It is simply Opening Day.
Any hunter in Texas knows that means Sept. 1 and doves.
For most older hunters dove used to mean mourning doves.
White-winged dove, the state’s other most common species, were an exotic species limited to the Rio Grande Valley for just two weekends of hunting in September.
A freeze in the 1950s caused a shift in agriculture from fruit orchards to crops in the region, but until the early 1980s the whitewings stayed clustered in South Texas. There were an estimated 3 to 5 million whitewings, about a quarter the size of Texas’ mourning dove population, living in the Valley.
Then the birds began to scatter to the four corners of the state. Initially they were off limits to hunters. Federal guidelines only covered whitewings in the Valley. There were no rules or regulations for them in the remainder of the state.
In the 1990s the whitewing population scales tipped and there were more of the birds nesting outside the Valley then in it. Most of those were initially found inside San Antonio and Austin, but enough were finding their way into the fields that hunters were permitted to take six a day as part of their regular daily limit.
In the mid-1990 restrictions were removed and hunters were allowed as many whitewings as they could take within the regular limit outside the Valley. There was even talk at one time of a separate limit for mourning dove and whitewings.
During the early expansion statewide the birds were still more a novelty, but as the whitewing count expanded in cities like Fort Worth, Waco and Lubbock in the last decade they suddenly had a target on them.
Hunters and outfitters learned they could set up in grain and sunflower fields within five miles or so of town, and if they had the patients to wait until the whitewings flew out for their morning feed they could sack them up.
“There are more birds than I have ever seen in my entire life, and that includes in South America, around San Antonio or anywhere,” said Evan Botsford of Lubbock-based Crooked Wing Outfitters, said of this year’s whitewing count. “We are cutting sunflowers now so it is all whitewings and some Eurasians, but the mourning doves will the fields before long.”
Botsford said the birds are coming out of Lubbock where the roost and loaf in the mature trees as they do in other towns and cities. He has followed some flocks as much as eight miles out of town. For pure mourning dove fields he currently has to go as much as 15 miles from the city limits.
Having learned how to hone in on the whitewings Texas hunters now kill about 1.5 million of the birds compared to 4 to 5 million mourning doves each fall.
For those hunters who know they are headed to a field that is predominately whitewings comes a need for change from the traditional No. 8 Texas dove load to recommended high-powered 7ﾽs or 6s.
“Since the whitewing is a larger bird than a mourning dove and a tougher bird to bring down I recommend using premium ammo, 7ﾽ shot or 6 shot,” said Chris Keller, who operates the dove hunting operation for Nooner Ranch Outfitters out of Hondo. “I tell our hunters to come with good ammo. The amount of wounded birds we see each year is staggering.”
Botsford is in agreement that the bigger the shot the better.
“I would say so. A whitewing is about a third bigger than a mourning dove and there is no question they are a tougher bird,” he explained.
Botsford added that in his area there is an additional chance that hunters in fields close to town may also encounter Eurasian doves, which are actually even larger than the whitewings.
However, he added he personally hunts whitewings with No. 8s, but notes he shoots a lot more than the average hunter. Keller added No. 8 shot in a field of whitewings should be reserved for expert shots.
“For the average shooter I would never recommend 8 shot,” Keller said. “Hunters who are regulars with us often use high brass shell as well for a little extra pop.”
Texas dove hunters continue to use 12-gauge shotguns primarily, so that would mean a minimum shot load of 1 1/8 ounce up to the 1ﾼ. Those using 20 gauges should go no lower than 1 ounce of shot.
For more information on hunting the Lubbock area, contact Botsford at (512) 217-6229 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.