In Minnesota, mourning dove hunting still looking to catch on

Bemidji, Minn. — When the dove season opened in Minnesota in 2004 after a nearly 60-year absence, the Minnesota DNR managed 14 fields to attract doves on state wildlife management areas. The 3- to 5-acre fields were planted with small grains, sunflowers, and other dove-attracting crops.

The effort was designed to provide public hunting opportunities and to jump-start a Minnesota tradition of dove hunting – a pastime popular in many mid- to southern-latitude states and on par with any hunting tradition in America.

State officials estimated before the 2004 season that 30,000 to 50,000 hunters in Minnesota would likely hunt the small, sporting, abundant, and tasty migratory bird – a bird, they said, that could potentially rival ducks, pheasants, and ruffed grouse as the state’s most sought-after game birds.

After three years, however, the DNR stopped managing the dove fields.

“We just didn’t see the hunters and we frankly didn’t see as many birds using those areas as we’d hoped,” said Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist for the DNR. “I don’t think that’s something we’ll do again. I wish it would have worked out better. I thought the fields were well-managed.”

As the 2018 dove-hunting season continues (it opened Sept. 1), state officials and dove hunters say there are plenty of birds to hunt, but a short window of opportunity in which to do so. They also admit there are other reasons why dove hunting in Minnesota isn’t more popular and hasn’t taken off as state officials had hoped.

Consider: Mourning doves are the nation’s No. 1 game bird, with an estimated population of roughly 350 million birds. Hunters nationwide kill roughly 16 million birds each year, far surpassing ducks, geese, and other game birds.

According to Cordts, Minnesota has roughly 6,500 active dove hunters who harvest about 100,000 birds each year – two figures that have been constant for the past handful of years. Last year, state statistics show approximately 18,000 hunter days, or about three days per dove hunter, with each killing about 15 birds. By contrast, Texas has roughly 250,000 dove hunters who regularly harvest 5 million doves each year.

“Abundance isn’t the issue; one problem is that doves are temperature-sensitive birds,” Cordts said. “When we get a snap of cold weather, they’ll migrate quickly. They just don’t stick around here in great numbers all that long. They can literally disappear over night. That’s a factor if you can’t get out early in the season.”

But there are other reasons working against Minnesota establishing a more robust dove-hunting tradition. Minnesotans, state officials say, have plenty of other outdoor options come early September: early Canada goose hunting, bear hunting, and fall fishing, among other pastimes.

In addition, unlike many southern states in which private landowners manage small-grain fields specifically for dove hunting, private lands in western and southwestern Minnesota – considered the state’s prime dove-hunting regions – are awash in corn and soybeans.

“We just don’t have the fields of small grains that doves key on like we used to have in Minnesota,” Cordts said. “That makes a big difference when you’re scouting.”

Greg Hoch, prairie habitat team supervisor for the Minnesota DNR, said he has lived and worked in Kansas, and the dove-hunting tradition there is strong. It’s handed down from generation to generation.

“In Nebraska and Kansas and throughout the Gulf Coast, dove hunting is religion or near-religion,” Hoch said. “We just don’t have that here; Minnesota is still pretty new to hunting doves. In the South, it’s a priority.”

Hoch said that in many mid- to southern-latitude states, kids are introduced to hunting through dove outings. When they have a quality experience or two, they’re often hunters for life. “Dove hunting is a great way to introduce kids to hunting,” he said. “Lots of birds, lots of action, lots of opportunity.”

Doug Smith, of Lakeville, has been hunting doves near Olivia for the past several of years. It’s about a two-hour drive from his home – a trek, he said, he wouldn’t likely make if he didn’t have a friend and fellow hunter in the region.

“I’m lucky; I know someone who lives around there and he does all the scouting,” Smith said. “If it weren’t for that, I don’t know that I’d go.”

He said metro-area hunters intent on hunting doves in the state’s prime agricultural areas likely won’t find as many birds if they don’t have the opportunity to scout. “It makes all the difference in the world,” Smith said of scouting. “You can go sit on a field without scouting, but your chances (of success) at that point are pretty minimal.”

Smith said dove hunting is fun and sporting and is a great way to introduce kids to hunting as well as tune up your hunting dog.

“The weather is generally good, it doesn’t require much equipment, and the action can be second to none,” said Smith, adding that doves are great to eat. “When things come together, it’s a blast.”

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