For Doves, Look To Melons
If you want the best dove possible this year in Arizona, look to cantaloupe and other melons — not for a side dish while eating the dove, but for choosing areas to hunt.

The Arizona Game and Fish Commission recently adopted the dove season frameworks. Once again, Arizona will have a 15-day early season commencing Sept. 1 with half-day shooting in the southern hunt units and all-day shooting in the northern ones. Basically, the typical framework hunters have come to know and love.

Youth will once again get to hunt all day even in the southern units this year. That practice was started last year and was kept in place by the commission for the upcoming season. The idea is to make it so youngsters can hunt after school during the week.

However, this year's hunt outlook is shaping up a little differently than past years, said small game supervisor Ron Engel-Wilson. His prediction is for good white-winged dove shooting if an early, cold storm doesn't drive them south ahead of time. Mourning dove expectations are a different matter.

"The Mourning dove outlook is not optimistic this year because of back-to-back dry winters," Engel-Wilson said. The first dry winter resulted in lower breeding activity in the low deserts. That resulted in fewer young being produced in the summer of 1999 and a higher percentage of adult doves being harvested in the fall and winter of that year. Then the second dry winter hit, followed by a dry spring this year. The second dry winter will again result in fewer young being produced for the fall and winter seasons in the lower elevations.

"Almost all the doves harvested in Arizona are either adults that nested here or young that were produced here. The two dry winters are translating into fewer adults producing fewer young, thus there will be fewer Mourning doves available," Engel-Wilson said. But it may not be as dire as that, but there is a big "IF" attached. "The monsoons have started early. IF this monsoon is a good one that produces lots of desert annuals early, then Mourning dove reproduction could increase, somewhat offsetting the population downtrend we are currently seeing," Engel-Wilson explained.

Things might be a little different (meaning better) in the mid- or even high-elevation areas for Mourning dove — it was better last year. Good monsoon rains can play a pivotal role for higher-elevation dove production. It's looking good so far.

That's the bad news.

The good news from Engel-Wilson is the white-winged dove: call counts are up. The population is looking pretty good. That is why Engel-Wilson believes that ripe melon fields — especially those that have been recently harvested - will provide some of the best hunting opportunities. Whitewings are attracted to melon seeds like hungry mosquitoes to exposed human flesh.

Grain fields will be the next best bet. Maize fields will be a distant third choice. "Maize typically matures right about the first week of the dove season. You'll find some doves in the maize, but they typically won't have time to establish mass feeding patterns by early September," he explained.

But even if Mourning dove populations are down in Arizona this year, the Grand Canyon state is looking rosy compared to adjacent states.

Engel-Wilson said that in California and New Mexico, it's not a pretty story. "We compared trends of dove harvest in California and New Mexico to those in Arizona. Both states select more liberal dove season than Arizona," he said.

California maintains a 15-day September season with all-day shooting hours and a 10-bird aggregate bag limit for mourning and whitewings. Since 1983, New Mexico has stuck with a 60-day season, with 30 hunting days in September and 30 in December, with a 15-bird bag limit in some areas, and a 70-day season with 12-bird limit in others.

"Dove harvest and hunter participation appears to be declining in both states," Engel-Wilson said, adding that in 1975 California harvested nearly twice as many doves as Arizona. "In 1996, the dove harvests for California and Arizona were nearly equal. That really tells the story."

Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and central management unit states are considering harvest framework restrictions. "I truly believe the reason Arizona has faired so well is because of our more conservative approach with half-day hunts in the early season. Hunter participation and harvests have rebounded in this state. Even in drought years, we are doing better than our neighbors. That speaks volumes," Engel-Wilson said.

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