Wingshooting 101: Sweaty summer practice can lead to sweet September dove success

During the offseason it's not infrequent we dream about days in the field to come … and my attention is quickly turning to one of the most magical days of the year for a hunter — the Sept. 1 national dove-season opener.

When the last day of August has fallen from the calendar, give me my trusty shotgun, a box — actually, a few boxes — of my favorite upland bird-hunting loads and a jug of cold water, and this camouflaged boy is ready to go hunting!

Please understand that I'm not claiming to be a great wingshot when it comes to these rocketing gray ghosts.

I love to shoot at them, but the emphasis must remain on the word "shoot"; I shoot, therefore I miss.

That being said, the key that I've discovered to improving my shotgunning skills each autumn isn't much of a secret — practice makes perfect.

Well, maybe not in dove hunting. About the best a hunter can hope for on these speedy, shifty targets is to be almost perfect.

If you're interested in improving the ratio of doves in the game vest to spent shotgun shell hulls lying on the ground, the time is now for some scattergun tune-up work.

How can you do that?

First, ask what kind of shotgun you should be shooting. Since it doesn't take much to impress or kill a dove, the lighter and quicker pointing a shotgun is the better.

But that doesn't necessarily hold true when it comes to the gauge that a hunter is shooting.

While expert shots can make it look easy with a .410 or 28-gauge scattergun, the opinion here is that most hunters will be better served by shooting a 12- or 20-gauge shotgun in the field.

Once you choose your weapon, make sure that the plug is in the gun if it is capable of holding more than two shells.

Now I'm not trying to insult your intelligence, since many of you reading this know that doves are migratory birds and must be hunted with shotguns that hold no more than three shells.

But I also know how easy it is to "forget" this important detail until it is too late.

That's because every year, hunters who removed their plug for a pheasant hunt or spring turkey outing "forget" to reinsert their plugs before heading out for a September dove shoot.

Until, that is, they suddenly "remember" as the game warden checks their gun in a dove field.

The moral of this wingshooting story is to go ahead and make sure that your plug is in place now so that you will not learn an expensive lesson later.

OK, after you've selected your dove gun and ensured that the plug is in place, the next question to be answered is, What's the best dove-hunting load for that particular gun?

For the most part, a 7/8-ounce load is good for a 20-gauge shell, but a 1-ounce load of shot is even better. For a 12-gauge, make sure that the shot shell you choose yields at least a 1 1/8-ounces of shot.

As for proper shot sizes, doves are not difficult birds to bring down if you hit them squarely, so concentrate on smaller shot sizes that create dense patterns.

No. 8 shot — or even No. 9 shot, if you can find it — is perhaps the best all-around dove load for any gauge. Save the 7 1/2 shot sizes for your third shot or when hunting later in the year, as doves carry thicker, late-season insulating feathers.

The next question to answer: What's the best choke for your shotgun?

Remember, the wider and denser a pattern that a dove has to fly through, the better the odds of adding that bird to your game vest.

As a general rule, the more open the choke that is used for doves, the better. Most hunters will be well served by shooting modified, improved or even skeet chokes.

With those questions answered correctly, now it's time to get out into the field and actually go out to powder a few clay pigeons.

Grab a hunting buddy, a target thrower of some sort and a box of clay pigeons. Of course, always be sure to wear your shooting glasses and hearing protection when heading out for any shooting activity.

Once you're out on the shooting range, go ahead and build your ego up by knocking down a few of the easy shots.

But if you really want to improve your September dove-hunting success, swallow some July pride and go to work on the shots that you find the most humbling in the field. This is when you need some hard crossing and surprise shot opportunities on the range.

Why? Because when it comes to September wingshooting, mourning doves rarely present many cream-puff shot opportunities.

As you practice shooting, keep in mind that most hunters miss by shooting too far behind their target, not too far in front of it.

To remedy this, practice proper lead in your shooting technique.

As the target approaches, mount the gun smoothly and quickly to your cheek, acquire the target in your sight plane, swing the gun barrel through the target and, finally, pull the trigger as the blur of your barrel passes beyond the target and you see daylight developing.

The key here is to swing and shoot through the target.

That's because the reason that many shooters shoot behind a target is because of their tendency to swing to the target before slowing and even stopping their swing and then pulling the trigger as they shoot where the target was, not where it is going.

Why practice all of this now?

Simple: A little sweat in July can pave the way to some sweet September wingshooting success.