The last couple of weeks, I’ve been revisiting some great information I gathered from one of the region’s best dove hunting experts, info that comes from an interview I conducted a number of years ago.
The information was timely then, and it’s just as timely now, even 10-plus years after the late Steve Stidham passed away in 2009 at the age of 57.
Known to many as a retriever trainer as well as a skeet shooting whiz, the Wolfe City resident was also arguably the best known dove hunting expert in North Texas back in those days. So sterling was his wingshooting reputation that the late Ray Sasser, the longtime outdoor writer for the Dallas Morning News, interviewed Stidham a number of times down through the years for pre-season dove hunting stories.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when a wingshooter becomes so good at his outdoorsy craft that he shoots a limit of doves on opening day for 20-plus years.
But Stidham wasn’t just an expert on September 1st, he also excelled at bagging limits — or near limits — of doves on most all of the autumn hunts he ventured out on near his Hunt County home.
How many times did Stidham get out and chase mourning doves? He told me that earlier in his wingshooting career, there would be 20-plus dove hunts every season.
Later on, as all day hunting hours — Stidham wasn’t a fan — and growing numbers of hunters in the area combined to diminish the region’s success rates, he would go out fewer times each fall. Even so, on most of those hunts, there were still plenty of birds to pick when the shooting was over.
Such consistent dove hunting success — particularly in an area known to support fair hunting at best, at least when compared to other dove hunting hotspots around Texas — was due to his shooting abilities and dedication to pre-season scouting, ideas that I’ve chronicled in this space over the last couple of weeks.
But his consistency at successfully hunting mourning doves — and the growing numbers of white-winged doves finding their way into North Texas each year — was also due in part to his ability to read a dove field properly.
In other words, he knew how to analyze the flight patterns into and out of a field, figuring out the spots that doves were most likely to fly by as well as analyzing natural barriers and obstacles that might leave a wingshooter swatting at mosquitoes and little else.
"If you take a 100-acre maize field, doves don’t distribute themselves across that field like people at a football game do," said the late Stidham. "They tend to pick three or four corridors into this field. It may be by flying past a certain fence post, through a gap in the tree line, or any number of things, but they have an ideal flight line into a field."
Stidham would not only note such preferred flight lines, but he would also figure out where he could hide best from the eyes of inbound doves zipping by.
"I disdained the idea of using shooting stools many years ago," said the late Stidham during our interview time. "I have found that breaking up my outline is very much to my advantage (when hunting doves)."
Like a stockbroker analyzing market trends and predicting future investment strategies to a nervous client, Stidham would also take a careful look at his hunting spots, trying to figure out the food sources that were available now as well as what might be available in the future.
What does that mean? As the season approaches, look for the hottest fields — milo is a good bet, as well as fields filled with native sunflowers — and note the spots where the birds are flying into most frequently.
That’s usually where either the most waste grain or native seeds are lying around on the ground, or where the ground is bare enough to offer easy pickings for a diminutive bird that doesn’t like to scratch around too much in the daily search for food.
But also take a few notes — in your mind, at least, or better yet in a journal of hunting notes — about food resources that might pay off with big wingshooting dividends a few weeks from now.
"Thinking about what would happen later in the season, I’m on the lookout for good stands of dove weed with clean understory," said the late Stidham. "We’ll make a note of that (while scouting) and check back later on, usually after the second week of the season. The shooting pressure is dying down then, and the doves are likely to be there. That’s because those seed pods are ripening out by then and doves love dove weed. Make notes of these types of places on your scouting missions."
The North Texas wingshooting expert had proof that his idea worked.
"While doing some pre-season scouting one year, we found a place with lots and lots of dove weed and with very clean ground," said the late Stidham. "I told my buddy that by the end of September, we’d be shooting here. We checked it on September 15, and there was nothing. We checked it out again on September 20, and again, nothing. But a week later, there were 200 doves on the last two sections of power lines next to that place."
Not long afterwards, Stidham and his hunting pal were back with their shotguns in hand.
"My buddy, Phil Tanner, killed his limit with 13 shells and I killed mine with 14 shells," said Stidham.
Stidham pointed out that doves quickly adapt to changes in food availability, changing weather conditions, and steady hunting pressure.
"We’re not taking it for granted, this idea that some have that doves are kind of dumb," he said. "They are not dumb and can get more challenging as the fall goes along. Have you ever hunted doves in the winter? They’re a much tougher bird then."
But even then, Stidham was usually successful when he chased doves, even late in the season when others were after ducks, deer or a warm fireplace. The reason for that success is that he could decipher a dove hunting spot like few others, breaking the natural code as he observed and picked up on clues, all of which helped him to plan and pick his hunting spots accordingly.
"I think they follow some type of geographic marker into the field even thought that’s not always obvious (to us)," he said. "But that doesn’t matter, (because they’re obvious to the birds and a hunter has got to try and figure that out)."
Read a dove field correctly, and your next reading assignment will be to scour the game and fish cookbooks, looking for a new recipe to try out on your latest limit of birds.