The Ways of Woodcock


By Tom Hennessey

In cover still thick with October’s kaleidoscope of foliage, the veteran woodcock hunter picked his way toward his Brittany spaniel, “Midge,” whose bell had suddenly stopped and shouted, Bird! Briars raked his hands and clawed at his boots and legs. And in leaning backward to sidestep between alders, a branch tilted his hat over his eyes. Cursing and thrashing, then, he was doused with a cold shower of melted frost.

At about the time he regained his composure, he heard the dog’s bell starting and stopping, barely dinging. As if stealing each step, the birdy Brittany eased forward. Realizing that the bird was moving, the hunter moved ahead, mumbling, “Why are these birds so spooky? It used to be the odd woodcock that moved ahead of a dog. Lately, though, it seems that the sound of a bell is their signal to start running.” His conclusion was that increased hunting pressure was the culprit. When I was a kid, he recalled, bird dogs were few and far between in this neck of the woods. Seconds later, where a lone spruce stood among poplars, the dog stiffened like starch.

But while the hunter looked for an opening that might provide a shot, the woodcock flushed and disappeared into the gold-leafed foliage. Thanks to having hunted with bird dogs since before he began shaving, the hunter wasn’t taken aback when, directly, the woodcock came fluttering back through the cover, lit a few yards ahead of him and quickly flushed again. He shook his head, though, when his snap shot of No. 8s pruned a poplar. Why is it that, when flushed, a bird seen on the ground is often missed?
In spite of having been fooled repeatedly by the partridge’s bottomless bag of tricks, and having learned long ago that a gaudy cock pheasant can hide on a golf green, the hunter regarded the woodcock as the most fascinating and elusive of Maine’s upland game birds. “Now there’s a bird,” he’d say, “that knows no ruses and plans no strategies. No siree. That long-billed will o’ the wisp doesn’t have the slightest idea of what it will do next.” Simply put, it’s the woodcock’s spur-of-the-moment tactics and frustrating elusiveness that are so alluring and challenging to hunters and dogs with years of experience under their belts and collars.

Let’s face it. If hunters knew which covers were holding woodcock, or knew precisely when the flight birds were in, and knew the birds would hold like they were glued to the ground, and which way they’d fly when flushed, the sport would soon lose its luster. Moreover, allowing that subjects least understood are the most professed, it’s no small wonder that the theories, conjectures and philosophies about the ways of the woodcock are on-going in arguments about which shotgun chokes and shot sizes are best for bagging the grand little game birds.

Without question, the moon holds center stage in discourses focused on when flights of woodcock will flutter bat-like into covers that were barren a week earlier. Accordingly, since day one woodcock hunters have maintained, heatedly at times, that the nocturnal travelers always migrate on the full of the moon. Sure they do, the hunter thought _ just like smelts always swarm into brooks to spawn when the moon is feeling full of itself. Trouble is, I’ve walked away from smelt brooks and bird covers too many times when only the man in the moon was smiling. From what I’ve seen of it, the full-moon theory belongs in the same category as the one claiming that flight birds are bigger and fly faster than native birds.

What happens, he mused, if October’s full moon is obliterated by a week of overcast weather? In that case, I’m surprised that someone hasn’t said the birds would delay their flights. All things considered, to start the birds on their southern sojourns give me a mid-October night with an old fashioned line storm of wind-driven rain that lacquers leaves to windows and shimmies the shade on the lamp post across the road.

Continuing his reverie, the hunter imagined hunting a day later in nearly naked alders crowding a river valley. Likewise, he conjured images of birch knolls and poplar hillsides mounded with ant hills and moist with spring seeps. His shotgun? A 20-gauge double, of course. Side-by-side or over-under wouldn’t matter provided it was a 20 gauge with 26-inch barrels bored skeet and skeet for scattering loads of 8s or 9s. Chuckling, he thought aloud, “I need all the help I can get.” But granted those wishes he would almost guarantee that on Saturday night there’d be diced woodcock breasts, sliced onions, green peppers and mushrooms simmering in a fry pan greased with garlic butter. “Talk about tasty,” he muttered, “It’s enough to make me pass up a potful of baked beans, and that’s saying a lot.”

In spite of the woodcock’s storied elusiveness, experienced hunters manage to cast their dogs in covers that hold enough birds to remind them of the wing shooter’s adage: “To hit is history, to miss is mystery.” With that in mind, they rely on a few tried-and-true old sayings that young hunters should take to heart. The best known, of course, is, “When it’s dry, hunt high.” Meaning woodcock can’t probe for worms and grubs in baked-dry alder bottoms. Likewise, the bird’s preferred feed isn’t found in soil that is acidy or rocky. Hence, “Moss and rocks don’t hold woodcock.”

There is one saying, however, that must have been coined by someone who had never followed a “feather hound” into a cover: “The trick to shooting woodcock is to wait until they pause at the top of their rise.” Without being facetious, the most I can say for that one is that it’s a sure way to save on shells.

The cover was steaming and the hunter was sweating by the time he tucked his third woodcock (the daily limit) into the game pocket of his vest. “OK, Midge,” he called to his hunting partner, whose chiming bell turned to liquid notes as she drank and cooled off in the brook flowing between the back edge of the cover and a hell-hole of hackmatacks. “Let’s call it good and head for the barn. It’s getting too hot to hunt now and the best of the season is ahead of us.”

Trudging along the tractor trail leading to his truck, the hunter allowed that he was blessed to have grown up with guns and dogs and bird covers within walking distance of his house. Minutes later, with Midge curled comfortably in her straw-filled box, he set the three woodcock on the tailgate and admired the incredible camouflage of their mottled plumage of barred umbers and grays. Quite a bird, he thought. In spite of what we know about them, or think we do, they continue to baffle us with their here-today-gone-tomorrow nature.

And so it goes. Now and then we’ll find a cover full of them. A day or two later we’ll find only leafy carpets spattered white with chalkings. Calling cards, if you will, letting us know that a flight had arrived and departed in the smothering darkness of the new moon. Thus reminding us that these wonderfully sporty birds that whistle with their wings always have been, and always will be, predictably unpredictable.

The late Tom Hennessy was a nationally known sporting artist and outdoor writer.

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