Dove opener prospects appear better than last several years
By JIM MATTHEWS
The outlook for the 2019 dove hunting season opener on Sunday, September 1, is better than it has been for at least the past two years, with early reports from the public hunting areas looking good to excellent across the board.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages doves in conjunction with the 38 states that have hunting seasons, estimates the mourning dove population is very stable with only a slight long term decline in the Western and Central management areas and a similar slight increase in the Eastern area. Overall, the agency estimates there are 243 million mourning doves in the United States, the most common bird in the country.
With that many doves, it is safe to say the hunting season should be good, and conditions across the region are better than recent years to hold doves through opening day.
Desert Wildlife Unlimited (DWU) plants 20 plots of private ground in the north end of the Imperial Valley with dove forage each year. The fields are located along Highway 111 between the Wister Unit of the Imperial Wildlife Area (on the south end of the Salton Sea) and the town of Calipatria.
Rob Yates, with DWU, said that last year the fields were generally poor to fair for dove hunting. The problem? The Department of Fish and Wildlife, which provides grant money to DWU to purchase the seed planted in these fields didn’t come in time and most fields had no plantings. Volunteer seed plants that came up were mowed and thrashed before last year’s season, but the hunting was mediocre at best.
Yates said 2019 is a different story. All of the fields were planted on time and most have already been cut.
“We try to cut early enough so the birds find the fields and use them, but not so early that they eat everything and move on. We tried selling tickets to the birds to limit how many came to each field, but that didn’t work out so well,” joked Yates.
Bottom line is that he said the wheat crop looks really good and that there were lots of birds aggregating on the fields already.
“We’re used to shooting limits in 30 minutes on these fields, and there are already lots of birds right now,” said Yates earlier this month. “But it’s too early to tell how good it will be. Monsoon rains could come in and run them out before the opener.”
The Wister and Finney-Ramer units of the DFW wildlife area were also planted, and the Finney-Ramer fields look particularly good again, a pleasant change for hunters. A number of fields on Wister are also in grain crops this season, and they also look good and they have also been cut already.
The most popular public hunting spot in the Blythe region is the Palo Verde Ecological Reserve (PVER), and dove fields were planted in the traditional spots at the far north end of the reserve off 2nd Avenue and the fields between 8th and 10th avenues.
Managed by the DFW, there was an addition to the reserve this past year between 8th and 6th avenues. This land was also planted with strips of wheat for the 2019 season.
Ryan Peat, the DFW’s new wildlife biologist for the Blythe region, said all three areas were holding a lot of birds already, with the wheat (and milo in the 10th Avenue field) being knocked down the first two weeks of August. The areas were attracting more and more birds each day, especially with most of the other wheat fields in the valley on private property already harvested, burned, and many plowed under for the next crop.
“The dove are really thick already in these areas, and while I’m new here, I’ve been told we’re seeing slightly above average abundance this year,” said Peat.
Across the river on the Arizona size, the Cibola National Wildlife, on the Arizona side of the river but a popular destination for Southern California hunters, was planted by the Friends of the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge. Farm Unit II has 50 acres of wheat in 20 and 30 acres patches along with 100-plus acres of safflower and sunflower. The field was mowed in a “sinuous” pattern in an attempt to make it more natural-looking and “enhance the hunter experience,” according to Nancy Spencer-Morris, the new refuge manager.
John Rosenfeld, with Friends of the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, said leaving more of the field uncut would make retrieving birds more difficult and increase the likelihood of seeing or getting bit by rattlesnakes.
“There are more doves down there than I’ve seen in five years,” said Rosenfeld. “It’s going to be the place to go.”
The San Jacinto Wildlife Area (near Lake Perris) should be very good this year, according to Tom Trakes, the DFW supervisor managing the facility.
Dove numbers “are the best I’ve seen in many years,” said Trakes. He said between the wheat and safflower planted throughout the wildlife area and the volunteer feed that has come up after the good winter and spring rains, there are a lot of doves using the wildlife area – and most of the fields were being cut this past week.
“Overall, the wildlife area looks better for doves than it has in a long time,” said Trakes.
At Camp Cady Wildlife Area east of Barstow, Bruce Kenyon said there were “a lot more birds that last year,” and that the fields were planted early this year and were holding a lot of dove. Kenyon, a volunteer from Quail Forever, has been keeping the operation running the last couple of seasons.
Cady is a little-known wildlife area along the Mojave River nestled between Afton Canyon and Newberry Springs. It has a number of ponds and good roosting trees along the river channel and has historically had good evening shoots as birds come back from feeding across the desert to water and roost in the evenings. The addition of farm fields planted with grain crops the last several years (with varying degrees of success) has made this area even better for dove hunters. Last season’s crop was mediocre at best, and the hunting was just fair, but Kenyon expected this season to be much better.
As of early this week, there was still no word on if the field had been harvested yet this season, and while it was lush and green, the seed crop was not as good as hoped.
The Owens Valley has a lot of doves this year because of the wet winter and spring, and the birds are well scattered in the flooded pastures between Bishop and Independence, especially in the sunflowers in and adjacent to the cattle pastures.
Hunters are reminded that non-lead ammunition is required for all dove hunting this year in California, and that supplies have been running low in most retail outlets, especially in No. 7 steel, the most popular shot size, and gauges other than 12 and 20. It would be wise for hunters to try and stock up well before the Sept. 1 opener.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.