Traditionally considered the beginning of the fall hunting period, dove season starts Saturday at noon, and Georgia Department of Natural Resources rangers expect 3,000 locals to turn out for various hunting events across Bartow County.
"A lot of people dove hunt and don't do any other kind of hunting at all. It's a real social event and a lot of people pick up a gun one time a year or maybe they haven't gone the past five years and suddenly they got invited to a hunt," DNR Sgt. Mike Barr said. "Therefore they are not as up with how their firearm operates, where other people are shooting, not to shoot at low birds."
That is why rangers, who enforce state wildlife laws and regulations, have a message for those who plan this holiday weekend to don camouflage and an orange square -- be careful with firearms and follow the rules.
"We had a hunter shot last year in Bartow County. He was dove hunting," Barr said, adding two teens who had not discussed safe shooting zones were hunting over a sunflower field in Rydal. "What happened was the person who was on the right sat down. The person that saw doves coming from his direction stood up. He grabbed some shells and put them in his gun. He actually moved over in front of him and the other person didn't know that. He was looking behind him with the shells and when he shot, he was bringing the gun up. He had his finger on the trigger, the safety was off. Those are all bad things for safe hunting and the [teen] took the load right in the back."
Officials say the 2010-2011 dove seasons are Sept. 4 to 19, Oct. 9 to 17 and Nov. 25 to Jan. 8, but gun safety carries over to all types of hunting, including rifle deer season which begins in October.
To keep hunters abreast of safety measures, DNR requires hunting licensees born during or after 1961 to participate in a hunter education course, which are available in a classroom, via CD-ROM or online.
"It's the best single place to learn or start to learn about safety with firearms. That's free if you come to a class now and if you take it on the Internet, there's a fee," Barr said, adding hunters should visit gohuntgeorgia.com and click Education or call 770-761-3010.
Classes are held in Cartersville regularly. Hunters pursuing game on their own land or on that of their parents or guardians are not required to attend the course, along with outdoorsmen who purchase short-term hunting licenses.
"The close proximity is one of the biggest issues," Ranger 1st Class Byron Young said. "We'll have a 30-acre dove field with sometimes 100 people on it. That's when the firearms safety becomes really important. It's important all the time, but it's extremely important when you get that many people that close together and it's not uncommon to have 100 on a 30-acre field."
Dove hunters 16 and older must have a Georgia hunting license and a free Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program Permit, known as a H.I.P. permit. Those hunting in Wildlife Management Areas also must have a WMA license.
Rangers say hunters should never consume alcoholic beverages or shoot at low birds. Dove hunters are required to plug auto-loading or other repeating shotguns to hold no more than three shot shells while hunting.
Young said rangers strictly enforce the daily bag limit, which this year has increased from 12 to 15. Last year, local rangers cited several hunters for harvesting over the limit, the largest violation of which involved the confiscation of 113 doves. Three people were fined in that case.
Another violation rangers will keep an eye out for is illegal baiting. It could also bring hefty fines, and rangers could shut down fields in which the activity occurs.
"It is perfectly legal to have already planted a dove field and hunt over that legally planted, harvested field. It is illegal to not have thought three months ahead and go out and put cracked corn out and go over there and shoot over it," Barr said.
For more information on dove hunting rules and regulations, public dove fields and conditions, or adult/child dove hunts, review the 2010-2011 Georgia Hunting Seasons and Regulations guide available at www.gohuntgeorgia.com or any Wildlife Resources Division Game Management office.
In a press release, DNR officials say updated and accurate harvest rate estimates facilitate the successful management of doves. The U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with several states, including Georgia, initiated a dove trapping and banding project in 2003.
Hunters can participate in this conservation effort by examining harvested doves for bands and reporting band numbers to the USFWS by calling 1-800-327-BAND.
H.I.P. permits requires all hunters pursuing doves, ducks, geese, rails and other migratory bird species to complete an annual harvest survey.
Fifteen years and running, the HIP program details both the number of migratory game bird hunters and their harvests. This information helps wildlife managers monitor migratory bird populations, set hunting seasons and bag limits and ensure healthy, sustainable populations.