Stay safe as dove season opens
A week from now sunflower fields in southern Wisconsin will echo with the sound of gunfire as we welcome another dove season.
The best hunting opportunities will be on private lands where landowners have the luxury of meticulous choices in things such as field maintenance and hunter access.
The Wisconsin DNR has 18 fields managed to attract doves in Rock, Dane and Green counties. The fields average 6 acres in size. These fields were planted with sunflower seeds the DNR received free of charge.
Unfortunately, the situation hunters face looking ahead to opening day is a classic example of getting what you pay for.
“Germination varies from 2 to 75 percent,” DNR wildlife manager Brian Buenzow said. “As a result, we have nine--maybe 10—tracts, which could be considered 'sunflower fields.' The other areas have some flowers, but a great deal of foxtail grass and other weeds.”
The DNR's policy of unlimited participation on public hunting areas will result in a matrix of frustration, success and potential danger one week from today.
“Probably our best field is near Evansville,” Buenzow said. “This will attract dozens—perhaps 50 hunters—on opening day. Put 50 hunters wearing camo clothes in a single six-acre field and a wide range of scenarios is probable.”
Safety is the most important consideration. Taking horizontal shots at doves landing or taking off has great potential for injuring more than gamebirds.
“Last year we had several instances of hunters with pellets under their skin caused by low shots taken by other hunters, “ Buenzow said. “ I wouldn't consider coming within a half-mile of any public dove field without wearing safety glasses and a blaze orange hat.”
Blaze orange clothing and safety glasses are not required on DNR-managed dove properties. Unlike most other game animals, doves can see color. Camo duds are an advantage for having doves come into range. Unfortunately, a camo hat does not scream "danger" to a hunter swinging his gun on game the way blaze orange does.
Dove hunting is one case where the DNR could benefit by following the template for successful dove area management, which has been in effect down in Illinois for decades.
Dove hunting is so popular in Illinois that wildlife managers on both state and federal properties have gone to limiting hunter participation and shooting hours on opening weekend.
Wisconsin shooting hours for doves are one-half hour before sunrise to sunset.
Placing numbered stakes and requiring a controlled number of hunters to remain close to stakes that are determined by lottery creates a safer and more productive hunting environment.
Limiting shooting hours allows birds to work back into an area after being shot at, thus extending productive hunting from a day or two to several weeks.
Law enforcement will have a substantial presence at more popular dove fields on opening weekend. In previous years, the lion's share of citations issued by wardens on opening weekend at state dove fields has been for failure to use nontoxic shot, hunting with an unplugged gun and littering.
Doves are tough targets. It takes the average hunter two boxes of shotgun shells to bag a 15-bird limit of doves. Hunters who leave empty shell casings and boxes in the field can count on getting a ticket.
Being in the field to kick off another hunting season is a part of our rich Wisconsin outdoors heritage. Wild horses couldn't keep most of us from at least making a ceremonial attempt.
More seasoned hunters know more serious potential for a successful hunt will come with the first true cold front of fall in a couple of weeks. Marginal fields where sunflowers are outnumbered by weeds may hold the potential for some great shooting.
Cashing in on a potential dove bonanza will require both time and legwork—just another twist of getting what you pay for.
Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at email@example.com.