Researchers estimate between 20 and 30 per cent of mourning doves shot go unretrieved. That’s way too high. We needn’t lose that many. Last year I was randomly chosen by the Fish and Wildlife Service to record the number of birds I bagged and the number that hit the ground that I did not retrieve. By that measure, my crippling rate was about 2 ½ per cent. Including doves I hit hard that kept flying (some of which may recover), my rate was an 8-9 per cent loss, which I think is too high, as I hate losing birds, but it’s a lot better than 20 to 30 percent.
Of course, the best way not to lose doves is to bring a retriever. I tried that a time or two last fall but my shorthair, Jed, hates sitting still and likes to bite doves. It was not a successful experiment, although Jed did find one bird for me that fell in long grass. All the rest of my birds I found by myself. Here’s how:
1) Shoot the right choke and load. Dove hunting is new to us here in Iowa, and sometimes you run into duck hunters shooting steel 3s from Patternmaster chokes. I put an Improved Cylinder choke in my 12 gauge (although Skeet might be better since most of my shots are inside 20) and shoot an ounce of steel 6 or 7 or an ounce of lead 7 1/2s.
2) Shoot birds in range. The more I hunt doves, the more I like close shots. Sure, it’s fun to drop doves at long distances, but it’s not fun to look for them while other doves fly over your head. Occasionally I’ll stretch the gun a little, but I try never to shoot past 30 yards.
3) Think before you shoot. Think about where the dove is going to fall before you pull the trigger. Unless you have a really good retriever with you, pass up shots that drop birds into standing crops, tall grass, trees and brush. Doves are hard enough to find on bare ground sometimes.
4) Stop shooting. I prefer pumps and semiautos for doves, but I try not to empty the gun at birds I miss. Doves are a small target and don’t present much vital area when they are flying straight away from you. Once you have missed a dove twice, let it go. The third going away shot at long range will likely miss or cripple.
5) Pick up downed birds immediately. When I drop a dove, I mark the fall and go right to it without taking my eyes off the spot. I’ve got my gun with me, but it’s only for shooting the downed bird if it flies. I ignore any doves that fly over me until I pick up the one I shot.
Not losing doves is pretty simple.