winchester, Remington and Federal love doves so much.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]