Molly was on her third point of the morning and we were just 15 minutes into the hunt. The first two, however, were false points, nothing but fresh scent where a bird had been. My partner and I were thrilled just the same. A false point meant woodcock were in the area, and with a little effort, we’d find them soon enough. We did.
In the next three hours, two men and two dogs jumped nearly a dozen birds from deep within a young pine plantation and along the edge of a brush-choked creek deep in a southern Virginia hardwood forest. It was hardly classic woodcock cover, but the birds didn’t know they weren’t supposed to be there. Truth is, they were supposed to be there. It was mid-December and woodcock were on their slow, methodical flight to wintering grounds along the Gulf Coast, stopping to feed and rest in southern Virginia thickets and other prime cover along the way.
Grouse hunters in the upper Midwest and New England are quite familiar with the thrill of hunting woodcock. In many places, the two game birds not only share the same habitat, they share similar characteristics. Both are a challenge to hunt and both hold well for a decent dog, or, at least most of the time. False points aren’t unusual for both species, although grouse are far more likely to flush far ahead of a dog than a woodcock. That uncertainty is one more thing that makes hunting these birds so darn fun.
Woodcock are slowly becoming the game bird of choice throughout the traditional bobwhite hotspots of the south and southeast. Why not? Time the fall flight right and you’ll find yourself knee-deep in the rush of wings as another woodcock takes flight. The heart-stopping flush isn’t quite as thrilling as the rise of an entire covey of quail, but it’s plenty exciting just the same.
Of course, you have to know where to look. In some cases, woodcock are found in the same places you’d expect to find a covey of bobwhites—the brushy fencelines, abandoned fields and regenerated clear-cuts so common throughout the South. Typically, however, woodcock favor darker woods with damp, rich soil. That’s where they find their primary food source, earthworms. In many places, it’s a combination of skinny trees, vines, low brush and spongy earth, the same places grouse hunters find their favorite birds. However, in order to flush even one, the birds have to be in the neighborhood.
Because they are highly migratory, woodcock can be thick in your area one day and gone the next as they hop-scotch their way south. So how do you know? You don’t, really, unless you have some bird-hunting friends with their finger on the pulse of the fall flight. The good news is that they usually stick around most areas for several weeks, even months, heading south only as severe weather forces them to.
Unlike quail or grouse, however, finding a few woodcock isn’t as simple as stomping through great-looking cover. Woodcock hold tight, so tight, it’s not out of the question to nearly step on one before it takes flight from the forest floor. These diminutive birds are masters at camouflage, blending in to the leaf litter like a chameleon. That’s why it’s vital to have a sharp-nosed bird dog to help find a few. Without a pointer or setter, finding these birds is about as iffy as finding a treasure chest on the ocean floor. The good news is that any dog trained to sniff out quail or grouse will likely lock up on a lone woodcock.
Or at least they’ll point the spot a woodcock sat just minutes before you got there.