George Martin^s Model 21 Winchester 20 gauge barked and at the same time the bird exploded in a puff of feathers. A split second after the shot I heard the furious fluttering of woodcock wings between George and me. My Remington 870 came to my shoulder, but I could not see anything to shoot at.
Suddenly, the fast flying bird appeared to my right and I began to swing towards it. Just before my barrel reached the target, it exploded and tumbled to the Louisiana bottomland.
"Nice double," I congratulated the director of publications for the National Rifle Association.
"Good way to end up with my limit," George^s voice filtered through the thick brush.
Martin was less than ten yards from where I was standing, but the brush was so thick that I couldn^t even get a glimpse of his florescent orange hunting vest.
It was too thick for easy hunting, but that^s the kind of cover woodcock like and it is the kind of cover smart woodcock hunters seek.
These long-billed demons, also known as timberdoodles, spend much of their time in the damp bottom lands where the flora is lush and thick. However, it is not the cover that attracts them, but the abundance of earthworms and larva of other insects that inhabit these areas. These creatures provide most of the protein in their diet.
In the Appalachian Mountain states, woodcock are often found in pastures along river bottoms where there is little more cover than is provided by a front lawn, but in the Southeast there is no reason for these birds to expose themselves because of the abundance of thick cover in the low lands.
But the hunter who limits his hunting to the low lands can be overlooking another type of habitat that can provide some spectacular shooting, particularly on migrating flocks. Recent clear cuts, even on high land, will attract woodcock in large numbers.
Some of the best shooting on clear cuts can come two or three days after a soaking fall rain. The front that brought the rain will also move migrants from the North and they will congregate in clear cuts to feed.
The limbs and tree tops might not provide the easiest walking, but the shooting is easier because there are no brambles to get between you and the erratic flying birds.
In this type of terrain, woodcock do not hold nearly as well as they do in thick brush. If hunting without a dog, hunters should be prepared for flushes about 25 to 30 yards from their guns. A far ranging bird is a detriment when hunting clear cuts, but a close working dog can set up some of the easiest shooting for this not-easy-to-hit prey.
Hunting timberdoodles in clear cuts can be tricky. The clear cut that provides spectacular shooting this week may not support a bird next week. They disappear completely from the area. Then with the next cold front another flight can move in just like magic.
While there has been a decline in woodcock numbers in recent years, hunting pressure is not the blame. Despite its sportiness, it is among the most ignored game birds, particularly in the Southeast where the total woodcock population spends its winters.
While woodcock nest in every Southeastern state except Florida, most of them do their breeding in the Northeastern part of the United States and Eastern Canada. They spend their winters in a belt that starts in the southern part of eastern Virginia and follows the Altantic seaboard down to the northern half of Florida and then swings west around the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains on up the Mississippi Valley to southern Missouri.
Native birds provide action when the season gets underway and, unlike hunting for most species, woodcock populations increase as the season progresses because of the influx of northern birds.
When I^m doing my scouting for deer, I^ll keep an eye out for the tell-tale borings left by woodcock extracting worms from the soil. That is because you will find woodcock in some of the best habitat for deer -- thick brushy bottom land and clear cuts. If I see a multitude of borings and flush a couple of birds, you can bet I^ll be back with a shotgun when the season opens.
Under normal conditions, woodcock will be found in the same coverts year after year, but weather conditions can have a big influence on where you find them. During a drought year, I have had some excellent shooting in areas that usually are covered with a foot or two of water. Conversely, heavy rains will flood the bottoms and move the birds to higher land.
Woodcock hunting is not a very dangerous sport because most of the time the shots are elevated. However, it is a good idea to wear blaze orange even if it is not required in your state because the gun action is fast when these birds flush.
Timberdoodles can be hunted without dogs, but a good dog will contribute immensely to your sport and result in more birds bagged.
On a hunt a couple of years ago, our dog took off after a rabbit at the start of the hunt much to its owner^s disgust. When we returned to the truck for lunch with two birds, this mischievous dog was waiting for us.
The dog had obviously had its fill of trying to run down rabbits and did a great job of hunting in the afternoon. In two hours after lunch, the party completed its limit while hunting the same bottom that produced two birds without a dog.
Choice of shotguns is a matter of individual preference. Personally, I use a 12 gauge with improved cylinder because it puts more pellets in the air. Some hunters opt for the 20 gauge because it is lighter and handles faster. I used to hunt with a man who was deadly on woodcock with a .410, but he was a former skeet All-America and national seniors champion in that gauge before he passed away.
Woodcock do not take a lot of killing and No. 9 shot in low brass will do the job. The problem is getting one of the pellets on a course that coincides with the flight route of the timberdoodle. Working on that problem is what makes this such a fun sport.
In thick cover, the first part of the flush of a woodcock is predictable. They will head straight skyward like a launched rocket. When they reach a height just above the cover, they will speed off unpredictably in any direction of the compass. The more successful woodcock shooters are those with the cool to wait until the bird chooses his direction of flight before squeezing the trigger.
It sounds easy, but don^t try it around your Sunday school teacher.