Friday, October 19, 2007

Hunting The Woodcock Flights

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The woodcock spiraled upward about 10 feet over the 10-foot-high popples, flapped his wings two or three times, corkscrewed his body around, and dropped like a stone back into the covert. Heavy rains and storms at this time of year do good things for woodcock flights, and it can produce some of the season’s best wing-shooting.

There’s much to be said for hunting woodcock after a hard rain on either side of Oct. 20. It’s when the heaviest numbers of flight birds arrive in local coverts, and there are good reasons to back up such statements. For many years, I’d drive up to St. Ignace to hunt with a man who owned great German Shorthairs, and for several years it seemed as if I’d drive north in heavy wind and rain.

We got heavy winds last night and rain today, and we’re almost as close to Oct. 20 as we can get. We’d find spectacular hunting in the soggy popples, and our bag always consisted of a grouse or two, a snipe or two, and often two woodcock limits back when the limit was five birds. We would usually hunt just in the morning, come in and clean the timberdoodles, have them for lunch and then relax and talk about good guns, good dogs, good friends and heavy woodcock flights.

It would have been a banner day because his dogs would have pointed and we would have flushed at least 100 birds. That would be an actual count, and although a good many of those birds flushed wild, enough flushed close enough to offer us a shot. My friend is a fast and accurate shot, and I was a mediocre shot, but the dogs were steady on point and a half-day of slogging through popples from eight to 10 feet high was a grueling experience.

He always thought it was funny when my boots slipped on a piece of wet wood and I’d fall on my keister, but as often happens, he who laughs first seldom gets the last laugh. He’d do a header, and we’d kid each other about quitting and going home before we hurt ourselves. Neither of us wanted to quit, and we knew the birds would still be there the next day.

That’s all it was ... great action. There was no way either of us would miss two consecutive days of 100-bird flushes. The woodcock would be spooky from all the rain, and everywhere we looked would be white with the splashings (droppings) of the birds. We’d often see the birds just a few feet in front of the dog, and they would be as staunch as a statue, the tail sticking into the air like a wood stove poker, and all a’quiver with excitement. The other dog would honor the point, and back his kennel mate.

One or both of us would walk in on the bird, and as often as not, two woodcock would twitter into the air, top out and flutter back to the ground like a knuckleball that has run out of steam. These birds seemed to have difficulty flying too far because of wet wings, but we’d follow up and seldom would find those birds for a second flush.

We’d be like two school kids sloshing through every mud puddle we’d find. Our bird-hunting pants would be soaked through, and we’d return to the car, jump into our rain pants, pull on a pair of dry socks, and hit the woods again. It was always an adventure, and one we didn’t want to waste. Bird-hunting action like this was just too good to be ignored.

For us, the point wasn’t to shoot a limit, although it was possible, and it wasn’t about how many flushes we’d have. The hunt was about being there, fighting through aspen tangles and the edges of fields and swamps to put up these little birds with the long bill and Barney Google eyes. These birds were northern woodcock, winging their way south, dodging the great expanses of water. They flew across the Straits of Mackinac because it was the shortest distance between the U.P. and Lower Peninsula.

These birds often travel in a north-to-south pattern, and they seem to follow I-75. Years ago I hunted woodcock with two old-timers who had great dogs, and they hunted along the Black, Pigeon and Sturgeon rivers in Cheboygan County because those streams flow north and I-75 runs in both directions. We always found good woodcock hunting in that area.

Shooting a limit of woodcock is not the point of this exercise. For me, woodcock are the perfect game birds with which to start young bird dogs. They hold well for a pointer, and they have an odor that bird dogs find attractive although many canines cannot stand the taste of these birds. Many dogs with stand over a fallen timberdoodle until its owner comes to pick it up.

It can be slippery hunting after heavy rains, but hit the flight birds just right, and you’ll find a brand of hunting excitement that can hardly be duplicated. Find soft earth, and plenty of splashings, and you’ll usually find the birds.

Nothing in fishing or hunting is guaranteed. However, hunting woodcock the next few days in some key areas will be about as good as it gets.

Posted by Dave Richey on 10/19 at 03:49 PM
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