JEFFERSON CITY--Dove hunting is unique among Missouri's hunting seasons in several ways, some of which make safety awareness extra important.
Conservation Department statistics show that eight of 10 dove hunters made only one foray for doves last year. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of dove hunting trips occur during the first few days of the season.
Doves' tendency to congregate around harvested crop fields also draws large numbers of hunters. This is true of fields managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation specifically for dove hunting. The shooting is fast and the mood often festive at dove fields, and that can create safety challenges.
Smart hunters space themselves at safe intervals around dove fields, and they position themselves to avoid interfering with other hunters or shooting in their direction. Not all hunters are wise, however, so every hunter must take responsibility for her or his own safety. Sometimes that means leaving an area to get away from unsafe hunters.
It doesn't always come to that. Be proactive by engaging nearby hunters in friendly banter before the shooting starts. Introduce yourself to new arrivals, agree on shooting zones and ask everyone to agree not to shoot at birds lower than 45 degrees above the horizon. Let other hunters know if you have a retriever that will be working the field, and offer to help others fetch cripples so they don't have to shoot at birds on the ground.
Once the shooting starts, call attention to safety issues in a friendly tone the first time they arise, rather than waiting until tempers flare or someone gets hurt. Most hunters want to be safe, but inexperienced hunters might need coaching about what is appropriate in a crowded dove field.
Sometimes it is as simple as calling out "Careful, there are people over here." In other cases, you might have to approach the offending hunter and express your concern more directly. Assume that other hunters are as interested in safety as you are, and keep your tone friendly.
Good dove hunting is available on many conservation areas that lack managed dove fields and crowds of hunters. It takes pre-hunt scouting to find those areas. One productive scouting strategy is to visit potential hunting areas at dawn a few days before the hunting season. Watch for dove travel lanes between crop fields and watering or roosting sites. Doves use isolated trees and other landmarks to orient themselves and fly the same pattern every day. A landmark can be as subtle as the center of a shallow valley between a ridge-top field and a lake.
Dead trees can be dove magnets, too, because the birds like to perch there while digesting their morning meal. Birds generally begin arriving at such roosting areas around mid morning and late in the evening. If you are there waiting, the shooting can be steady.
If you choose to hunt managed dove fields at conservation areas, observe the following precautions to help ensure safe hunts.
Wear hunter orange to make yourself visible to other hunters.
Protect your eyes by wearing shooting glasses if you don't wear prescription glasses.
Confine your shooting to blue sky. Don't shoot if you can't see sky above and well below your target.
Keep track of other hunters. Even shooting at a safe angle you can rain shot down on others.
Don't shoot cripples. Chase down wounded birds. Recovering a downed bird isn't worth the chance of a ricochet off the ground.
Bring a retriever. They make catching cripples much easier and allow you to stay at your shooting station, where other hunters are expecting you to be. Take plenty of water for your canine companion, and be alert for signs of distress. Heat stroke is a serious threat to dogs in early September.
Use common sense. It is easy to forget safety rules when the shooting is fast. Unload your gun now and then to take a drink of water, water your dog and watch other hunters. You might miss a shot or two, but you are less likely to make a mistake you will regret forever.