On any dove shoot, there are always one or two participants who are the first to return from the field. What sets them apart from their fellow hunters? Of course, experience, practice and visual acuity are part of the equation, but often overlooked is the smoothness of the shooters’ movements and gun mounts. There are no unnecessary movements; they appear to simply step into the bird’s line of flight while mounting the gun to shoulder and cheek.
Pause and Pivot
These accomplished bird shots have put a lot into their shooting, and what they all have in common is how smoothly they move when they are taking a shot. From the first sight of a dove entering their airspace, they remain quiet and calm. They read the dove’s line and direction, calculate lead and angle, and then make what looks, from a distance, like a deliberate mount and movement to the bird. Everything is smooth and unhurried, and the shot is taken as the stock fits into the cheek and shoulder.
I have been told that when Wyatt Earp retired to California, a New York reporter went to write a piece on the lawman. During their conversation he said, “Mr. Earp, you must have been the fastest gun in the West!”
Earp replied, “I was never the fastest, but I was the smoothest, and smooth is steady and steady is swift!”
This is how the great shots shoot—they create time by having practiced until their shooting is nigh on perfect. When a dove enters the field, they rise to greet the bird with their gun mounted smoothly, at the same time pivoting and taking the shot without conscious thought. This often is called instinctive shooting.
The second part of the equation is that they never take their eyes off the bird and never, ever measure lead. Robert Churchill, the famous British wingshooter, was insistent that forward allowance should be an unconscious awareness of the barrels in the peripheral vision—the crux of the skill being to hard focus on the head of the bird throughout the shot.
When I teach this technique, I am often asked, “How will I know where the barrels are?” Growing up, we all rode bicycles, looking down the road to see where we were going while keeping the line of the bicycle in our peripheral vision. If you looked at the handlebars or front wheel, more often than not you would wobble or fall. In the same manner, glancing or referencing the barrels results in a flinch and a shot offline.
Most trap, skeet and sporting shotguns have wide ribs and often two beads on the barrels, all of which encourage aiming instead of pointing. For this reason, many top competitors remove the beads from their guns. Again, keep your eyes locked on the bird, with the bead and lead in your peripheral vision.
In my home state of South Carolina the mourning dove season opens September 5, and I already am being asked for tips and advice on pass-shooting doves. The season is staggered, with different opening dates, so hunters find resident birds on the opener and meet migrating birds in the September-to-October window and additional dates in November and December.
The fundamentals ingrained at the range will pay dividends in the field.
I would say that our migratory doves bear a close resemblance to English wood pigeons, though pigeons are considerably larger. They are both avian acrobats with similar feeding and migratory habits, though doves offer a great variety of wingshooting presentations.
September weather may still offer a few hot days when the birds choose to feed at first light and there is little activity until late afternoon. The doves will roost during the day, waiting for the cool afternoon or even early evening before flighting again. Wind and rain also will have an impact on the birds’ flight and feeding times.
Such is the popularity of pass-shooting doves that more shots are taken on opening day than on any other day of the year! An average 250,000 sportsmen and women will be waiting in the fields hoping to shoot their limit.
Finding Your Favorite Fields
Time on reconnaissance is seldom wasted. It is important to learn the feeding habits and flight paths of the doves where you will be shooting. It can take years to master this skill, but it might help if you have an experienced friend who can take you under his or her wing (excuse the pun). There is a lot more to this fieldcraft than just showing up with camo, a bucket and a shotgun.
As always, “prior planning prevents poor performance.” Knowledge of dove habitat and travel routes on different fields is essential to getting on or close to the birds’ flight lines. Passing over, stalling or alighting in and out of their chosen fields, doves offer a variety of challenging shots.
With proper reconnaissance, you will begin to recognize regular flyways that the doves use to access and leave fields. Try to make time for scouting not only the flight lines in a given field but also the best spots for setting up a blind to intercept the birds.
The corners and edges of a field seem to draw doves. The best locations often are found in recently harvested fields. Now think duck decoys without the cold and wet. Rotary decoys that spin, imitating the wingbeats of real doves, can entice birds into range.
Set Yourself Up!
Choose the clothing that you wear carefully. Blue jeans, a camo T-shirt and a ball cap are popular but don’t offer the best concealment. I always recommend full camo, as flight lines, weather and wind can change, requiring a move to a new position. In a well-positioned blind in full camo, you will not spook the doves too much.
A bucket with a padded, rotating seat allows you to store cartridges, water and snacks in one place and then walk to your spot in the field. Add some “power bars” and water, and at the end of the hunt you can use your bucket to carry out your limit of doves.
You also can find “backpack blinds” that double as a seat and a backpack with room for shells and decoys. Again, be sure to pack water and snacks for what can be a long, hot day.
Learn to sit still, and don’t fidget. Bobbing about on your stool and standing too early will cause doves to flare and change direction. Your fellow Guns will not be pleased—unless the doves jink in their direction.
The secret is to sit stock still, and when a bird is coming into range, turn on your seat, getting your feet in place for the shot, and then slowly and smoothly rise, pointing out the bird and mounting the gun to your shoulder and cheek in one smooth motion. By keeping still, you allow the bird to continue into range. If the first shot is successful, you can look for a second bird. However, if you “prick” a bird, it is good sportsmanship to use your second shot to finish it and not to let it fly on to die later.
Know the ranges at which you can kill cleanly. It is a good idea if you have access to a pattern board that you test your gun fit, point of impact and pattern at various ranges.
When it comes to gauges for shooting doves, I consider a 12 to be like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. In my opinion, it is too much gun. I think that the .410 bore and 28, 20 and 16 gauges all work well for doves.
Though clay targets do not fly like actual birds, they have been the best practice for wingshooting for decades. I would suggest some pass-shooting lessons on a skeet field or dove tower or on sporting clays targets that replicate dove shots.
Without a doubt, a dove tower with a wobble trap installed at a height of 60 feet offers the best practice for dove shooting. If you have multiple shooting stations around the tower like on a skeet field, this will allow practice on the variety of shots you likely will encounter. Perhaps even take a folding chair or bucket to the range, so that you can replicate rising to an approaching target. The more you practice—using the smooth, fluid motion described earlier—the better dove shot you will become.
The fundamentals ingrained at the range will pay dividends in the field. In fact, there’s no better pre-season practice for dove hunting—unless you plan a trip to Argentina when the Covid ban is lifted.
Chris Batha’s most recent book, The Instinctive Shot, can be ordered by visiting chrisbatha.com, which includes schedules of shoots and clinics with the author.