by Randy Lawrence
The very first one came off the nose of a bouncy Norwegian Elkhound named Britt (for those of a certain Rod Stewart/Britt Ekland vintage, all Elkhounds were "Britt," even though their namesake, sadly, wasn't even Norwegian). She was hunting for, I don't know, moose ("elg") or rabbits or moles or whatever through a boggy thicket edging a freshly plowed field.
I would not have even known it was a woodcock except for Aldo Leopold, whom I had stumbled across in a college lit class. That twitter tweet rise meant Britt had to give it a good rip for about four bounds. I watched it corkscrew away, then veer back into the thicket about forty yards ahead.
Britt went on about her business. I was marked for life.
American Woodcock (John James Audubon)
When the birddog bug bit me, Britt was in her dotage, so she never made the mad runs to the Lake States as my friend Lyle and I tried, tried, tried every year to time the trip with the woodcock migration. What we said we were, were grouse hunters. We told each other and anyone who would listen that the woodcock were just for training, sort of the AA minor league to get our little string of setters and pointers ready for the Ruffed Grouse Big Leagues.
But I was lying the whole time. I loved the grouse, but it was the woodcock I came for then, just as I do today.
Locals in the Log Cabin Bar and the little gas station sports shops had told us about 100 bird days, of dogs hunting from point to point to point to point. But we were always in the "Shoulda Been Here Last Week" class, until the two years we weren't.
Once was just above the banks of a destination trout fishing stream, and the birds were so thick that our young goofy dogs bumped as many as they pointed. We became almost dizzy trying to mark the flights. We shot poorly and staggered out of there as if a fever dream had broken over all of us.
The second time, I was alone. I'd agreed to a week sharing a Wisconsin cabin with three other men and, as much as I liked them personally, we had very little in common in terms of how we wanted to hunt our dogs. When the chance came to break off and bushwhack back to the truck, the big white and orange pointer and I peeled away to the east...and found a flight of woodcock that kept us busy for several hours. Moxey was fast and experienced and stylish; two of those three qualities got swamped in that woodcock tsunami as we battled through the nastiest, gnarliest, leg-cramping, step-over, crawl-under cover we'd ever tackled. I finally unloaded the gun and focused on getting to where the bell had last gone silent so I could get the bird up and gone.
There had been a fair bit of shooting from the line the rest of the party had taken, and when Moxey and I spilled out into the road, my friends were waiting, still shaking their heads. The birds were in where they had hunted as well, and we all stared at the numbers on one fellow's lanyard flush counter before loading the dogs up for another covert.
They fascinate me, woodcock. The whole upside down brain thing. The eyes with the 360-degree field of vision, sited above the ears, that ridiculously long probe of a beak with its articulated end. The plumage that so perfectly blends with the autumn woods floor. That battering, erratic flight through tattered alder stands. The savory prospect of woodcock as table fare.
Speaking of which, we're all semi-adults here, right? Let's agree to honor personal taste and culinary skills on the issue of whether or not woodcock "eat good," as my Appalachian neighbors say. My thought has always been that if folks don't like to eat them, they shouldn't shoot this bird that's under so much pressure from the forces of modern life.
Carry a blank gun on your hip. Enjoy the dog work. And if you do chose to swing that good shotgun on a woodcock wraith, err on the side of restraint.
Surely part of the connection between woodcock and me is the so-called Sky Dance, the spring mating rituals that Leopold wrote so evocatively of in his Sand County Almanac. When finally I returned home from cancer surgery in March of 2018, my first teetery, one-kidney walk on my farm was at dusk out the oil road to see if "my" birds were back yet. It was cold and wet and I was so lightheaded that I was not certain I could make it to the singing grounds. But then a brazen roading bird buzzed the Labradors and me not fifteen feet overhead before landing in the gloaming to buzz and strut. I breathed a clumsy prayer of thanks to Someone Somewhere and decided maybe I was going to be OK after all.
So maybe you'll forgive me when I get a little weird over woodcock. I bristle at disrespectful diminutives for any gamebird (spare me your phezzes, sharpies, and ruffs). But what I loathe most are the woodcock tags: Mudbat. Timberdoodle. Bogsucker. Night Partridge. Bog Snipe. Bug Eye. 'Doods is a double disservice (surely coined by a man-bunned hipster with a Versatile Pointing Airedale and a cut-down home defense pump gun).
I blame Burt Spiller for "Lil' Russet Fellers." "Labrador Twister" is one I can grudgingly admire, though I've never heard it in person.
They are woodcock, dammit, and their long migrations and mysterious comings and goings and their knuckleball, tweetery flushes, the way they drape from the flews of my English setters on a happy retrieve stir me more than any other gamebird save the prairie grouse, both dear to me in large measure because of the places and times they have lifted into my life.
Twelve years from my first woodcock with Britt, on a working vacation, I was sent with an eager, collie sort of farm dog to fetch cows in for the morning milking. This was in Devonshire in the south of Great Britain, and when Dugal paused on the brushy edge of a rocky little creek, I wasn't at all prepared for the bird that burst out of the cover. No Lil Russet Feller, he. Nossir. This was 'CockZilla, that nose piece, the snipey wings, the barred breast feathers making the tribal ID easy, kin to the jaw-dropping XXL stuffed woodcock clamped to the wall of our favorite pub down in the village. At dinner the next evening down at that little bar, I stared at the woodcock the size of our ruffed grouse, and thought of King George VI, father of the current queen. His Majesty favored matched pairs of Purdey hammer guns and kept a meticulous shooting diary. On those many pages, only the woodcock are recorded in royal red ink.
Cheers to you, Bertie. Woodcock, great and small, make for red letter days.
Eurasian Woodcock in Flight