Woodcock Memories - Page 2

Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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The one true consistency for woodcock hunting is that once the "gales of November" set-in, the wayward woodcock heads south. For woodcock are migratory birds, and once the ground of their northern limit begins to freeze they can no longer feed. Woodcock are normally only found east of the Mississippi River, along the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways. Atlantic flyway woodcock breed and nest in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, specifically the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Mississippi flyway timberdoodles spend their summers rearing young in northern Michigan and Wisconsin, southern Ontario and southwestern Quebec. Each autumn, Atlantic birds fly thousands of miles following the Appalachian Mountains south to their wintering grounds in the Carolina’s, Georgia and Florida. While the Mississippi birds winter as far south as Louisiana, woodcock migrations generally follow the frost line south in search of warmer weather and food. Besides locating prospective woodcock coverts, being there at the right time to intercept flight birds is the real trick. Woodcock usually fly at night, some believe during full-moon phases, and an empty covert today may be teaming with flight birds tomorrow. Woodcock migrations tend to be in waves and good coverts can be productive for several weeks each fall from October through November, depending on weather conditions.

The woodcock will hold tighter than his neighor, the ruffed gouse, making his good quary for both pointing and flushing dogs.
Photo by: Author
I have hunted woodcock up and down the eastern seaboard, but my most memorable hunt experience took place several years ago in south central Virginia, on my family’s farm. My brother Paul and I had finished making some repairs to one of our duck blinds, in preparation for the upcoming waterfowl season. We decided to take a break and spend a few hours working my male English Springer Spaniel "Buck" in some familiar woodcock cover. With the seasonal weather of an Indian summer and late October days still long, we were hoping some flight birds would still be in the area. It was already late in the afternoon as we gathered our gear and drove to the back pasture. We stopped the truck along the seventeen-acre swamp that boarders one side of our property, and decided to work the bottoms and edges. As we uncased our guns and I slipped the bell around Buck’s neck, I had a good feeling about what this covert might hold for us.

Buck had his nose to the ground and was running through the tall grass of the pasture. Paul and I had started through the gate of barbed-wire fence when Buck rejoined us. We stopped atop the oak ridge and loaded-up. About fifty yards in, and halfway between the field’s edge and the swamp, Buck veered sharply to the right and flushed the first timberdoodle of the day. Paul, slightly below me and to the right, dropped the woodcock as it attempted to sail past him. Buck made the retrieve and we continued along. Coming down the hill towards the swamp there is a gauntlet of blow-downs and thorn tangles. In the broken cover between the blow-downs and the alder thickets that line the near edge of the swamp, is a large area of classic woodcock cover. Getting there is the hard part.

Breaking through the snarl of broken branches, waist high barriers, stickers and thorns, Buck charged into a patch of saplings and flushed another bird. As luck would have it, I was still standing in a low covering of thorns that tangled my feet up. I was off balance and not in a good position to shoot. As I tried to adjust my position and turn to intercept the flight path of the rising woodcock, several small saplings and branches prevented my barrels from coming to mark. Paul, watching the whole process, looked at me and shrugged knowingly. We decided to continue in the direction that the woodcock had flown, knowing he probably hadn’t gone very far. Working the cover between the hillside and the alder thickets, we hadn’t gone more than thirty yards from the last flush when Buck suddenly looped back to the left. He wasn’t ten yards from me when three woodcocks launched skyward.

The Author and his male English springer spaniel "Buck", with their Virginia woodcock double.
Photo by: Author
The sound of their whistling wings filled the air, and it seemed as though time stood still. It was as if pure instinct took over as I raised the Browning on the bird ahead of me. In that moment, I pulled the trigger and almost before the bird started it’s decent towards the earth, I swung the gun to the right and was on the second of the three woodcock. The report of the Citori’s upper barrel started the clock ticking again. As I lowered the gun and cleared the empty hulls from the chambers, Buck was already returning with the first bird. I sent him to the spot I had marked the second, and after a few moments, he emerged with a mouth full of feathers. I accepted the retrieve and gave Buck plenty of praise. I had scored my first double on woodcock.

With the brace of timberdoodle in my vest and the sun getting low over an autumn colored tree line, we called it a day. I whistled-up Buck and slipped the lead around his neck. As we crested the hill, a pair of wood ducks sailed over us towards the swamp below. Paul and I watched them set their wings and disappear into the flooded timber. We didn’t speak much on the way back to the truck, each being embraced in the memory of woodcock.
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