The lighter side of Southern wingshooting
Neurotic turkeys, elusive quail, sharp-eyed ducks - there's plenty of stressful bird hunting in Florida, but why not take it easy with a laidback, casual hunt that's as much about bonding with friends and family, as it is about bagging dinner - although that part's not so tough.
Doves -- mostly the indigenous mourning variety, interspersed with the larger, non-native Eurasian ringnecks -- offer fairly regular targets that provide plenty of sport to satisfy experienced shooters, with a reasonable level of predictability to engage beginners without frustrating them too badly.
A low-key sport, this certainly is, but it's also high on the ambiance and camaraderie. Trucks parked under oaks and pines, the ticking of gun case zippers, the rattle of shotgun shells stuffed into the pockets of camouflage jackets or field vests, the friendly banter about conditions, previous hunts, and the day's outlook -- this is the dove hunt warm-up. A similar gathering takes place once the hunt concludes with a mix of bragging on shots made and ragging on those missed.
In the common dove setup, proximity allows everyone to keep an eye on one another. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. Miss an easy shot and you're sure to catch a load of grief from your fellow hunters.
Let a set of birds pass you undetected and you can expect chides of "Wake up!" or "Put down that cell phone!"
And few dove hunters escape group outings without getting "peppered" a few times. When a hunter fires shotgun pellets into the air. Some will hit the dove, while the rest fall harmlessly to earth. When pellets drop on fellow hunter, that person has been "peppered." As long as you're not looking up without protective eyewear, the metallic rain is harmless, but it often draws indignant shouts of "Hey, watch it!"
The parties involved typically lob tongue-in-cheek jabs about who set up on the wrong side of the field and who's spooking off whose birds. Everyone else just chuckles at the exchange.
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Such moments, combined with the inherent value of passing time outdoors with the pals, provide much needed stress-relievers. It's a great way to blow off steam, recharge the batteries and bring home a tasty little dinner.
Now, about the latter -- here's a snapshot of some key points to a Florida dove hunt.
HABITAT: Dove hunters commonly lease seasonal access for agricultural fields. Fees cover the hunting rights plus any preparations the landowner makes to enhance the field's attraction for doves.
According to federal regulations, a field is considered "baited" for 10 days following complete removal of all grain, feed or salt deliberately spread to attract birds. Farmers may plant seeding crops such as millet to attract dove, but the field must be turned over at least 10 days prior to hunting.
On public lands, wild grasses and various seeding vegetation will attract doves, as will a nearby water source. Look for an open field with plenty of room for birds to spread out and feed.
Doves aren't terribly wary creatures, but they like to pause and survey their dining room before committing, so fields with perimeter power lines or tall pine trees with barren branches are most promising. Spend a few days sitting and watching and you'll garner valuable insight into the doves' flight patterns.
SHELL GAME: Shotguns -- pump action, semi-automatic or double barrel -- are best for dove hunting. Ten-gauge is the legal cap, but 12- and 20-gauge guns are most common. Experienced shooters may go with a 28-gauge, while the young hunters in training appreciate the minimal "kick" of a 410.
Shells with an ounce to an ounce and an eighth of Size 7 1/2 to Size 8 lead shot produce an effective kill range of about 25-35 yards. Pump action and semi-automatic guns must be plugged to hold no more than three shells.
DOVE REGULATIONS: Daily bag limit is 15 and possession limit is 30. Hunters need a Florida Hunting License and Florida Migratory Bird Permit (free). A Wildlife Management Area permit is required for hunting WMAs. Exemptions apply for age (under 16, 65 and older) and other criteria.
Licenses and permits can be obtained from any tax collector's office or licensed subagent or by calling (toll free) 1-888-HUNT-FLORIDA (888) 486-8356. For complete details on licenses, visit http://myfwc.com/License/LicPermit_RecreationalHF.htm.
WHEN TO SHOOT: Florida dove season has three phases, the first of which ran October 6-29. Second Phase runs Nov. 10 and ends on the 25. Third Phase will be Dec. 8 through Jan. 6, 2013. The last two phases allow hunters to shoot from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset.
The birds may sit in the trees until just before sundown during warm afternoons, but cool, cloudy conditions will bring longer periods of activity. Morning hunts usually offer the most pleasant conditions, plus the birds are less spooky than they are at day's end.
COLLECTION SERVICE: Since you're rarely shooting doves over water, retrievers are optional. However, a dog's educated nose comes in handy when you're having trouble locating the last couple of birds in waning light.
During good visibility, letting kids run out to pick up birds keeps them involved and interested. For safety, verbally or audibly alert other hunters when you send a child or a retriever into the field.
Most dove shots will be at angles of 10-11 o'clock and shooting birds on the ground is bad form.
Aim well or plan on being chastised for missing what others could have hit shooting backwards with their eyes closed in a snowstorm. When we have snowstorms, in Florida, that is.