Dove Season: Best Two Weeks of the Year


Holly A. Heyser

Everything about dove hunting is ephemeral. It is a zephyr of a season, lasting just two weeks. Yet in that short span we rekindle friendships, some of which exist only in dove season. We recapture our lost humility: Doves are among the hardest targets to shoot, even with a shotgun —making all that summertime practice seem as if it never happened. And finally, once we manage to shoot a few, we remember just how wonderful it is to dive into a big plate of doves.

Then, in a flash, it's gone. Our focus shifts back to deer, and then on to quail, pheasants, and ducks. Those early mornings and late afternoons we spent standing in farm fields, scanning the sky, fade to memory.

So we live in the moment. Holly and I have been hunting doves relentlessly since the season opened September 1. We know our window is small, and that one good cold snap could start the great dove migration that happens at this point every autumn; we're expected to get such a cold front Tuesday. After that migration, it's slim pickin's.

Doves can fly up to 60 miles per hour, faster than any duck, and can, as I found out, turn on a dime.

There are two kinds of dove hunts, and I happened to have had both on Opening Day. The first kind of dove hunt is a true hunt—it is a search for a place where lots of doves happen to live, or at least fly over en route to water, grain (doves love safflower and sunflower seeds above all else), or a big ol' dead tree, which is their favorite roost. It is a search conducted on public land, or on land owned by a friendly farmer who says something about having seen doves around in recent days.

Such was the hunt that my friends Kevin and Josh and I went on. Kevin had found the place—90 miles south, down in Modesto—and it seemed a likely spot to find a good flight of doves. We awoke before 4 a.m. full of hope; I was certain I'd at least get a half-dozen. With a daily limit of 10 doves, I thought I was being conservative. Apparently not. After hours of tromping around, we saw maybe a total of six doves the whole morning, and shot none. Skunked. Sigh.

Fortunately I was invited to the other sort of dove hunt that evening. This is a "hunt" that's really more of a "shoot" because the farmer is (A) growing safflower or some other grain crop, ensuring the presence of doves, and (B) there is both ample tree cover and water nearby. This farmer had it all scoped out. About 15 of us stood in a line and waited for the doves to arrive.

We did not wait long. The shooting was furious, and we all learned why it takes an average hunter between five and eight shells to kill one dove. Doves are fast, and their aerobatics are bested only by their larger cousin, the pigeon. I had one dead to rights when it saw me—and reversed its direction instantaneously, in mid-air. All I could do was laugh.


Holly A. Heyser

What is it like, hunting doves? You wear camo, or at least clothing in browns and greens, and stand near something like a tree, a bush, or a row of grapevines—the idea is to remain just hidden enough so that a speeding dove might not see you until he's in range.

Sometimes the birds fly in a consistent direction. Most often they do not. There's a lot of, "Holy shit! That one came from right behind me!" or, "To your left!" or my favorite, "It's right over your head!"

But even seeing a dove approach you from a distance doesn't guarantee anything. Doves can fly up to 60 miles per hour, faster than any duck, and can, as I found out, turn on a dime. You need to shoot somewhere in front of them to actually hit doves. They're that fast.

Most often the birds will come in flurries, punctuated by bouts of nothing. You get a little bored. Maybe you start looking at the plants all around you, or check your voicemail. That would be the time when a pair of doves whizzes by your ear, that distinctive whistling of their wings an audible "Fuck you, hunter!" as you just stand there and watch their tails recede.

At least doves die easily. It doesn't take much to bring them down, unlike pigeons, which in my opinion are the ultimate game bird—they can outfly anything else we hunt, and are far wilier than most other birds. Pigeons also can take an enormous amount of punishment before they go down. Doves, on the other hand, expire if you think undue thoughts in their direction.

At the end of opening day, I shot seven doves and came home with 10, thanks to a fellow hunter who did not feel like plucking that night. Several other guys limited out, and we most definitely had the makings of a dove feast.

NEXT: Hank explains several techniques for preparing doves (or any game birds), recipes included

Presented by

Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.

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