Precisely at noon on Sept. 1, the first shots will be fired.
More shots will come, and they’ll continue fast and furious for two or three days. After that, the guns will gradually go silent. Such is the nature of West Virginia’s hunting season for mourning doves.
“The first few days of the dove season are the ones that seem to attract most of the attention,” said Mike Peters, a migratory game bird specialist for the state Division of Natural Resources. “Actually, the [three-part] season continues through Jan. 24. There are opportunities all the way through then for people to shoot doves.”
The first segment of this year’s season will run from Sept. 1 through Oct. 11; the second from Nov. 2-15; and the third from Dec. 21-Jan. 4.
Doves are found throughout the state, and in all kinds of habitats.
“It’s not a species that requires a particular kind of habitat,” Peters said. “They’re generalists in terms of where they nest, feed and breed. For that reason, they do quite well.”
Throughout their natural range, dove numbers are down slightly from what they’ve been in the past. Peters said, however, that West Virginia’s population has remained “really stable” for the past 10 years.
The birds are particularly active in late summer and early fall, when farmers mow hayfields and begin to harvest grain crops.
“Doves prefer small grains like sorghum, millet, milo, annual rye, rye, wheat and maybe sunflower,” Peters said. “West Virginia doesn’t have a lot of that kind of farming, but in areas where it does, chances are you’ll find doves.”
To help boost dove hunters’ chances, managers at many of the wildlife management areas throughout the state plant those crops and schedule cuttings to coincide with the dove season’s early segment.
“There are several WMAs that have become extremely popular with dove hunters,” Peters said. “I would rank Green Bottom, McClintic, Hillcrest, Pleasants Creek and South Branch right at the top.”
He said the South Branch WMA, located near McNeill in Hardy County and Sector in Hampshire County, has become so popular that area managers have been forced to limit the number of hunters allowed in the dove fields during the season’s first few days.
The dove-season opener tends almost to be a social affair, with hunters returning to the same fields year after year after year. The tradition began in the Deep South, where opening-day dove shoots became occasions to invite friends and family over for a festive afternoon filled with hunting and food.
Oftentimes, participants in those hunts would clean the birds and feast on them that very same evening. West Virginia’s opening-day gatherings aren’t usually that organized, but dove hunters have come to cherish them anyway.
The bag limit for doves is 15 a day. To kill that many of the agile, fast-flying birds, even skilled hunters will burn through a box or two of shotgun shells.
Because federal officials classify doves as migratory birds, people who hunt them must obtain a federal Harvest Information Program (HIP) card in addition to their license. The cards are free, but it is illegal to hunt without them.
Hunters who use pump-action or semi-automatic shotguns must plug their magazines so they contain no more than three shells at a time. Shooting hours are from noon to sunset on opening day, and from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset on any day thereafter.