Upland Pursuits – Dove Decoys Enhance the Hunt

Published in the East Oregonian, August 18th 2021

My decoy spread, offset slightly to my left, lit up like little gray beacons as the morning sun cast its golden glow. A light breeze kicked up, spurred by the sunrays piercing the cool air of early fall. Aside from the emerald foliage of the occasional tree, the Palouse was decorated in the usual varied tones of beige, canary, and bronze.

A pair of Mojo decoys set in a pea field as part of a larger spread

Camo-clad, sitting along a forgotten fencerow, I waited for the first flight to descend upon the grain field and gathering of imposter fowl. A robust doe whitetail with her speckled fawn leisurely fed from a grassy draw bottom. Suddenly, movement to my right revealed a few gray birds swooping in, head-on to the decoys. With a smooth swing of grandpa’s old pump gun, the morning hunt was underway.

Pop quiz – what am I hunting? Okay, you read the title and know it’s doves, but that scene could easily play out for waterfowl with a tweak to the decoy setup and a little water in the picture. No waterfowl hunter would dream of sheltering in a layout blind without a few decoys out front, but decoys for doves?

Pass-shooting doves is an American sporting tradition and the mourning dove is the most widespread and abundant game bird in North America. Every year hunters harvest more than 20 million birds nationwide. A typical hunt might be characterized by old five-gallon buckets for seats placed in the shade of a tree alongside or separating grain fields and water sources.

Tucked in the shadows, friends and family enjoy quiet small talk as early autumn heat wavers up from the parched landscape. No fancy gear or even camo required. Action can be fast and furious, but also slow when birds are sparse or keeping their distance. That’s where decoys enter the scene.

Handmade wooden decoys are an effective option as well

Doves tend to follow trees or obvious terrain features when moving among food and water sources. At these sources, doves perch on exposed tree branches or anything else with overhead visibility to survey for predators before descending to feed or drink. Decoys can be set to attract doves to a location advantageous to the hunter, influencing their flight path and encouraging more birds to fly within shooting distance. With a few simple considerations, your decoy spread can do more than keep you company on the hunt.

Identifying your shooting position is the foundation of setting decoying. Decoys should be placed 10-20 yards from your shooting position to ensure the shooter remains hidden from approaching birds. Offset the decoys from your shooting position at about 10 o’clock for the right-handed shooter, and two o’clock for the left-handed shooter. The goal is to encourage crossing shots rather than lure the birds in head-on to the shooter.

Next to location, setting visible decoys is crucial. Tree cover can be sparse in the shrub-steppe and harvested fields.  A wire or T-shaped bar about 10-feet high to elevate decoys can easily be constructed at home with PVC, pipe or rebar. A few decoys sitting side-by-side mimics doves perching on a powerline, which typically attracts others. If hunting your own land or an area where you can set up something semi-permanent, the T-bar or wire span can be left and used year after year. Options with more mobility, like telescopic T-bars for easy packing into public land, can be found online.

A Mojo decoy clipped to a black locust branch of a homemade tree perch

Another option is to make an actual tree perch that can be cut and pruned to an ideal structure for decoy attachment, and placed near food, water, and even gravel sources. Doves will also use them naturally, which may provide an advantage.

When placing decoys on the ground, set them 20-30 feet from the elevated decoys and pair them up with a few feet between pairs, generally facing into the wind. Dove pairs often travel together, and pairing decoys on the ground gives the spread a more natural appearance. This does not mean placing each pair perfectly side-by-side, but set in relative proximity to one another to give the decoys the look of feeding together.

Non-mobile (static) decoys work well on their own, but another option is to include a spinning-wing decoy to animate your spread. Doves approach an animated, spinning-wing decoy head-on most often, which can aid in setting up that text-book crossing shot. Later in the season as doves become wary, the additional movement of the spinning-wing decoy is more convincing to the cynical eye of our most frequently hunted bird species.  When you get right down to it, mourning doves offer one of the most versatile wingshooting opportunities of all upland birds, and decoying doves can be done simply, with minimal gear. If you have never used decoys, doves offer an easy, affordable opportunity to get started. Static decoys are easy to find and can lure birds even without being elevated. Whether trying something new or simply honing your decoying skills this fall, setting decoys for doves can enhance your wingshooting experience.

A brace of America’s most popular game bird, taken over a decoy spread

Pheasants Forever Journal – Women on the Wing Soars in Washington State

Published in the Pheasants Forever Journal Winter 2023 edition.

In 2022, Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever, Chapter #258, started a Women on the Wing program to diversify the Chapter’s outreach and opportunities. The initiate was wildly successful and contributed to the Chapter winning the Pheasants Forever National Award for Education and Outreach. I am extremely proud to be an active member and officer of Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever!

Palouse Outdoors – A Fine Morning for Waterfowl

As I neared the river, a fog bank appeared on the horizon – an impenetrable wall set along the highway corridor. It was disheartening to watch a beautiful January day disappear in the rearview as the sun-shrouding humidity swallowed me whole, but the foggy conditions were arguably better for jump-shooting waterfowl. Sunlight glinting from gun barrels and glasses betray me as I sneak through riparian grasses and timber.

Pulling onto the road shoulder, I prepared for the approximate half-mile hike into a serpentine river reach that is occupied by a healthy flock of mallards nearly every time I visit. I donned my camouflage rain jacket, evergreen wool Stetson and mittens, and strapped my camera bag to my back. It felt odd to carry the Red Label over/under without a setter leading the hunt, but the feel of the gun and the zipping sound it made when sliding from the case were comforting. A sign of good things to come.

The hike was peaceful. Juncos and sparrows flitted through the frosted kochia thickets, which stood in dark contrast to the golden cereal rye encircling them. A magpie cawed in the trees along the river. An eagle was perched in a prime location to keep watch on the water. Its large silhouette appeared raven-black through the mist. Somewhere up ahead, a single string of excited quacks caused me to pause and cock my head, like a hungry coyote listening to the scurry of a field mouse. About three hundred yards stood between me and the ducks.

The final one hundred yards was onerous. I followed a deer trail, which dipped into a frozen puddle that was flanked by crackling mats of reed canary grass. The ducks could not see me, but they would certainly hear me if I were careless, even with the ambient babble of the river at their feet.

Deliberate foot placement carried me around the icy water’s edge, avoiding downed tree limbs, and placing steps where the grass was heavily matted and unlikely to crackle. The ducks remained silent as I crept – the kind of silence that gets into my head when a gameplan nears fruition.

Maybe they already flushed, I thought. No, they didn’t. You would have heard them. Keep moving.

At the head of the long, frozen puddle, I dropped my camera bag and eased toward the river. Ten minutes passed as I tactfully stepped through common reeds that threatened to sway with the slightest bump and send a deafening “rrrriiipp” through the silence when contacted by synthetic fabrics.

Ahead was a sizable tree with low limbs, which I belly-crawled beneath the last time I tried this spot. I turned toward it, crossed behind a small willow patch, and instantly caught a glimpse of five drake mallards sitting on the backwater across the river. The sight of the ducks caused me to freeze. An act meant to avoid detection but often results in alerting game. A deer or another innocuous critter would not have stopped.

Turning toward the creek and taking two crouched steps sent at least twenty mallards skyward on a straightaway departure. They jumped about thirty yards out and quickly expanded that distance to fifty yards. I never bothered to shoulder the gun.

Cracking the breach on the Red Label, I plucked the shells while chuckling quietly and pondering what I might do differently next time. I may have blown the ducks out of the country, but at least I could forget about precariously tip-toeing my way out.

Once back across the icy expanse, I veered right toward the river again. My plan was to slip through an opening ahead and disappear into the tree cover for a still hunt. My path wound through kochia and poison hemlock that was alive with songbirds. Pausing briefly, I picked up the Nikon from where it hung against my chest and focused in on a Junco. It contrasted beautifully against the frosted weed skeletons, but my inability to remain still resulted in blurred images. Another mistake to laugh off as I moved closer to the river.

Moments later, I recognized a kingfisher perched statuesque in a tree above the water. My camera lens was only a two hundred millimeter – not nearly enough for the distance between us. How to maneuver closer?

Edging toward the river allowed me to close enough distance, but as I focused the camera, the kingfisher left its limb and vanished into thin air. Impeccable timing. Something I experience continually when trying to photograph, well, everything mobile and possessing free will.

An audible laugh erupted at the kingfisher’s timely departure. I had been so intent on snagging the photo that I paid little attention to my proximity to the river. My attention was suddenly redirected by a half dozen mallards lifting from the water, and again, I laughed out loud. A comedy of errors resulted from trying to capitalize on too many opportunities and failing at all of them for not devoting appropriate attention to a single task. One would think that after thirty years of repeating this mistake, I would have corrected my behavior by now. The definition of “insanity” comes to mind.

As the mallards departed, I turned toward the river to see a massive great blue heron lift off. My hand was on the camera when twenty more mallards blew up, but instead of the usual straight away exit over water, they flew left-to-right over land and in close proximity.

Realizing the shot opportunity triggered instinctive action to raise my gun. I singled out a drake and squeezed the trigger. While swinging on a second bird, I spied the drake drop from the flock. I engaged the safety and made haste to where the duck had fallen.

Mouthwatering recipes, namely confit, flashed through my mind as I hoisted the handsome bird and admired its plumage. The pattern and color complexity quickly captivated me – chocolate brown, emerald green, charcoal gray with black pepper flecks, and that iridescent violet flare across the wing. Simply stunning.

The foggy river scene with the contrasting shapes and gray-brown palette of weeds, grasses, and trees, provided a superb backdrop for burning the memory into immortal electrons – what would have been film in a past life. Satisfied that I had sufficiently captured the light and scene, I gathered my shotgun and bounty and strolled the river’s edge toward the truck to the melody of songbirds, and the soothing roll of water on its path to the ocean.

Upland Pursuits – The Wild Turkey Conservation Success Story

Published April 15th, 2023 in the La Grande Observer

One rainy fall morning, I found myself sitting quietly in an old hay shack on the edge of an alfalfa field. My friend Dan sat to my right. A calico barn cat desperate for friendship perched upon a hay bale to my left. As dawn cracked, the sound of raindrops pinging on the rusted tin roof was disrupted by a cacophony of turkey “yelps” from their roost far above us in a pine stand. The cat continued preening, uninterested, but Dan and I glanced at each other in curious anticipation.

Moments later, over one hundred Rio Grande turkeys sailed down from the roost into the alfalfa field before us. Video of the hunt shows turkeys gliding in from the pines for nearly five minutes. The discordant “kee-kee” and “yelp” calls from a flock that large were defeating as the birds gathered before eventually spreading across the emerald alfalfa carpet where they engaged in synchronized feeding.

Having never successfully hunted turkeys, it was hard to maintain my composure with that many birds front and center. A large jake (a juvenile male) finally separated from the flock, allowing a safe shot. Upon squeezing the trigger, it was unclear which, the cat or the shot wad, left the shack in the biggest hurry – the cat having launched from the haystack so quickly that it virtually vanished into thin air. At that moment, the largest flock of turkeys I had ever seen before or since lifted off, leaving the jake behind to bless my dinner table.

That parcel has produced most of my wild turkeys over the years, regularly holding flocks with greater than thirty birds during the fall and winter. This is common across the nation in areas with patchwork landscapes of agriculture, forest, and grasslands or pasture, making it hard to believe that the wild turkey was once pushed to the brink of extinction in North America.  

According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, approximately 10 million wild turkeys roamed North America at the time of European settlement – a fine food source for settlers. Like most “game species” known today, turkeys were hunted year-round without regulation for subsistence and the market.

As the eastern colonies grew and settlers moved across America, timber was cleared for agriculture and community development. The cumulative impact of hunting and habitat loss decimated and isolated wild turkey populations.

“Connecticut had lost its wild turkeys by 1813. Vermont held out until 1842 and other states followed. By 1920, the wild turkey was lost from 18 of the original 39 states and Ontario, Canada, in its supposed ancestral range[1].“

North American wild turkey populations plummeted below an estimated 250,000 by the 1930s, but pending legislation and the Great Depression would serve the wild turkey well.

In 1900, the first iteration of the Lacey Act regulated market hunting by prohibiting trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that were illegally harvested, possessed, transported, or sold. This Act, in concert with early wildlife management regulations, reduced the overall hunting impact on turkey populations.

The Great Depression fell upon America in 1929, and over the following decade, homesteads and small farms were vacated as 14 million people sought work in cities and factories. With fields left fallow, natural succession converted former cropland to grasslands and shrublands. This natural landscape change resulted in the rebirth of wild turkey habitat.

Another keystone piece of legislation – the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 – established a conservation fund via excise tax placed on the sale of sporting goods and ammunition. These funds were used as seed money to establish large-scale conservation efforts. State fish and game agencies began trap-and-transport programs to reestablish turkeys throughout their native range. “By 1952, bird numbers nationwide had grown to 320,000[2].”

By 1973, the national wild turkey population estimate was about 1.3 million birds. At that time, the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded with the mission of “wild turkey conservation and the preservation of North America’s hunting heritage.”

These and other conservation efforts have resulted in the recovery of wild turkeys with over 6 million estimated across 49 US States and five subspecies in 2014 – Eastern (4.5-4.7 million), Osceola or Florida (115,000), Rio Grande (853,000), Merriam’s (260,000), and Gould’s (1,200). This incredible recovery since 1973 is no simple coincidence with the founding of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Sitting quietly, tucked into the brush at the bottom of a canyon, I listened to the excited gobbles of seven Rio Grande toms echo between the canyon walls. A young but robust bird with an exceptional beard was en route, lured by my feeble attempts to mimic a hen turkey yelp. Moments later, I stroked the bird’s iridescent plumage in the evening sunlight while the other toms and a dozen hens made their way back up the canyon. The wild turkey is perhaps one of the greatest conservation successes in North America. Moments like this make me proud of our continental conservation model, and thankful for the opportunity to hunt one of this nation’s greatest game birds.

If you have not hunted wild turkeys, now is the time to join the ranks in one of America’s oldest hunting traditions.

[1] History of the Wild Turkey in North America. James Earl Kennamer, Mary C. Kennamer, and Ron Brenneman. National Wild Turkey Federation Bulletin No. 15.

[2] Wild turkeys: A conservation (and hunting) success story (usatoday.com)