I started dove hunting back in the 1980s when I was a student at Denison High School. And over the years that have followed since then, I’ve seen a little bit of everything weather-wise when the September 1 dove season opener rolls around.
There’s been sunny and hot triple-digit weather, there’s been overcast and mild days, and there’s been rainy and humid conditions. I’ve slogged through mud in a milo field, brushed off dust at a dwindling waterhole and even peered through light fog on a steamy rain-filled day.
But for all of those Opening Day hunts, this past Tuesday was a new experience for me — a total washout. That came as I watched a day long siege of flooding rainfall scramble my plans to get out for an opening day afternoon shoot.
That’s not entirely true, I suppose since I did exit the vehicle for a five-minute long stretch as light rain continued to fall. But when a lightning bolt crashed to the ground a few miles away as a new thunderstorm boiled up on the radar, I hoofed it back to the SUV and called it a day.
I suppose the box score would have read "Weather 1, Frustrated Dove Hunter 0." But hey, it’s 2020, so what are you going to do?
There’s no doubt that other area wingshooters were frustrated too, since by day’s end on September 1, the Austin College Weather Station website said that more than 4.3 inches of rain had fallen on the day. In some places around Texomaland, it was even more than that.
For some hunters, Tuesday’s opening day wingshooting bonanza was a washout. But for a few able to dodge the weather, it was memorable for reasons other than flash flooding.
Getting out first thing on Tuesday morning, Dan Sheffield reported to me on Facebook that he "Had a great opening morning in Van Alstyne."
For Sherman’s Jim Lillis, the answer for Tuesday’s rainfall was to head west with his longtime hunting friend Phil Bellows of Gainesville. The Ducks Unlimited stalwarts in the Texoma region found the afternoon shooting near Frederick, Okla. to be a little damp with a fine drizzle falling, but not too stormy with lightning bolts crashing around.
In a group of five friends who have hunted the region for several years now, Mr. Duck — or Pops, as some of Lillis’ friends call him — is a dead-eye shotgun shooter who was on target with this 20-gauge over-and-under this past Tuesday afternoon.
Despite the soggy weather, Lillis finished with a limit and the group that he was with took a total of 70 birds, just shy of what the law allowed.
"It wasn’t spectacular shooting like we’ve experienced out there in the past, but it wasn’t too bad either," said Lillis. "We hunted about three hours total. It was just steady. Sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower. We didn’t have a bunch of birds like before."
But they had enough to make for a good hunt, which is all a wingshooter can ever ask for, especially on a historically wet opening day in some areas of the Red River Valley.
Lillis — whose group will be joined this Labor Day weekend by longtime dove hunter Doug Rodgers of Whitesboro — will head back to the region this weekend, hoping to find even better shooting. To make things more interesting, the group has pledged to hunt only with .410 shotguns. Something tells me that the doves in the region northeast of Vernon, Texas are still in trouble.
When I asked Lillis for more details about his hunt, he said that they saw plenty of white-winged doves, with the bigger and slower birds making up about "30 to 40%" of their bag limits. He also said that despite hunting in a pasture setting with scattered clumps of dove weed, most of the doves they cleaned had leftover wheat and small kernels of corn in their craws.
Also hunting in rain-plagued south-central Oklahoma this week were the opening day hunters guided by Dakota Stowers’ North Texas Outfitters guide service (www.northtexasoutfitters.com; 903-815-9842). Weather concerns aside, it was a memorable opening day.
"Man, opening day was crazy with all of that stormy, wet weather," said Stowers. "But we still managed to kill 227 birds with the 20 guys we had out. I think it was something like an 11-bird average per hunter."
Stowers said that despite the opening day shooting action, not to mention the rainfall that can often scramble dove concentrations, the region he hunts is still loaded up with birds, many of them whitewings.
That bodes well for this weekend’s hunting prospects, the three-day Labor Day holiday weekend that will serve as something of Opening Day 2.0 for hunters across the Red River Valley.
"This weekend is looking great," said Stowers. "We still have a ton of whitewings out here and we’ve got over 100 people coming for our Saturday hunts. It should be a great day of shooting because we’ve still got a ton of doves flying around right now."
What can local hunters do to find good shooting as the weather and hunting pressure begin to scramble early season bird numbers and locations?
First, know that when heavy clumps of mud are clinging to your hunting boots, the usually tried and true method of hunting an evening waterhole is probably a lost cause.
That being said, doves still have to water each day, so if you happen to see birds flying into a water source — from a cattle tank to a patch of ground water in a pasture loaded up with sunflowers and dove weed — don’t overlook such wet spots. Also keep in mind that the further west you go in Texas and Oklahoma, the less rainfall there was, so it’s conceivable that there might still be some decent waterhole shooting somewhere.
Second, focus on the food. Milo — which is what Stowers’ bunch was targeting — is probably the best bet if it’s around. If not, areas near old wheat fields or harvested corn fields can work right now as Lillis mentioned above. And as the month of September deepens and stale birds move out and new birds push in, expect the food sources to shift towards natural seed-bearing plants.
Third, don’t overlook the prospect of hunting a flyway where doves are zipping back and forth from roosting and loafing areas to spots where they’ll feed. That’s the way that Lillis and his friends were targeting doves on Tuesday, anchoring themselves in a zone where there was plenty of aerial traffic passing through.
Finally, get out and hunt this weekend if you can since there are still lots of native birds around in certain areas. As hunting pressure mounts and a strong cold front arrives next week, things will begin to change as the migration begins in earnest and hunters wait for the arrival of so-called "Kansas doves."
Get out, have plenty of shells in your vest, and plan on enjoying some of the most fun wingshooting action that a hunter can experience as the fall dove season kicks into high gear.
As long as there aren’t any lightning bolts dancing around, that is.