Dove hunting opener shaping up as the best in several years
By JIM MATTHEWS
Avid dove hunters watch the weather radar maps in late August as a gauge of whether or not big monsoon storms are going to sweep up out of the south and wash out the dove opener on September 1st. It is as much a ritual as the hunting itself. For three out of the past five years, tropical storms hammered the Imperial Valley and lower Colorado River just before the opener – the two most popular dove hunting areas in the region. Two of those years, the hunting was dismal, and the third it was still pretty fair because the storms were isolated and not intense. In the non-storm years, the hunting was exceptional.
So we watch the radar and hope for the best.
As of today, it looks like it may be one of those exceptional seasons. The few storms we’ve had have generally been mild in the popular areas and no monster storms are currently forecast for the region. If you add into the equation that the public hunting areas are in better shape with more feed crops that in the past several years, the stage is set for a banner opener.
What follows is a forecast for the public hunting areas by region:
IMPERIAL VALLEY: Leon Lessica, head of Desert Wildlife Unlimited (www.desertwildlifeunlimited.org) and the ramrod behind the public fields in the Imperial Valley, said there were good concentrations of birds on most of the DWU fields. He said he saw from 1,500 to 2,000 whitewings on just one field less than two weeks ago, and it doesn’t look like many of them have left.
“We’ve got the same fields as last year only they are a heck of a lot better,” said Lessica. “These are the best grain crops we’ve had in seven years, and we started flailing parts of the fields early in August. They all will be in good shape by the opener.”
Lessica said wheat was the primary forage crop planted this year, but that a lot of safflower also came up with the wheat from previous year’s plantings.
Mendel Woodland, operator of Woodland’s Hunt Club (whuntclub.com) which has been offering private land dove hunts the past two seasons in the Imperial Valley, said his feedlots and fields didn’t have quite as many dove as last year, but he said that wasn’t due to fewer birds in the valley.
“There were wheat fields all over the Imperial Valley this year, and they’ve all been harvested and burned within the last couple of weeks. Last year we had a lot of birds on our fields, but this year they are scattered all over the region. The birds are thick in those fields – they must love that popped wheat. While this isn’t as good for us, it’s great for the unattached hunter who comes down here,” said Woodland.
In addition to the DWU fields, several fields on the Wister Unit and Finney-Ramer units of the Imperial Wildlife Area have been planted in grain crops this year, according to Scott Sewell, manager of the wildlife area.
Sewell said fields 513a, 312a, 115a, the south end of Y14, U10a, and the south end of S20 have all been planted and will be open to dove hunters. All are also holding a lot of birds and should be as good as the DWU fields. He also said that on Finney-Ramer, the Game Farm Field and Field 138 were planted and are excellent. The Wheat Field had limited planting, and it is not as good as previous years. None of these fields were planted last year, and this is a welcome return to some of the most popular fields in the valley. Hunters are reminded they must shoot non-lead ammunition on the Wister and Finney-Ramer fields this season, but lead is still allowed on the DWU fields.
Maps to the DWU and DFW fields are available from the Wister Unit headquarters and throughout the Imperial Valley at local businesses that roll out the welcome mat for hunters.
“The fields on Wister are plugged with doves and should be very good to hunt,” said Sewell.
BLYTHE REGION: The Palo Verde Ecological Reserve (PVER) should be very good for the opener, especially the wheat fields on the north end of the wildlife area off Second Avenue. Like in the Imperial Valley, there was a lot of wheat planted in the Blythe and Palo Verde region this year, giving the birds lots of places to feed, according to David Baker with the DFW in Blythe. Baker said that 90 percent of those fields have been turned now and that the birds are concentrating on areas still holding lots of grain — like the north PVER fields. As with the Wister and Finney-Ramer, hunters are required to use non-lead ammunition on PVER this season.
The YellowMart in Blythe had limited upland steel loads in 12 gauge and 20 gauge (but the supply had dwindled to about 10 cases, total). It would be wise to bring steel with you if you plan to hunt PVER or Cibola. The YellowMart also has good maps available of the fields on PVER.
South of Blythe and across the river on the Arizona side of the river, there are two public hunting areas that generally get a little less hunting pressure (while still busy) than the fields on the California side of the river.
The first is the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge which has dove hunting on its “goose fields” in Farm Unit II and on Farm Unit III located on the Island Unit of the refuge. The goose fields generally have some grass and grain crops along with lots of sunflowers that always attract good numbers of whitewing doves. The Island Unit area is mostly a roost-perching area with dispersed patches of sunflowers and other feed.
The second spot in Arizona is the Cibola Valley Conservation and Wildlife Area. This ground is being restored to native riparian and desert habitat along the river corridor. Most of the planting has been cottonwood, and is providing excellent dove roosting areas. But more importantly, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has been contracting to have at least one field planted in wheat for dove each season. This year this field is located just north of Baseline Road along the river levy. The YellowMart in Blythe should also have maps that show this area.
WESTERN RIVER COUNTY: The San Jacinto Wildlife Area looks much better than recent season. The hunting at this popular wildlife area was terrible last season at less than a 1/4-bird per hunter for opening day. It hasn’t been much better than that for several previous years, either. But there’s good news.
“There’s going to be a lot more dove than last year, but it’s still not going to be great like in the old days,” said Tom Trakes, area DFW supervisor on the area.
The SJWA staff has planted a lot more fields this season and encouraged more sunflower with light upland field flooding, and I happen to think that Trakes is being a little cautious in his assessment because he doesn’t want another year of disappointed hunters.
Most of the planting was milo this year and the plants have seeded out nicely (unlike last year, when nothing came to seed). Trakes said they started knocking down some of this grain late last week, and they been knocking down more this week. They have also mowed a lot of the sunflower fields (especially off Bridge Street) to help attract even more doves onto the area. It actually looks pretty decent.
In one breath Trakes will say he’s worried that it won’t be very good, and then in the next he’ll say, “Conditions are pretty awesome. There are some spots out there where I’ve seen more doves than in many, many, many years.”
Trakes said they will have maps at the hunter check-in station on Davis Road (which will be open at 4 a.m.) to help direct hunters to good spots. He’s also posted this year’s dove map on the area’s Facebook page. He also wanted to remind hunters that they must shoot non-lead ammunition this year at San Jacinto.
NORTHERN SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY: Hunters will also have to use non-lead ammunition at the Camp Cady Wildlife Area. Thanks to volunteers from Quail Forever, Camp Cady has been planted with mixed grain crops in two fields on the west side of Harvard Road (south of Interstate 15). There are also a couple of smaller fields just west of the area headquarters.
The crops were just heading up and the area was holding a fair number of birds and should provide decent shooting on these fields, but Cady might actually shoot better late in the first season or during the second season when there is more grain on the ground.
All of these areas covered are public hunting locations, but dove hunters have access to dove hunting on public lands from Bishop to Bakersfield to Baker to the border with Mexico. A lot of sportsmen focus their hunting around desert water holes, stock tanks, springs, or guzzlers on public lands. Those dove hunters are reminded that you cannot stay within 200 yards of any small water source like a spring or guzzler for more than a half-hour.
[Editor’s Note: Hunters are encouraged to send their reports and photos from their opening day dove hunts to Jim Matthews via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. There will be a follow-up report next week.]