Dove hunting season opener this Friday expected to be good across whole region
By JIM MATTHEWS
The dove hunting season opener on Friday, Sept. 1, is expected to draw more than 55,000 California hunters into the field in hopes of taking home a few of the little, dark-meated gamebirds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects California hunters to bring home 800,000 or more mourning doves and another 60,000 whitewing doves during this year’s hunting season.
The vast majority of those birds will come from Southern California hunting spots, especially in the Imperial Valley and along the Colorado River in the Blythe to Palo Verde region.
Here’s the region-by-region summary with hot spots and news updates included:
DWU Fields: There are 22 public dove hunting fields in the Imperial Valley prepared by Desert Wildlife Unlimited (www.desertwildlifeunlimited.org), a volunteer organization that has prepped, planted, and irrigated grain on these private lands, using seed purchased by the Department of Fish and Wildlife with Upland Bird Stamp monies.
Leon Lesicka, head of Desert Wildlife Unlimited, has been the man behind these fields since their inception, and he said simply that “if we don’t get a big storm, it’s going to be good.” Lesicka simply said, like he does every year, there are a lot of doves. Most of the DWU fields were planted with wheat for this season, which really seems to attract and hold the birds and they are well-distributed throughout the fields.
Imperial Wildlife Area: Rick Francis, a wildlife supervisor at the Imperial Wildlife Area, which includes the Wister Unit and the Finney-Ramer Units, said the region was still holding a lot of birds but that morning temperatures were down into the low 70s for a couple of weeks before the opener and “this might send some whitewings south. On the other hand, it hasn’t rained much to have thunderstorms drive them out of the valley.”
“Overall, I think it’s going to be fair to good. If you can do some scouting before the opener, this will really help,” said Francis.
Francis said the Department of Fish and Wildlife also was able to get a number of fields planted in wheat on both Wister and Finney-Ramer this year. At Wister, field 413 East is in sunflowers this year, while W-11 B and S-20 were both planted in wheat. At Finney-Ramer, both the Wheat Field and Game Farm Field (fallow the last couple of seasons) were also planted in wheat this year.
Francis also noted that Finney-Ramer was closed to all hunting, including Eurasian doves, until September 1 this year so Euro hunters didn’t run the other birds from these fields. He also wanted to remind hunters that the closed areas on Wister were all of 114A-B, the north end of Y-14, and the campground (they are all posted, but he was just reinforcing the closure so hunters didn’t get tickets). Lastly, non-lead ammunition is required on both Wister and Finney-Ramer lands when hunting.
Francis said that hunters will see more Eurasian doves on all of the wheat fields this year, and that he was seeing all three species feeding in the wheat.
The Blythe region doesn’t look quite as good as it has for the past couple of seasons, but how could it? The hunting had been excellent the previous two years because of an abundance of wheat fields across the valley that held whitewings in the biggest numbers most hunters had ever seen.
Long-time Blythe resident and hunter, Robin Wellman said there were far fewer wheat fields in the valley this year, and that the hunting would be more normal this season.
Palo Verde Ecological Reserve: The northern end of the reserve off 2nd Avenue and adjacent to the Colorado River is always the public land shooting hotspot for the Blythe region, and this year it is mostly in wheat and holding a good volume of birds, according to DFW biologist Gerald Mulcahy.
This year the fields along 10th Avenue and between the slough just north of 10th and the DFW property boundary to the north (access of 8th Avenue) is also in wheat with a lot of volunteer milo. These fields were fallow last year. Mulcahy said a lot of birds were also using the stubble just north of 10th Avenue, and the burn area in the old slough. The slough is filled with cattails in the wet areas and trees used by the birds during the day as perch sites.
Both the north and south areas are holding a tremendous number of birds, and there were still a lot of whitewing in the area as of Tuesday this week. With less wheat planted in the Blythe/Palo Verde region this year, PVER will probably have the best shooting in the whole region.
There are two maps of this area detailing the locations of the crops and fields in this issue. Hunters are reminded that access to the northern fields is best off 2nd Avenue and then north on the dike road along the Colorado River. There is a small strip of field right along 10th Avenue, but most of the fields are north of the slough and access is off of 8th Avenue.
There is a bit of bad news for dove hunters who jump across the river to hunt in the Cibola Area south of Blythe, and it comes on two fronts. The field normally planted on the Cibola Valley Conservation and Wildlife Area was not put in this year, and alfalfa (instead of wheat) was planted on both the Island Unit and Farm Field II at the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge. Here are the details:
The Cibola National Wildlife Refuge has become an increasingly popular spot for California hunters who want to lose some of the crowds and still have good shooting. Last year, both Farm Unit II and on Farm Unit III located on the Island Unit of the refuge were planted in wheat. It was exceptional — probably the best place to hunt in the whole Blythe to Cibola region.
While there still a lot of doves in both places this year, it will be nothing like last year and hunters will have to seek out the best feeding areas on the margins of the alfalfa where there is good crops of sunflower and other volunteer seed crops.
Ryan Mones, the biologist at Cibola, said there are still lots of sunflower on the refuge which are attracting and holding a lot of doves, including a decent number of whitewings.
The best area will probably be the south end of Farm Unit II where there are still a lot of sunflowers and fallow fields with volunteer seed crops, according Courtney Shanley with the Arizona Game and Department. Shanley also delivered another bit of good news: dove hunters will be able to hunt the Island Unit until sunset this season. In the past, the Island Unit closed to hunting at 3 p.m., eliminated afternoon and evening shooting.
The Cibola Valley Conservation and Wildlife Area (CVCWA) has been a real popular “secret” spot for California hunters for a number of years, but the multi-seed crop planted last year provided just mediocre shooting, and the field wasn’t planted at all this year because of problems with water delivery.
If you decide to hunt on the Arizona side, a one-day non-resident Arizona license is just $20 per day and you also have to buy the $5 migratory bird stamp a single time. If you want an annual non-resident license, it is $160 (plus the $5). You can get non-resident licenses on-line and print them out yourself. This is kind of handy if you decide to hunt in Arizona at the last minute.
WESTERN RIVERSIDE COUNTY
San Jacinto Wildlife Area: This wildlife area is close to many Southern California hunters, and it will probably shoot better than it has for a number of years, according to Tom Trakes at San Jacinto. He expects the birds-per-hunter average to be at least double last year’s mediocre two-birds average, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if it was over four-birds-per-hunter.
A wet winter and extra plantings of food strips, fields, and lots of wild sunflowers and dove weed point to the best dove opener at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area in a long time. For Los Angeles and Orange county hunters, the San Jacinto is the nearest public land hunting spot in all of Southern California.
The other good news is that the entire wildlife area will be open for the first three days of dove season (through the weekend). This is the second year in a row this has been the case. In the past, only the upland bird hunting area was open past Sept. 1, with the waterfowl side closed.
“I think its definitely going to be more exciting this year,” said Trakes.
The big difference has been a one-two punch of more winter fields and plots planted and a wet winter that brought up the natural sunflowers and dove weed. Trakes posted a video on the San Jacinto Facebook page this week that showed over 100 doves sitting on wires above one of the many fields on the area this year.
SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY
Camp Cady Wildlife Area: For the third year in a row, the Camp Cady Wildlife Area just south of Interstate 15 east of Barstow has been planted with mixed grain crops and should be good opener. It will also likely be one of the only places that continues to shoot pretty week through the whole first half of the season, according to Bruce Kenyon of Quail Forever, who manages the area for the DFW as a volunteer.
Kenyon has been overseeing the transformation of this wildlife area, working with volunteers to get ponds repaired, water lines installed, and assuring the field is a permanent fixture. This year, the 50 acre field is in milo and millet, but it was only mowed early the week of Aug. 21.
“It takes the birds three or four weeks to find the seed, so they’ll be just starting to concentrate on the field by the opener,” said Kenyon.
He also reminded hunters this field will be reserved for juniors until noon on the second day of the season, Saturday, Sept. 2.
The good news, however, is that there is a lot of riparian habitat along the Mojave River channel and birds from a wide area around the wildlife area roost in the river bottom. There is usually good evening shooting as the birds fly up and down the riverbed and in from the south (out of the Newberry Springs area) to water and roost areas.
Hunters will also be interested in knowing that Cady volunteers banded a number of whitewing doves this year, but most of those birds have headed south.
Yuma is the dove capital of the West, if not the whole country, and for good reason: Yuma probably has the highest concentration of doves per square mile than any place in the country.
Like with California’s DWU fields, the Arizona Game and Fish Department contracts with six farmers in the greater Yuma region to raise and keep grain crops in the ground through dove season for hunters.
The state, working in conjunction with the Yuma business community, puts together a comprehensive package of material on dove hunting, including maps on where to go.
But it’s about more than just lots of birds. The entire community also opens its doors to hunters with major activities the opening day and first weekend of the dove season. Highlights include:
— Sprague’s Sports 29th Annual Big Breast Contest (the three biggest dove breasts entered win prizes valued at over $2,000 combined, and there’s no entry fee).
— The Second Annual World Championship Dove Cookoff, featuring noted hunting and wild game cooking author Hank Shaw as one of the judges.
— The annual Mike Mitchell Memorial Dove Hunter’s Barbecue at the Cocopah Bend RV and Golf Resort.
There is also a special juniors-only hunt and a Wounded Warrior shoot.
It would take an entire extra issue of Western Birds to cover all of the hunting spots and information on Yuma, but fortunately all of this information is available in great detail at these three website:
Sprague’s Sports is dove central for the Yuma region, open late the evening before the opener selling hunting licenses. The store also acts as a clearing house for information, and you can call the store at (928) 726-0022.
Editor’s Note: For a comprehensive public land dove hunting package with maps of the hunting areas, go to Jim Matthews website at www.OutdoorNewsService.com and download the special dove issue of Western Birds which is available for download now.
Indian Reservation: Tribal lands
offer a way to beat the crowds
Hunting on public lands along the Colorado River is often very crowded on opening day, but a good way to avoid a the mobs is to hunting on one of the five Indian Reservations along the river.
The reservations have turned into the unsung hotspots for dove hunting in the region because all of them require an additional hunting license costing from $30 to $80 extra per reservation.
Here is a breakdown of the five Indian tribes that offer hunting on their reservations on the Colorado River. They are listed from north to south:
FORT MOJAVE INDIAN RESERVATION: This reservation is located roughly between Bullhead City and Needles, with most of the dove hunting area on the Arizona side. The most agricultural lands are on the east side of the river, and they attract the doves.
The tribe offers hunting for dove, quail, and waterfowl, and a license for each category is $35 (cottontails and Eurasian collared doves are an additional $25 each)
The dove hunting can be very good along this stretch of the river, but it is the furthest north and doesn’t have many whitewings — and even fewer by the time the season opens Sept. 1. Most Fort Mojave reservation lands are open to hunting, but some of the agricultural fields are posted (usually irrigated row crops, for obvious reasons). The color-coded maps available through the tribe are invaluable.
Tribal hunting licenses are only available at the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe Animal Control Division office, 7500 Dike Road, Mohave Valley, AZ 86440. The office hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. You can also mail order licenses in advance by sending a copy of your driver’s license with a self-addressed, stamped envelope and a money order or cashier’s check for the correct fee.
For more information, you can call the Tribal Ranger Department at 928-330-3000.
CHEMEHUEVI TRIBE: The Chemehuevi Valley Indian Reservation sits on the west bank of Lake Havasu from just north of Black Meadow Landing upriver to the boundary of the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge (Topoc Gorge region). It is divided into north and south regions. The north area is reserved for tribal members, but the property south of the Havasu Landing Resort and Casino is open to non-Indian hunters.
There is no agriculture on this part of the reservation so all the hunting is in the desert, but there is surprisingly good pass shooting for doves in some of the bigger washes leading down to Havasu, especially each morning and evening as the birds move to and from water. There are also more and more of the big Eurasian doves in this part of the desert.
Fred Rivera is the tribe’s conservation officer who patrols for hunting, fishing, and off-road violations, and he keeps a list of all hunting license holders with him while patrolling (handy if you lose or forget your license). Rivera’s office is located in Nuwuvi Park, and license are available there, the marina boat house (adjacent to the gas pumps), or the hardware store. These are the only places you can get the tribal hunting licenses. However, you can mail-order a license in advance with a money order, and Rivera will put you on the license list.
The dove hunting license is now $40 and the quail license is also $40. You can reach the marina by calling the resort number at 760-858-4593 and punching your way through a couple of menus. If you want to chat with Fred Rivera, he’s more than happy to talk with hunters, and his number is 760-464-7457. If you want to order the license in advance, send the money order (made out to Chemehuevi Tribe) to Fred Rivera, Conservation Department, Chemehuevi Tribe, P.O. Box 1976, Havasu Lake, CA 92363. Make sure you include your phone number so he can contact you to confirm your license order.
COLORADO RIVER INDIAN TRIBES: The Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) Reservation is the largest and most popular of the five reservations along the Colorado River, and it generally has excellent hunting for doves. There is also quail, duck, and goose hunting that really doesn’t get much attention.
The reservation attracts on the order of 600 to 800 dove hunters each year. Because about 80,000 acres of the 300,000-acre reservation are in crops, you can do the math and see that’s about one hunter for each 100 acres in crops. And a lot of hunters avoid the fields here, preferring to hunt the ditches, canals, along the Colorado River itself, or where the fields meet the desert washes. When you consider that just across the river, the Palo Verde Ecological Reserve just north of Blythe is only around 1,500 acres total and that it typically has 500 hunters for opening day, you can see how it will be far less crowded on the reservation.
There are always a lot of grain, melon, and sudan fields on the reservation, and the area always holds a large number of doves — and this year is no exception.
Hunting permits, which are good for dove, quail, and waterfowl remain $75 for this season. These licenses are available at a number of locations, including the Inland Builders Supply in Blythe. The CRIT Fish and Game office is at 2100 Mutahar, Parker, AZ 85344. You can also call the office at 928-669-9285 for information on how to order the licenses in advance or other locations where they can be purchased in person.
QUECHAN TRIBE: The Fort Yuma Indian Reservation is located on the California side of the Colorado River from Winterhaven (across the Colorado from Yuma) up river to Imperial Dam and east into the desert. This is the reservation of the Quechan Tribe.
The reservation is about 55,000 acres with as many as 20,000 acres in cultivation each year. Dove license sales are only about 400 to 500 per year, offering relatively uncrowded hunting, and reports from hunters suggest this is always one of the best places to hunt along the entire Colorado River because the bulk of the agriculture is wheat, melons, and Sudan grass – all popular dove foods.
For 2017, most of the field have been plowed and are either fallow or being planted right now. Quechan warden Jarrell Brown said the part of the refuge in Arizona (known as the East Wetlands) off Pacific Avenue and the levy has a lot of birds, especially whitewings. The fallow fields where there are still stacked bales of hay with lot of doves using them.
The Quechan hunting permit is $80 annually. They are only available at the tribal Game and Fish office, 350 Picacho Road, Winterhaven, CA 92283-9769. To accommodate dove hunters, the tribal office will be open until 7 p.m. on August 31, and it will reopen at 2 a.m. Sept. 1. Maps of the reservation are available for $3 for the full-color version or $1 for the black and white map. The phone for the tribal Game and Fish office is 760-572-0544.
COCOPAH TRIBE: The Cocopah Tribal lands on the Arizona side of the Colorado River near Yuma are broken into three units. The North Reservation is completely closed to hunting, while the East Reservation (along state route 95 where the tribe’s casino is located) generally has some open areas of planted agricultural lands, but the bulk of the hunting takes place on the West Reservation which sits right on the Colorado River and borders Mexico.
This is one of the more popular hunting areas in the Yuma region. Many of the birds in this greater Yuma region roost in the trees along this part of the river, and whitewing numbers are very high.
The $60 dove licenses are available at Sprague’s Sports in Yuma, the Cocopah Resort and Conference Center (in the Gift Shop) next to the casino, and the tribal headquarters office at 14515 S. Veteran’s Drive, Somerton, AZ 85359. The permit has a map on the back that shows the open areas each year. The tribal office phone number is 928-627-2102.
BASIC RESERVATION HUNTING FACTS: California hunters who decide to hunt on Indian reservation lands need to know some other facts.
First, if you are hunting on reservation lands in California, you still need to have a California hunting license. Second, if you are hunting on reservation lands in Arizona, you do NOT need to have an Arizona state license. Tribal compacts are different between the tribes and the two states. Third, you need to have a federal Harvest Information Program (HIP) stamp or validation. These are available only through the state game agencies, not the reservations. If you already have a California (or Arizona) license, you probably already have your HIP validation. Fourth, you may not possess more than one limit of doves (15) per day or more than a single possession limit, even if you have both state and reservation licenses.
If you are getting allergic to the big crowds in the Imperial Valley or Blythe, one of the Indian reservations on the Colorado River might be an antidote to that problem.
By the Numbers
Factoids about doves and dove hunting
During the 2016 dove season, 838,000 dove hunters took to the field, with probably at least 750,000 — 3/4-million! — participating on opening day.
The total U.S. harvest on doves was 13.5 million mourning doves and an additional 1.7 million whitewing doves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the total mourning dove population is around 275,000 million. That means we shoot about five percent of the population each year.
California dove hunters numbered about 57,000 last year, and we shot 900,000 mourning doves and 62,000 whitewings, averaging about 16 doves each for the whole season.
Overall numbers of doves have remained stable or they are increasing. Numbers are up across the central part of the country.
Because doves are a migratory bird, the USFWS sets the regulatory framework and the states set the seasons within that framework. The earliest date the feds allow the season to open is Sept. 1, and every state with a hunting season (and that is 40 out of 50 states) opens on that date.
Since 2014, the feds have used a complex set of data that combines spring breeding bird surveys with harvest data to come up with total population estimates and population trends. The harvest data is key in determining long-term trends in numbers because the harvest data goes back for many decades. But now the feds, in cooperation with the states and volunteer groups like Quail Forever, put leg bands tens of thousands of doves each year. Used with harvest data, the USFWS can estimate what percent of the population is harvested by hunters from those banded birds. The agencies also collect a sampling of wings from harvested birds. These wings are used to age birds and determine the percentage of young in the population as a measure of reproductive success.
This program, used for many years for ducks, has been phased in for doves, and since 2014, the feds now have an accurate measure of the total dove population and can chart even small changes in the population trends.
What has become clear is that hunters have no impact on overall dove numbers at the current population levels, which is why the national limit was bumped up to 15 birds (up from 10). However, should total numbers drop below certain thresholds, the USFWS has built in automatic triggering systems that will reduce bag limits, or even close the season until numbers recover.
SEASONS & LIMITS
While all hunters should keep copies of the regulation on their electronic devices or paper copies on hand, this year’s California dove season will run from Sept. 1 through Sept. 15. The second half of the season will be Nov. 11 through Dec. 25. The limit is again 15 doves per day, with no more than 10 whitewings in the daily bag. The possession limit is three daily bag limits (a total of 45 doves), but you may only possess that many after the third day of the season. Get it? You can have 15 the first day, 30 at the end of the second day, and then no more than 45 after that.
No hunter may shoot more than 15 birds per day under any circumstances. You may not help your hunting buddy fill his limit. If you have hunting licenses for multiple states or Indian reservations, you can still only shoot 15 birds per day.
I’m emphasizing that point! It’s 15 per day. Not 15 in the morning, and then another 15 in the evening – even if you ate all of the morning birds for lunch. It’s 15 per day. Period.
NUMBER OF SHOTS FIRED
Calculations on the number of shots taken on opening day have ranged from 15 to 50 million, probably more based on the shooting ability of the person making the estimation than any scientific data. I have said it was more like 100 million shotgun shells.
— Jim Matthews
All of this information is taken from this year's special Dove Issue of Western Birds, which has maps of all of the major public land hunting areas. It is a large PDF file available for free download. The PDF is located at this link.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-887-3444.]