Henckel: Dove hunting starts with a bang, bang-bang
MARK HENCKEL/Gazette Staff Bernie Hildebrand of Miles City managed to get his limit of doves despite a recent shoulder operation. A pillow tucked under his right elbow helped the left-hander shoot.


MILES CITY — Dove season starts early and passes quickly in Montana. For the most part, it comes and goes with little fanfare and few participants.

With so many other upland birds, waterfowl and big game to choose from, mourning doves just aren't at the top of many hunters' to-do lists in Big Sky Country.

But for an impassioned few, however, the first few weeks of September are time to start the fall hunting season with a bang — a bang-bang — or even a bang-bang-bang.

Love those doves One of those people is Bernie Hildebrand, wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Miles City. Not even rotator cuff surgery less than a month ago on his nonshotgun-kick shoulder could keep him out of the field last week.

"Dove hunting was good," Hildebrand said. "My shoulder surgery slowed me down a little bit, but I still managed to outshoot a few others."

Even though I didn't have the handicap of an arm-supporting pillow lashed to my side to help support my gun like he had, count me among the others that Hildebrand outshot — and outshot handily.

Why the urgency to get out and hunt doves right now?

"It's a short season in Montana," Hildebrand said. "It's all about the weather. If you get cold weather, or cool, wet weather, the doves head out. They could be here today and gone tomorrow.

"A long season in Montana is the first three weeks of September. A short season could be just three days of good hunting," he added. By the time the 45-day Montana hunting season ends on Oct. 15, all but a few stragglers are long gone.

Look to the rivers Because mourning doves are such early migrants, the best hunting for them is in the southern portion of Montana with emphasis on the river valleys.

"Doves feed on a wide spectrum of stuff. They feed on a lot of different weed seeds and on grain right up to corn, but corn is a pretty big seed for them and feeding on corn is kind of rare," Hildebrand said. "Most of what we're seeing is weed seeds or wheat.

"Also, doves don't like tall vegetation. They like to land in extremely open areas. They'll land on a bare gravel bar in a river to get water. If they land in a wheat stubble field, they'll often land on the (flattened) haul roads," he said.

You can hunt doves at a watering spot, in the stubble or weedy fields where they feed or in the cottonwoods of the river bottom where they like to roost at night or loaf in the shade during the heat of the day.

But the best strategy for hunting them is to find a flight path that's heavily used in between these areas.

"Just go out in the evening and watch where they're flying," Hildebrand said. "If you hunt them in the places they feed, or water or roost, you can blow them out of there.

"If you find a place where they're going from one to the other, you can shoot and shoot and they don't change their habits. They'll come up and down the same coulee or ridge day after day and may only shift their flight a hundred yards or so," he said.

Tough targets For hunters set up in these flight paths, it's pass shooting as the birds fly by. Some will be in range. Some won't be. But there are so many doves in these spots that shooting will be off and on for several hours each morning and several more hours each evening.

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You can set up a folding chair to sit and rest in between your shots and literally shoot up a box or two of 25 shells in just a morning or evening hunt. So if you go, plan on packing along plenty of shotgun shells.

Doves are tough targets. They're fairly small. They're fast flyers. They bob and weave in flight. And if you add on a tailwind for them to ride, they're past you in a flash.

"I've read someplace that the average for hunters is one bird in five shots," Hildebrand said. "I've been under one in three shots for the season so far. I've had good days and bad days. There are some people who are good enough wing shots that they're pretty deadly — but I don't know a lot of those people."

Because doves are small and hunters need a dense shot pattern, the loads of choice are light ones with size 7-1/2 or 8 shot. Most hunters use either 12 or 20 gauge shotguns. The daily dove limit in Montana is 15 birds.

Still time left There's still time to get some dove hunting in across Montana if a hunter heads out soon and picks his spots carefully, Hildebrand said.

"In the beginning of the season, you can find doves everywhere in all types of habitat," he said. "But when you get a cool snap, they tend to suck into the river valleys.

"The micro-climate — the heat coming off the water — keeps the valleys a little warmer than the uplands. It's a 2-3-5-degree difference. That's enough to hold the birds longer," he added. "They may also migrate along the north-south rivers in the state which also holds them there."

The other thing about dove hunting, he said, is that it gets a hunter started right for the rest of the wing shooting that comes with the upland bird and waterfowl seasons that follow.

"Doves will sharpen your shooting skills," Hildebrand said. "You get in a lot of shooting at a bird that's pretty tough to hit. After this, a big old rooster pheasant looks pretty easy to hit."

Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be contacted at 657-1395 or at henckel@billingsgazette.com.