Texas dove hunting forecast good despite drought conditions

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The average dove hunter will shoot six to eight shells per bird harvested.
White-winged doves have migrated farther north into Texas.

It’s never too early to start talking about Texas dove hunting, which remains among the most fulfilling outdoor experiences we have in the Lone Star State, and the time spent enjoying the sights and sounds of a September afternoon and evening are among those you can’t assign a true value.

They’re the magic hours, and ones brimming with rewarding natural elements: The sweet aroma of long-stalked sunflowers baking in a warm breeze; the symphony of grasshoppers composing melodious tunes; the distinctive polished texture of new shells sliding smoothly into a trusty shotgun; and, most importantly, the camaraderie of friends and family who share the affinity for passing time here as much as the next hunter.

And while there is no shortage of “being there” moments, there also is no absence of superb wing-shooting opportunities for mourning and white-winged doves from the top of Texas all the way down to the Mexican border. I’ve hunted doves in eastern Panhandle shelter belts, in Central Texas sunflower patches near Brownwood and Stephenville, near spring-fed water holes outside Uvalde and in the cactus and mesquite country of South Texas, and I can honestly say I’ve never had a bad hunt. Sure the birds didn’t always come swooping in, but I’ve also gone home with more limits than not, showing that all of the state truly is “dove country.”

The mourning dove population is pegged at about 350 million on this continent, and roughly 50 million of those birds will nest, hatch or pass through Texas at some point during the next few months. The state also boasts the largest number of white-winged doves, checking in with a population of 5 million or more by most estimates.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department recently approved dove seasons across the state, and there again is more than two full months to hunt, with splits offering a variety of options. Dove season in the north and south zones will run Sept. 1 to Oct. 20 and Dec. 19 to Jan. 7, while the south zone framework is Sept. 19 to Oct. 20 and Dec. 19 to Jan. 25. The special South Texas white-winged dove hunting area season dates are Sept. 6-7, Sept. 13-14, Sept. 19 to Oct. 20 and Dec. 19 to Jan. 21.

Shaun Oldenburger, dove program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said that dove hunting success – as most hunters know – rests on drought conditions, which again are likely to play a large factor in where birds are come September.

“Last year we saw increases in mourning dove populations in all areas of Texas, except the Gulf Coast, Pineywoods and Rolling Plains,” he said. “However, both the Gulf Coast and Pineywoods tend to be some of Texas’ least-fluctuating populations. Whereas the Panhandle (High Plains and Rolling Plains) tend to fluctuate greatly depending on annual precipitation, but also have some of the highest densities of mourning doves in Texas. If drought continues (during nesting), we should expect to see decreased populations in the High Plains, Rolling Plains, Edwards Plateau and Cross Timbers areas. South Texas conditions have improved the last two years with rain events in this area, so we could expect good local production this year in this area.”

Oldenburger said that white-winged doves, which are larger than mourning doves, continue to expand their ranger far out of their historical haunts in South Texas.

“As far as white-winged doves, we saw an increase in that population again last year – so we expect another increase as white-winged doves tend to find additional urban and suburban habitat available with the increasing urban landscape in Texas,” he said. “This population continues to expand in Texas with only extreme northeast parts of the Pineywoods and Rolling Plains not having significant populations at this time. TPWD expects another great year of folks hunting within large to medium metropolitan areas with increasing foraging flights of white-winged doves into agricultural landscapes – the San Antonio area being a good example.”

Oldenburger noted that mourning doves drink 25 percent to 30 percent of their own weight in water on a daily basis, and drought can redistribute doves on the landscape if surface water is not available. Drought also leads to early maturation of many plants that provide seeds for doves. It also leads to decreased forage availability, so doves may begin migrating early in years of drought, which may impact hunting success.

Although drought may lead to decreased dove populations, it may have the reverse impact on hunting success, Oldenburger said. Doves will congregate in areas of seed and water availability during early fall, so stacking the deck in your favor by hunting near those areas is key.

Not only does Texas have the highest dove populations in the country, it also boasts the largest number of hunters, roughly a third of the nationwide tally of 1.1 million in a normal year, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service figures. In an average season, roughly 250,000 people put time in the field hunting mourning doves, while 125,000 target whitewings. Those hunters typically harvest about 5 million mourning doves and a million whitewings, and pump a huge amount of revenue into the state economy — more than $300 million, according to recent state and federal surveys. Those surveys show that even in average seasons hunters in Texas spend more than $8 million alone on shot shells.

Bob Thornton, with the Texas Dove Hunters Association, said dove hunting remains a family pursuit, one that his nonprofit would like to see continue to expand.

“Dove hunting is centered around youths and families, and our focus is to encourage more people to take up the pursuit,” he said. “Our mission is based on growing the next generation of wildlife amabassadors, and dove hunting is the optimum outdoor pursuit to help make that happen.”

The nonprofit, which has members from Amarillo to Brownsville, helps to highlight the everyman aspect of dove hunting, a pursuit that allows a relatively high measure for success coupled with minimal expenses, something that makes spending time in the field much easier for most Texans, especially those who can’t afford a high-dollar deer lease or bass boat.

“It’s important to pass on dove hunting and hunting traditions, and we’re able to help raise funds aimed at three areas: mentors, who help take out youths and families who otherwise couldn’t go; special needs hunts focusing on immersing youths in the outdoors; and scholarships for high school seniors in each of the state’s dove hunting zones.”

The nonprofit offers a wealth of general dove hunting knowledge, especially listings of where to find reasonably priced day leases statewide.

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