A look into choosing chokes and shot size as the dove hunting season changes
Sept. 1 signals the start of the upland season for wingshooters and while some of us will venture to the west for sharp-tailed grouse hunting, Hungarian partridge hunting, sage grouse hunting and prairie chicken hunting. Thousands of dove hunters will go through an untold number of boxes of shotgun shells in the dove fields across the country throughout the season. Doves aren’t tough to bring down, but their speed and unpredictable flight patterns make them amazingly difficult to hit, and when moving from the early to late season, the chokes and shotshells used will differ as conditions change.
Selecting a dove-hunting shotgun is really a matter of personal preference. A good all-around choice is a 20-, 16-, or 12-gauge. Further, pumps, autoloaders, side-by-sides, and over-and-unders all make for an excellent “dove gun.”
There will be those shooters who will carry into the dove fields those ultra-light 28s and, on rare occasions, the .410. But for the most part, choke and shotshell load selection will be similar for each type of shotgun. Of course, early in the dove season shooters will use a different shotgun choke and shotshell combination than for those late-season doves that are still hanging around. Also, take into account the fact that steel shot for dove will result in a tighter pattern than lead shot.
|Early Season||Improved Cylinder or Modified||10 – 35 Yards||No. 7 1/2|
|Late Season||Modified or Improved Modified||25 – 40 yards||No. 6 to 7 1/2|
LEGAL NOTE: Federal regulations require that hunters using repeating shotguns must be limited to holding only three shells (plugged) while dove hunting.
Choosing a shotgun choke for dove hunting
When choosing the proper choke selection for the right conditions—meaning, not over- or under-choking your barrel(s)—remember, the wider and denser a pattern that a dove has to fly through, the better the odds of folding it and putting it towards your limit of doves.
The ability to match the shotgun choke to the conditions afield is more important than the gauge. No matter the type of shotgun used, proper choke selection is crucial to a successful hunt. Walk into a dove field with the wrong choke(s), and the shell-to-dove ratio will suffer and diminish the shooter’s confidence. Fortunately, modern shotguns offer screw-in chokes, meaning hunters can go to the dove field and change out the choke for the one that fits the conditions.
Older shotguns came with a variable choke system. These choke systems were very common for pump and semi-auto shotguns, and the variable systems went by many names depending on the manufacturer: C-Lect Choke, Vary Choke, Poly Choke, and Accu Choke are the most common descriptions. The system is based on a screwed barrel tip with a twist ring to change the choke amount. These “twist-in” chokes disappeared with the advent of screw-in chokes.
The choke does not alter the shotgun’s power—it just controls how tight or spread out the shot pattern will be at a specific distance when it hits the intended flying target. When a shotshell is fired from a shotgun, the pellets leave the barrel and begin to spread or scatter. The farther the pellets travel, the greater the spread.
Dove hunters will hit more birds with a more open pattern than with a tighter full choke. The object is to put just enough pellets into doves that will quickly, cleanly, and efficiently bring them down.
The fastest spreading pellet pattern comes from a cylinder choke (or a zero choke), which means the barrel is unconstructed. This is best for shots below 25 yards. Skeet choke is an excellent choice for early-season doves, followed up with improved-cylinder as the second-best option for dove hunters. For shooters using two-barrel shotguns, it’s hard to beat skeet for the first shot and improved-cylinder for the follow-up.
- 22.5 yards SK/Skeet (.005) choke, as the name implies, is a popular choice with skeet shooters. This choke opens up wide and fast. Hunters shouldn’t allow the name to fool them as the choke is deadly for incoming doves near waterholes and feed and grain fields.
- 25-30 yards: IC/Improved Cylinder (.010) choke has a slight constriction. It allows the shot pattern to spread fairly quickly. When the doves are flying in fast and close or responding to both static and motion decoys, Improved Cylinder is hard to beat.
- 30-35 yards: M/Modified (.020) choke has moderate constriction. The shot stays together longer, making the pattern denser and more useful at longer ranges. This choke is used often for dove hunting and is the preferred choke when using *steel shot.
Improved Cylinder and Modified are a good combination as well as the season progresses and longer shots are taken whether pass shooting or decoying doves.
There is also an improved modified choke that is slightly tighter than modified.
A good example of using a tight pattern or full choke during the wrong conditions is during the early season, as shots in a dove field will be more difficult to hit—and if the shot string does connect, the pellets will destroy the dove at close range.
- 45 yards – F/Full (.035) choke has tight constriction. The shot holds together even longer so it’s good for long ranges. Hunters should remember that doves are much harder to hit in the 40 to 45 yard range. It is true that some shots at overhead flying doves can be long, but shots that require the use of a full choke are generally not the norm.
Hunters should carefully consider the distance their shots are likely to be and base their choke requirements on that. If a change is needed, do it.
During the early season, it’s recommended that dove hunters use either an improved cylinder or modified choke. These two chokes are very efficient from 10 to about 35 yards. Most shots taken by dove hunters will fall within this range during this part of the season when most of the doves harvested will be young-of-the-year birds. These birds’ feather development will not be nearly as thick, nor are the doves as big as the birds will be when harvested later in the season.
As the season progresses and pressure is put on by those doves that haven’t left the area, dove hunters should move up one choke tighter and go with a modified to improved modified. Not only are the doves flying farther as they are weary but the doves will be stronger and bigger later in the season.
Doves that have survived the onslaught of the first two weeks will tend to be easily spooked because they have learned that food sources could mean their ultimate doom.
Choosing shotgun ammunition and shot size for dove
As for proper shot sizes, doves are not difficult to bring down if hit squarely. It takes only a few pellets to down doves. Hunters should concentrate on using smaller shot sizes that offer more pellets and create dense patterns, which are effective on fast-moving birds. Dove hunters should stick to smaller shot sizes such as No. 7 1/2, 8, or 9.
Perhaps the best all-around and most common 12-gauge shotshell used in the dove fields is a 1- or 1 1/8-ounce load of 7 1/2. During the early dove season, a good shotshell is No. 8, followed up with a 7 1/2 for longer shots. Many dove hunters shy away from the 8 and 9 shells as they believe the loads aren’t enough to bring down doves, however, these shells do pack enough punch for those early September gray birds.
Heavier loads allow for longer shots, so as the season progresses hunters can switch to loading No. 7 or even 6 depending on the conditions. The smaller No. 8 pellets are perfect for mourning doves, while 6, 7, or 7 1/2, make good on knocking down the larger white-winged doves and Eurasian collared doves.
Hunters carrying a light 20- or 16-gauge should consider a 7/8 load, but a 1-ounce load of shot may fare better. Choosing the proper shot size can make a difference in the number of doves harvested. Wingshooters have been waiting since the season ended back in January, so selecting a good choke and shotshell combination is important.
One final note: dove hunters need to check the regulations for the specific area being hunted. Although most areas allow the use of lead shot, there is a growing trend in some wildlife management areas to require the use of non-toxic shot loads (steel, Bismuth, Tungsten). Non-toxic loads can be more expensive than lead loads, so compare prices.
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.