Dove Hunting

by Nick Zahniser

The excitement of the fall hunting season is already mounting.  It is only a couple of months until dove season, when the opening weekend in September brings thousands of hunters back to the fields.  The mourning dove provides average gunners a challenging sport – the little gray missiles dart and dive and fly at speeds in excess of 40 mph.  Add a little wind to the equation and you can see why across the nation, dove hunters shoot up a ratio of seven shells for each dove bagged. 

In Virginia that’s over four boxes of shells for a limit of 15 birds. Sounds like a lot of fun if you like to burn gunpowder.  However, most dove hunters would likely prefer to get a limit in fewer than two boxes, so let’s see if we can work towards that goal this season by reviewing some fundamental skills, establishing shooting limits, and then discuss a few equipment selections.

Without question, the one thing we can do to increase our success in the dove field is – you guessed it – improve our fundamental skills with a shotgun.  The fundamentals of shotgunning are target focus, gun movement, and instinct (or trust). 

Wingshooting is an eye-hand coordination skill.  Our visual focus is on the target or bird, and our hands move the gun in front of the bird instinctively – if we let that happen and do not over think it.  We point a shotgun instead of aiming. 

Where ever you are right now, look around you and point at three different objects: look at a door handle – point at it; look at a light switch – point at it; look at a mailbox – point at it.  When you point at something you focus on the object and very naturally bring your finger up to point at it – you donմ look at your finger. 

If you were to swat at a fly with a flyswatter, you would focus on the fly, not the swatter.  Swinging a bat in softball – focus on the ball, not the bat.  It is the same with shotgun shooting; we look at the target, not the gun barrel. 

Don’t try to calculate, guess, or otherwise see the lead.  We want laser focus on the bird – more specifically the birdճ head or beak – and there will only be an awareness of the barrel in our peripheral vision. 

Just look hard at the bird and move your hands and the gun in sync with the bird, have just enough barrel awareness to get the gun pointed in front and on line, and pull the trigger at the instant the gun is mounted. 

If we look at the barrel in an attempt to aim or apply precise forward allowance, the gun will slow down and we will miss behind.  Your natural eye-hand coordination will apply the proper lead, but you must trust that instinct.  Obtain visual focus, move your hands with the bird, smoothly mount the gun, and when the gun touches your shoulder, take the shot. 

If you hide the target with the gun mounted, your tendency will be to override your instinct and check the lead which typically results in a miss.

It has been said that the best shotgun instructor is a case of shells; however, without some instruction in the fundamentals, all the gunpowder in the world isnմ going to make you a better wingshooter. Practice your gun mount at home 20 times every night for two weeks and you will be amazed how much this will smooth your move and mount. 

If you have a friend or acquaintance with a known ability for shooting birds or flying targets, ask them to help you improve your skills.  Invite them to a shooting range and offer to pay their target fees.  Most wingshooters are more than willing to offer advice and tips on how others can improve.  A skeet field is an excellent practice venue for dove shooting, as is a sporting clays range. 

Contact a local shotgun instructor and arrange some lessons.  Occasionally shooting facilities will put together specific presentations or clinics for dove enthusiasts in the weeks prior to opening day.  Check the advertisers in this edition of җoods & Waters MagazineӠfor shooting ranges, instructors, and clinics.

After basic technique, the major reason for missing shots in the dove field is attempting shots at improper range or shooting distance – meaning the birds are too far from the gun to provide a reasonably successful attempt. 

Guys – and gals – know the limit of your effective range!  And by effective range, we mean a range where we can be consistently successful.  Although this will vary somewhat on your ability, your gun/choke/load combination, field and weather conditions, we can start with an outer range of 25 to 30 yards measured on the ground, or about 25 full strides for an adult. 

Some may believe this too conservative, but remember we are talking about a range where we can be consistently successful. 

Try a little experiment to test your own abilities:  go to a skeet field, start at Station 4 (the outer middle station), and take 4 full strides further back from the baseline which will put you about 25 yards from the targetճ flight path.  Shoot a half box of shells at some single high house targets, and the other half box at some low house singles. 

Some of you may find this routine, however the average dove hunter will likely be enlightened that 25 yards is plenty far!  So when you set up in your spot at the dove field, look around you at the tree lines or other visual aids to get an idea of your effective range.  If you are in an open area, take a fallen branch or cornstalk and mark spot in the field in front of you at your 25 or 30-yard effective range.  Just pace it off, you don’t need a range finder. 

Another simple method to help determine range is to be able to visually distinguish the dove’s beak and head from its body.  If you are shooting at a blurry gray silhouette, it is probably too far to be consistently successful.

With regards to equipment, dove hunting is very forgiving.  Just about any gauge shotgun, choke, and shell combination can be used successfully – provided the above-mentioned shooting distance is determined and good wingshooting fundamentals are employed.  Personal preference will dictate your selections more than anything else. 

We could wax philosophically and ad nauseum about the pros and cons of 12 gauge versus 20 gauge, #8 versus #7, improved cylinder versus full choke etc.  Likely as not you have one gun you like to shoot, so shoot it.  Assuming you have interchangeable chokes, make it simple – modified for single barrels, improved cylinder and modified for doubles.  Tighten up one click if you like.  Then pick whatever shell load tickles your fancy from super light target loads to supersonic magnum field loads. 

Because of all the things you can do to improve your dove hunting success, your selection of shotshells should be among the last things on your list.  The loads only reduce required forward allowance by inches, but poor focus on the bird/target will cause misses measured in feet.

Increase your success and enjoyment in the field this season – know your effective range, improve your wingshooting fundamentals, shoot what you got, be safe, and have fun!

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