Woodcock Hunting in The Deep South: One Man’s Trashbird is Another Man’s Treasure…by Matthew Lee, DMD

“What kind of bird dogs do you have?”

“Pointers”, I reply.

“We use to could walk up four of five coveys when I was young just out of my back door, no birds anymore, it’s a shame.” “Do you field trial?”

“No sir, I mainly woodcock hunt in South Carolina. I travel a few times a year too.”

“Woodcock? We never shot them. Sometimes the dogs would point ‘em though.” 

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I’ve had that conversation, or something similar to it, many times over the last ten years. Most people either have no idea what a woodcock is or consider them a second class (upland) citizen around these parts. I was born in the 1980s and grew up in a rural town in South Carolina. By the time I became interested in bird dogs, wild bobwhite quail in my part of the world were few and far between. Most of the quail hunters got rid of their dogs or transitioned into field trialing.  I’ve gotten quite a few strange looks when I admit to seeking out this funny looking little bird. “Will the dogs point them?” “Is it the same as a Snipe?” “Do you eat ‘em?” Yes. No. Yes. Woodcock aren’t as well known or as respected in the South as they are in the Northeast or in the Great Lakes region.

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I’ll never forget the first time I hunted woodcock. It was 2008 and a friend I had recently made through our mutual interest in bird dogs asked me if I wanted to give it a shot. To be honest I didn’t even know what a woodcock was at that time. I had a German Shorthaired Pointer then that despite my ineptness pointed birds and retrieved waterfowl. Thank goodness for strong natural abilities. We dropped the dogs and trekked into the woods. I can’t remember how many birds we moved that morning but it had to be close to twenty. After my shorthair bumped a few birds she started pointing. My buddy’s dogs had been on these birds before so they knew what to do. The cover was thick, you couldn’t see ten yards in front of you at times. We were running beeper collars to keep track of the dogs. I don’t remember how many birds we shot and that’s not really important. I know I shot my limit of Privet, Switch Cane, and tree limbs . What I do remember is experiencing my first bird dog figure out wild birds. I am not exaggerating when I say I dreamed about the sound of a beeper collar indicating a dog on point that night. I was hooked.

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I guess you could say I started hunting them because of the perceived lack of upland bird hunting opportunities where I reside. That may have been how it started, but that’s definitely not how I currently feel in regards to these misplaced shore birds. The more I pursue Scolopax minor the more I respect them. Their physical attributes and anatomy are, to say the least, unique. Their eyes are high and posteriorly positioned, it’s legs are short and it’s body is round. The long bill looks almost out of place on such a small bird. Recent data from the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative indicated these little birds can fly as far as 500 miles in single night. Anyone who’s held one of these birds in their hand or watched one in flight would agree, they don’t seem like they’re built for that kind of travel. But somehow, they can take a short break, get a belly full of worms, and do it again the next night.  That’s impressive to me.

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Wildlife biologists believe we do have a small resident population of birds here in the Southeast. Nests are found from time to time by bird hunters. I have certainly heard and seen birds well before and after our season dates. But, the majority of the birds are pushed down by a combination of harsh weather to our North and favorable winds. As with any migratory bird, hunting can be hit or miss. When they’re here they here, and when they’re not well, they’re not and there’s nothing you can really do about it. A covert may be empty one day and loaded the next. When the flights are in it’s truly something special. In my opinion this makes hunting woodcock both frustrating and addictive. Throughout the months of December and January I’m constantly checking the weather to our North as well as moon phases. I’ve been told by other hunters that they migrate frequently with a full moon. Honestly, I’m not sure if this is true or just an old wive’s tale.

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Woodcock are truly a gift to Pointing dogs. Their camouflage is excellent, and they know it. They (usually) will sit very tight for a long period of time for a staunch dog. Although I’ve witnessed them running away from a dog on point numerous times. As a general rule of thumb, if the dog does his part, a woodcock will reciprocate. They aren’t particularly fast birds and as previously stated aren’t near as likely to flush wild as a lot of other upland gamebird species. The difficulty in shooting these birds on the wing is inherent to WHERE you find them. Or at least where I find them. I have seen and heard of people finding them in relatively light cover. I generally find them in cover where a machete would be an appropriate tool. I’ve had dogs on point less than 10 feet away according to the GPS and still not have a visual on them. Sometimes all you get is a brown blur through thick vines and tree limbs. Open chokes and a good retriever come in handy.

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Chasing wild birds behind pointing dogs is not a thing of the past in the Southeast. Quail are still present, albeit much less abundant than when my dad was a young man. I still pursue them. The South Carolina Bobwhite Initiative is working hard to restore habitat in a successful manner. I am optimistic about the future. Walking through muddy creeks and branches ducking vines and briars may not be as glamorous as the piney woods. You may want to trade your leather boots for knee high rubber boots and invest in some solid briar-proof gear. You may find yourself crawling on the ground under dense cover in front your dog to produce a flush. There may not be a covey rise but I’ve grown to love the twittering of woodcock wings equally. I have been fortunate enough to hunt multiple species of upland gamebirds in several states across the country. I have enjoyed them all, but I do believe I will always have a special place for the little russet fellow deep within my soul.
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your appreciation for woodcock. While I am probably 20 years older than you, my admiration for woodcock began in 2008 in the piney woods of east Texas and west Louisiana. I honestly couldn’t believe my luck that I had found a wild bird to take the place of the almost nonexistent bobwhite quail. Started out with a brace of elhew pointers and a 12 gauge and now run a brace of french brittanies and a 28 gauge. I’ve hunted them in upland pine thickets and hardwood bottoms, filmed their amazing sky dance ritual and honestly am just mesmerized by the little bird…even have a few that winter over on the ranch, just west of Houston. Well written article, I enjoyed reading it.

    1. Matt Lee says:

      Tim,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It’s always nice to hear from someone with a mutual admiration for these birds. I hope to witness a sky dance one day soon !

      Matt

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