Hunting Woodcock with Dogs

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The Wettest Day of Woodcock Season

The rain pounded against my truck windshield as I drove along the windy Forest Service road that led to one of my favorite woodcock covers. Now parked at the seasonal closure gate, I watched my windshield wipers working frantically to chase away the relentless water droplets and thought to myself, “what on Earth are you doing in the woods on a miserable day like today?” The weather forecaster had predicted continuous rains for the next 10 days but still I had wondered away from my cozy, warm home for a chance at taking a few 6-ounce birds. Sure, the conditions were far from ideal – the rain meant the birds wouldn’t be moving much, if at all, and scenting conditions would be horrible – but I couldn’t spend the last day of the local woodcock season, and my last opportunity to hunt wild birds for the year, sitting on the couch. The drive bred into my bird dogs and the sickness most every upland bird hunter succumbs to simply wouldn’t allow it. 

Again, staring at the windshield, questioning my own sanity, I waited for the slightest break in the rain and sprung at the opportunity to get geared up and let the dogs down. Though typically not fond of water, Ruby and Pearl, the English Setter sisters, knew the purpose of our excursion and chomped at the bit (literally gnashing their teeth) with excitement. The Setter Sisters had had an exceptional season chasing woodcock, averaging a find every 5-10 minutes and bringing plenty birds to the bag, pending my own shooting competence. Today would be different. Today, wouldn’t be a banner day spent wading through birds. Instead, I was just hopeful we might put up a couple birds and cherish our last few hours hunting together.

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As I departed from the truck with shotgun broke over shoulder, the steady drumming of rain on my head and shoulders faded into background noise; all that mattered now was watching the dogs as they ventured off the edges of the old logging road into the dense thickets of yaupon and sweetgum. The girls worked back-and-forth through the forest, each cast a brushstroke on memory’s eternal canvas, further detailing the purest form of fulfillment known to a bird hunter. No matter the skill, this image cannot be captured by an artist’s medium or described in an author’s story; it can only be experienced, lived, and felt. The image is dynamic – at times it may seem chaotic as dogs struggle and scramble through the brush with a feverish determination; while at others, it becomes the most awesome display of serenity and stillness – simply dictated by the scent of sought-after feathers. A scent Ruby had just become enveloped in.

When I found the little setter, she was gazing intently over her left shoulder, muscles rigid, frozen in place. Her sickle-shaped tail was soaked, transformed from its usual flowy state to a sharpened edge, adding to the intensity of the point. Pearl stood 15 yards away, facing Ruby, with head and tail held high, honoring her sister’s point, and waiting in anticipation of what was soon to come. With a twittering alarm and whirring wings, the woodcock spiraled from the safety of cover in attempt to break through the mid-story and escape above the canopy of pines. The snap of my double gun broke the silence of the woods, the shot intercepting the bird, and laying it to rest on the water-logged pine duff. Pearl, acting as the clean up crew, retrieved the bird’s lifeless body to hand.

Soon after the first, the bird dog duo and I repeated the sequence a second time. As Pearl brought second bird to hand, the rainstorm began to gather steam, building to an all-out downpour. It was time to go home. I heeled the dogs, ducked my head, and set off towards the truck. By the time I reached the shelter of the camper shell, every bit of gear – rain jacket and pants, bird vest, rubber boots, flannel shirt, brush pants, and shotgun – was sopping and would require extra attention that evening. But that could wait. 

I dried the girls, conducted a quick tailgate check, and made sure they were comfortably settled into their crates. Then, I sat there, huddled in the camper shell next to my dogs, watching the rain come down and reminiscing on the close of another upland hunting season. For a relatively young man with only a few seasons under my belt, this kind of reflection was a foreign concept just a few years prior. Now a common practice, I’ve begun to grasp the value, the importance of slowing down, living in the moment, and soaking up every second you get in the field with your beloved bird dogs. ‘Til next year.

Looking for upland bird recipes? Why not try out this grouse breast schnitzel recipe?

Trey Johnson

I was born and raised on a small ranch Northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. From a young age, nature always provided an outlet from reality. I have continued to cultivate this passion through formal education and creative writing. When I am not working as game bird research assistant, you can find my bird dog and I in the field chasing birds.

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