Tis The Season


Area Dove Hunters Ready to Take Aim

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Some hunters squat in the middle of a milo field looking upward.

Others hide under a dead mesquite tree on a turn row.

Even more will just sit on a tailgate with friends - although shooting from a vehicle is illegal - as interested in another cold beverage as another flying bird.

It's dove hunting season in West Texas: The first season of the hunting year and one known as much for socializing as for downing doves. Thousands of hunters will be out in the field today, the opening day of dove season, looking to bag their limit - if they can find the birds after a lengthy drought.

''No doubt people like to hang out and dove hunt,'' said Dale Rollins, Texas Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist. ''Dove hunting is very accommodating. If you have a 30-acre field, you can put 12 hunters on there easily.''

When the hunting is good, camouflaged hunters will line a fence blasting at birds as empty shell casings pile up around their feet. When it's not, they will stare at the sky, shotguns laying across their laps as they cuss the dry weather and dearth of birds.

Gary Hicks, who works at The Outdoorsman, a San Angelo sporting goods store, has a dove hunting lease with 12 other hunters. He said he'll high-tail it after work today to get to the lease as early as possible to hunt. The land is about 16 miles from the store.

There's not much difference between a good hunt and a bad one, Hicks said. Even if the birds aren't flying, he'll still have fun hanging out with his friends, he said. Hicks scouted the field a week early to see where the birds were flying.

''You get to shoot a lot more dove hunting,'' he said. ''It's not one of those things where you shoot once and are done. And the best thing is just watching the kids hunt.''

Dove hunting is second behind whitetail deer hunting in terms of hunter popularity, Rollins said.

So what's the forecast for this year's hunt?

''Pain,'' Rollins said. ''I'm sure in places where there are some sunflowers and irrigated milo, there will be some (doves). And around town there will be some white-wing shootings. But where it was dry, it will probably be tough.''

A spring and summer of dry weather and scorching heat has desiccated most crops, spreading dove numbers thin as they fly off looking for food. That means landowners who irrigated crops and produced a bountiful yield might be overrun with the small gray birds.

Steven Hoelscher, owner of White Wings Galore Dove Hunts, is lucky enough to have prime hunting real estate just east of San Angelo. He leases about 200 acres of land, both his and that of a few other farmers.

Hoelscher doesn't hunt the entire spread every day. Hunters stake out a field or two and leave the rest idle. That way, hunters don't ''wear out their welcome'' with the birds, Hoelscher said.

He expects 250 hunters to be on his leases this weekend. He hosts a social cookout the first three evenings of dove season after the hunts are over so the hunters can enjoy themselves and meet one another.

Hoelscher's land is in the middle of a flyway, he said, and tens of thousands of birds fly back and forth across the harvested fields of milo, a type of grain. Hunters from Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth have come to hunt there, he said.

Hoelscher estimated the birds eat about 1,000 pounds of seed per day during the growing season. Landowners make more money leasing hunts than harvesting the crops, he said.

He called the white-wing population around one harvested field he leases ''astonishing.''

''Mourning dove fly by in singles or doubles,'' he said. ''White-wings run 20 or 40 to a pack. So which one do you shoot? The really smart hunter shoots the one that will land closest to you.''

Dove hunting facts

Season: Sept. 1 to Oct. 30 and Dec. 26 to Jan. 4.

The game: Mourning and white-winged doves. Mourning doves are a medium-sized, somewhat slender bird with a thin neck. White-winged doves are larger, chunky birds with a bold white wing patch, that is visible at rest.

Cost of leases: About $50 for a day lease and about $300 for a season lease.

Cost of box of shells: About $3.25.

Cost of license: Super combo licenses are $64. This includes a resident hunting and fishing license with all five state stamp endorsements. Those endorsements are for archery, freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing with a red drum tag, upland game bird and migratory game bird. Other combinations vary.

Bag limit: Daily bag limit is 12 birds total aggregate of white-winged and mourning doves. Possession limit is twice the daily bag limit. Hunters can have 24 birds in their possession but can kill only 12 per day.

Requirements: Hunter's Education Certificate.

September 1, 2006 
By MATT PHINNEY