A Limit Inside a Box

If you're tired of being humiliated by a few ounces of hyperacrobatic bird, take heed of what follows.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Nothing piles up spent hulls faster than a good dove shoot. Experts, of course, like to brag about shooting a limit of doves "inside a box," taking 10 or 12 or 15 birds with 25 shots or less. On my very first dove hunt, 20 or so years ago, I easily bagged my limit inside a...case.

My shells-to-birds ratio has improved markedly since that first hunt. Yours can, too.

Ways to Miss Doves
Nationwide, hunters shoot about five shells per dove bagged. That makes four misses per bird. Here is a reason for each of those four whiffs:
1. You miss doves because you don't really look at them. Although doves are small birds, you still have to hit them in the front end to kill them. Shoot at the whole bird, and you'll eat nothing but tail feathers. Hitting a dove in the front end begins with looking hard at the bird's beak or head. Although a shot pattern may be 3 feet wide, the dense, deadly core has an uncanny tendency to strike exactly where you're looking. Locking your eyes onto the front end of the bird will help you shoot where he's going to, not where he's been. If a dove jukes, he'll do it headfirst, and your eyes will be following along.

2. You miss doves by tracking them with a mounted gun. Too many hunters treat smoothbores as if they were antiaircraft weapons -- mounting the gun, aiming down the rib, and tracking the bird as it comes into range. The longer you track a dove and the more carefully you measure your lead, the greater the chance you'll slow or stop your swing.

Perhaps this has happened to you: You're in the dove field, ankle-deep in smoking hulls as you miss "easy" shots; then, a dove takes you by surprise. With no time to aim or measure, you whip the gun past it almost unconsciously and make a perfect hit. Congratulations; that's how you're supposed to shoot doves every time.

Here's what you need to do: Begin moving the gun slowly as the dove approaches. Concentrate on the front of the target; follow the bird with the muzzles as you bring the stock to your face. Accelerate the gun to catch the bird and pass it. Shoot when you see a crack of daylight between the dove and the blur of the muzzle. Nice shot.

3. You miss doves because you scare them. Doves see movement very well. Leaping to your feet as a dove comes into range is sure to make it flare, radically increasing the degree of difficulty on the shot.

A dove that never knows you're there is much, much easier to shoot than a bird taking full evasive action. Don't silhouette yourself. Stand in the shadow of a tree. Sit or kneel by a fenceline. Sometimes, if there's no available cover, you have to improvise. Last September in Ohio, my friend Chris Paradise and I lay flat on our backs in a field of corn stubble, invisible to unsuspecting doves until we sat up to shoot.

4. You miss incoming doves by taking them straight overhead. If you wait until an incoming dove is directly overhead and then lurch back to try an awkward, vertical poke, you've made an easy shot very difficult. Shoot incomers the easy way; try to kill the dove so it falls in front of your stool. A bird coming at you requires less lead than a bird flying straight overhead at a 90-degree angle. All you have to do to hit an incomer is raise the gun along the dove's line of flight, blot it out with the barrels, and shoot. As a bonus, the bird will fall where you can easily mark it down; it's almost as easy to miss dead doves on the ground when you're retrieving them as it is to miss live ones on the wing.

** Dove Guns and Loads**
While being properly gunned, choked, and loaded for doves can't make up for poor shooting, the right gear always helps. Start with eye and ear protection. Shooting glasses provide cheap insurance against the unlikely but ever present possibility of a stray pellet in the eye. Wear earplugs. Much of what we perceive as "kick" is actually noise. Pgs improve your shooting by lowering the flinch factor. Much more important, they protect your hearing. While my ego recovered from that "inside a case" hunt years ago, my unprotected right ear has never stopped buzzing. Now to guns and loads.

** Gauge**
Any gauge you enjoy shooting is fine for the dove field, as long as you understand its limitations. Under some circumstances, such as close-range waterhole shooting, even a .410 can be (almost) enough.

Moving up from the .410 we come to the 28, a wonderfully effective, light-kicking gauge. At medium ranges, 28s kill as well as 20s with noticeably less recoil. They are, however, not cheap to shoot, nor are steel loads available for them. For most of us, the choice of a dove gauge boils down to 12, 16, or 20.

In the field, there's little to choose among the three. All handle 7/8 to 11/8 ounces of shot well; all kill doves cleanly. I give the 12-gauge a slight edge: It offers the widest choice of ammunition; it can shoot the same amount of shot as the 16 or 20 at higher velocities; and ounce for ounce, 12-gauge ammunition costs less. There are places in the world where people make fun of you for showing up at a dove field with a 12-gauge "cannon." Ignore them, as I do.

** Dove Guns**
A long, light gun is the easiest smoothbore to hit doves with. Light weight lets you react quickly to a dove's in-flight gyrations, while the extra length adds some mass up front to smooth your swing. Gas autos provide the real advantage of recoil reduction; a 15-bird limit times five shells per bird equals 75 shots fired through no more padding than a T-shirt.

My prescription for a dove gun? A 20-gauge or light (63/4- to 71/4-pound) 12-gauge auto with a 28-inch barrel. Beretta's Model 391 Urika or Browning's Gold fill the bill perfectly. Although Benelli autos don't boast quite the recoil reduction of gas guns, they've developed an enviable reputation in South American dove fields (where shooters run hundreds of rounds through a gun every day) for never jamming.

For a dove double, I'd be tempted to shoot a 20-gauge Sporting Clays gun, something with long barrels and a little heft to soak up recoil.

** Chokes and Loads**
On still September days when doves flutter in to join your decoys, Skeet choke and 9s make a good combination; late in the year when the wind blows, Full and 71¿¿2s are more appropriate.

Most conditions for dove hunting fall between these two extremes. For all-around doving, I'd choose a Light Modified choke, or even Improved Cylinder in a 12-gauge. With smaller gauges, you'll need more choke to compensate for fewer pellets in the load. No. 8 shot is hard to beat as a general-purpose dove pellet, although some hunters prefer larger 71/2s despite their lower pellet count (about 350 pellets per ounce compared to 410 pellets in an ounce of 8s). The larger pellets drive on through a dove's breast and therefore don't bust as many teeth at the dinner table.

Dove loads, a.k.a. promotional loads, sell in mass quantities at discount stores. These cheap shells account for more doves each year than any others. They will continue to do so, no matter what I write about them; however, if you'd like to move up in quality, try target shells, which are loaded with round, hard shot and print superior patterns. Stick with an ounce or 11/8 ounces of shot in 12-gauge and 7/8 ounce in a 20; shooting more lead will only punish you with extra recoil.

Since high-velocity loads require shorter leads, many hunters find extra speed makes hitting doves easier. Try international target loads, which have lots of zip at 1325 fps but low recoil because they pack only 7¿¿8 ounce of shot in a 12-gauge hull.

Increasingly, dove hunters must shoot in lead-free wetlands or waterfowl production areas. In the past, hunters in nontoxic zones had to grit their teeth and burn up their leftover hard-kicking waterfowl loads. Remington now loads its 12- and 20-gauge STS target ammunition in steel 6, 61/2, and 7 shot, as well as in traditional lead sizes. Last year's introduction of budget-priced 12- and 20-gauge Xpert Steel by Winchester set a new standard in low steel-shot prices. Xpert Steel loads come in 6 and 7 shot for dove hunters. Steel 61/s and 7s perform about like lead 8 or 81aacute;2 shot; steel 6s are roughly equivalent to lead 71/2s.

Nontoxic ammo for doves may seem like "outside the box" thinking for die-hard traditionalists. Rest assured that if you shoot straight, you can kill your birds inside a box of shells, steel or lead. Case, as it were, closed. h and burn up their leftover hard-kicking waterfowl loads. Remington now loads its 12- and 20-gauge STS target ammunition in steel 6, 61/2, and 7 shot, as well as in traditional lead sizes. Last year's introduction of budget-priced 12- and 20-gauge Xpert Steel by Winchester set a new standard in low steel-shot prices. Xpert Steel loads come in 6 and 7 shot for dove hunters. Steel 61/s and 7s perform about like lead 8 or 81aacute;2 shot; steel 6s are roughly equivalent to lead 71/2s.

Nontoxic ammo for doves may seem like "outside the box" thinking for die-hard traditionalists. Rest assured that if you shoot straight, you can kill your birds inside a box of shells, steel or lead. Case, as it were, closed.