You can have those crowded pregame socials and hot parking lots. When it comes to September tailgate parties, I’d much rather settle in beneath the shade of a stately oak with a few close friends and share war stories on the heels of a good dove shoot.
Barring any last minute fumbles with the weather, it’s looking as if Texas’ 325,000 dove hunters will have plenty to cheer about when the season gets underway Sept. 1 in the North and Central zones. The South Zone season begins Sept. 14.
Just about every Texas dove season is a good one, but this season has the makings of something special. That’s the word from Owen Fitzsimmons, webless migratory program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“I’m hoping it turns out to be the kind of season it’s shaping up to be,” he said.
Fitzsimmons says abundant spring moisture spurred the growth of a summer buffet of natural forage like seed bearing grasses, weeds and forbs while optimizing nesting habitat around the state. Although the wet weather put a damper on agricultural production early on, the biologist says many farmers have had success with late crops that could put a bounty of other tasty goodies on the ground for doves just in time for opening day.
“The hot, dry conditions we’re getting now should result in grain crops heading out and ready for harvest right around the season opener,” he said. “There is ample forage available across the landscape, even into the northern states, and we’ve seen some excellent hatches this summer. I’m predicting a good to excellent season this year.”
Fitzsimmons says mid-August reports gathered from field staff were mixed with some of the most promising news coming from the dove rich Hill Country and South Texas regions.
“There are birds everywhere — they’re covered up,” he said.
Things were somewhat different in the Cross Timbers and Rolling Plains, where biologists and outfitters said the birds were still scattered.
“They haven’t seen quite as many birds as they were expecting to, but I think it’s just a matter of time until that changes,” Fitzsimmons said. “The birds typically start grouping up and congregating getting ready for migration in late August.”
Dove hunting central
Even in a poor year, Texas dove hunting is usually outstanding in comparison to other states. That’s due to the staggering number of birds that live here.
TPWD’s most recent estimates reflect a resident mourning dove population close to 35 million, 12 million white-winged doves and about 5 million Eurasian collared doves. No one knows how many mourning doves funnel through Texas from other states each fall on their way to Mexico and Central America, but Fitzsimmons says it is likely well into the millions.
Not surprisingly, Texas hunters shoot a lot of birds. Fitzsimmons says Texas hunters typically account for about one-third (4 million to 5 million) of the mourning doves killed nationwide and around 90 percent of nation’s white-winged dove harvest.
According to TPWD’s 2018-19 Small Game Harvest survey, close to 300,000 hunters spent about 1.1 million hunter days in the field last year. They shot a combined total of about 6.1 million doves, including 4.1 million mourning doves, 1.6 million white wings, 361,000 Eurasian collared doves and 60,000 white-tipped doves.
Dove hunters spend a lot of money playing the game, too. Fitzsimmons cited a 2005-06 study that shows the sport pumps about $316 million into state’s economy each year.
“The survey is pretty old, though, so that figure could be laughably low,” Fitzsimmons said.
On the local level, the dove hunting represents a fat cash cow that pumps millions of dollars annually into some rural communities. Coleman County, one of Texas’ top dove hunting counties, attracts thousands of hunters over the course of the 90-day split dove season. Chamber of Commerce officials there have estimated that dove hunting generates as much as $5 million to $8 million for area businesses.
Legal in the field
One of the best ways to put a damper on a good dove hunt is to make a silly mistake that gets you in trouble with the law. Here are some legal tips to remember before heading to the field:
Make sure your hunting license and migratory bird stamp are current. Last year’s licenses and stamp endorsements expire at midnight, Aug. 31, 2019. Proof-of-license requirements may be met by showing a digital image of your license, an e-mail receipt, online purchase record or using a couple of free TPWD smart phone apps — Outdoor Annual app or My Texas Hunt Harvest app.
Hunter education certification is required of every hunter (including out-of-state hunters) born on or after Sept. 2, 1971. Be sure to carry proof of certification and identification with you while hunting.
If hunting with a pump or autoloading shotgun, make sure the firearm is “plugged” so it will hold no more than three shells, one in the chamber and two in the magazine.
Eurasian collared doves are an invasive species that do not count toward your limit. If you shoot one, leave the bird whole or leave a wing attached for positive identification in case you get checked by game wardens in the field.
If you are hunting in a group, be sure to keep your birds separate from those shot by others. Co-mingling birds makes it impossible for a warden to know for sure which hunter shot which birds. Place birds in separate bags labeled by name/date or individual ice chests until you reach your final destination.
The legal limit is 15 birds per hunter, per day. It’s OK to hunt during morning and afternoon (except for South Texas during special white-winged dove days), so long as you don’t exceed the day bag limit. You can’t kill a limit during a morning hunt and kill another limit during an afternoon hunt on the same day.
Legal shooting hours for doves is 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset, except during the special white-winged dove season (noon to sunset).
Never hunt doves or other migratory birds around a “baited area.” A “baited area” is any area where grain has been placed or within 10 days after all such feed has been completely removed. It is every hunter’s responsibility to know if an area is legal to hunt; ignorance is no excuse.
Bands are a plus
State and federal biologists frequently place leg bands on doves and other migratory birds in an effort to learn more about survival rates, harvest rates, population abundance and migratory habits. Hunters should watch for banded birds in their bag. If you kill one, report it.
Bands will have an I.D. number to help scientists identify the time and place at which the bird was released. Report banded bird harvests to reportband.gov.
Past recoveries have yielded some interesting insights about doves. One study showed mourning doves shot in Texas come from 21 states including Texas, with the most out-of-state banded birds coming from Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma and South Dakota. A few banded birds traveled all the way from Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to a 2011 TPWD news release.
Biologists aren’t the only ones banding birds these days. The Texas Dove Hunter’s Association is running a Eurasian collared dove banding program called the Texas Banded Bird Challenge. The second-year contest gives hunters shots to win some valuable prizes in exchange for paying a $20 entry fee. Youths 10-13 are free.
Bobby Thornton with the TDHA says 800 Eurasian collared doves will have been trapped, banded and released in all areas of the state by the end of August. Pre-registered hunters who kill TBBC birds between Sept. 1, 2019, and Jan. 23, 2020, are eligible to win prizes including a new truck, an ATV, exotic hunt, a shotgun and more. See texasdovehunters.com or call 210-764-1189 for more information.
Low cost, high quality
Dove hunting represents one of the best low cost, high quality hunting options available to Texas hunters. Reputable outfitters typically charge $75-$125 for day shoots on private land or you can hunt all season long on public land for the cost of a $48 Annual Public Hunting Permit. Some national forest and Corp of Engineers properties can be accessed for free.
The APHP permit provides access to 112 private land dove and small game leases included in TPWD’s public lands hunting program. The leases total about 42,500 acres.
Most of the leases are located in close proximity to metro areas, 19 of them totaling 5,300 acres in vicinity of Dallas and Fort Worth, according to Kelly Edmiston, TPWD public hunting coordinator. Maps of all public hunting areas totaling more than 1 million acres can be viewed at tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/public/annualpublichunting.
Matt Williams is freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tips for hunters
Owen Fitzsimmons, webless migratory program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says it would be a good idea to shoot a few rounds of skeet or trap at a local gun range to help take the rust off before heading to the field for the first time. He offered a few other tips to help hunters ensure a safe, enjoyable and successful dove season:
Get out and scout: Scouting is one of the most important factors for success. Doves are migratory; they can be here one day and gone the next.
Hide out: Doves have extremely good eyesight. Wearing camo clothing, a hat and sitting in the shade can vastly improve your hunting success.
Bird to bag: Bringing down a double or triple is great, except when you can’t find the birds because you failed to watch them fall. Dove are extremely hard to find without a good spot. When you bring down a bird, watch it to the ground and retrieve it immediately. You must make a reasonable effort to find downed game. Any wounded bird retrieved must be immediately killed and made a part of the bag limit.
Eye/ear protection: Earplugs and shooting glasses are cheap protection that will save your hearing and eyesight. There is no excuse not to use it.
Shooting hours/Property lines: Don’t push the shooting hours for an extra bird or two. Don’t shoot across property lines, shoot birds that fall across property lines or cross property lines to retrieve birds without permission.
Hydrate: September weather can be extremely hot in Texas. Bring plenty of water for you and the dog. Be sure to keep yourself and your dog hydrated and cool.
Clean up: Pick up your hulls and trash. Be responsible whether you are hunting your land or public land. No one wants to see piles of spent shells or other trash on the ground.
Texas dove seasons
North Zone: Sept. 1-Nov. 12 and Dec. 20-Jan. 5
Central Zone: Sept. 1-Nov. 3 and Dec. 20-Jan. 14
South Zone: Regular season: Sept. 14-Nov. 3 and Dec. 20-Jan. 23; Added days for Special White-winged Dove season: Sept. 1, 2, 7, 8