We crept along the dirt road for what seemed like miles. The bumpy road made traveling at a crawl necessary and prolonged the morning a bit more than I liked. After driving for 20 hours to get to Northern Wisconsin for my first grouse and woodcock hunt, I was ready to uncase the trusty smoothbore and get after them.
“It’s not much farther,” my host said to me, as he could feel my excitement. Bill Miller, my host for this trip, is best known as the former TV host and vice president of the North American Hunting Club. Finally, we arrived at a pull-off on the shoulder of the dirt road that was in the middle of some vast upper Wisconsin public land that Bill grew up hunting.
Bill invited me a few months earlier when we were discussing upland hunting. I jumped at the chance to chase my favorite upland bird, the woodcock (or timberdoodle), and perhaps get some grouse along the way.
For many southern woodcock hunters, the desire to pursue the migrating timberdoodle often means that we must migrate, but there are more appealing reasons, too. For us, it is more of a pilgrimage than a migration. A migration is brought on by instinct; it is driven into the DNA to move as the weather changes. A pilgrimage, by contrast, is a deep desire to travel to a holy place. For upland hunters who have been transfixed by Scolopax minor, it is indeed a pilgrimage, and the places we find them are as sacred to us as the recipe to grandma’s apple pie.
Captivating Little Birds
Woodcock, timberdoodles, mud bat, night partridge, or whatever you choose to call them, these birds are, without debate, my favorite game bird. The little bird has captivated my heart and desire more than any other. You can have your pheasants, doves, and waterfowl. Save the timberdoodle for me.
The American Woodcock is a dainty game bird, standing a mere five inches tall with a wingspan of only 20 inches. His body resembles an NFL linemans, chunky and almost absent a neck. His head appears large for his body. The coloration of the woodcock makes him almost invisible in the leaf litter of the autumn forests. Females are known as hens, and they are larger than their male counterparts. Hens weigh an average of 7.6 ounces, compared to the male’s average of 6.2 ounces. To the untrained eye, the two genders are indistinguishable other than size. The large eyes of the woodcock are centered on the side of its head to allow it virtually 360-degree visibility to watch for danger.
While the woodcock is known for its migration and night forays, its ability to fly is in deep contrast to the task at hand. It does not fly particularly well, especially not for long distances. This makes hunting the woodcock particularly frustrating at times. The old adage “Here today, gone tomorrow,” was coined, I believe, by early woodcock hunters.
The little bird shows up one day from its nocturnal flights, feeds and rests during the day, thenis gone again. It may linger for a day or two, waiting for the weather to change for more conducive flying conditions. Then just as mysteriously as the bird arrived, it is gone, and the once- abundant woods and dales are now abandoned.
Hunting woodcock is not expensive, difficult, or as tiring as hunting other game. For many of us, it is the perfect upland bird. It is dainty, maneuverable, holds tight, flushes well, and tastes good on the grill. One of the joys of hunting woodcock is the social aspect. It can be hunted by someone alone, but these outings are much more enjoyable when shared with a few buddies and companions.
Public Land = Perfect Habitat
Northern Wisconsin holds hundreds of thousands of acres of public land that is ripe with perfect woodcock habitat. Being picky eaters, woodcock are found in very specific locales. They enjoy a diet exclusively consisting of earthworms. The woodcock prefers low-lying areas where the ground is soft and worms are abundant. Its almost three-inch-long bill is designed for probing for the invertebrates it desires. The tip of the bill is soft and flexible, allowing the bird to grab escaping worms. The thicker the cover, the better for the woodcock. This is where it got the nickname of timberdoodle, as it prefers the early successional forest with thick, high-density saplings. Here, the bird feels safe from avian predators that otherwise find it difficult to maneuver through the thick understory.
So, when we finally unsheathed our shotguns and let the dog loose, I was more than ready. I dreamed of timberdoodles as thick as gnats at a southern picnic. However, the thick poplar and conifer forest we hunted were, how do you say, a bit more than I anticipated. Bill and his springer spaniel, Karat, and I split up as we wandered through suitable habitat. We were close enough to see one another but far enough for safe shooting. We paralleled the roadways that crisscrossed the public land of the area.
I didn’t realize it at first, but this being our first hunt together, Bill was testing my resolve. He needed to see if I was up to the task before going to the better areas. Gathering back at my truck for a snack, we established a game plan for the area. We would walk parallel to the road for a few hundred yards, turn east and make a big circle back to the truck. If it went well, it would take us about three hours, and we should put up some birds.
The Right Gun
Knowing we were after small game birds and that I was going to be walking miles every day, I chose a CZ-USA Bobwhite G2 in 28 gauge as my gun for the hunt. The sleek lines of the classic side-by-side have always been a favorite of mine. The Bobwhite G2 comes with a straight English style stock. I prefer that, along with the classic double triggers. Interchangeable chokes make this side-by-side unique compared to others in its price point.
When hunting woodcock, the most open chokes you have are needed in both barrels. I went with improved cylinder in both. Weighing in at just over five pounds, the Bobwhite G2 is a joy to carry all day. In my opinion, the 28-gauge is the perfect upland gun, rivaled perhaps by the 16 for the bigger birds, but for quail, woodcock, dove, snipe, and the like, it cannot be beat. For woodcock, I chose Fiocchi #7.5 as my shot. Close shots are the norm, and the dainty bird is not difficult to bring down when hit.
In many areas where we found birds, one could not take a full stride due to the brambles, saplings, briars, vines, and anything else you could imagine grabbing your feet, knees, and arms. That’s why gaiters, or chaps, brush pants, and gloves are a necessity when hunting these areas. On most occasions, you are carrying your gun vertically to maneuver through the saplings.
As we were walking along, Bill shouted, “Woodcock!” The distinct “bang–bang” of his shotgun followed by silence indicated a clean miss. A few steps later, Karat flushed another. Another shout, another shot, another miss.
Finally, it was my turn. Busting my way through the popple, as the locals call the saplings, I heard the twiddle of the flushing bird. I am not sure if the sound comes from its wings or its throat, but it is a distinct sound. Locating the bird, I turned while keeping my gun vertical, mounted, and fired. I shot behind it but quickly recovered and brought it down with the second barrel.
Karat watched the whole thing from afar, saw the bird fall and quickly was on its scent, locating the bird before bringing it to my hand. Bill announced in amazement, “That is the first time Karat has ever brought a bird to anyone except me! She likes you!” Grins, high fives, and pats on the back followed. A little rub on Karat’s head, and we were back at it.
That afternoon produced 14 more flushes and a few more birds. With an occasional grouse mixed in for good measure, the shooting and company were excellent.
Three more days lay ahead for us as we chased timberdoodles across the upper expanse of Wisconsin. Averaging six miles a day through some of the thickest and nastiest cover imaginable, hunting woodcock in the upper Midwest is not for the weak or faint of heart. But with so much land available, we only saw another hunter once.
If you have not journeyed to Wisconsin or Minnesota for some of the finest wingshooting available today, do not delay! Timberdoodles of the upper Midwest are some of the finest shooting available in America.