Dove Hunting Takes Wing in Extended Season
By Dagney Pruner
Photography By Dagney Pruner
SALADO — Over the twang of country music from pickup truck radios and the sporadic frenzy of shotgun fire, the excited chatter of men can be heard around the plains of this Bell County town.
More than 40 employees from the 195 Lumber Co. in nearby Killeen have taken a day off work to enjoy the company’s annual dove-hunting event.
Dressed in camouflage, they file into their pickup trucks around 4 p.m. to begin a hunt that will run until dusk.
The trucks stop around the perimeter of sunflower fields – doves eat the seeds – marking their territory they suspect the most birds will fly over. Shotguns loaded, they wait for the birds to appear.
“It’s a wonderful deal,” said Jimmy Parker, the owner of the lumber supply company, who brought along his son Jeff. “You get to relax. We’re workaholics, so me and him don’t find time to do that much.”
This fall’s 90-day dove hunting season in Texas is the longest in 80 years. That gives hunters an extra 20 days to shoot an estimated 30 million mourning and white-winged doves as they migrate across the state. A longer season offers more opportunities to attract new and younger hunters to a sport that has long been big business in Texas. But officials worry about the aging of the hunting community.
“Texas has seen an aging hunting population,” with many in their late 50s and early 60s, said Shaun Oldenburger, 37, dove program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. While the number of hunting licenses has grown, it has not kept pace with the state’s population growth, Oldenburger said. That jeopardizes the economic benefits of the hunt, he said
Texas hunters shoot 5 million mourning and white-winged doves each year, more than any other state.
Mourning dove song recorded by Mike Nelson at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area.
The department doesn’t have current data on the sport’s economic impact. In 2006, the department asked Southwick Associates to calculate the economic impact of all forms of hunting. The report said that dove hunting pumped more than $316 million annually into Texas’ economy and generated more than $44 million in state and federal tax revenue. Oldenburger estimates the total impact amount would be more than $415 million a year now, with inflation.
Dove hunting is considered the easiest and cheapest way to get into the sport.
“It’s a quick way to get out and spend some time in the open outdoors and not have to go pay enormous amounts of money to do it,” Parker said.
“I think it’s a fun hunt for the youth to learn,” said Tony Arce, 55, who has owned outfitter Hunting Etc. outside Laredo for more than 15 years. “Without a doubt, not only is it a more social and family type of hunting; you can enjoy the sport of dove hunting without spending an arm and a leg.”
Mike Michaux, 47, the third-generation owner of Solana Ranch, where 195 Lumber holds its outing, said there’s a “highly social aspect” to dove hunting that doesn’t exist with other forms. He said he’s seeing more father-son and husband-wife hunters.
The longer season required approval from federal agencies, because doves migrate across several states. Texas Parks and Wildlife made the recommendation based on data showing the dove population had grown enough to support a longer season.
“I think it may take some time for the actual hunters to get the sense that we can dove hunt longer now. In time, it can only get better,” Arce said.
The extension is expected to be especially helpful in South Texas, where the season opened Sept. 23, three weeks later than in Central Texas. What Texas Parks and Wildlife calls the South Zone covers all of the state south of San Antonio and Houston. Doves often migrate over that region later than in other parts of Texas.
White-winged dove call recorded by Chris Harrison at Guadalupe River State Park.
Dove populations benefited from heavy rainfall in Texas during the past few breeding seasons after a years-long drought. More rain means the doves have more to eat and thus have more chicks.
The white-winged dove population has been at its highest levels ever over the past few years. Hunters in Texas shot 36 percent more white-winged doves last year than the year before.
“Three years ago, there wouldn’t be one white-winged dove in your bag,” Michaux said. Now, he estimates the white wings account for a quarter of most hunters’ takes.
Back in Salado, the men of 195 Lumber pack it in for the day. Not just because the sun is setting and the doves have fled to roost for the night, but because the beer cart is empty.
They piled into their pickups and head back to the lodge to display the spoils from the day’s hunt and dive into some steaks.
“We had a ball out there,” Parker said. “Every one we took thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and that’s what it’s all about. Showing appreciation for them.”