Try the Woodcock Challenge

Posted by  Monday, September 09 2013 6:00 am
expert

Every autumn, when the weather man announces the first cold front blowing down from the north, we get timberdoodles on our minds.

One year, in mid-November, the phone rang at 6:30 p.m.

"Did you hear the weather report?" Jim asked, a twinge of excitement edging his voice. "There's a blue norther coming down. The timberdoodles are probably flocking into Lost Pond already. I'll pick you up at 5 tomorrow morning. You bring sandwiches, and I'll bring the coffee. Patterson's going with us."

TryWoodcockChallengeAt 7 a.m., we were making our first push through a tract of bottomland timber along east Arkansas' L'Anguille River. Like most woodcock hunters, I prefer that you don't know the exact location of my hunting spots, so I'll call this one Hugh's Hollow.

This particular covert is a classic woodcock hospice of dense sweetgum saplings and honeysuckle thickets. A beaver slough slashes the edge, feeding water into the spongy ground beneath the canopy of oaks and tupelos. The territory is thick and uncivil; it's hard to find space between the tangles of vegetation to set down your feet.

As we waded into the thicket, I saw the first signs that our timing was right: white splatters on the leaves and little holes in the mud, like someone had been poking around with a stick. Then 10 yards out front, from the depths of the sweetgums, came a sharp, ascendant twittering. A brown, fist-sized bird spiraled skyward through the branches.

I lost sight of the bird almost immediately in the crisscross of leafy limbs, but by some fluke of luck, it presented Jim an uncommonly clear shot, and he killed it. The shot rumbled. The woodcock fell at his feet.

"In case you didn't know, boys, this is what we're looking for," he said, holding the timberdoodle for us to see.

The second bird came out low and fast. I shot, missed, and it flew into the nether reaches of the covert. After it we went, and when it flushed again in characteristic fashion, Gregg mounted, swung and fired in one quick fluid motion. A detonation of feathers showed he had found his mark.

Gregg found the woodcock in a patch of honeysuckle. Jim came over, and we admired the singular beauty of this unusual woodland ghost. Its bill was like a knitting needle, its legs weak and squatty, the tail just a little tuft of stubby feathers. The soft plumage was a warm earthy brown flecked with black and cinnamon. Broad black bars passed over the crown between big ebony eyes.

As we stood, another timberdoodle put up in the cover beside us, whistling away through the bottoms.

Taking the Challenge

The timberdoodle, as it is often called, goes more properly by the name American woodcock. The birds are quail-sized, cryptically colored and hide in dense cover. Many hunters aren't even aware of their presence.

To top it off, woodcock hunting is anything but easy. Gunners must brave the gnarly thickets and boggy bottoms woodcocks frequent. And while buried to the ears in a latticework of vegetation, they must try to snap-shoot a crooked-flying, brown-feathered blur that has the nerve-jangling habit of flushing directly underfoot. Tough hunting like that discourages many people, which may account for the fact that relatively few hunters pursue woodcocks.

Hunting them is challenging and fun, nevertheless. And those who have tried it almost invariably become addicted.

Recognizing good woodcock habitat is one key to successful hunting, for these coverts tend to concentrate the birds and provide consistent shooting. This is usually moist bottomland near waters surrounded by low, heavy brush cover about 8 to 15 feet tall. Look for damp, loamy soil along creeks, springs, sloughs and beaver ponds where woodcocks can probe the soft ground for earthworms, their favorite food.

The most common sign of woodcocks, except for the birds themselves, is the chalky whitewash of droppings they deposit on the forest floor. Normal weather quickly obliterates this, so finding it indicates birds are, or recently were, nearby. Watch, too, for probe holes in soft earth around ponds, creeks and other waters. These are made by the woodcock's long bill when it probes the ground for worms.

The best hunting in many parts of the country is provided by large influxes of migratory or so-called "flight" birds. Hunters intercept these woodcocks as they pass through on their migration.

Weather reports offer clues on when to expect the migrants. Major influxes of woodcocks usually precede strong autumn cold fronts pushing down from Canada and the northern United States. Most woodcocks will move out well in advance of snow or ice that locks out their food supply.

To avoid frustration, it's very important to remember that many woodcocks are just passing migrants. If you time your hunt properly, coverts may be bristling with birds. But miss them by a day, and the only trace of timberdoodles will be their white "splashes" on new-fallen leaves. Several likely coverts should be located in order to increase your chance for finding timberdoodles on any given hunt, and you should visit these coverts several times during the season before giving up on them.

Fortunately, woodcocks usually return to the same coverts year after year. If this year's scouting proves fruitful, you'll have several known coverts to hunt again next season.

For most of us, woodcock hunting is a jump-shooting sport. The trick is to locate a likely-looking area, then work the cover meticulously. Rather than flying, a woodcock much prefers to sit on the ground and let you walk right past it. To foil this instinctive gambit, adopt a walk-then-stop pattern of hunting, pausing a minute or so every 20 feet as you walk through cover. Woodcocks are a nervous lot, and won't sit still long if a hunter stops nearby and looks around.

Dogs are another element in many successful hunts, the favored breeds being close-working dogs such as Brittany spaniels and German short-hair pointers.

Equipment

As far as equipment is concerned, hunting woodcocks is essentially the same as quail hunting. Most hunters prefer short-barreled, improved cylinder shotguns for quick snap shooting and easy maneuverability in tight, brushy quarters. Low-brass shotshells with No. 7-1/2, 8 or 9 shot work great; the birds are easy to bring down if you can hit them. Other items of equipment you should have include hunter-orange cap and shooting vest for visibility to other hunters; shatterproof shooting glasses for eye protection in brush; and shooting gloves and tough, canvas-fronted brush pants to fend off briars and thorns.

My friends and I wound up our morning of woodcock hunting with a grand total of eight timberdoodles, an average of almost three apiece. That doesn't sound like many, and it's not. But like most woodcock fans, we don't measure the success of our hunt by how many birds we shoot.

Back at the truck, we admired our harvest. "You know," Gregg said, "leaning against the pickup. "I've done a lot of hunting in my time, but nothing more fun than I had today. It just doesn't get any better than this."

Jim and I agreed. It's a demanding sport, this woodcock hunting. You wear yourself out fighting through brush, hoping to find some little brown birds that may be there and may not. And if they are, if you're lucky this time, then they'll flush right under your feet, and you'll twist yourself into a knot trying to shoot them before they spiral away through the timber. You'll kill a few, and miss a lot more. But next year, when the weather man talks about that first blue norther heading your way, you'll get woodcocks on your mind, and the next morning, you'll be out there trying again.

Many hunters consider woodcock hunting a folly — a waste of time, energy and too much ammunition. For others, though, the sport is addictive.

Discover the truth for yourself. The real allure of woodcock hunting must be experienced to be understood.

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Keith Sutton
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With a resume listing more than 3,500 magazine, newspaper and website articles about fishing, hunting, wildlife and conservation, Keith Sutton of Alexander, Ark., has established a reputation as one of the country’s best-known outdoor writers. In 2011, Sutton, who has authored 12 books, was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a “Legendary Communicator.” Visit his website at www.catfishsutton.com.

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