Gunning for long bills

by Al Davy | September 5, 2023

The exotic little woodcock has such charm that it lures me away from known grouse coverts to its own wild and lovely October haunts.

Grouse can wait until November and December. When woodcock flights are in, I’ll be in their coverts, because a day of hunting in several good woodcock spots can provide as much fine wing shooting as a season of grouse hunting in southern Ontario.

If you like wing shooting, it’s worth the effort to find some woodcock locations because they will be there, year after year, giving you a hunt you that will always draw you back into the October woods.

The little russet fellow is an odd bird indeed. It has the long beak of a shore bird but lives in the woods. Its ears are ahead of its eyes and its eyes are lower than its brain. Oh, and its brain is said to be upside down with the cerebellum at the bottom, right on top of the spine. All of this makes it wonderfully outfitted for a life of probing into soft soil and under leaf cover for its diet of worms and other invertebrates.

The primary flight feathers on their wings emit a loud whistle or twitter when they burst up from cover and speed off. That sound is the addictive element of woodcock hunting for those of us who crave the rush of the flush.

Early spots

In mid to late September, the hunt is for resident birds still in their summer habitat. Tag alder runs along streams, forest clearings with seeps, and timbered swamp edges are good places to begin looking. When I see a fringe of alders with a medley of birch and poplar and some low brush, I know I’ll get some wing shooting in. Look for moist, nearly bare soil with dense, waist-high, or higher protective vegetation. Blackberry patches, fern glens, golden rod patches, young birch and poplar groves all have the open-stem type of growth that woodcock like.

Two of my favourite spots are mature red pine plantations with every other row of trees logged off. Under the widely spaced towering pines grows a second canopy of blackberry canes and young deciduous trees that make perfect cover for woodcock. The key element is moist, shaded soil, free of dense grass, with a canopy of leaves overhead.

Early season coverts are often brushy jungles. The foliage will be in your face and full of hat grabbers and wrist scratchers. When a timberdoodle flushes up in your face you’ll think you’ve got him. But chances are your shotgun will tangle in branches before you get him lined up and he’ll be gone behind a screen of leaves. The early season hunt can be hard work disguised as sport. But after nine months of waiting, wing shooters are eager to get at it and relish the difficult.

The migration begins

Woodcock range across eastern Canada. I have found them as far north as Cochrane. They’re not everywhere, however. Where they are located, you won’t find them all the time, either. The two key elements of a successful hunt are habitat and timing. Find the right place at the right time and you will need a pocket full of shot shells. Not because it’s a slaughter, but because they are hard to hit.

Superb shooting begins around the middle of October. Frost-rimmed mornings urge the birds together into migrating flights. Comfortable hunting temperatures, more flushes, and thinning foliage up the odds of hitting birds.

On the move

Before they must cross a large body of water like one of the Great Lakes, they stop to rest and feed up near the northern edge of the water body. Flights will stack up there for weeks, so plan to hunt there before a cold north wind comes up and carries them further south.

One of my best woodcock hunts took place well into November after my deer was hanging to age in the shed. A cold north wind was driving ice pellets and birds southward. We found them sheltering in blackberry patches which still had most of their leaves and under low-hanging evergreen boughs close to the traditional poplar stands.

When the birds are migrating, coverts will be full one day, empty the next and full of other flights a few days later. Check back often, especially after a cold snap further north.

Migrating timberdoodles don’t necessarily seek out boggy places. Sun-dappled slopes, thick with sumac, briars, and saplings provide good resting cover for flights. Overgrown apple orchards or random apple trees are worth checking out because years of fallen apples produce worm rich soil beneath them.

More than any other game bird, the woodcock is the bird that holds. A woodcock’s first line of defence is to hide on the ground. It will happily let you walk past within a few feet and never reveal itself. But it can’t hide from a bird dog’s nose. Woodcock and pointing dogs are made for each other.

When I turn my dog loose in hundreds of acres of bush she is gone from sight in seconds, swallowed up by the dense cover as she ranges out sniffing for a trace of bird scent. I can only keep track of her by her bell and beeper collar. It seems so unlikely given the huge area and dense cover, but she always finds woodcock. And when I catch up to her, no matter how long it takes, she will be standing, statue like, in a frozen trance induced by bird scent in her nostrils.

Make them flush

With the woodcock hidden and motionless, I walk in to flush it. It’s like walking on thin ice. I know something is about to break, but it’s still a surprise when the woodcock erupts. I hear the twitter of wings first then catch sight of my target, a brown blur twisting away through the foliage. It’s disappearing behind a screen of leaves just when I tap the trigger. I see it flash across a tiny opening and know I missed. I never said it was easy, and if it was I wouldn’t bother. Woodcock seldom fly more than 50 yards when they flush, however, so the dog will find and point it again and give me another chance.

It’s a sport best done with a bird dog but a dog-less hunter can have success in the right places. Without a dog, walk a tight grid through good cover because you practically have to step on them before they flush. Stop often and stand still for 20 seconds because this seems to make them jittery and often triggers a flush when you take the first step again. Expect to hear twittering wings at any time but especially when you stop and on your first step when you resume walking.

Pause where you have room to swing your shotgun in any direction and keep it at port arms. You can mount and shoot more quickly from this position, and you will have scant few seconds in which to get off the shot.

Without a dog, many birds will flush behind or beside you. At the sound of the flush resist the natural urge to turn your head toward it to see the bird. Instead, step with you left foot (for right handers) toward the flush, check that it’s a safe shot and begin mounting the gun to your shoulder. The bird will appear in your line of sight coming up out of the foliage as the gun reaches your shoulder. Swing ahead of the bird and touch off the shot when the bird is around 20 yards out. If you shoot at them closer, you will shred them with a tight pattern or miss them altogether.

A couple of pellets will tumble a woodcock, so lightweight, fast-swinging shotguns with cylinder chokes rule in this game. With a 12 gauge, use target loads. I use #7.5 or #8 shot because I sometimes flush grouse from woodcock coverts and #9 shot is too light for consistent kills on grouse.

Woodcock are small targets. So, as a general rule, if you can still see one, it’s in range and worth a shot. Don’t hold out for perfectly clear shots with no obstructing branches and leaves. A box of shells will last you a lifetime if you do. As long as it’s a safe shot, shoot through screening vegetation at the disappearing blur. Some pellets will get through and knock down the bird.

The most common shooting error with woodcock is shooting too soon. Especially, if they flush up from near your feet and float about like a drunken butterfly for a few seconds till they figure out where they want to go. Shooting too soon will result in either a clean miss because the pattern is so small or a mangled bird. Wait until the bird is 15 yards out to mount the gun, then it will be 20 yards out when you have it lined up and touch off the shot. If you miss, it will be about 30 yards out for the second shot, which is the one I often get it with.

Recovery plan

Finding a downed bird is another skill altogether. If you see a puff of feathers at the shot, track the falling shape to the ground and pick out a distinctive tree or branch near the fall zone to mark the spot. Walk to the fall zone without taking your eyes of the mark. Search in widening circles around the fall zone until you find it. If it fell through dense branches, look for it hung up in them as well. When hunting with a partner the gunner should mark the fall, remain where he shot from and direct his partner to the exact spot.

If you crave the rush of the flush, if you like the tingle of spent gun-powder in your nostrils on crisp fall mornings, and don’t mind a great little bird making a fool of you sometimes then it’s worth the effort to find some woodcock covers. They will become a personal treasure trove of challenging wing shooting for seasons to come.

Originally published in the August 2022 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS

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