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The Gazette
Woodcock in Maine at Leed's Lodge

In Pursuit of the Wiley Woodcock

     The Fall colors in Maine mean only one thing to the upland hunter – Woodcock! Well, being an enthusiastic upland bird shooter, this past October I traveled to Maine, to Leen’s Lodge at Grand Lake Stream in the pursuit of what must be one of the most evocative and elusive of game birds, the Timberdoodle or Woodcock
       I have hunted over dogs all over the World – first as a boy shooting Woodcock over an errant and selectively deaf Springer Spaniel in my home country of Wales. (On reflection, that spaniel was really hunting for himself). In Wales, the coppices, hedgerows and stream banks are wide open and shots at snipe and woodcock are most often taken in open spaces, against the sky. In fact, no one in Europe would take a shot at a bird flying that was not flying in the open.
      The hunting in Maine is completely the opposite! The habitat of the Northern American migratory Woodcock is dense cover, second-growth trees. These woods are so dense that there is little light penetration, hence slight ground cover - perfect for a bird that feeds mainly on earth worms and grubs and needs to walk on the ground soft enough to drill with its long beak.


     Perfect habitat for a Woodcock, not so perfect for a hunter! The areas we were hunting, which were the most heavily populated by the Woodcock, were also the densest. The poplar saplings were no more than 1 or 2 feet apart. The other habitat requirement for Woodcock, soft ground, requires water, and Maine was definitely receiving a little bit more than 2 gallons of partly cloudy a day! This combination of heavy cover and soft footing created some of the toughest bird shooting conditions that I have ever encountered, anywhere. Imagine the plight of the HD TV camera crew! (“Why? Why do people DO this?” was the oft-repeated question!)
      The daily limit is 3 Woodcock, which initially I found surprisingly low. But if you had asked me 3 hours into the first hunt of the first day, I would have said that it was too many! And pity the hard working dog! He had a beeper fitted that gives an audio signal to the dog’s whereabouts, going from a 2 beat signal to a single when the dog is on point.

Tracking woodcock
      When shooting quail in the South, it is easy to locate the dog and move swiftly to him, following the beeps. Not so in the North! The heavy cover and soft footing obscures your view of the dog, and makes getting to him long and arduous work. This gives the Woodcock more than enough time to move, requiring second and third points. So often by the time you arrive at a point, there is no guarantee of the bird’s whereabouts…he could rise from any nearby area!
       The Woodcock has two distinct flight patterns. The first is the classic – the turbos kicked in, an explosive wing-whistling burst for freedom. This one gives you your best chance of success. You have both audible and visual signals to locate the bird and then a fairly straight line of flight.
      The second flight, where the bird jumps, launches itself into the air with its legs and then flies gently away, jinking through the saplings in that classic Woodcock-mystic-drifting flight, is by far the most difficult shot. It’s often taken well out, having only visual input to locate the bird. If the bird rises behind you, you will not even see it.
      The following are my tips on the best technique, equipment and gun for Woodcock and Ruffed grouse for the upland bird shooter.
The Gun • My choice is either a 28 or 20 bore. A Woodcock does not need a great deal of killing. Though I prefer the Over and Under, a Side by Side would perhaps be more advantageous with its lighter weight and shallow gape. 7/8 of an ounce of Number 8 shot and cylinder choke is a good choice. Given the compressed windows of opportunity presented, short barrels, 26 or 27 inches, work best.
Clothing • Traditional upland brush pants and shirt with the mandatory hunter orange. I would strongly recommend a pair of Wellingtons (rubber boots) given the terrain. Be sure to have your waterproofs to hand, as well.
Hearing Protection • I am lucky enough to have the ESP digital hearing protection - this proved invaluable, both in locating the dog and hearing the wing beat of the woodcocks rise.

Shooting Glasses • There is always the small risk of being struck by an errant pellet when you are in the field, so good shooting glasses are a must. They protect against twigs and flicking branches and in the poor lighting conditions, by using a sodium yellow or light orange tint, you can really see the bird sooner and better against the dark background. I have had my pair of Ranger glasses for 5 years and will not shoot without them.
Pocket Compass • This is a really good idea - it is easy to get turned around in the woods and lose your bearings, and Maine is a big state.
Technique • First, forget footwork! It may be the deadliest move a bird shooter can make, but with one foot in a hole and another tangled in briar, it is not going to happen. Just try to start and finish in balance. Don’t look where the dog is pointing - very rarely will the bird rise there. Instead, look around shoulder height with a soft focus, not looking at anything in particular. This allows the best transition from saccadic to pursuit eye movement and you are going to need all you can muster.
Gunmount • This is the big one! A smooth, swift mount, free of any see-saw or teeter- totter is what will make or break the successful shot at Woodcock. Remember to mount to your cheek first and not your shoulder.


      People always refer to the “Instinctive” technique, well, when shooting Woodcock you need to use the “Reactive” technique! All you can do is to react. If you are lucky, the bird will rise where you can see it and swing to it, unimpeded by saplings and branches.
      Get a good visual lock on the bird, moving your hands and the muzzles to it, maintaining the all-important connection throughout the shot. “See Bird, Shoot Bird” should be the upland hunters mantra. And yes, I did get my daily limit, but it took nearly a dozen rises to do so. Wiley, indeed!

To make your reservation, call Charles Driza at 1-800-99-LEENS (1-800-995-3367), or e-mail him at cdriza@leenslodge.com. For more information, visit their website, www.leenslodge.com

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