Dove hunting is unique among Missouri's hunting seasons in several ways, some of which make safety awareness extra important, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Conservation Department statistics show that an astonishing 79.9 percent of dove hunters made only one foray for doves last year. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of dove hunting trips are made during the first few days of the season.
"That will come as no surprise to dove hunters," said Hunter Education Coordinator Tony Legg. "The shooting is always good for the first few days. After that, most of the birds that spent the summer in Missouri either are on people's tables, headed south or are pretty gun shy. We get some excellent hunting later in the season as cool weather pushes birds south through Missouri, but those peaks are harder to predict, and most hunters are focused on bowhunting or other activities by then. Those first few days of September are bird hunters' first chance to get out, and they do -- in large numbers."
Doves' tendency to congregate around food sources, such as harvested crop fields, tends to concentrate hunters, too. Excellent examples of this phenomenon can be seen at conservation areas where the fields of sunflowers, wheat, millet and other crops are planted especially for doves and dove hunters. The shooting is fast and the mood often festive at these dove fields, but the concentration of hunters also creates safety challenges.
"Wise hunters space themselves at safe intervals around dove fields, and they position themselves to avoid interfering with other hunters or shooting in their direction."
Unfortunately, said Legg, not all hunters are wise. Consequently, every hunter must take responsibility for his own safety. Sometimes that means leaving an area to avoid others' unsafe behavior.
"It doesn't always come to that," said Legg. "A lot of times you can remedy bad situations by pointing out safety problems to other hunters in a friendly way."
Legg said safety issues often can be headed off by friendly banter before the shooting starts. Introduce yourself to new arrivals, agree on hunting 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 retrieve crippled birds so it isn't necessary to shoot at downed birds.
For those who choose to hunt managed dove fields at conservation areas, Legg recommends the following precautions to help ensure safe hunts.
* Wear hunter orange. "A cap at the least will help other hunters know you are there."
* Protect your eyes. "That is a very soft area and more vulnerable to injury than the rest of your body. Even if you don't wear glasses, get a pair of shooters' glasses."
* Keep shots to blue sky. "Don't shoot if you can't see sky above and well below your target. It's best not to shoot at an angle lower than 45 degrees from the horizon."
* Keep track of other hunters' whereabouts. "Even shooting at a safe angle you can rain shot down on others if you aren't careful."
* Don't shoot cripples. "A wounded bird can be chased down on foot. 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 they 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. Dogs can die of heat stroke."
* Use common sense. "That sounds obvious, but it is easy to forget when doves are flying and the shooting is fast. Under those kinds of conditions, you have to make a conscious effort not to let down your guard.