Texas dove hunting remains the most fulfilling outdoor experience 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. 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.
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, and the larger doves have expanded their range well out of South Texas. There are even noted nesting colonies as far north as the Panhandle.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department 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.
Texas dove hunters last year also received increased possession limits and expanded opportunities in some of the best habitat in the state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved an expanded special whitewing area in South Texas from San Antonio to Corpus Christi, effectively doubling its size from previous dove frameworks. Under rules adopted by the Service last year, the possession limit for all migratory game birds is three times the daily bag, which allows hunters to take part in a full weekend hunt from Friday through Sunday and still return home legally with a full complement of limits from each day.
The biggest attraction to dove hunting is the relative ease with which the pursuit can be enjoyed, and even a small plot of land can hold birds, especially if there are stock tanks or other water sources nearby.
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.
— Will Leschper (@TXOutdoorDigest) September 1, 2013
Kris Kallina, who runs La Media Lodge nestled north of Edinburg in far South Texas, has 30 years of experience running a hunting operation. His area of the state is famed for superb dove hunting, especially for mourning doves. He said the outlook for dove shoots this fall and winter should be nothing short of spectacular.
“What I’ve been seeing in that whole area (north to Falfurrias) is a lot of birds that likely were left over from the late second season (December-January framework), which is a good thing for hunters,” he said. “I’ve also talked to a lot of neighbors and landowners in my area who said they’ve never seen this many birds during this time of year (late spring), which also bodes well for hunters.”
Kallina said that while white-winged doves remain thick in many areas of the state, the extreme southern end of the state is mostly mourning dove country, as whitewings prefer larger trees that aren’t as readily available unless you head toward the Rio Grande or other areas with more water that harbor oaks and other bird-friendly vegetation.
While whitewing opportunities are somewhat limited that far south, Kallina also runs hunts out of the San Angelo area, and the larger doves quickly have expanded their range all across West Texas, especially during the past few seasons.
“Where I have seen an explosion in whitewings is in areas near Twin Buttes Reservoir and other places that tend to hold water in dry years,” he said. “You know, a couple of years ago we weren’t seeing that many whitewings, but during the past couple of years we have seen a big population increase, which makes for some great hunts.”
Larry Robinson, who runs Coastal Wings Guide Service and Lodge in Bay City, said the surrounding area is ripe for dove hunting every year, with a variety of locales that hold lots of birds. The best hunts typically are done over grain fields and water sources, which also are big draws annually for ducks, geese and sandhill cranes.
“The dove crops for this fall are in the ground and we’re expecting another great season this year,” he said. “We hunt the west side of the area from Houston down to here (Bay City) and the key to filling a bag limit is all about good crops and water, which we have plenty of. Millet and sunflowers are key, but we’ve also got soybeans, corn and milo in the area, which also makes our waterfowl hunting so great.”
Robinson said Texas remains a unique dove hunting locale overall since we’ve got so many resident birds, which he said improves the early-season outlook greatly since hunters won’t have to wait on the migrations from the north in Kansas and Oklahoma.
“The first couple of weeks of the season we’re also shooting Eurasian and collared doves, too,” he said. “We’ve also seen great nesting efforts by those resident birds, so that means nothing but good things for our hunters coming up this year.”
Robinson echoed Thornton on the social hunting aspect of dove hunting, noting that most of his day hunters come from Houston and its suburbs, providing a quick trip for what could be a quick hunt if the dove outlook remains solid.
If you had to pick a select number of counties that consistently provide quality shoots, you’d have to look in Central Texas, the Rolling Plains and South Texas. The top counties in the north and central dove zones typically are Brown, Coleman, Comanche, Throckmorton, Haskell and Shackelford, while Karnes, Live Oak, Frio, Starr, Hidalgo and La Salle are among the best in the south zone.
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Dove hunting remains among the most hazardous outdoors pursuit in Texas, and it’s a good bet it again will keep that title in 2014.
Dove hunting offers a number of dangers, chiefly the inherent risk that comes with the proximity of hunters armed with weapons capable of inflicting serious damage – even out to distances that many may consider relatively safe from bird shot.
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department data, there were more than 1.15 million hunting licenses sold in 2012 – the most recent year included in accident reports – and there were 25 firearm-related hunting accidents, including five fatal incidents. Of that total, nine accidents were reported by dove hunters, the most for any species.
The most common hunting scenario, which accounted for six accidents, involved a hunter tracking a bird with their shotgun and swinging the barrel into what is considered outside a safe zone of fire. This is far and away the most frequent danger in any bird hunting scenario, but it’s one that easily is avoidable.
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You hear a lot of Texas hunters, or former hunters, complaining about not having an affordable place to hunt. And while some types of hunting, such as that for trophy white-tailed deer and bobwhite quail, remain costly, dove hunting is still the biggest bargain in public hunting within the Lone Star State.
Throughout the state, good day-hunting operations charge $100 or less per day per hunter. That might not sound cheap — but price dinner and a movie, or a round of golf, and compare. Call any small-town chamber of commerce in the top dove counties or visit the Dove Hunters Association website and you should find a ready list of landowners hosting bird hunters. Dollars spent by dove hunters are a welcome fall boost to local economies, especially those facing a downturn in economic trends.
TPWD has aggressively and successfully leased hundreds of tracts of good dove country from the Rolling Plains to South Texas for public hunting. For a small annual fee, dove hunters can hunt Texas practically border to border on hundreds of thousands of acres.