Confluence of calendar and conditions makes for prime dove season
A coincidence of calendar and conditions has as many as 300,000 Texas wingshooters anticipating what promises to be a fast and potentially fabulous - if maybe a bit crowded in some places - start of the 2018 dove hunting season.
The 2018-19 dove seasons open Sept. 1 in all 254 Texas counties with the start of the general dove season in the state’s North and Central Dove Zones and the first two-day session of the first-two-weekends-in-September special white-winged dove season in the South Dove Zone.
This simultaneous opening of dove season in all Texas counties is a relatively rare thing, and isn’t likely to happen again until 2029, the next year Sept. 1 - the earliest date dove seasons can begin under federal law and the date Texas officials traditionally open the North and Central zones - falls on a Saturday.
Prospects for dove hunters heading afield for the opener, which also falls on the first day of the three-day Labor Day weekend, appear very good in much of the state, including most of the premier dove hunting regions. And that outlook certainly is significantly better than they faced a year ago, when the effects of Hurricane Harvey resulted in the fewest Texas dove hunters going afield in the past several decades.
This year, weather conditions appear to be working in most doves’ and dove hunters’ favor.
“This has been a fairly normal year for doves in Texas, and that usually means pretty exceptional,” Owen Fitzsimmons, dove program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said of status of the state’s dove populations.
Texas is home to more resident doves than any other state, holding as many as 50 million doves.
Texas’ estimated 30-40 million resident mourning doves represent about 15 percent of the nation’s 250 million mourning doves. That number will be boosted over coming months as mourners produced in states to the north filter into Texas on the autumn migration.
Texas’ estimated 10 million white-winged doves account for about 80 percent of the whitewings found in the United States.
The state also is home to about 5 million Eurasian collared doves, a non-native species that has increasingly become a player in Texas dove hunting.
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Texas’ resident doves have had a relatively good year of production, Fitzsimmons said. Early nesting efforts, which began as early as February in some parts of the state, appear to have been very successful, thanks to good habitat conditions through spring.
“Production was good, early on,” Fitzsimons said. A dry and hot summer in some areas, especially in the Rolling Plains region, may have dampened subsequent nesting success - doves typically nest multiple times through the spring and summer - but overall production looks good.
Those hot, dry conditions may help some dove hunters headed afield for the opening weekend. Mourning doves typically make twice-daily visit to watering sites. As dry conditions reduce available water sources, mourning doves often concentrate on small stock tanks and farm ponds where the shrinking pond creates a clean, bare shoreline where the birds can land to get a drink. Under these conditions, “water hole” shoots can be outstanding. And that may be the case for opening weekend hunters
“In areas where conditions have been very dry, water’s going to be a key,” Fitzsimmons said. “If you’re on the right water hole, you’re going to be covered up with birds.”
Houston-area dove outfitter Mark Hooker agrees.
“It’s been so danged dry the birds are hitting water holes. That’s not something you see all the time around here because it’s usually so wet,” Hooker, whose Web and Fin Guide Service is offering short-term (Sept.1-3) lease access to dove fields in Liberty County.
While stock tanks, ponds and other small water holes may be a good Opening Weekend option for some dove hunters, the more traditional tactic of hunting fields where doves are feeding or the travel routes to and from these feeding fields is the most common option and the higher percentage bet.
Almost all dove hunting early in the season focuses on small-grain agricultural fields - usually milo, soybean, wheat, sunflower - where doves concentrate to feed on waste grain.
A milo field Hooker leases is being hit by solid numbers of mourning doves and a surprising number of the larger, non-native collared doves.
In the San Antonio area and south, one of the premier regions for dove and dove hunting, sunflowers are the primary draw for birds. And some fields are attracting good flight of white-winged doves, said Rick Hodges of Texas Dove Hunts.
“It’s been spotty,” Hodges said of pre-season scouting across a wide swath of the region. “There are some fields that are swarming with birds and some where there’s just a trickle. But overall, things look good.”
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The best whitewing opportunities invariably are found near cities or towns, areas the colonial nesting whitewings have taken to since beginning to expand their range and populations in the 1980s.
“About 80-85 percent of whitewings are associated with urban or suburban areas or around small towns,” Fitzsimmons said. The birds have colonized those areas, taking advantage of the abundance of mature trees - live oaks, mostly - for nesting and the generally consistent availability of water in those urban areas. The birds make daily concentrated feeding flights out of these roost areas, often flying dozens of miles to feed in grain fields.
Almost wholly limited to the lower Rio Grande Valley a half-century ago, whitewings have expanded their range across Texas. In recent seasons, whitewings have accounted for as much as 30 percent of the 10 million doves Texas hunters have taken. And that’s still growing.
“Ten or so years ago, we took 1-1 ½ million whitewings during a season,” Fitzsimmons said. “The average for the last five years has been about 3 million.”
Mourning doves remain the largest segment of the dove harvest, with Texas wingshooters taking 3-5 million a season.
Those numbers tumbled this past year, when Hurricane Harvey wrecked dove hunting for many Texas hunters.
In recent seasons, Texas has fielded about 300,000 dove hunters, far more than any other state and about a third of all dove hunters in the country.
This past year, Hurricane Harvey struck Texas a week before the dove opener. Those directly impacted by Harvey’s wind and flooding had more pressing and important business than dove hunting. And even in parts of the state not directly impacted by the storm, secondary effects such as gas shortages in the Dallas area and points west, kept droves of hunters at home.
In 2016, almost 300,000 Texans hunted doves taking 5.1 million mourning doves, according to the U.S, Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual survey of hunter activity. In the Harvey-impacted 2017 dove season, that number fell to 190,500 hunters who took 3.5 million mourning doves. Still the most hunters and the highest dove harvest of any state, but far below Texas’ average.
Look for those numbers to rebound in a big way this year. The relatively rare Saturday opening of the general season in the North and Central zones combined with the opening of the special whitewing season in the entire South Zone, all falling on Labor Day Weekend is certain to send bigger-than-normal crowds afield for the openings.
Also weather and habitat conditions are favorable. Doves - and dove hunters - hate rain. And while scattered showers and maybe some thunderstorms are predicted for the weekend in parts of Texas, the overall forecast is for a typically hot and dry weekend.
This is good news for Texas dove hunters.
Hunters heading afield for the opener, especially those looking to participate in the special whitewing season in the South Zone, should remember that rules differ between the general season and the special whitewing season.
In the North and Central zones, the daily bag limit is 15 doves in the aggregate, to include no more than two white-tipped doves. Shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise until sunset.
In the South Zone, the rules for the Sept. 1, 2, 8 and 9 Special Whitewing Season include a daily bag limit of 15 doves, with no more than two being mourning doves or white-tipped doves. Shooting hours are noon until sunset. The general dove season opens Sept. 14 in the South Zone, and the bag limit and shooting hours shift to mirror those of the North and Central zones.
There is no limit on collared doves, as the non-native doves are not classified as game birds. But hunters who take collared doves should make certain they not pluck the birds in the field or at least leave a fully feathered wing attached to the bird so it can be identified by game wardens.