How to Bag a Limit of Woodcock Without a Dog
Sure, hunting over a topflight bird dog is great. But it’s better to hunt woodcock without a dog than not hunt them at all
Few hunters realize that woodcock offer great upland bird hunting opportunities even if you don’t own a bird dog. This is a bit odd because somewhat similar birds, ruffed grouse, are often hunted by jump shooting. For some reason, interest in dogless “timberdoodle” hunting has simply not caught on.
On the other hand, maybe that’s partly because a fair number of sportsmen don’t even know exactly what a woodcock is. A survey of licensed West Virginia hunters found that a majority admitted they didn’t know what a woodcock was. Among those who thought they did know, over 30 percent said it was a varmint that you hunted in open fields with a scoped small-caliber rifle—sorry, those furry critters are not woodcock. Try woodchuck.
Originally a shorebird, over the centuries the 7-ounce woodcock has gradually shifted to moist, brushy thickets bordering streams, swamps, spring seeps, beaver ponds, and nearby hillsides. That’s where it finds abundant supplies of earthworms, which make up 90 percent of its diet. By concentrating on this specific type of habitat, you can enjoy exciting jump-shooting for this reclusive brown, black, and tan bird.
And the lack of interest in woodcock means you’ll have plenty of prime habitat virtually all to yourself—except in a few Midwest and northeastern states where the bird attracts a significant cadre of dedicated hunters.
Although interest in woodcock hunting in the South is slight, the exception is Louisiana. The majority of North America’s woodcock population spends its winter in that state after migrating south in fall. It’s a great cold-weather hunting destination for this neglected gamebird.
How To Hunt Woodcock Without a Dog: A Three-Part Strategy
If you plan to go after woodcock without a canine helper, realize at the start that you’re at a disadvantage. Woodcock love to let hunters walk right past them by hunkering down and blending into the leaves with their mottled, camouflaged colors. A dog will find many birds that you might have otherwise walked by. Without one, you need a multi-prong strategy.
The three-part plan involves doubling down and focusing on only the very best cover, both to increase your chances of finding birds and so you can walk it out thoroughly. Secondly, it calls for using a few tricks to make sure you don’t walk past birds that want to hang tight and not fly. Finally, it means paying careful attention to sign that will tell you whether birds use the area you are hunting, and more importantly, whether they are there now.
Part 1: Concentrate on Woodcock Habitat
Focusing on the best habitat means eliminating a lot of potentially good upland hillsides and gentle ridges that might hold birds. Instead Concentrate on lower elevation and moist ground. Yes, the higher areas likely hold some birds, but they are usually too scattered for the dogless hunter to find and hope to flush consistently. The flush rate per hour’s effort is simply too low.
Start your search for woodcock by first consulting with regional game biologists or wardens to pinpoint a potential area, then get out and check it out on foot. Satellite images can also help in the search, clearly showing streams, marshes, and other wet areas. In the field and on the photos look for springs, creeks, beaver dams, bogs, and edges of larger swampy, but not totally wet, areas.
Besides moist ground, you need other things to make prime cover, such as the right vegetation. Areas with young, low trees about 8 to 15 feet tall are preferred, broken with shrubs and tall grasses for extra ground cover. Favored tree and shrub species include dogwood, maple, willow, ash, holly, blackberry, sumac, aspen, alder, pines, plum thickets, lespedeza, and honeysuckle.
Part 2: Find Woodcock Sign
After you’ve pinpointed moist areas with the right vegetation, search for sign. One kind is simply round holes in the ground where the birds probe with their prehensile beaks searching for earthworms and nightcrawlers. They’re about the size of a pencil. The second sign is the chalky white droppings they leave called “splashings.” These are about the size of a half-dollar and stand out vividly against brown leaf litter and grass on the ground.
Look for splashings that are fresh and white rather than dry and faded. If they are moist, a woodcock is nearby. Get ready! Dried-up droppings mean the birds have likely passed through on their journey south. But at least you know you’re in a good area. Others will follow, and that location should produce year after year.
Look for fresh concentrations of birds to arrive in prime habitat after a cold northwester blows through. That tends to push birds south to warmer regions. A covert that was devoid of birds one day may have dozens of woodcock the next if a cold front passes through.
Part 3: How to Flush Woodcock Without a Dog
You can flush plenty of woodcock without a dog. The key is to probe the cover meticulously once you flush birds or find fresh sign. If a prime piece of cover is a narrow strip along a stream of perhaps 15 to 25 yards or less on each side, one walk through the area on both sides will flush most birds present. For wider strips of habitat, make two passes up and down on each side. Start out on a course near the edge of the creek, then swing back down and hunt a parallel route 30 to 40 yards farther away from the water, covering the ground you missed on the first pass. Zig-zagging a bit also helps.
The Sudden Pause
One of the biggest challenges of jump shooting woodcock is that they like to sit tight and let hunters walk past them. Going slow will sometimes get them airborne, but a trick that veteran woodcock hunters like to use is the “sudden pause.”
This tactic calls for stopping abruptly and not moving when you’re in a prime area and see fresh sign. Sometimes you can wait up to a minute or two and have a woodcock flush. Generally pausing for 15 to 20 seconds will push out reluctant birds hunkering down nearby, giving you a shot opportunity.
Shooting Tips for Woodcock Hunters
It usually pays not to shoot as a woodcock is rising upward after the flush. Wait until it clears the low tree cover and then changes to a horizontal flight path to start to fly away. At that moment the bird is virtually stationary and an easy target for the patient shooter.
If a bird gets up at your feet and flies straight away, wait until it gets at least 20 yards out. Your shot pattern will be a bit wider and you won’t damage the delicious liver-like meat of these birds.
Watch where the woodcock falls carefully. They are well camouflaged and can be hard to find in the leaf litter. If you miss, chances are the bird will only fly 75-100 yards. Watch where it disappears and head directly for it. Chances are you can re-flush it.
Read Next: 10 of the Best Shotguns for Woodcock Hunting
The Best Woodcock Guns, Loads, and Gear
Any gauge shotgun from 12 to 28 will work. The best choke is an improved cylinder or open. Woodcock are usually flushed at ranges of 10 to 15 yards and close shots of 20 to 30 yards are the norm. Use a low-brass load of size 7 ½ or 8 shot for most woodcock hunting situations.
Wear brush pants to ward off briars and a coat or vest with a game pouch to carry birds and your lunch, drink, topo map, GPS unit, and extra shells.