The middle of December begins what can be a pleasant misery for many of Texas’ half-million or so wingshooters. Over the next several weeks, picking which direction to go and the fowl on which to focus can challenge Texas shotgunners’ decision making just as much the birds they pursue challenge their shooting skills.
Texas “winter” dove season opens Dec. 15 in all three of the state’s dove zones. Three days later, woodcock season opens. With that Dec. 18 start, all major game bird hunting seasons in the state will be open – ducks, geese, quail, turkey, sandhill crane, doves, snipe, woodcock.
“If you enjoy bird hunting, every option’s about to be open to you. So, yes, it can be hard to pick which opportunity you take,” said Shaun Oldenburger, director of small game programs for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s wildlife division. “But having to choose from all those opportunities is a good problem to have.”
Here’s a look at three of those opportunities, including a couple that are too often overlooked by Texas wingshooters.
Texas’ “winter” dove season holds significant potential for a high-quality hunting experience, especially this year.
The 2017 fall dove season was something of a bust. Hurricane Harvey hit Texas the week before the Sept. 1 dove opener in most of the state. Between hunters whose lives were directly impacted by the natural disaster and post-Harvey gasoline shortages in much of the rest of the state, the number of dove hunters – and dove harvest – was significantly down.
Some of the doves that would have been taken during the fall season remain in Texas; this is especially true of mourning doves, which are not as prone as their white-winged cousins to migrate south as temperatures chill. And those carry-over “resident” doves have been bolstered by waves of mourning doves that have migrated to Texas from northern states.
The effect has been what, anecdotally, appears to be a very strong population of dives in Texas as the winter season opens.
Those birds, Oldenburger said, will invariably be concentrated in areas holding abundant forage, almost all of which will be seeds from native plants. Seeds from native plants – croton, pigweed, ragweed, wild sunflower, spurge, panic grass and others – make up the bulk of forage for wintering doves, replacing the agricultural crops such as milo, rice, corn, wheat, peanuts and other grains that draw doves during the fall season.
“If you can find a field or a pasture holding a lot of native seeds, that’s where you’re going to find doves,” Oldenburger said.
And there should be an abundance of those seeds out there. Weather conditions over the past months – all that rain in summer produced a flush of plant growth followed by a dry and warm autumn that helped trigger good seed setting and some cold temperatures that knocked those seeds loose – promise good things for wintering doves and winter-season dove hunters.
“There should be plenty of seeds on the landscape,” Oldenburger said.
Scouting is a key to a successful winter-season dove hunt, Oldenburger said. The birds are highly mobile this time of year and frequently shift feeding locations. But hunters lucky enough to find and have access to a “hot” feeding field can enjoy some high-quality dove hunting – steady flights of birds and minimal competition from other hunters.
Those “winter” doves, however, are likely to be much more challenging targets than the ones hunters encountered in September. Wintering doves tend to fly higher and stronger than during the fall season, when a large percentage of the birds were juveniles. They also tend to be much more wary than September doves, forcing hunters to taking concealment and avoiding movement much more seriously if they want decent chances at the flighty game birds.
Twist and shout
While winter-season doves can be challenging targets, they can pale in comparison to the wingshooting puzzle presented by Wilson’s snipe and woodcock. Both of these modest-size shorebirds – the only shorebirds designated as legal game birds In this nation – flush in frenzy of twists, turns, zigs, zags and other acrobatic contortions that can tie wingshooters into knots.
This winter season looks to be one in which Texas hunters can find abundant opportunities to swing – and usually miss – at both. And weather appears to be playing a role in that.
Anecdotally, Texas coastal prairies are holding an unusually large number of snipe. Those wintering snipe concentrate in very shallow wetlands with low vegetative cover such as the habitat found on rain-drenched pasture or prairie, harvested rice fields, the periphery of stock tanks and managed moist-soil tracts where waters has been mostly drained. There, the birds use their long, flexible bills to probe the shallow water and soft soil for worms, grubs and other invertebrates.
This winter, the Texas coast has a corner on the market of such habitat. Much of Texas – especially northeast, north-central and central Texas – have been unusually dry since late summer.
“In a wet fall, you have a lot of snipe wintering in those parts of the state, around stock tanks and farm ponds and wet pastures and prairie,” Oldenburger said. “This year, a lot of those places are dry. That could be forcing snipe to the coast, where they can find the habitat they prefer.”
Whatever the reason, the Texas coastal plain appears set to produce – and already has produced – outstanding snipe shooting for hunters. At least it has for those willing to don a pair of rubber knee boots or hip boots and spend a morning mucking across wet prairie, pasture land or other shallow wetlands, flushing snipe, recovering from the start of hearing the birds’ high-pitched “scraaaappe!” alarm call, then trying to swing their shotgun ahead of the screwballing game bird.
A similar situation greets Texas wingshooters who pursue woodcock. This year, the forests and clearcuts and pastures of eastern Texas appear to be holding more woodcock than most years, and weather may be the reason.
Many of the woodcock annually migrating from their nesting grounds on timberlands in the northern U.S. and southern Canada winter in mix of forest and wetlands of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. But that region, which stretches along either side of its namesake river from southern Missouri to southern Louisiana, has not been a very welcoming place to woodcock this year.
“The (Mississippi Alluvial Valley) has been really dry this fall,” Oldenburger said. “It’s really reduced the amount of habitat available to birds that depend on the wintering habitat there. So what we may be seeing is woodcock that would have wintered in those areas moving down into eastern Texas, where conditions are better.”
The eastern third of the state usually holds a surprisingly robust wintering population of woodcock. The birds feed at night in the soft soil of clearcuts and grassy pastures, where they employ their long bills to probe for the earthworms that provide almost all of their diet.
On the hunt
At dawn, woodcock repair to adjacent woodlands, typically along timbered bottoms featuring abundant greenbriar, blackberry, cane and other brambles that protect the birds from raptors as the perfectly camouflaged birds nestle on the leafy forest floor where they spend the day.
Hunters willing to brush-bust their way through the thorny cover following setters or close-working “flushing” Labradors can enjoy the exhilaration – and inevitable frustration – of jumping tight-holding woodcock, then trying swing a shotgun in the vine-, bramble- and tree-choked quarters and get off a shot that connects with the twisting, turning game bird.
A hunter who takes a three-bird daily limit of woodcock has had a memorable day and holds the makings of one the richest, most delicious meals ever to grace a plate or palate.
Texas woodcock hunters, like those taking advantage of the opportunities to pursue “winter doves and wetland-loving snipe, soon will find out if this season turns out to be one to remember.
Texas’ winter dove season runs through Dec. 31 in the state’s North Dove Zone, Jan. 7 in the Central Dove Zone and closes Jan. 21 in the South Dove Zone. The daily bag limit is 15 doves, to include no more than two white-tipped doves.