It’s a scene that I hope to duplicate each fall, the iconic John Cowan dove hunting painting titled The Waterhole.
The original oil painting by the late Texas wildlife artist shows a trio of wingshooters scattered around the dwindling remains of a South Texas stock tank, one complete with mesquite trees, a battered old wooden windmill and a bit of prickly pear cactus.
In short, the painting – where a dozen or more doves are whistling into the small pond – celebrates the silver lining of a red hot season, that being the fantastic hunting that exists around a dwindling wet spot at the end of a long, hot, and dry summer.
The painting resonates with me – and apparently with many other dove hunters too, given the steep price that the sold out limited edition print commands on the secondary art market – because it taps into an important truth about mourning and whitewing doves.
And that’s this, that like most wild animals, doves find it tough to make a living in broiling heat, seeking to maximize their resources and minimize their energy expenditure in order to survive.
Meaning that if you find a good waterhole with some a solid food resources and some sort of roosting cover nearby, you’re most likely going to be in high cotton come dove season.
Like the old real estate adage goes, the first key to a good waterhole is that it’s all about location, location, location.
But close proximity to food and cover is only one tipoff that you’ve found a waterhole that doves will consistently want to use for a last drink of water before heading off to rest for the night.
Because the second key is to find a pond with the right kind of landing zones surrounding it, most often bare muddy ground that rings the disappearing puddle of water.
Usually, such damp spots will be muddy flats next to small stock tanks, farm ponds or cattle watering areas that are clean of any sort of high growing vegetation that might hide a lurking predator.
Why? Because dove just simply don’t like to land in areas of cover or grass that could hide predators that can include such nasty surprises as a coyote, a bobcat, a big hungry snake or a camouflaged dove hunter.
If empty shoreline around the waterhole is another prerequisite for the right dove hunting wet spot, then the third key is to find a pond that features a perch of some sort where doves can fly in, land and spend a few seconds looking around for any sort of trouble.
Such landing spots can include a dead snag or two, a bare-branched mesquite or oak tree that is short on leafy cover, a telephone or power pole, barbed wire and/or a fence post, and as Cowan once painted, a creaking windmill. When such a spot is next to a late summer/early autumn waterhole, it can be pure wingshooting gold.
Find a waterhole exhibiting these three key characteristics and you might want to make sure that you’ve got plenty of dove shells for your scattergun.
Take a triple digit hunt I enjoyed a few years ago with my longtime hunting pal Steve Lewandowski as a sizzling summer begrudgingly gave wave to fall.
Lewey, who grew up in the southern Great Plains before moving to Alabama, joined me on that blistering September day to guard the damp spot not far from my father-in-law’s North Texas home.
As the thermometer soared well into triple digit territory that afternoon, we hardly noticed as we sat on buckets around the sad excuse for a pond. And well before official sunset had occurred, the combination of proximity to food and cover, a pond with bare landing zones and a dead snag standing guard had allowed us to work our way towards two-man limits.
While we weren’t the official subjects for Cowan’s classic oil painting, we might as well have been, sitting around a pond that displayed almost every characteristic mentioned above.
In short, it was the perfect waterhole, something that our quick shooting that afternoon and early evening seemed to prove as we enjoyed the fruits of a good, old fashioned Texas dove hunting waterhole.
One that was almost straight out of a painting.