Don’t look now, but the 2017 Oklahoma dove hunting season starts tomorrow morning when wingshooters all across the Sooner State venture afield for one of the annual rites of fall.
What kind of autumn season will those dove hunters find as they hunt this year during both the Sept. 1-Oct. 31 first split and the Dec. 1-29 second split?
Good hunting in some spots, only fair shooting in other places.
That mixed-review kind of forecast comes thanks to yet another year of wet, topsy-turvy weather that has boosted habitat and dove populations across a good portion of Oklahoma while also scrambling early fall food resources and bird concentrations in some locales.
Truth be told, Oklahoma’s dove numbers – which include native mourning doves, white-winged doves moving north out of Texas, and expanding flocks of the invasive Eurasian collared doves – are usually good enough in the Sooner State that there really aren’t very many bad hunting seasons here.
And once again, that seems to be the case heading into the 2017 season.
“Overall, the population is in good shape, but given recent rainfall, hunting conditions are going to be iffy,” said Josh Richardson, the migratory bird biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, when I asked him last week what his season forecast would be.
One thing that Richardson seems certain of is that 2017 will not be a good waterhole hunting year, at least early on in the season after recent heavy rains.
“It’s going to be pretty hard to find a good waterhole when there’s a 1,000 puddles on every section of land,” he said. “I think for us, feeding fields are going to be the key to success, particularly if you can find one that has been shredded or disced down (in the final days leading up to the season).
“The problem is whether or not we get any more rain over the next (few days),” he added. “Once a lot of waste agricultural seed gets exposed, another inch of rain on it is going to cause it to either sprout or sour.”
If that were to happen at some point over the next few days – and there is at least a small chance of rainfall early next week – it could make things tough for hunters hoping to find a sizable concentrations of doves feeding in such areas.
But given rains over the last couple of months, even if it stays dry in the upcoming week, Richardson thinks that Oklahoma dove hunters may have to work a bit harder than normal in their scouting chores to get into some good dove shooting action.
For those willing to do such work, the ODWC biologist predicts that there will be plenty of doves for the state’s 20,000 or so wingshooters to target this season.
In fact, with any luck, perhaps they can come close to the 240,000 to 250,000 doves that the state’s hunters are estimated to have harvested last year.
“There are going to be plenty of birds around this year even if they are a little harder to see since they aren’t grouped up and feeding on a lot of bare ground,” said Richardson. “Still, there should be a little bit of shooting most anywhere on opening weekend even if the overall statewide hunt turns out to be a little tougher than usual this year.”
He admits that such an opening weekend forecast is unfortunate in Oklahoma, especially given this fall’s perfect storm of hunting dates that includes the Sept. 1 season opener on Friday, the Sooner State’s Sept. 2-3 Free Hunting Days over the weekend, and the Sept. 4 Labor Day holiday on Monday.
Given that collision of opening bell hunter opportunity, this could have been a memorable opening weekend between the Kansas state line and the Red River.
And perhaps it still can be, as long as a Sooner State wingshooter can find a good supply of birds – and some dry weather – somewhere in the state.
“There will still be some food around, and there will be birds that use it, but it won’t be premium like it could be if we had our standard 95- to 100-degree dry days,” said Richardson in a news release issued by ODWC earlier this week.
How can you go about finding a good spot for dove season’s opening run this weekend?
Richardson suggests that hunters spend the final hours before the season begins by driving rural roads and using their binoculars to look for birds sitting on power lines, flying up off of gravel roads, and flying into and out of feeding areas.
He also suggests that hunters be willing to knock on a few doors because this is likely to be an early dove season where hunters will want to have a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C, and well, you get the picture.
Keep in mind that the food resources that doves are likely to utilize this fall will probably be a bit different than the big agricultural fields they normally swarm into during hot and dry weather.
In fact, Richardson believes that given this year’s milder conditions, native food resources are going to be a bigger key.
“I have been telling folks for a few weeks now, find a croton patch, find some snow-on-the-mountain, find some native sunflowers, find something in addition to any agricultural fields you might hunt in a normal year,” he said.
“One thing about native plants that produce seeds at this time of the year, they are putting out that seed over an extended period of time,” Richardson added. “It’s not like a corn field or milo field that gets cut and waste grain suddenly becomes available to the dove all at once.
“For native seeds, these plants will be putting out seed for an extended period this fall. They’ll put some out now, some again in another week, some again in another two or three weeks.”
How does a hunter go about finding such native seed-bearing food resources? Richardson said that magic phrase again, by scouting.
“It’s a little bit harder to find a native patch of seed producing plants in an area with a lot of native grass pastureland,” he said. “From the road, especially with all of this rain this year, all you’re likely to see is grass.
“To find a corner of a field that has got some native sunflowers, some croton, some snow-on-the-mountain, you’re going to have to put some boots on the ground and walk until you find a patch that doves are utilizing.”
The bottom line is that recent rainy weather and scrambled populations aside, come the Sept. 1st opener tomorrow morning a half-hour before official sunrise, it’s dove season again on the north side of the Red River.
And that means that it’s time to quit watching the radar screen as Tropical Storm Harvey passes well to the east of Oklahoma because it’s finally time to go dove hunting again.
Even if you have to work a little harder than usual to bag an opening weekend limit.
Lynn Burkhead is Senior Writer for the Outdoor Channel, World Fishing Network and Sportsman Channel and lives in Denison, Texas