It’s a story I think about at the end of every summer, a tale I make myself read once again as August turns to September and dove season finally arrives on the calendar.
Entitled Sunset’s Secret Thrill, the Joe Doggett authored story in 1993 chronicling all I love about the Lone Star State in the fall, from a South Texas dove shoot to the lure of a Texas Longhorns football game on the radio to the camaraderie of hunting pals gathered around a pickup truck tailgate after the sun has set.
Aside from the familiar elements of his magazine tale, one thing that has always intrigued me about Doggett’s dove hunting adventure was his reference to trying to bag a limit of birds “inside a box.”
When the retired Houston Chronicle outdoor writer penned those words many years ago, the limit on dove in Texas was an even dozen birds each day.
At the time of this writing, the daily bag limit is 15 dove per day, making the challenge of taking a limit within a box of 25 shotgun shells even more challenging.
Is such a feat still doable in Texas and other places across the U.S. where dove fly thick each fall?
Absolutely, especially if you’ll put these five wingshooting tips to good use this season:
1. Practice Before You Go: The simple fact of the matter is most of us fail to shoot a limit of dove within a box of shells because our shotgunning skills are a bit rusty after months of lying dormant.
This is understandable as summertime fishing, golf and unending yard work have all taken precedence over busting a few clay pigeons out on the back-40.
But according to Jim Lillis, a retired Ducks Unlimited regional director from Sherman, Texas, with more than four decades of dove hunting experience, there’s simply no better way to ensure a chance at bagging a limit of dove inside a box of 25 shotshells.
“You’ve got to tune up prior to the season with just about any type of hunting,” said Lillis, who routinely shoots sporting clays during the off-season.
“Do your homework and get out and practice, especially on those types of shots that you have trouble with,” he added. “It’s just like golf or anything else, you’ve got to practice to get better.”
2. Upgrade Shotgun Shells: Lillis is a big believer in shooting high-quality loads – the so-called heavy dove loads or top-end target loads with more shot and a bit more firepower – can help a dove hunter’s shooting average improve in the field.
And given the fact the average wingshooter bags one dove per every four to five shells fired, that’s a good thing.
Even if these better-quality shells actually cost a bit more per box.
“I don’t believe you’ve got to shoot a high-velocity shell to be successful on a dove hunt, but shooting a higher-quality shell with a little bit more shot and better components certainly can help,” said Lillis.
“Those higher-quality shells tend to have harder lead shot than bargain loads do, the pellets are more consistently round, they tend to fly better and pattern better and they have a bit more knock-down power. A lot of people don’t know that, but it’s true.
“If you’ll use each brand’s heavy dove loads or good target loads like the Winchester AA loads, the Federal Top Gun loads or the Remington STS loads, such shells can really help a hunter get better numbers in the field.”
3. Use the Right Gun and Choke: When I started dove hunting back in the 1980s, I used a Remington 870 Wingmaster 12 gauge shotgun with a fixed modified choke.
I wasn’t alone back then since most shotgunners used scatterguns with fixed chokes too, many opting for the all-around modified choke that generally worked out all right for a gun often asked to do a little bit of everything in the field.
Today, with shotshells being much improved and shotguns sporting screw-in chokes that can be changed out depending on the situation, a better choice for doves – either the mourning dove, the white-winged dove or the invasive Eurasian collared doves – is the improved cylinder.
“I like the improved cylinder, either with #7 ½ or #8 shot sizes,” agrees Lillis, who usually presses a 12-gauge autoloader or a 20-gauge over/under into service for his autumn dove hunts.
“If a hunter will let the target get within range, an improved-cylinder choke is a good choice for shots out to 30 yards,” he added.
“And with good dove population numbers these days – and the use of spinning-wing decoys to help lure them in closer – it’s not that hard to get doves within 30 yards if you’re hunting a good flyway.”
4. Hunt the Right Location: It probably goes without saying, but a good way to up shooting averages on doves is to be in a spot that presents plenty of quality opportunities to start with.
To make sure you’re hunting in the right location, scout if possible and try to find the busiest field or waterhole. Then spend a few moments at the beginning of the hunt discerning where birds are tending to fly the best before picking out your hunting spot.
Finally, be sure to pay attention to the little things that make a difference in the field like wearing camouflage instead of blue jeans, hiding in the shadow of a bush or a tree, picking up spent shells and trash off the ground and patiently waiting until the birds are well within range before mounting the gun to shoot.
5. Pick Shots: If there’s one thing that often torpedoes a hunter’s chances of getting a limit of doves inside a box, it’s not being patient and firing shots indiscriminately at any and every passing dove.
Especially doves flying by at marginal ranges or at times when windy weather and spooked birds combine to make solid shooting a tough proposition at best.
To help me choose better shot opportunities, I prefer to use an over/under shotgun when chasing doves since it forces me to focus on a single bird rather than making vain attempts at doubles or triples that seldom work out as planned.
At least when it comes to my shooting skills, that is.
Whether you use a two-shot double-barrel versus a three-shot pump or autoloader (remember, only three shots are legally allowed at migratory game birds like dove), picking your shots carefully when out in the field can make a huge difference.
At least where the idea of bagging a limit of dove inside a box of shells is concerned.
If you happen to do that, the result can be a hunt that brings a smile to your face each and every September as the sun sets on another day of wingshooting and you relive a day where you simply couldn’t miss.
Just like a classic autumn hunting tale written in an old dog-eared outdoor magazine.