Updated: Aug 18
Author: Emily Courtney
For hunters, the summer months can seem to stretch on indefinitely. We try to busy ourselves with fishing or planning for next season, but by mid-July we are suffering from itchy trigger fingers and dwindling meat supplies in the freezer. By the time September rolls around, we would be psyched to go on a snipe hunt. That’s one reason why dove season is so popular. It’s our first chance to get out and shoot at something after months of drawing crosshairs on deer in magazines. Combine that relief with a game bird that provides a fun social hunt, challenges your wingshooting, and makes a tasty meal, and it’s on. However, as highly anticipated as it is, most hunters don’t devote nearly as much time and effort to planning for dove season as they do for deer or other big game seasons. Many hunters hope that they can attract some doves as a by-product of managing their deer or turkey habitat. It is possible, but to have the killer dove field that everyone is clamoring for an invite to, you have to be intentional. Even half-hearted efforts at establishing dove fields can leave you disappointed and empty handed. It’s a shame; because intentional dove management is a great way to diversify your property and can offer benefits for other critters of interest as well. So this summer, give the dove field a good college try, and you just might have the best September of your life.
Establishing a primo dove field isn’t rocket science, and it doesn’t take much more effort than planting a food plot. However, there are some specific strategies that will make birds choose your field over another. In a nutshell, the keys to a productive dove field are proximity to roost trees, nearby water sources, a weed-free understory, and proper planting timing.
Identifying the proper location is the first and most crucial step. The optimal size for a dove field is around 5 acres. Even if you don’t have a suitable space that size, you can still produce a great field out of an acre or two. Find an open area that receives plenty of sunlight, and is adjacent to a wooded area with mature trees for roosting, as well as enough ground-level vegetation to provide escape and nesting cover. Ideally, choose a location with a nearby water source. Also, take your hunting strategy into account, just like you take stand placement into account when planning food plot placement. Make sure there are adequate areas for hunters to set up where they won’t be shooting over the top of each other. Once you find a location, take a soil sample and have it analyzed. This will let you know what the fertilization requirements are and which crops will grow best on the site.
Providing a weed-free environment at ground level under your planted food source is critical. Doves prefer to forage on bare ground where they can scratch for seeds, and it makes it easier for them to locate and consume the seeds. This also makes it easier for you and your retriever to find shot birds. Weeds provide cover in which predators can hide, so open ground is safer for the birds, and they know it. The best method to ensure a weed-free environment under your food crops is a combination of herbicide application and disking. First, identify what kind of weedy vegetation is present. Knowing what is there is important for choosing the correct herbicide. Glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) is a good general treatment for most weeds. Remove any debris such as limbs or stumps from the area, and mow once in mid-late April. After mowing, apply the herbicide and give it time to kill the above-ground growth. When the weeds begin decomposing, disk the entire field. Disking the decomposing vegetation returns those nutrients to the soil. After disking, cover the area with a second herbicide application to kill any undesirable seeds in the soil. This will prevent the weeds from coming back once your crop is planted.
Planting timing is critical and depends on which crops you choose and when the season opens in your area. There are three main food types typically planted for doves: sunflowers, milo, and millet. Planting a mix of two of these is best. For example, if you’re planting a five acre field, plant two and a half acres in sunflowers and the other two and a half in milo or millet. This will diversify the food source, making the field more desirable. It will also provide sustainability to have seeds dropping at different times. Once you choose your mix, take into account the number of days it will take for the plants to mature and produce seed. There are several different varieties of sunflowers, each of which mature at different times and produce different amounts of seeds. Peredovik, black-oil, and Clearfield are some of the most common varieties. Clearflield is a hybrid variety that has been developed to be resistant to certain herbicides. You can spray over the top of these if any weeds do happen to reappear after the sunflowers are established. This is the same concept as roundup ready corn and soybeans. Time your planting so that the seed will begin to drop a week or two before the season begins.
To maintain the field throughout the season, you can implement strip disking and/or rotational mowing. Once the crops are mature, mow or disk once every two to three weeks. These practices will provide a dual purpose: jostling the stems to get the seeds to ground level, and providing more open ground for easier foraging.
If you want to take your dove field to the next level, an experienced wildlife management consultant can save you a lot of trial and error. Consult with a professional that can guide you through the process of location selection, proper site prep, choosing the correct seed varieties, and planting timing. Dove season can be just the cure for an itchy trigger finger, but only if there are doves in your field to shoot. Make sure that there are, and the work will be well worth it. The only drawback is that once you have a great dove field, the wait for September will just feel that much longer.