-Woodcock Hunting is a Challenge
-Flushes, Shots, Missouri Fun
By Jim Low
It isn’t my favorite game bird – that would be the wild turkey. Nor is it the most delicious I’ve ever eaten – that would the rock ptarmigan. But for a wingshooting challenge, my hands-down favorite is the American woodcock. If that weren’t enough, the sporty little “timberdoodle” plugs the gaping hole between dove and quail seasons in Missouri’s upland bird hunting calendar. Though you seldom find them here before Nov. 1, woodcock season opens Oct. 15 and provides a plausible excuse for field boots, shooting vest and elegant double guns that seem to rise to the shoulder of their own volition.
My golden retriever and I went hunting three times this fall before finally seeing our first woodcock. A load of No. 9s from my favorite woodcock gun – a plain-Jane Merkel that retains perhaps 5 percent of its original finish – sent dozens of cottonwood leaves tumbling to the ground. The bird continued on its way, never to be seen again. It was the only bird we saw that day.
Halloween was different. I had just enough time to hunt a postage-stamp covert within two miles of the house, but the weather felt right, with a stronger-than-predicted cool front having pushed through the night before. Fifty yards from the truck, a big adult woodcock flushed from the edge of a cedar thicket, and after spiraling up 15 feet it pitched into a tangled confusion of limbs and needles. Shooting would have been pointless, even if I had been quick enough to snap off a shot, which I wasn’t. So we pinned our hopes on a second flush. But before we could pursue the departed bird, another sputtered out of the same spot amid the welter of cottonwood saplings.
A young bird, still unschooled in evading hunters, went up and then swerved straight left on as predicable an arc as any woodcock ever does. The bird crumpled at my shot, and we both watched it fall. Willa was on it in seconds. After delivering the first woodcock of the year to hand, she was eager to find another, but I calmed her down long enough for a selfie.
While tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Missourians hunt doves each year, woodcock hunters number only a few hundred. I suspect we all are Cubs fans. If we had a patron saint, it would be Don Quixote. If you think quail hunters are die-hards, you never met a timberdoodle addict.
Part of the charm of hunting woodcock is the birds’ surpassing peculiarity. Although technically they are shorebirds, you won’t find them in marshes. Instead, they haunt wooded stream borders and adjacent uplands. There, they probe sandy soil for earthworms, which comprise 70 percent of their diet. Because they spend so much of their time nostril-deep in the ground, their eyes and ears have migrated to the top of their heads. Their 3-inch beaks are prehensile, and are controlled by a Rube Goldberg arrangement of tendons that encircle their bony eye sockets before attaching to muscles beneath their skulls. Their feet are set far back on their bodies, giving them an adorable, waddling gait.
At least so I’m told. I’ve never actually seen one walk. They tend to hold so tight, you practically have to launch them into the air with the toe of your boot. And because their plumage is a perfect match for a leaf-littered forest floor, finding them – before flushing or after shooting – is next to impossible with unaided human senses. That’s why virtually all woodcock hunting is done with dogs. Timberdoodles’ tight-sitting tendency makes them the perfect game for training young pointing dogs. It’s also just right for flushing dogs. Spaniels tend to hunt methodically and close to their handlers, and retrievers can easily be taught to stay within woodcock shooting distance.
Speaking of shooting distance, it’s close. Often very close. My golden retriever flushes most birds within 20 yards of me, often it’s closer to 10. This is good, because woodcock like cover so thick that you rarely get a clear shot beyond 30 yards. Naturally, this affects gun and ammunition selection. A light, fast-handling double gun gives you the best chance of getting off a shot with an appropriate choke. I recently bought a Weatherby Orion with 26-inch barrels and a single-selective trigger. I couldn’t wait to hunt woodcock with it. But after two hunts, I have given up on it as a woodcock gun until I grow more accustomed to shifting the barrel selector in the excitement of a flush. Instead, I’m sticking to guns with double triggers.
Fortunately, I own two guns that fit this description: the aforementioned Merkel side-by-side and a 1970s-vintage Zoli over-and-under. Not so fortunately, the Merkel is choked full and extra-full. The Zoli is choked full and modified. The Merkel clearly was intended for pass-shooting driven birds, and the Zoli’s chokes are perfect for doves or pheasants. Both are completely wrong for woodcock.
I solve this problem with spreader loads. These shells include a cardboard baffle separating the shot column into four compartments inside the shot shell. Once the shot leaves the barrel, the cardboard catches air and scatters the pellets, giving you a great killing pattern at about 15 yards, regardless of choke. I load the tightest-choked barrel with a spreader shell and the other with a light load of No. 8 or 9 shot. I learned long ago to reach for the
appropriate trigger for the target’s distance. I hope one day to develop the same reflex for the Orion’s trigger selector.
Willa and I went out again today, Nov. 1. We had four flushes. I fired five shots. We killed zero birds. It was a wonderful hunt.
Ride on, Don Quixote.e