Hunting woodcock because they are down here

By Roy Hawkins

Motorists in passing vehicles looked questioningly at Charlie Peeples and me, as we walked down the road right of way with our bird dogs. He and I were headed toward an area just off highway twelve near Fentress for an afternoon hunt, and since the opening of quail season was still several weeks away their curiosity was understandable. Charles and I however, had no intention of hunting quail out of season.  Instead, we were after woodcock or timber doodles as they are sometimes known. That year for some reason, the State of Mississippi’s woodcock season opened well before the quail season. That had not occurred before to my knowledge, and it has not happened since.  It’s probably just as well since Charlie and I did not find a single woodcock.  The birds had not yet migrated south, and the area we hunted that afternoon was still much too dry as well.  Also, it must be something of a challenge to law enforcement during an early woodcock season to determine who’s actually hunting woodcock, and who is poaching quail. So the state did well not to do a repeat of that arrangement.   

To be very honest, however, hunters in our state have never hunted woodcock with even a tiny fraction of the same enthusiasm, as for example the upland shooters of New England. For one thing dogs trained on quail don’t particularly care for woodcock.  I shot numerous timber doodles over my setter, Zack. He was great on quail, but I could always tell when he set a woodcock. The dog, for some reason, usually pointed them facing toward me. Furthermore, he would never go rigid on woodcock as he did on quail, but would continue to move his tail ever so slightly. He would then roll his eyes upward at me as if somewhat aggravated, saying as clearly as if he could speak, “There’s one of those weird birds right in front of me, if you want to waste a shell on it.” I always did!  Yet, the woodcock has a rather strong, and to me at least, unpleasant taste, and I suspect this is yet another reason the bird has never become as popular with southern gunners as it has with our northern counterparts. Woodcock on the table just aren’t in the same league with quail or fried chicken.

So why hunt them? At this point I’m reminded of the Civil War historian Shelby Foote’s story about the rebel soldier who upon being captured was asked by a Yankee officer why he was fighting for the south when he obviously was not a member of the plantation owing gentry, and had nothing to gain by defending the Confederacy. The young private with great conviction is said to have replied, “Because you all are down here.” That perhaps is also the best reason for hunting the woodcock. They too are from up north, and “they are down here.”

Woodcock were reasonably plentiful in the late sixties and early seventies, and only rarely did I hunt quail without bagging one or two, and sometimes even more. One of the strangest shots I ever made on an upland game bird was on a timber doodle I took on a quail hunt in Yazoo County. I was shooting a batch of twelve gauge hand loads and apparently one of the hulls had been loaded one time too many. When the bird flushed, I pulled the trigger on it at very, very close range, but there was no report from the shotgun other than the primer exploding. Yet the woodcock folded as though it had struck a barn wall. Apparently enough powder ignited to give the shell sufficient velocity to kill the bird. This, to be sure, is not as farfetched as it sounds. Five grains of black powder loaded in my .44 cap and ball revolver produce the same effect: sufficient energy to drive the bullet through a plastic jug, but nothing audible except than the sound of the cap firing. .

Perhaps the best woodcock hunt I’ve even been a part of took place as I recall, on a Saturday afternoon on my old home place at Mt. Moriah. Charles Peeples and I were hunting quail, and found a good number of woodcock in a damp spot that had recently been logged off. We originally intended to leave off our pursuit of quail just long enough to shoot only a very few timber doddles. Gunning for them though proved so exciting, we never got back to quail shooting that afternoon. We took about ten woodcock, and at sunset watched one timber doddle after another spiral into the cutover area. We were planning another hunt even as the birds dropped in to roost for the night. Two days later, we returned to the cutover with great expectations. However, instead of shooting woodcock, we gained a lesson in woodcock behavior. There was not one bird present! Actually, we should have expected that since the old timber doddle is a migratory bird, and like some northern people, as we have seen, very sensibly goes south for the winter.

Perhaps a word of caution would be in order before I proceed further with this meandering treatise.  The woodcock SHOULD NOT be confused with his much smaller cousin, the snipe. Yet, not surprisingly, they are often assumed to be one and the same since their coloration is similar and both have an elongated beak. Nevertheless, the snipe is classified as a shore bird, while the woodcock is listed as an upland bird. Knowing the difference between the two may well prevent a hunter from making a reluctant visit to the nearest judge since the seasons for woodcock and snipe do not open or close at the same time. Nor is the bag limit for the two the same. The current issue of the “Mississippi Outdoor Digest” lists the snipe season as running from November 14-February 28th with a daily limit of eight.  The same issue of the Digest set the dates for the woodcock season as December 18th-January 31 with a daily limit of three. So, knowing one’s birds can conceivably save a hunter a great deal of inconvenience.  The pictures of the woodcock and the snipe accompanying this article are taken from “The Hunter’s Field Guide” by Robert Elman, published by Alfred and Knopf of New York in 1974, and are indicative of the differences between the two birds.

A while back I took my first woodcock in several years, again on my old home place. It was a female, easily determined since the male is perhaps a third smaller. It flushed from typical timber doddle habitat, a damp wet boggy area on the north side of the little branch where I fished as preschooler. Feathers flew at the report of my twenty gauge, but the bird kept flying. Hayes, my grandson, though was sure it went down. We headed in the direction it went, and sure enough, soon met Barney, my jack of all trades hunting dog, bringing it to us. No, I don’t see many woodcock anymore, but I’ll keep gunning for them as I the have opportunity, “just because they down here.”

The pictures of the woodcock and the snipe accompanying this article are taken from “The Hunter’s Field Guide” by Robert Elman, published by Alfred and Knopf of New York in 1974.