By Ben BrettingenMy first Louisiana woodcock hunt started in an odd manner. I was sitting at a gas station waiting for a guy I’d met on the Internet, watching hunter-orange- and camo-clad patrons pour into the hole-in-the-wall joint for lunch.
Now the Internet is a funny critter, and it may seem weird to get together with random people you meet there; however, when Scott pulled up with his Brittany riding shotgun, I had a feeling we’d be just fine. Scott was the ringleader of our group, as he knew the Atchafalaya Basin like the back of his hand.
After a short drive to the field, we released my two Drahthaars and Scott’s tornado of a Brittany, Amber. Three different age-classes of young timber sprawled around us, with vine-like strings of vegetation growing from the forest floor, creating the perfect refuge for our quarry. It didn’t take long for Amber to go on point and one of the awkward birds to burst skyward. Just as the woodcock reached the pinnacle of its ascent, Scott sent it tumbling. The rest of the day followed a similar script—although, despite the dogwork being superb, our shooting left a little to be desired. After less than two hours of walking, we ended up with three birds in the bag.
Within the swamps and brakes of the Atchafalaya Basin is some of the country’s best woodcock hunting. Little wonder, seeing as studies suggest that more than 50 percent of North America’s woodcock call Louisiana their winter home. The birds inhabit the state from November through February, with the peak of the migration arriving around December. Of course, the exact timing can change with weather patterns, just as it can with migrating waterfowl. In mild years, such as this past, many birds don’t make it to the southern reaches of the state.
Hunting woodcock in Louisiana often can be a love-hate deal, for although hunters enjoy a target-rich environment, those “targets” often inhabit some of the nastiest cover. The southern Atchafalaya Basin is littered with large tracts of public land comprised of prime habitat. One of the more popular areas is the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge. Fortunately, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has focused the management of many wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges on woodcock. Some of the more productive include the Atchafalaya NWR, Sherburne and Dewey Wills WMAs and the US Army Corps of Engineers Indian Bayou Area.
If you can find a clean, moist forest floor with thick, chest-high cover, you’re bound to find birds. Grown-up clear-cuts and selectively harvested forests are your best bets for locating birds, as they provide the proper tree density. These logged areas can be viable diurnal cover for woodcock in only two to three years because of the fertility of the areas. The best age-classes of clear-cuts tend to be five to 10 years.
A combination of Google Earth and onX maps is going to be helpful in finding prime ground. First reference the property-boundary app onX to find the giant public areas, and then switch to Google Earth. Using the time-slider feature, go five to 10 years back and look for fresh timber harvests. Not all cuts are created equal. Small-scale clear-cutting is a common practice on many public tracts, and this provides perfect edge cover. Another thing to keep in mind is that woodcock often make short flights into open fields before first light and around last light. So if you are able to find fields in proximity to these thick, forested areas, you’ve struck gold!
For more information on public lands in Louisiana, visit wlf.louisiana.gov.