Doing the Dove Dance
For places to hunt the elusive ‘Carolina pigeon,’ try North Carolina’s game-lands fields.
Public dove fields, many planted in corn, sunflowers and other grains, are scattered across the state to attract doves.
My dad and about a dozen of his friends drove to an Alamance County farm. The group’s alpha male, Lennie, was a respected timber cruiser for a local sawmill who sharpened chain saws at his cigar smoke-filled repair shop at night.
Dad and his friends often met at "Lennie’s place" every night after dinner — if they escaped their wives. From two to a half dozen trucks were parked outside while inside these guys spun yarns — some of them true — about their outdoors adventures, exploits of smarter-than-human bird dogs, wily old gobblers, big bucks, dumb relatives, crack shots they’d made and crack pots in Raleigh and Washington, D.C.
Lennie lived near town, but luckily for the brotherhood of sportsmen, his kinfolk were farmers and corn was a favorite crop, raised for livestock, chicken feed and to sell.
When the four or five mud-splattered pickup trucks drove to a cornfield that September day, the men were amazed at the hundreds of mourning doves perched on four wires sagging between telephone poles and across eight rows of standing corn, probably wondering why men had surrounded their favorite feeding ground. The birds soon discovered the reason.
After the hunters disembarked, grabbed guns, dove seats, stuffed shotgun shells in their pockets and picked out spots, one of the great wing-shooting adventures ever held on North Carolina soil unfolded.
Twelve- and 16-gauge auto-loaders and side-by-sides, my little .20-gauge single-shot and a .410 double-barrel wielded by a teenage boy named Billy re-created WWII’s battle sounds that afternoon. Some of the barrels got so hot the owners had to rest them for a while as doves whizzed back and forth across that field from all directions, often falling in a puff of feathers.
When they dropped their doves into a burlap sack, the men had a final tally of 99 birds.
Then another remarkable thing happened — a sacked dove resurrected itself and tried to flutter away across the field. Four or five shotguns roared at once as the 100th bird of that hunt fell in the mangled corn stalks. Lennie’s Irish setter, Lew, trotted out and retrieved the centennial dove.
This event occurred 50 years ago, and only a few of those men remain alive to confirm the memory.
Dove hunting today is mostly different. Family farms are almost gone, and if a dove hunter wants to open the season with a Labor Day weekend excursion, more than likely he’ll face paying a goodly sum to join people he doesn’t know at some driving distance from his home to hunt fields he hopes have been well prepared for doves (and not illegally salted with wheat or corn).
And there’ll be no guarantee of 100, 50, 25, 10 or even five doves by day’s end.
But thanks to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, dove hunting — which they say draws more participants than any other species during its three-part season — doesn’t have to be expensive nor risky. That’s because Commission staffers have planted 82 dove fields on 23 of the state’s game lands that anyone possessing a basic state hunting license, game-lands permit and HIP certification card may hunt.
Don’t have a place to sharpen your rusty shooting eye after a summer of inactivity and don’t belong to a club or have a farmer relative with dove fields? There’s probably a game-lands dove field within an hour of your home where you can have some fun and perhaps introduce a son or daughter to the sport — not to mention bring home some birds.
Tommy Hughes of New Bern is supervising biologist for game lands in the eastern half of North Carolina, while Gordon Warburton is in charge of game lands from Tennessee and Georgia back to the western Piedmont, plus the Sandhills Game Land.
Commission technicians have a standard planting format for dove fields that includes browntop, Proso and German millet, plus some sunflowers and corn. Planting began in late June.
"We don’t plant as much sunflowers as we used to because the deer eat them up," said Tommy Hughes of New Bern, the biologist who supervises game lands in the eastern half of the state. "But that’s our standard plants for dove fields. If we plant sunflowers, it depends on how many deer are around. We plant some corn, too, because it leaves a good place for (dove) hunters to hide, and it’s a food source later on for bigger critters — deer."
Some of the game lands require permits to hunt doves, but most do not.
Here’s a look at game lands where N.C. sportsmen have a good chance to down a dove this fall:
Coastal Plain/Eastern Piedmont
Hughes picked the Butner-Falls of Neuse Game Land northeast of Durham as the top dove spot in his region — little wonder, too, with its 10 dove fields covering 227 acres.
"Butner is really a good place for doves," he said.
Butner’s Brickhouse Road fields — 70 acres planted in corn, buckwheat, millet and sunflowers — is likely Butner’s best section.
Nearby Jordan Lake Game Land (seven dove fields, 57 acres) south of Durham doesn’t trail Butner-Falls by much. Some of Jordan’s seasonally-flooded waterfowl impoundments are planted in food stuffs to attract doves, but hunters are restricted to steel shot when hunting doves at impoundments. Hughes rates third the 55 acres of fields at the Conoho Farms tract of Roanoke River Wetlands/National Wildlife Refuge. off NC 125 between Williamston and Hamilton, 6 miles north of Williamston.
"It’s a permit-hunting area, but not usually hard to get a dove permit," he said.
Next in line is the massive Croatan National Forest spread across Onslow, Jones and Craven counties. Two dove fields are in Jones County near the Brice’s Creek area and behind the Commission depot. With Hills Field area nearby, they cover 50 acres and require permits because of their popularity.
"The Croatan dove fields didn’t get burned up," Hughes said of June’s massive wildfire.
Hughes rated White Oak River Game Land’s fields, north of Swansboro in Onslow County at the head of the White Oak River, as his region’s No. 5 public-hunting area.
His No. 6 pick would be Holly Shelter Game Land in Pender County north of Wilmington, which is open three days a week and requires a permit.
Hughes rated Suggs Mill Pond Game land seventh; its four fields totaling 38 acres of millet, milo and sunflowers are excellent spots. Suggs Mill Pond also is a permit-only game land.
Tillery Game Land in Halifax County is relatively small but has a 25-acre dove field planted in grain sorghum, sunflowers and brown-top millet, and Hughes rated it eighth in his region.
"The first week (of dove season) we get the bulk of our hunting at game-lands fields," Hughes said, "but later in the season, another group of doves show up. A lot of people shift their focus to bigger critters then, like deer, but we do have some die-hard dove hunters who use the game lands the entire season.
"And near the end of the season, doves often show up after cold snaps."
Gordon Warburton, the biologist who supervises game lands in the western mountains and western Piedmont, had Sandhills Game Land added to his plate a couple of years ago because of personnel issues within the Commission.
Oddly enough, the 61,225-acre Sandhills Game Lands is Warburton’s top dove spot, with 222 acres on 13 fields scattered between Hoke, Moore, Richmond and Scotland counties.
"We’ve got 130 acres in Block F, plus 50 on the field-trial section and 40 acres in Block B," he said.
Uwharrie Game Lands’ 11 1/2 acres on five dove fields are scattered across the Burkhead Mountain Range in Davidson, Montgomery and Randolph counties.
"We don’t have many dove fields at Uwharrie, but they’re used," Warburton said. "We lost a dove field because of a (hiking) trail."
Some of the best public dove lands in the west are permit hunts, he said.
"Johns River near Morganton has a good field," Warburton said, describing an 18-acre field off Johns River Loop Road that is planted in millet, sunflowers and corn. It’s one of only a few game-lands dove fields in the west and requires a permit to hunt.
South Mountains Game Land south of Morganton has two dove fields off Western Avenue, with 19 acres planted in corn and 11 acres in millet, grain sorghum, sunflowers and wheat. Parking areas adjoin each field.
Warburton also praised Sandy Mush Game Land’s dove fields near Asheville. Again, with limited public lands available, this hunt is permit-only for the first four days of the season. This game land has seven dove fields.
"We have a youth hunt we started last year that’s proved very popular," Warburton said. "It’s at the Mountain Research Station at Waynesville. We have only 24 slots open — one adult with one youth — but they do an instructional session and feed lunch to the kids and adults. It filled up last year."
The problem for game-lands managers and the public is the unpredictability of birds arriving at specific fields.
"We don’t get many complaints, but I’ve gotten calls from people saying there weren’t any doves (where) they hunted," Warburton said. "I’ve been at fields and seen 200 to 300 doves one or two days, then none the next. They just pick up and leave.
"People need to remember doves are migratory birds."
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