The Thrill of Hunting Dove
I vividly remember dove hunting with my dad as a kid. I don’t recall my exact age, but I can see what I saw then: the tilled corn field at the Homeplace, the name given to my great-grandparents’ Central Texas property.
I can still see the golden hour sunlight while sitting on a five-gallon bucket, waiting for the birds to fly overhead. We didn’t have a dog, so I enthusiastically ran through the dirt and retrieved every dove we took home to clean and prepare for dinner.
After the hunt, feathers piled up at my feet as I tried to mimic the same techniques my dad and older stepbrother used to remove the breast meat from the beautiful brown and gray mourning doves.
Today, I’m considered an “adult-onset” hunter. In other words, I didn’t really start hunting, or understanding its importance in terms of self-sufficiency and conservation, until I was in my early 30s. Aside from a few experiences like that one at the Homeplace, I didn’t grow up hunting like so many who take part in the time-honored tradition.
For years I’d enjoyed camping, hiking and backpacking. In 2019, I wanted to add to my outdoor experience so I began hunting with a mentor. I worked hard to learn the nuances of white-tailed deer hunting — primarily patience — and was eventually fortunate enough to harvest my first big game animal.
In 2020, remembering the fun I’d had in my younger days, I decided to test my shotgun shooting skills and hit the dove fields again. I visited the range and went through a few boxes of clay pigeons to practice.
When September rolled around, my partner, Immanuel, and I found nearby public hunting lands and started dove hunting as often as possible, typically driving more than an hour after leaving work in hopes of bringing home a few birds. We soon discovered it wasn’t as easy as we thought, but we were having fun and catching some of the best September sunsets. That made it all worthwhile.
We discovered a TPWD hunter education-presented Dove 101 course followed by a hunt in Fabens, near El Paso, and we signed up immediately. We’re not ones to pass up a trip to far West Texas, and if we could learn a few things about dove hunting at the same time, we were willing to make the nine-hour road trip on short notice. Not long after, Immanuel was reaching out to family members in El Paso, inviting them to join us.
Immanuel’s uncle, Hector, said yes and was thrilled to share his first-ever hunting experience with us. He had never fired a shotgun. We helped him purchase a hunting license, made sure he had his Harvest Information Program certification and migratory bird endorsement, and walked him through his online-only hunter education course.
Earl Nottingham | TPWD
On the day of the Dove 101, we discovered most in attendance were either first-time hunters or attending with family. Three young siblings sat up front; their grandfather, sitting in the back, had brought them to learn. Two young brothers sat in the middle of the room, and then another brother and sister arrived.
Two adult hunters from San Angelo sat in the back near us. They said they’d never hunted before, even though most of their friends and family did. They wanted to gain some additional experience to join hunting parties in the future. We marveled at the diverse group — hunting can truly be for anyone, and it’s a family affair at that.
Two hunter education specialists and a game warden captain were our instructors. Randy Spradlin covered the five dove species that are legal to hunt in Texas. While mourning and white-winged doves might be the most popular species, today we’d be seeing Eurasian collared doves and rock pigeons, species that are considered “nuisance” and not protected by either federal or state law. Luckily, they are just as tasty as regulated dove species.
One of the young boys at the front of the classroom enthusiastically asked question after question.
“So, are we going to see a lot of birds?”
“We’re going to see a lot of them,” Randy assured him.
I hoped so. We’d taken a lot of shots this season compared to how many doves we brought home. For the record, the grand total up to this point was .... two.
Earl Nottingham | TPWD
We discussed how to manage land and crops for doves and how to swing through a shot. I focused hard while learning how to master this essential wing-shooting technique. After all, being able to hit a fast-flying bird that could juke, or dive, midflight is a lot different than busting an orange clay that gradually gains altitude after being launched from a thrower.
After a lunch break, the small class headed outside to take a few shots. Immanuel and I stood back to give the new shooters a chance. The kids were up first and, with the supervision of their guardians and instructors, took their shots at the orange discs.
Hector stepped up with his brand-new shotgun to take his. After a couple of misses, Randy let him borrow a spare 12-gauge with a longer barrel — that was all it took to get Hector on target. The blazing West Texas sun didn’t put a damper on anyone’s spirits, especially after getting in the swing of shouting “PULL!” and then tracing the clay through the air with the bead at the end of a shotgun barrel.
Following range time, we all caravanned to the nearby property where we’d be hunting. The landowners waved us in, and we parked among hay bales and farm equipment, all under the watchful eyes of cattle that seemed to hope we’d brought food. This property was a gem, a cattle ranch bookended by pecan plantations. Large pigeons and doves flew overhead and rested on the powerlines, fence posts and almost anywhere they could land.
Immanuel and I threw open our gear boxes and donned our waist packs, heavy with shotshells. We joined the group as game warden Capt. Ray Spears went over a few last-minute safety pointers and reminded us which birds we could harvest legally. Eurasian collared doves and pigeons are unregulated, non-native species, so there were no bag limits on how many we could take home.
Groups of hunters spread across the property. Volunteer guides were stationed with each bunch to help point out birds as they darted by and to help call “cease-fires” when birds were retrieved. Immanuel, Hector and I posted up in front of a large round bale and waited to hear when the range was hot, letting us know the hunt was on.
It wasn’t long before the first shots rang out. The three of us watched in anticipation, waiting for a group of birds to come our way. Immanuel and Hector quickly spotted a group of pigeons and grounded a couple. I followed suit, waiting for the birds to get closer, hoping not to shoot out of range of my 20 gauge or my abilities. The action was truly nonstop; hours passed without anyone realizing it.
At times, I’d take a second to look around and see how the other hunters were doing. To our left was the group of kids with their grandfather, being coached through every step. To the right, on a hillside, were the men from San Angelo. Folks in the middle carried on, some with more birds at their feet than others, but all with big smiles on their faces.
How did Hector’s first hunt go? He was like a kid in a candy store. He laughed when he missed a shot, cheered when he got one and yelled excitedly to get our attention every time birds entered his safe zone of fire.
Another El Paso game warden came out to chat with everyone. He told us he was happy to see this diverse group out hunting together and noted the long journey some of us had made to this far reach of Texas.
Sundown approached, and everyone began wrapping up thxe hunt, picking up any last birds before the work of cleaning them began. Having had some experience, I grabbed a trash bag and my game shears and got to work while Spears demonstrated how to breast a dove to the others. Immanuel and I used this technique for the smaller birds we harvested, but we plucked the larger ones.
Plucking doves can get you a few funny looks. It’s just not the way many people do it. Doves certainly don’t yield the same amount of meat as a turkey or duck. I had this recipe (from Jesse Griffiths, noted wild game chef) in my head, and “plucked, whole doves” were the first ingredient listed. We’d taken the time to drive all the way to El Paso, so I figured I might as well get the most out of my birds. A gourmet dove dinner was in our future.
Before we parted ways, Immanuel, Hector and I talked about the day. We shared our photos and our desire to do this again soon.
“We look good!” Hector said proudly when he saw a photo of the three of us in front of our dove haul. “Today was a lot of fun.”
That evening, we drove back to our hotel with a sense of satisfaction that can only come from a day spent in the field. A successful dove hunt was behind us, and our cooler now held a significant amount of fresh-from-the-sky organic goodness.
I thought about the words of my uncle, an avid outdoorsman who’s hunted everything from dove to caribou: “There’s no such thing as a bad hunt. Some days are better than others but, no matter what, you get to go for a walk in the woods.”
While we weren’t exactly in the woods, we were still outdoors, among family and new friends, and that’s what so often makes hunting such a special experience.
Top Earl Nottingham | TPWD
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