Secrets of the American Woodcock

By: Kirk Howes

The October woods are Gods finest creation. Great, is a word I use often but it does nothing to express how I feel about the woods in October. I revere the woods at that time.

The colorful landscapes, the aroma of the damp fall air, the little hidden spots we dream of all summer long become a reality now.

To me, there’s two seasons, October and waiting for October. October is the “Hunt Month”.

For many sportsmen hunting means birds, to a select few those birds are the American Woodcock. Cool mornings, rainy nights and a splash of sunshine all make the hunting of birds a wonderful experience.

I sometimes stop dead in my tracks overwhelmed by the shear beauty of the woodlands around me. The golden colored aspen and bright red sassafras leaves, a stray Aster flower, the skeleton outline of the black walnut trees on the higher ground, all of it is, “just right”. “Just right” and bird hunting is a beautiful thing, days can be etched in the hunters mind forever. Some days are legendary passed down as tales from one generation to the next. Lucky are those to experience such a day.

The best day of hunting woodcock I ever had was in October 1974. It took place in a boggy little woodlot about 50 acres in size. That piece of woods was a great place to hunt the woodcocks for 10 yrs or so. It was splendid, as a matter of fact; I hit it daily without a dog and I had 30 flushes per day almost like clock work.

If you have hunted grouse or woodcock you know what a 30 bird day is, or you long for one. If you haven’t ever seen a 30 bird day let me help you with the feeling of one ……..

Imagine winning the lotto and then living 110 years more to enjoy it in perfect health. That’ll put you close to having a 30 bird day.

A factory now stands on the land now where my little secret spot was. A sign out front boasts “200 plus days with out injury”. Without injury?, Hardly!, I am forever scarred, as are the Woodcock that once called that piece of heaven home for a week or so during the Fall Flights. I don’t even drive down the road anymore, fearing I may crash the gates and reclaim the land for the long billed bird and I.

Woodcock hunting is a sport in which one must take in all of natures wonders, the landscapes, two tracks littered only by leaves painted bright. Rays of sunlight beckon you ahead to the next thicket. The next spot always seems a little more “birdie” than the last spot. Hopes run high, good days are sometimes measure by dog bells and burnt powder.

I started looking for some other bird to hunt, when the Pheasant populations were on a landslide down. We always had flushed a few “long bills” from the wet swales; someone would call out “Woodcock!” The bird was free to go, as we never wanted to spook Mr. Ring-neck causing a wild flush out of gun range. After awhile we started hunting woodcock, as they were being pointed more and more by the dogs. The colorful Pheasant was all but gone by then. So by misfortune I am a woodcock hunter at certain times. If by the same misfortune you would like to pursue a few of the tasty devils, allow me to help out on a few tips.

I should mention I am a lazy hunter; that is I prefer to walk where I can shoot, allowing the dog to work the heavy cover. The problem with that is my own dog feels heavy cover restricts his ability to sprint from zero to 60 inside of 20 yards some days.

So I wear briar proof clothes. Filson makes some good stuff and that’s what I wear. My hunting pants and vest are old and worn; they’ll outlast me I’m sure.

Good eye protection is a must! One thorn in your eye may cause blindness. Make sure you wear some protection unless you are wrong eye dominant and you feel two eyes are not necessary. With out eye protection you’ll surely raise the risk of losing an eye

As to the choice of weapon and such, guns are as different as those who swing them. Use an open choke, smaller shot sizes like 8s-9s early in the year when the leaves are on and 7.5s -8s later as the leaves drop. I don’t care what gauge you use, an ounce of shot is an ounce of shot! If you shoot it good, then take the gun out hunting.

When you’re fortunate and take a woodcock, you’ll also enjoy a small portion of dark meat unlike any other game bird.

Here are a few tips to get started:

Pack some water, it gets warm out there both you and the dog need water. I pack a small loaf of bread and a bit of cheese too. A candy bar gives you a lift on the long walks as well. If you have a compass take it, if you don’t have one, buy one and learn how-to use it. Then get out the GPS and take it as well. Being lost is fun, but only for a short time. Getting out of the woods should never be any harder than getting in there.

Finding a spot to hunt is kind of easy. Call the DNR or Forestry Division near you and ask about hunting spots. Drive around and look for thickets bordered by swampy areas. As season approaches drive around at dusk and watch for flying birds. They tend to fly to the low laying feeding areas at dusk, in search of worms. Find spots with worms and I’ll wager you’ll find a bird or two.

Most birds are” flight birds” in the fall season, you’ll see them one day and they may move 50 miles or more that night. Feast or famine, is a common feeling.

Plan on walking, I pack an extra pair of socks and change them at the mid point of the hunt. Most importantly, relax and enjoy the days hunt.

Shooting a woodcock is two things: “easy” or “how did I miss?” Their flight is nothing short of an acrobatic marvel as they fly higher to the tree tops, to escape the dog and hunter.

Waiting for the bird to get far enough away before firing, is a hard lesson to learn. Take your time and allow the little bird to finish its corkscrew flight plan before you shoot. I once asked an older hunter how he became such a great woodcock shot, his reply was “Two birds hit out of fifteen flushes seemed poor to him”. And that may be. So what if the poorest part of the hunt is the shooting ratio? The rest of the day makes up for it unlike anything else I know of.

I enjoy pan frying wood cock in bacon grease. Sliced thin the meat is served on a cracker along with a favorite cheese. This is best done while still in the woods (see note).

Note: A small cabin tucked away in the” North Country” can be used as a substitute.

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