To trot out the old chestnut: We wuz robbed. A stretch of freakish weather had locked northern Wisconsin in the grip of an early winter, and the late-October trip I’d counted on for some of the best woodcock shooting of the year had devolved into a grim march across snowy wastes. Bourbon was indicated, and “healthy” strikes me as precisely the wrong word to describe the dent we put in the supply.
That wasn’t the note I wanted to end the season on; the question was: Where to go? I remembered a cluster of State Fishery Areas in central Wisconsin—places I prowled for trout in the spring and summer whose possibilities for woodcock always had intrigued me. They were south of the snow line, so one glassy-cold morning I loaded up Rumor, my English cocker spaniel, and made the drive from Green Bay to see what we could find.
Plenty, as it turned out. The first spot we tried, on the north side of a stream that holds some of the handsomest brown trout I’ve cast a fly to, was a complex of marshy edges, brushy oak forest and old farm fields slowly filling in with popple, birch and alder. Rumor scampered around in her usual hyperkinetic fashion, but after a half-hour we’d yet to put up a bird. It didn’t seem possible that the flight could have passed through. Still, I was beginning to wonder.
Then, walking knee-high grass on a mucky trail, I watched a woodcock flutter into a patch of alders to my left. Rumor was working the alders to my right, and when I turned to whistle for her, another woodcock all but unzipped me. I scratched it down, Rumor retrieved it with her customary alacrity and the skunk was off.
A few minutes later the alders yielded a second woodcock, and when I directed Rumor toward the spot where I thought the first bird had gone, she flushed it on cue—and I missed the hell out of it. Fortunately, I saw about where it had put down, and when it flushed again, my aim was true.
I had collected a limit of woodcock, but even more than that, I had proved something I’d long suspected: that Wisconsin’s State Fishery Areas (SFAs) are under-the-radar gems for wingshooters. The primary purpose of the SFA program is to preserve high-value “water resources” while providing public access to quality fishing experiences—a mission impossible to accomplish without protecting sizable amounts of land in the watersheds of these rivers, streams and ponds.
The upshot is a heck of a lot of upland and lowland habitat for species such as woodcock, ruffed grouse, waterfowl and pheasants that, because of the “Fishery Area” label, tends to hide in plain sight. Also, because SFAs typically are composed of multiple smaller parcels rather than a single contiguous property, hunters can, with a little scouting, identify the pieces with the best cover and cherry-pick spots.
We’re talking about some impressive acreages too. In the general area where Rumor and I found those woodcock, three SFAs—Mecan River, Pine River and Willow Creek—collectively offer more than 10,000 acres of public land open to hunting. What’s not to like about that?
For a list of SFAs, including maps and other information, google “Wisconsin fishery areas by county.”