August rains can derail opening day

Texas dove hunters are anxiously counting down to September 1, the opening of the 2022-23 dove season in most of the state. It’s the first move in another round of highly anticipated hunting seasons that will play out between now and next spring.

Dove hunting represents the best low-cost, high-quality hunting option available to hunters, and spending time with friends in the field on opening day is a sacred tradition that most of Texas’ 300,000 dove hunters do not miss.

The lucky ones will find a ringside seat next to a storage tank buzzing with feathered gray streaks, darting, diving mourning doves, among the most difficult targets of a mature croton field or wing shot. While some hunters will harvest the 15-bird limit, most likely won’t. The average dove hunter is a marginal shot at best.

Dove season opens this Thursday in the North and Central parts of the state, which can mean a five-day marathon for hunters who are off work ahead of the long Labor Day weekend. The delayed opening in the south zone is on Wednesday, September 14.

Cash cow with feathers

Dove season is a big deal here. Even in a poor year, Texas dove hunting is better than most states, thanks to its large population of birds and abundant places to hunt them on private and public land.

According to TPWD’s small game harvest survey, Texas hunters shot nearly 5.9 million doves and spent more than 1 million hunter days in the field in 2020-21. Reports from the US Fish and Wildlife Service show that Georgia was No. 2 with an estimated harvest of 856,500 birds that year.

There are about 20 million mourning doves in Texas, 10 million white-winged doves, and about 3.5 million exotic Eurasian collared doves. In good hatch years, numbers can triple in the fall, according to Owen Fitzsimmons, head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s dove program.

All of these add up to a feathered cash cow that is believed to generate more than $450 million a year for the Texas economy, Fitzsimmons said.

Pigeons are among the most difficult targets in wing shooting. Texas dove hunters can encounter several different species of doves, including mourning doves, white-winged doves (pictured here), white-tipped doves, and Eurasian collared doves. Eurasian collared doves are exotic and do not fit into your limit.(Matt Williams)

The look of the season

Extreme drought conditions have hampered dove breeding in some areas this summer, but Fitzsimmons says local breeding populations have fared well overall. Pigeons usually do better in dry years, the biologist says, and that proved to be the case this year.

“I’ve heard mostly positive reports from our staff, and our banding-age rates are really skewed high, which means there are a lot of young birds in the landscape,” he said. “I think we’re looking at a more productive growing season than we’ve had in the last few years.”

Things are not so dry in many places anymore. In some areas, such as Dallas-Fort Worth, much of the state received more rain than expected over the past two weeks.

Available water sources in good dove country should be hot spots for afternoon hunts after the birds have fed, Fitzsimmons says. Otherwise, he expects the best shoots to occur around drought-tolerant native food sources such as common sunflower, croton, pigweed, paspalum and other annual grasses and seeded grasses or any irrigated plants. As always, food by the water will be golden.

Just remember that weather changes can move birds and change hunting prospects on a dime. Significant rainfall events can deposit water where it was previously absent and cause birds to disperse. The same goes for cold fronts that can push out resident birds and bring in new ones.

With long-term forecasts calling for more moisture in parts of the state through late August, Fitzsimmons says Mother Nature could shake things up even further before the season opener while improving late-season hunting conditions.

“One thing about these late rains is that they can cause some native plants to grow and set seed before winter,” Fitzsimmons said. “This could result in good hunting until the second split of the season in October.”

Texas dove hunting seasons

North zone: September 1-November. Dec. 13 and 17-Jan. 1

Central zone: September 1 – October 30 and December 17 – January. 15

South zone: September 14 – October 30 and December 17 – January. 22

Special White-winged Pigeon Days: September 2-4 and September 9-11

Dove hunting tips

Scout: Check hunting grounds beforehand to see if birds are present and to learn something about their flight patterns.

Choose a location: Sit in cool 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 make it harder for birds to see you.

Focus on the movement: Pigeons have exceptional vision and once shot, they are inherently terrifying. Wear tight clothing and stay calm when birds approach. Keep your face down until the last second.

Go mobile: If pigeons are constantly flying out of range, feel free to change hunting positions, but don’t disturb others.

Use a perfect projectile/choke: Premium ammo will pattern better and can come out of autoloading shotguns more easily than cheap rounds. 7 1/2 to #8 are good shot sizes for pigeons. Improved, skeet or modified cylinder plugs are good for dove hunting.

Deception: The rotating wings of a battery-operated pigeon decoy sometimes attract birds that pass by.

Do not litter: Always pick up spent shells and other debris before leaving your hunting spot.

Tag/Find Birds: Immediately record the location of the fallen birds. Make every effort to find it before you shoot someone else.

Clean and care: Keep harvested birds away from fire ants and clean up immediately after hunting. Bring an ice chest and plastic freezer bags to keep cleaned birds cool.

Legal stay

Daily limits: Each hunter is allowed 15 pigeons per day. The limit may include all 15 mourning doves, 15 white-winged doves, or a combination of the two, but no more than two white-tipped doves. You can’t kill one limit in the morning and another limit in the afternoon.

Don’t mix the birds: Keep your birds separate from other hunters while being inspected by a game warden before reaching your final destination.

Shotgun plug: Pump and autoloading shotguns must be locked to accept no more than three rounds, including one in the chamber.

Hunter education/license and stamp: A hunter education certificate is required of every hunter (including out-of-state hunters) born on or after September 2, 1971 in Texas. Hunters are required to show proof of certification while in the field. Dove hunters need a valid Texas hunting license and migratory bird stamp. Licenses valid for this season are now on sale.

Avoid baited sites: It is illegal to hunt migratory birds around baited areas. If you suspect an area has been baited, it would be wise to leave and contact your local game warden before the shooting begins. Ignorance is no excuse.

Legal shooting hours: Legal shooting hours are 30 minutes before sunrise, except during the special white-winged dove season, which is from noon to sunset.

Wildlife resource document: Required when you give your birds to another hunter to transport. The document must show the name/address/hunting license number of the shooter, the name of the recipient, the number of birds and the place of harvest. Handwritten WRDs are acceptable.

Eurasian pigeons are a bonus: Eurasian collared doves are exotics that don’t fit your limit. Leave feathers on all collared pigeons for identification purposes until they reach their final destination.

Play it safe

Stay hydrated: Be sure to bring plenty of cool drinking water to stay hydrated. The same goes for dog sitters. An active dog can overheat quickly in hot temperatures.

Pay attention to others: Always know what is in front of and beyond your target. Never shoot in the direction of other hunters.

Do not continue playing: Hunting accidents usually occur when a hunter follows a dove or quail, then pulls the trigger when the muzzle crosses paths with another person, whether they know they are there or not.

Play some defense: Never assume anything. Always let other hunters around you know where you are and be aware of what’s going on around you.

Eye/ear protection: Wear some eye protection while on the beach to avoid injury from stray pellets. Shotgun pellets can pierce skin or take out an eye from 200 yards or more. Earplugs will reduce the sound of a shotgun blast.

Insects and snakes: Spray clothes with a good insect repellent to keep ticks, mites and other biting insects at bay. In the country of rattlesnakes, good snake hunting is advised.

Facts and figures

Texas dove hunters: 300,000

Combined annual output: 5.89 million birds (2020-21 season)

Mourning doves: 3.9 million

White-winged pigeons: 1.75 million

White tipped pigeons: 48,800

Eurasian collared pigeons: 200,771

Economic value of pigeon hunting: 452 million dollars

Public hunting: TPWD’s public dove lease program offers hunters access to more than 100 areas leased from private landowners for dove and small game hunting. Most of them are located near big cities and offer good pigeon habitat. A $48 annual public hunting permit is required. To review rentals, visit tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/public. Pigeon rentals are displayed as clickable gold stars on the interactive map.

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