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Hunting Woodcock 101

October 20, 2015
By Ralph Scherder - OV Times Hunting Editor , Ohio Valley Outdoors

For me, Halloween has always been synonymous with woodcock hunting. In this part of the country, the week before and the week following Halloween marks the peak of the woodcock migration, and the hunting can be fast and furious.

Woodcock are migratory game birds that trek south almost 2,000 miles every fall. Most of the prime woodcock breeding grounds are located in the marshes of the Canadian north country, although really good local habitat will have a scattered population of native birds year round. The intensity and duration of the migration, though, often depends on what occurs up north this time of year. For instance, natural disasters, droughts, or long periods of unseasonably cold weather can spur an early departure for woodcock and they can decide to start migrating all at once and earlier than usual. In that case, the window of opportunity can be very short, only about a week or so, before the woodcock have moved south of us. Under normal fall conditions, though, good hunting can last two to three weeks, with Halloween week being prime time.

Finding woodcock is as simple as finding the right habitat. Rich bottomland chock full of alders and berries is ideal. They also favor abandoned farms, overgrown orchards, and cow pastures. Swampy areas with lots of small-growth trees are great as well. Within these covers, you'll usually find birds holding along the edges, such as where a patch of alders borders a brushy field.

Article Photos

The author and his English setter, Dylan, and a couple of woodcock. Finding woodcock is as simple as finding the right habitat; rich bottomland chock full of alders and berries are ideal.

Determining whether woodcock are in the area is probably the easiest part of the game. Just look down. Woodcock aren't good at concealing their presence. They leave "chalk marks" scattered wherever they've been feeding.

Chalk marks look like splatters of white paint. Not to be confused with the droppings of owls and other predatory birds, woodcock marks have a small piece of solid in the middle. Finding these marks can signify two things. First, a woodcock is in the area. Most of the time, when I find droppings, I flush the bird within the next 20 yards. In prime habitat, woodcock don't move around much. They're slow flyers and get picked off easily by predators. They prefer to keep cover overhead and movement to a minimum until ready to continue south.

And second, lots of chalk means lots of birds, which means the flight is in full swing. But don't be misled by the marks. Although they are tell-tale signs that birds have been there, that doesn't mean they're still present. They can leave just as quickly as they appear. Many times I've found areas covered with marks only to discover the birds have moved on. But don't worry, if an area attracts one group of woodcock, it will most likely draw another, and it will continue to do so every year until the forest grows up too much to be good habitat.

That's where many hunters get confused. They think that since they don't see woodcock or grouse, for that matter where they used to many years ago, that means there aren't many birds left. Chances are, though, that the habitat has changed and the forest has grown too much to support them, and they're now frequenting different areas where the habitat is better suited for their needs.

Woodcock are fun birds to hunt. As I mentioned, they're not particularly fast flyers, but they are elusive. Their wings make a whistling sound upon takeoff and they seem to flutter up into the air as if performing some wicked dance. They can also hold amazingly tight as you approach, sometimes taking off literally underfoot, which makes them great for hunting with dogs. What better for dogs, after all, than a bird that leaves off lots of scent, travels in groups, and holds tight for points? Incidentally, those reasons also make them ideal for introducing youths to hunting.

A 20 or 28 gauge shotgun is ideal for woodcock hunting. They're a small bird and it doesn't take much to fold one. If I'm hunting really thick areas with lots of brush and foliage, a 12 gauge can come in handy, but I almost always pause a few seconds upon flush to let the bird get farther out before shooting to avoid blowing them apart.

The bag limit for woodcock is three. To hunt them here in Ohio, you'll need HIP (Harvest Information Program) certification and that number must be written on your license. According to the Ohio DNR, the best hunting opportunities can be found in these wildlife areas: Mosquito Creek and Grand River (Trumbull County), Crown City (Gallia County), Lake LaSuAn (Williams County), and Big Island (Marion County). Of course, those are only starting points. Wherever you find good habitat, you can find good woodcock hunting.

Woodcock are some of the finest eating I know. I prefer to breast them and then marinate the pieces in Italian dressing for a couple of hours. I then wrap each piece in bacon and space them out on a cookie sheet. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until done.

Halloween is fast approaching, and so is the woodcock migration. Are you ready?

 
 

 

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