Watermelon fields are excellent food sources for doves. Seeds from melons and annual weeds are plentiful.
I grew up in one of the dove hunting hotspots of the Midwest, southeast Missouri, better known as the "Bootheel." Several counties make up this broad delta region of the Mississippi River. Vast stretches of fertile bottomland soils support an immense agricultural economy. And it is no secret that doves are thriving in this country because of intensive farming, which provides millions of acres of crop fields, as well as fallow fields with natural vegetation. Increased water sources in the form of farm ponds and reservoirs have also added to the success equation of doves.
As a kid on our farm in Mississippi County, my buddies and I would surround any soybean field and be in the dove shooting business. If I was "on" for the day, it usually didn't take long to harvest a limit of 12 doves. Some days, however, transpired into vigils, because as my Dad said, "You are trying to watch other incoming doves while you shoot at the one in front of you." That makes for a lot of misses. Regardless, our dove hunting forays provided fast-action wingshooting at its best.
Life's responsibilities took me away from my ancestral home. When I returned many years later, I discovered that dove hunting shoots took place primarily around harvested corn, soybean and wheat fields. These food sources concentrated doves in unbelievable numbers. Gunners who are "on" can fill a limit in a matter of minutes at times.
My wife, Dian, and her son Ben headed to the Bootheel with great anticipation of enjoying a fabulous dove hunt. It would be Dian and Ben's first.
Soon after we broke out of the Ozark foothills and entered the delta, I realized our dove hunt might be in jeopardy. Green fields of standing corn and soybeans stretched to the horizon. We didn't see a cut field in 40 miles. To add to our misery, we only counted two doves on electric wires in the same stretch. We had experienced a very wet spring and all crops had been planted late and none were ready for harvest.
After visiting with several farmers in Mississippi County, the dove forecast looked bleak. A cousin, Donnie Hale, farms several hundred acres in the dove rich county near my hometown of East prairie. He became my last hope. He, too, had not begun the harvest. On the other hand, he made a splendid suggestion. "I know a man who has a 40-acre watermelon patch south of town," he said. "Give him a call."
As it turned out, I had gone to high school with the melon farmer. I not only enjoyed a reunion, but an invitation to hunt the melon patch until pickers arrived around mid-morning.
Twelve-year-old Riley Colson is an experienced dove hunter far beyond his years. On this hunt he harvested 11 doves with 13 shots, enough to make any veteran dove hunter envious.
Our hunting party toured the watermelon patch the evening before we had permission for a morning hunt. As we drove through in our pickup, doves flitted up in front of the truck only a few feet away. Doves appeared plentiful. "This should be easy," Ben said. I chuckled to myself. Ben would receive his introduction to dove shooting the next morning.
From the melon fields of the San Joaquin Valley in southern California to the fields of Georgia, dove hunting is a way of life and provides millions of hunters a fast paced sport which requires excellent marksmanship." If shooting at dozens of pint-sized targets with feathers on them doing 60-mph is your idea of fun, dove hunting is for you," said Kyle DeKriek of Flyway Hunting Club near Sikeston.
"Melon fields are an excellent place to hunt doves," DeKriek continued. "Traditionally we hunt doves in sunflower fields as well as harvested wheat and corn fields. But when crops are late being harvested because of late, wet springs like the last couple of years, hunters have to turn to other food sources which attract doves. Melon fields of any type can fill the bill in such situations."
As our hunting trio toured the 40-acre watermelon field we were to hunt the next day, we discovered why doves are so attracted to this food source. It is not only the seeds of ruptured and dried up melons the birds are after. Melon fields are not clean row crops like soybeans or corn. Those crops are sprayed and cultivated to keep weed growth to a minimum. Melons are cultivated early in their growth stages, but as vines spread across the ground, cultivation becomes impossible. A wide variety of annual weeds flourish in the fields as a result. The field we hunted was littered with the tiny seeds of teaweed, smartweed, pigweed and foxtail. Doves enjoyed a virtual smorgasbord of foods all in one field.
Melon fields are also often irrigated. Puddles provide water sources for feeding doves. Too, the giant skeletons of irrigation equipment provide excellent perches for doves seeking a place to rest during feeding sprees.
We arrived at the melon farm an hour before daylight the next morning. Anticipation ran high as we readied our gear and chose our respective spots in the field. Dark shapes flitted through the gray morning sky as shooting hours approached thirty minutes before sunrise.
As if on cue, shots began to ring out on a farm one mile south of our location as soon as shooting hours began. Later, we learned that the hunters to our south were shooting over a feed lot, which held a heavy concentration of doves. A steady barrage of shots rang from the area for well over an hour.
Birds were a little late showing up at the melon field, but once they started coming in to feed, the flights were steady.
I experimented with the new Winchester Xpert Steel Shot in number 7's. I shot rather poorly until I figured out the appropriate lead. Steel is much faster than lead. I completed a limit of doves with a 4.1 shell per bird average. The national average is six shots per bird harvested and most of that is accomplished with lead shot.
Dove hunting is a social sport. Comparing notes about the day's hunt and ribbing one another about misses and blown shots is half the fun of spending the day together in a dove field.
We eagerly accepted an invitation to return the next morning, but had to leave the field by 8:00 a.m. because pickers would be arriving. Doves poured into the seed rich field giving us a target rich environment. When the bus hauling pickers arrived at 7:30 a.m., I had fired 21 shots and downed 10 birds. I felt pretty smug about my shooting.
Benton had thoroughly enjoyed his first dove hunt, but quickly calculated that dove meat cost him somewhere in the $500 per pound range. Dian said she would rather not talk about her shooting. Both agreed, however, that they wanted to return for revenge.
I had a great time ribbing Ben and Dian about my besting them, until we ran into 12-year-old Riley Colson and his dad on the way out of the field. Bashful Riley admitted to have killed 11 doves. His dad chimed in. "Riley just wasn't shooting well today with his 20-gauge pump. He shot 13 times and only took 11 birds."
"I bet they don't take that kid into account when figuring the national average for the number of shots fired per harvested dove," I said to Dian and Benton as we drove out of the field.
"We'd have to give it up from embarrassment if they did," Dian laughed.
Melon fields will definitely be a part of our dove hunting plans in the future. Millions of acres of melon fields are scattered across the south. Watermelon, honey dew melon, pumpkin, squash and cucumber fields all provide excellent dove hunting opportunities. And to add icing to the cake, many farmers shred left over crops after the harvest season is over casting tons of seeds onto bare ground, turning fields into gigantic smorgasbords for feeding doves.
If you need to find a place to dove hunt, your state conservation department's website is the best place to begin your search. You'll likely be surprised by the amount of land managed to create more opportunity for dove hunting.
Before you hit the dove fields, spend some time at your local sporting clays range. Pack a lot of shells for the hunting trip, too.