By Clair Rees
It was a typical Utah dove hunt. Jack Nelson and I left home at dawn, headed to the nearby desert. Forty minutes later, I was driving over a gravel road through endless miles of sagebrush.
"Think we'll find any birds?" Jack asked. "Haven't spotted one yet."
"I hope so, " I said. "Weather looks good today, but the rain we had could've pushed them. Maybe we'll get a shot at birds moving down from Idaho."
Unlike the warm Southern states doves love to hang around, Utah offers only a short stop along their migratory path. If September weather is toasty, gunning can be equally hot. But if a cold front passes through, most birds move out ahead of it. Getting a crack at the handful of mourners still in residence means lots and lots of walking.
That's a problem for Jack, a retired journalism professor who loves to hunt and write about it. His wheelchair hasn't stopped him from keeping his freezer stocked with venison or shooting more elk than I have yet to take.
We had a simple but effective strategy. We'd find a barbed-wire fence and clip a couple of decoys to the top wire. While Jack sat, his back against tall sagebrush to break his outline, I'd circle wide and walk a quarter-mile or so away.
Hunting back toward the car, I'd try to shoot birds that flushed in range, while Jack awaited the doves I pushed toward him. Even when the blue-gray speedsters were scarce, I usually managed to put up a few stragglers.
When I'm walking miles of desert country, a heavy scattergun is the last thing I need. That day, I toted a 20-gauge Weatherby over-under, while Jack used a 20-gauge Ruger Red Label. Both wore improved-cylinder/modified choke tubes. In addition to being wonderfully light and handy, these 20-bore stackbarrels are well-balanced and come to the shoulder quickly.
You don't need massive clouds of shot to kill doves. A 20- or 28-gauge gun does very nicely. I'm not a big fan of .410 bird guns, but last year I had the chance to try Winchester's Model 9410 and Marlin's Model 410 lever-action scatterguns on desert doves.
Digesting only 2 3/4-inch shotshells, these crank-action .410s weren't in the same league as conventional shotguns throwing heavier, larger-gauge loads. Patterning the guns with 1/2-ounce loads of 7 1/2s was instructive. The fixed-choke Marlin threw 61 percent patterns. Winchester's Model 9410 sported interchangeable choke tubes. With the full-choked tube in place, it delivered snug 91 percent spreads. In both cases, patterns were evenly distributed. Eights or 9s would've created denser spreads.
By limiting shots to 30 yards or less, I took a fair number of doves with each gun. I ignored birds flitting by at longer range, where the .410 was more likely to wound than kill. The only reason to use either gun on a dove hunt is that they're so doggone fun to carry and shoot. And fun is what hunting is all about.
A proven strategy for desert doves is to stake out a water hole. These oases are few and far between in dry sagebrush country. If birds are in the neighborhood, they're sure to visit your water hole sometime during the day. The only trick is arriving early enough to beat other hunters to the spot.
One of these rare, remote water holes is approximately 75 miles from my front door. Its half-acre size provides steady shooting for two or three hunters stationed around the shoreline. Years ago, Randy Brooks, Lee Mitchell and I arrived at this remote water hole a good hour before sunup, staking our claim before a parade of disappointed latecomers showed.
Nothing much happened until 7:00, when the first pair of doves flew in to begin their day with a cool drink. As they passed overhead, I dropped one with my 20-gauge Remington 1100 autoloader, while Lee used his 12-gauge stackbarrel to take the other. It was a fine start to what proved to be a stellar day of hunting.
By lunchtime, all three of us had limited out -- a rare occurrence in the Utah desert. Randy made a once-in-a-lifetime shot with his 12-gauge Browning Superposed, dropping two birds at nearly 40 yards with a single load of 8s. By sheer luck, I photographed Randy and the doomed doves just as he pulled the trigger. Some editor still has that photo tucked away, forgotten, in his files. I'd love to get it back, but I'm not sure which magazine has it.
When you gun over water holes, shots may be taken at close or extended range. This makes modified-choked 12- or 20-gauge repeaters top choices. Stackbarreled or side-by-side doubles give you the instant choice between different chokes, which often comes in handy.
Whichever gun you use, 28- or 30-inch barrels will smooth your swing when long shots are offered. If you're like me, you may fire 30 or 40 shells to down a 10-bird limit. Two- or three-bird flights are often spaced 20 or 30 minutes (or more) apart, so cumulative recoil isn't a problem.
That's not the case when you travel to Mexico or South America for a January dove hunt. The first time I did this, I was totally unprepared for the kind of shooting I was about to experience. My first clue came when local officials paid our hotel a visit the evening before the hunt.
"The daily limit is 75 birds," they told us. "That's 25 each of pigeons, whitewing and mourning doves. Please ignore those numbers. We have so many birds, they're destroying farmers' fields. Do us a favor. Shoot all the birds you can!"
In the days ahead, we happily honored that request. I was using a Japanese SKB autoloader very similar to the Italian-made SAS shotguns that Weatherby sells today. Importing quantities of ammunition was a problem, so the 12-gauge autoloader was fed Mexican factory fodder. These were anything but clean-firing loads. At the end of the first day, my action was black with soot, but the gun still worked fine.
After being driven to the fields at mid-morning, we shooters were each assigned a pair of helpers ranging from 8 to well over 70 years old. Their job was to retrieve downed birds. They were remarkably efficient retrievers, but giggled at each easy miss.
Flight after flight of massed doves and pigeons flew into our enormous field. The hungry birds were so numerous and eager to eat, we didn't bother with decoys or camouflage. Each of us simply walked a few hundred yards, then stopped once we reached a likely spot. Our helpers carried crates of 12-gauge ammo and coolers filled with bottled water and iced colas.
When I'd walked far enough, I simply stopped. The cooler and a case of ammunition were deposited at my feet. Then my helpers retreated 20 yards away and hunkered down. Breaking open a couple of boxes of shells, I loaded my shotgun, then sat on the ammo crate. I didn't have long to wait. Two minutes later, a kamikaze flight of more than 20 doves buzzed my stand, barely missing my head. Startled, I made the beginner's mistake of not concentrating on a single target, but shooting at the entire flock. Predictably, the birds flew on unscathed, while my helpers stifled their laughter.
After that embarrassing start, I settled down and began shooting better. I didn't keep track of how many times I fired that first morning, but when we quit for the day two hours later, a gratifying number of birds lay at my feet. I couldn't help noticing the pile of expended shells seemed even larger.
We hunted "gentlemen's hours." The birds flocked to the fields, in flights, mobs and teeming droves, throughout the day. There was no need to hurry. After a leisurely breakfast, we showed up at the field each morning around 10:00. We returned to the hotel for lunch shortly following a brief siesta spent the remainder of the day pulling bass out of a nearby lake. As they say, "It's a hard life, but . . ."
If I ever needed a demonstration of how well autoloaders soak up recoil, this hunt provided it. I fired somewhere between 300 and 400 12-gauge rounds in a couple of hours each day. The tenderness I felt at the end of each session was minor at first, but grew during the week. When you shoot every day, recoil is accumulative! I hadn't yet begun flinching too badly after four days of the kind of shooting most dove hunters only dream about. But a fixed-breech gun would've pounded my shoulder to guava jelly.
My gun had a 28-inch modified-choke barrel -- the perfect combo for this kind of shooting. I purposely didn't clean the autoloader. I wanted to see how much Mexican ammo it would digest before packing up. It remained 100 percent reliable through three days of shooting (roughly 1,000 to 1,200 rounds), but by the fourth day, it'd had enough. I stripped the gun down and bathed the innards in gasoline. I know, I know -- a terrible idea! But it was the only solvent available in sufficient quantity, and I did the job outdoors. (I also kept cigarette smokers at a distance.) After drying and lightly oiling the action, the autoloader was good to go.
Long-barreled pumps and autoloaders throwing 3 1/2-inch magnum 10- and 12-gauge loads are specifically designed for hunting geese and other hardy, high-flying waterfowl. Serious turkey gunners dote on similar 12-gauge magnums sporting camouflage finishes, fiber-optic sights and shorter barrels. These specialized big-bird hunters universally favor full or extra-full chokes.
Upland gunners heading for grouse or pheasant cover usually choose much lighter, faster-handling scatterguns they can tote all day without fatigue. While 12-gauge guns are universal favorites, lighter 20- and 28-bore models are increasingly popular.
Pumps and autoloaders may be omnipresent, but the classic upland bird gun has long been an over-under or side-by-side double.
Few hunters go shopping for a dedicated dove gun. When the mourning dove season rolls around, they simply use whatever shotgun they already have at hand. With today's interchangeable choke tubes, almost any scattergun can do a decent job when Zenaidura macroura come visiting.
My idea of an ideal dove gun is a 12-, 16-, 20- or 28-gauge pump, autoloader or double. Barrel length should be 28 inches (preferred) or 26 inches if you want a particularly quick-handling gun. Unless it's all you can afford, avoid single-shot shotguns like the plague.
My first scattergun was a 12-gauge Model 37 Winchester my mother gave me one memorable Christmas. The break-top one-shooter had a 30-inch full-choked barrel (most shotguns sold in the mid-1950s were so equipped), and barely weighed 6 pounds. My friends and I all considered "low-brass" field loads for sissies, so we bought "high-brass" shotshells singly at a dime apiece.
The lightweight 12 shooting 1 1/4-ounce high-velocity loads was a painful combination. In addition to developing a healthy flinch, I had a terrible time scoring on flying game. I'd read about different ways to lead a bird, but I was so conscious of needing to do the job with my one and only load, I'd freeze up and stop my swing. The only gamebirds I managed to bring down had simply run out of luck.
The day I bought a 12-gauge Ithaca Model 37 pump was the day I began bagging doves with some regularity. The gun fit me well, wasn't as punishing to shoot, and knowing I could chamber backup loads with a flick of my wrist allowed me to relax and keep swinging that barrel.
I've killed lots of doves with that Ithaca pump, as well as with trombone-action Remingtons, Brownings, Winchesters and Mossbergs over the years. The same could be said of the lightweight Browning, Mossberg and Remington autoloaders I own. However, unless I expect the kind of barrel-burning action I've experienced in Mexico, I'm more likely to choose a 20- or 28-gauge stackbarrel when I head to the sagebrush desert in September.
Reprinted from the August 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.