The wiliest, slyest gamebird in the world is probably the ringneck pheasant or perhaps the ruffed grouse. The grittiest would be the chukar or one of the desert quail species. There is no debating which bird is the quirkiest, however. That descriptor is reserved solely for the American woodcock. From its long bill to its upside-down brain to its weird “timberdoodle” nickname, the bird is a flat-out oddball. It is also a cherished gamebird and a life-lister for many traveling wingshooters. One of the world’s top ports of call for those looking for their first woodcock is Leen’s Lodge, in the tiny sporting village of Grand Lake Stream, Maine. “Although our area is good for grouse hunting ,” said Leen’s owner Scott Weeks, “our woodcock hunting is more popular. In fact, I would say that 85 percent of our guests book their hunts for the purpose of shooting woodcock.”
The area that Leen’s hunts features both resident birds and migrators coming from Canada, so the birds are plentiful, making the success rate for bagging a coveted timberdoodle stratospheric. “Actually,” Weeks said, “during the peak of the season, when each of our guides are often moving 20 to 30 woodcock a day, some of our shooters have achieved their limits before mid-day.” Sounds easy enough, except that for the uninitiated, shooting woodcock in the Maine woods can be a bit tricky—as the quirky nature of woodcock extends far beyond the previously mentioned characteristics. Woodcock throw a lot of curves at the shooter. They inhabit dense cover, their flight patterns often are uniquely screwy and their unpredictable flushes can vary between 20-yard flittering hops and bat-out-of-hell rocket blasts. The key to bagging timberdoodles is to stick to the following principles.
Find a good shooting station
Woodcock typically will be pointed by dogs in thick cover. Shooters are rarely in good positions when this happens. Fortunately, woodcock are some of the tightest-holding gamebirds, giving hunters time to relocate to small openings and get situated for chances to see and shoot. One should never give the guide the go-ahead to flush a bird when standing where he or she cannot shoot.
Look for openings in the cover
It often is said that woodcock fly through cover. In reality they fly around or through holes in the cover. Before calling for the flush, take a few seconds to survey the area for relatively open windows or lanes through which a bird might try to escape, and be prepared to shoot in those spots.
Do not shoot too quickly
Timberdoodles often flush at close quarters, and the dense cover they must negotiate prevents them from escaping at top speed. The result is that an overly jumpy shooter can get drawn into expending both barrels before a bird ranges beyond 15 yards. Even open-choke shot patterns don’t perform well at that distance, making an already challenging task more difficult. As is the case with most flying targets, the shooter has more time than he or she thinks. Waiting an extra second or two before mounting the gun can make a world of difference.
Wait for the line-out
Again, shooters typically have more time than they think. The best use of that time is to quickly assess where the bird is most likely to go (reference prior note on windows and lanes) and tweak one’s body position accordingly. More importantly, though, the famous zigzagging flight patterns that make woodcock so hard to hit are most prevalent during the initial part of the flush. After that the birds tend to line out—at peak-pattern distances—and allow shooters to make the smooth, deliberate gun mounts conducive to good shooting.
Block out obstacles
From leaves to branches to tangles, obstacles abound in woodcock coverts, making wide-open shots rare. The good news is that a shot swarm can deliver at least some of its pellets through all but the thickest cover. Upon the flush, the shooter’s focus should be on the bird and not potential obstacles. And once the gun is mounted, the shooter should ignore the obstacles and remain committed to the swing and timing of the shot. Although a young aspen’s trunk may account for a considerable portion of a shot charge, it is pleasantly surprising how often some of the remaining pellets make it to the bird.
Familiarity breeds proficiency
One of the greatest advantages of hunting at a place like Leen’s is that there will be multiple woodcock flushes every day. Each flush will be an opportunity to observe the nuances and tendencies of the woodcock’s flight patterns. A shooter’s conscious and subconscious will be logging data, and that information will help better predict potential escape routes, determine when a bird is likely to line out and time the gun mount for the perfect 25-yard shot.
According to Scott Weeks, October, which is the prime woodcock month, is his favorite time of year at the lodge. “The Maine woods are at their full splendor,” he said, “and our lodge is full of upland hunters, many of whom are fulfilling their dreams of going after woodcock. I sometimes walk into our lounge where the guests are enjoying fireside cocktails as they await their lobster dinners, and I don’t even have to ask who got their first woodcock, because it’s written on their smiling faces.”