Dove hunting in SCDNR’s public WMA fields
By Ford Walpole
Early fall dove shoots are a great way to introduce new hunters to the sporting life in the outdoors. Sam Chappelear, the assistant chief of wildlife for regions two and four, has worked for South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) for more than 30 years. He discusses the appeal of dove hunting: “Dove hunting can be a social event that can involve the whole family, especially kids. You do not have to be quiet, it is not freezing cold, you do not have to sit still and you can bring your dog especially if it will pick up harvested doves for you.”
Chappelear grew up hunting doves on the family farm. He still likes to participate in a good dove shoot, but admits: “I get as much enjoyment watching hunters (especially kids) going out onto our public dove fields and having a positive experience in the outdoors. Whether the youth is actually hunting or just pretending with a toy gun, seeing kids outside and not in front of the TV or cell phone is rewarding!”
He explains the procedures prior to a dove hunt on a wildlife management area (WMA). Before hunters enter the field, SCDNR staff discuss hunter safety. “We strongly encourage hunters to be safe and not shoot low birds.” In addition, “biologists provide hunters with instructions so that we can collect necessary data and collect wings as hunters leave the hunt. Game wardens typically check hunters in the field to ensure they are properly licensed, have a legal number of shells, are not littering, and have no alcohol. Both biologists and game wardens monitor field activities, interact with hunters and kids, and answer any questions.”
Popular public dove fields do get crowded, especially on opening day. “One way we try to alleviate the crowding is to limit shells that a hunter can bring with them onto the field (50 shell limit). Sometimes, this helps with ‘sky-busting,’ hunters focus on taking better shots since they have a limited number of shells. Once you get a limit of doves or run out of shells, you leave the field, and that spot opens up for someone else,” Chappelear notes.
SCDNR’s behind-the-scenes efforts allow fruitful harvests on public dove fields. Chappelear outlines the process: “The dedicated staff of SCDNR make these dove fields so successful. They work really hard to be the best and provide a quality experience for the public hunter. A SCDNR public dove field is almost a year-round project for staff. Most SCDNR dove fields are intensively managed from start to finish. A variety of crops are planted at various times to ensure crop success,” he says.
“Every facet that we have control over we try to implement. From seed types to taking soil samples and putting down correct amounts of lime and fertilizer, to proper timing of herbicide application, cultivation, crop manipulation and preventing depredation from deer, birds, etc. Planting a dove field in this manner is extremely costly and has been somewhat challenging this past season with the increased cost in everything, along with the supply chain delays.”
Chappelear outlines the timeline of SCDNR’s tasks: “Staff begin preparing their dove fields about a year in advance in many cases. This fall/winter, they will plant winter wheat, which will provide food for doves early next summer before any of the other crops planted for doves are ready. Once the wheat is mature and hunting season nears, strips of the wheat may be mowed and/or burned to make the wheat seed more accessible to the doves.
“Sunflowers are usually planted as early as March and as late as May. Multiple crops like sunflowers are encouraged at various times in the spring so as to have some sunflowers maturing before the season opens as well as having them mature throughout the season,” he says. “Corn is also planted in early spring to provide food for dove season, especially late in the season. Both of these crops are treated with herbicide to prevent weeds and grasses from growing within the rows. Depending on the conditions both a pre-emergent and/or a post emergent can be used to combat non-desirable vegetation.
“Millet can be planted in the remaining areas of the field in June to provide for food in approximately 60 days,” he adds. “Once mature, the millet can be mowed to make seed accessible to the doves. Having a variety of crops planted can be beneficial in the event one crop fails due to weather conditions, insect infestation, wind damage, or depredation from blackbirds. It also provides food for doves for a longer period of time and can last the entire dove season into January.”
SCDNR employees work to attract doves to WMA fields: “Doves do not like a grassy, weedy field. They like clean, weed-free
ground so they can easily find and eat seeds. They like fresh seeds to be available and will not eat seeds that have been rained on and have begun to sprout.” Chappelear tells us that such ideal conditions may be created by “disking strips adjacent to food sources (corn, sunflowers, millet) then mowing a strip of the crop that is adjacent to the disked strip. This provides clean ground for doves to access the seed. You can disk a strip next to a millet patch, mow down the millet, and with a hay rake, spread the millet across the disked strip, leaving millet seed in the clean disked area for doves to feed on.”
Sam Chappelear offers the following sage advice to those new to the sport of dove hunting: “Find a mentor to take you dove hunting. If you have the opportunity to practice shooting skeet then do so. Become familiar and safe with your firearm before going to a dove shoot. SCDNR has some fields that are adult/youth only where you must have a youth accompany you on the hunt. Both the adult and youth can shoot on these selected fields. These fields typically are less crowded. And, don’t expect to hit every dove you shoot at!”
WMA fields are not all open every Saturday during the season, so it is important to check for open fields before heading out. SCDNR “rotates the fields so as to give the doves a break and a chance to build up again before the next hunt. Remember, there can be as many as 100-400 hunters on these fields on a single hunt, so that equals a lot of harvested doves (anywhere from 200 to over 1,000 birds from a set of fields on one hunt). Most private fields hunt far fewer hunters at a time and therefore kill fewer doves per hunt, so they can afford to hunt multiple Saturdays in a row.”For information concerning SCDNR WMA public dove fields and dates of open hunts, check out https://www.eregulations.com/southcarolina/hunting/wma-public-dove-fields.