Getting the jump on woodcock

November 03, 2003|by BILL ANDERSON / Staff Correspondent

My first woodcock hunt occurred by accident.

A high school friend and I were hunting rabbits in a creek-bottom pasture, and the beagles kept bumping up little birds that took off with a strange whirling sound. Since we did not know that the birds were gamebirds, and in season, we passed up on any shots.

Later we ran into the landowner who asked if we had jumped any woodcock.

"Those little guys move through every spring and fall," he said. "Some say they are a big deal to the bird hunters from the city - real gentlemen's bird hunting, they say."

A quick stop at the local library confirmed that our strange birds were indeed woodcock, and a check of the hunting regulation confirmed that they were in season. The next Saturday morning we were back in the pasture, ready to engage in some gentlemen's bird hunting.


As it turned out, we quickly learned a few important facts on woodcock hunting. First was that woodcock are not very easy to hit as they go twisting through the tree limbs. Second was that just because the birds are there on one day, it is no guarantee that they will be there when you return. We only found two or three birds on the return trip - the week before it was more like two dozen. The only thing we managed to bring down were some tree branches and pieces of bark.

Although many hunters still do not know it, we live in a pretty good area for woodcock action. We have a few resident birds, but the majority of the birds found during the hunting season are birds that are migrating through the area on the way south from the breeding grounds in the north. The birds have certain types of habitat that they prefer, which usually include moist soil and overhead cover.

West Virginia is famous for its woodcock hunting, and a big reason is the writings of the late George Bird Evans. Evans penned a number of classic books on upland bird hunting and birds dogs. Many of his stories also detailed the wonderful coverts found in and around West Virginia's Canaan Valley. The huge hawthorn thickets offer some of the greatest woodcock hunting found anywhere.

Good woodcock covers are well-guarded secrets, but they usually feature moist soil and soil nutrients that attract earthworms. The long, curved beak of a woodcock is perfectly designed to help them grub in the ground for earthworms. Areas that have been grazed by cattle are longtime favorites.

But other covers are small areas that are often overlooked by the average hunter. For many years a friend and I had some good shooting in a small area on the upper end of a large beaver pond. The beavers had been gone for years but the great habitat for woodcock remained. The birds were not there every day we hunted the area, but they were there often enough to make it worth the effort. I haven't hunted the spot since he passed on, and probably never will.

Woodcock are migratory gamebirds, and as such, the seasons and bag limits are established within a framework from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The West Virginia season is Oct. 24 through Nov. 22 with a bag limit of three birds per day.

The Maryland woodcock season is a split - Oct. 25 through Nov. 15 and Jan. 10 through Jan. 17. The Maryland bag limit is also three birds per day.

Bill Anderson writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached by e-mail at

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