Canebrake Timberdoodles

If you’re tired of the same old bird hunt, hit the thickets for some exciting woodcock action.

“Beep! Beep! Beep!”

Crashing through the canebrake, we couldn’t see 10 yards, but the steady beeping of Sam’s collar told us he was nearby.

We had been thrashing about in the thicket for about 30 minutes without any luck. I was beginning to get concerned. How in the world, I wondered, could we see — let alone hit — a bird flushed in this thicket?

This demanding hunt was set up a few days earlier when my brother Larry called me at the office.

“Bo Shaw went woodcock hunting last weekend, and limited out in 45 minutes,” he said. “He’s going back Saturday, and wanted to know if we’d like to come along.”

Larry had hunted woodcock with Shaw a number of times, and kept telling me I ought to give it a try. But things never had worked out until now.

“Sure,” I said, “sounds like fun.”

“Well,” Larry warned, “wear some heavy clothing suitable for the briar patch. It’s going to be thick.”

That proved to be an understatement.

Saturday morning I picked up Larry, and we drove over to meet Shaw, who is an avid bird hunter. He had already treated us to a great dove hunt earlier in the season.

Soon we had the dogs loaded up and headed out. Along the way, Shaw and Larry filled me in on the intricacies of woodcock hunting.

Also known as “wood snipe” and “timberdoodles,” the woodcock is a migratory bird. It looks similar to a long-billed snipe, only larger. Females are about a third larger than the males.

“They’re a big thing up in New Brunswick, Canada, and the Northeast,” declared Larry.

Shaw agreed.

“Back in the 1800s, people up there hunted them for the market,” he said. “I’ve read that over a hundred years ago, a pair of woodcock sold for $1.50.”

In the early fall, woodcock begin migrating south.

“Up to 80 percent of them spend the winter in Louisiana,” Shaw said. “Most stay in the Atchafalaya Basin and Northeast and Northcentral Louisiana.”

Hunting seasons follow the migration pattern.

“The season starts early in the fall up north and gets later as you move south,” Larry explained. “The season in Arkansas is earlier than Louisiana because that’s when the woodcock are passing through.”

In Louisiana, woodcock season typically runs from mid-December through January. This year’s season opened on Dec. 18, and will close on Jan. 31.

The season is fairly short, and there is a conservative three-bird limit.

Shaw explained the reason.

“Woodcock are rather scarce,” he said. “We don’t need to kill all of them. Even if we find an area with a bunch of birds, I don’t like to shoot them all. You have to let some go so there will be enough to breed.”

The appeal of woodcock hunting is watching the dogs work and the adrenaline-pumping explosion of a flushed bird.

“Don’t bring a lot of shells,” Larry had warned me. “It’s not like a dove shoot.”

Shaw first got into woodcock hunting during the glory days of quail hunting back in the 1960s and 1970s. When pursuing quail, he and his father often ran into woodcock, but Mr. Shaw didn’t encourage shooting them. He believed it might cause the dogs to start focusing on woodcock instead of quail.

But when the Louisiana quail population plummeted in the 1980s, the Shaws began concentrating more on woodcock. Since quail dogs will also point woodcock, it was an easy transition.

We finally pulled into Manila Plantation, on Lake St. John in Concordia Parish. This working plantation is owned by Shaw’s aunt and uncle, Janie and Stanley Maxwell. After checking in with Mrs. Maxwell, we headed to the back fields. It was a perfect day for a bird hunt. The sky was overcast with little wind, and the temperature was in the mid-40s.

I thought we would head far into the woods, but was surprised when we simply followed the woods line. We never pushed more than 50 yards off the field.

“Woodcock are nocturnal feeders,” Shaw explained. “They probe the fields for worms using their long beaks. During the daytime, they hold up in thick cover right along the edge of the field. Then at dusk, they come out to feed. If you hunt in the deep woods, you won’t find many.”

In the old days, hunters often would “dusk” woodcock. This is illegal today, and is similar to roosting ducks. After sunset, there is a 10- to 15-minute period when the woodcock fly out of the cover into the fields. Hunters would stand on the edge of the field and take potshots at the birds as they flew overhead, silhouetted against the evening sky.

The canebrakes that surround fields in the Mississippi Delta are classic woodcock cover. This thick terrain requires caution, however. Wearing hunter orange is a must because hunters often will be out of sight even though they might be only yards apart.

Shaw has two English pointers he uses for woodcock hunting. Sam is a 13-year-old, and Judy is 9.

“Any quail dog will also point woodcock,” Shaw explained, “but they have to be trained a little to concentrate on them.

“Sam was trained to hunt quail in Texas. He’s hardheaded and doesn’t mind very well because he’s big and strong and wants to run wide open. Judy minds much better and will stay close.”

Shaw uses only one dog at a time, and chose Sam to start with. Before setting out, he fitted Sam with a beeper collar. The loud beep it emits every six or seven seconds allows Shaw to keep up with the dog in the thickets. If the dog wanders too far, a whistle is used to call it back. Sam, as it turned out, tended to ignore it.

For the next 30 minutes, we crashed and crept through a canebrake sandwiched between a slough and the edge of the muddy field.

“Stay alert because sometimes you’ll flush a bird the dog missed,” Larry said.

At first, I tried to stay ready, but soon let down my guard. It was enough just to negotiate the cane.

“There’s a little hotspot up ahead where we ought to find one,” Shaw yelled.

He has found that woodcock tend to concentrate in small areas.

Sam had been running far ahead, ignoring the whistle. Shaw was getting frustrated with him, but I couldn’t help but admire the dog’s stamina. At 13, his best years were far behind him, but he never slowed down. Sam ran like an old stoved-up man, but he clearly was enjoying himself.

When we reached the hotspot, Sam was already on point. Shaw held back and told Larry and me to ease up for the flush. Suddenly, a woodcock exploded straight up in the air and then flew down the edge of the field.

Boom! Boom! Larry and I shot almost simultaneously, but his 20 gauge knocked down the bird just before I cut loose.

Larry went into the thicket to retrieve it when another woodcock flushed, but it happened so fast none of us got off a shot.

Shaw decided to work this little two-acre area thoroughly. Minutes later, we flushed a third bird. Again, Larry got off a shot just ahead of me and bagged the bird.

“Jeez!” I said. “My reflexes aren’t fast enough for this sort of thing.”

As we stood there talking, two more woodcock flushed nearby. This time I fired first, only to blast down a stalk of cane about 5 feet away. Larry also got off a shot but missed. We saw the bird glide down into some briars about 50 yards away.

When flushed, woodcock make a peculiar, distinctive noise. Larry describes it as a “bzzzt.” Usually, it’s the noise that alerts you to a flush before the bird is actually spotted.

“If you don’t know what it is,” Larry explained, “it’s just another noise in the woods.”

I’m about halfway deaf, however, and there are certain tones I can’t detect. All afternoon, Larry and Shaw were shouting, “There goes one!” Not once did I ever hear a woodcock get up.

Woodcock flush suddenly like quail, but that is about the only characteristic they have in common. Woodcock are always found alone, never in coveys, although there may be several in a small area. When flushed, they go straight up in the air for about 8 or 10 feet and then fly off to the side. They rarely go far, maybe 50 yards, and they always light on the ground. Usually a hunter can actually see where the bird goes down. This allows a chance to follow up and get a second shot.

Unlike quail, woodcock are rather fragile.

“They don’t handle much battle damage,” declared Shaw, a former F-111 pilot in Vietnam.

“One or two shot in a woodcock will generally bring it down,” Larry agreed.

By the time we thoroughly worked the hotspot, Sam had pointed or we had flushed about eight birds. We got several shots but no more woodcock.

I was amazed at how many there were in this small area. I had always assumed that woodcock were very rare. But apparently there are more than I thought. We don’t see them very often because you have to walk almost on top of one to flush it.

Twice when Sam was on point, I eased up close and actually saw the bird hunkered in the thicket a couple of feet in front of Sam’s nose. Hunters probably walk past woodcock while pursuing other game, and are not even aware of it.

We finally moved over to where one of the birds had lighted to try to flush it again. Reaching an old fence, I happened to glance down and saw one speck of blood on a leaf. Apparently, one of us had connected.

“Hey!” I called out. “Here’s some blood. You didn’t tell me you had to track these things.”

Shaw caught Sam and put him over the fence, and we spread out for the expected flush. But there was none. Peeping through the briars, I saw Sam trail around and then suddenly snatch a woodcock from the ground. It was already dead, and Sam brought it back to Shaw.

We all praised old Sam for a job well done. Shaw had warned us to keep a close eye on dead birds.

“The dogs will generally find a downed bird,” he explained, “but they’re not real good at retrieving one. I think it’s because the woodcock’s fine breast feathers get into their mouths, and they don’t like it.”

This was the only bird the dogs retrieved all day.

After about two hours, Shaw decided to change dogs. It took some doing to catch Sam, but Shaw finally collared him and brought out Judy. Judy hunted just as hard, but stayed close at hand and quickly responded to Shaw’s commands.

We moved down the field to another hotspot. This one was a thick band of cane that ran along the edge of an old natural pond.

“There’s one,” Shaw yelled.

He got off a quick, but accurate, shot and the woodcock nosedived into the pond. When Judy refused to make the retrieve, Shaw took a long stick, waded out knee-deep, and finally fished in the bird.

It was getting rather late, and we began easing back toward the truck. As we neared the first hotspot, Shaw jumped a woodcock, and he and Larry both got shots. We saw the woodcock glide down close to the old fence. Shaw called for Judy and moved up. We were ready for the flush when Shaw yelled “Look here!” There on the ground was a dead bird. We never were sure if it was the one they had just shot or one we had unknowingly bagged earlier in the day.

Time was running out, and I still had not connected on a shot. We then flushed a bird, and saw it land next to the field. Judy was brought up, and Shaw and Larry put me on the field to get the best shot. When all was ready, they moved in and flushed the bird. It jumped up and flew straight down the tree line, offering me a perfect opportunity.

Boom! Boom!

Both my shots missed clean. Shaw and Larry couldn’t contain themselves.

I ignored the insults, and kept an eye on where the woodcock landed. Despite my poor performance, Larry and Shaw again graciously gave me dibs on him. I was determined to prove my marksmanship this time. When the bird flushed in the thick cane, I cut loose with both my barrels. The woodcock flew on out of sight, untouched again.

By now it was late, and we were all tired of tromping through the thickets. In fact, I was about give out. We, or actually they, had bagged six birds, and we had shot at probably that many more.

In fact, Shaw admitted, we had seen about as many woodcock as he ever had on a hunt.

On the way out, we stopped at Mrs. Maxwell’s to tell her we were leaving. The spry 88-year-old had prepared us some refreshments, and insisted we stay and visit awhile. After enjoying some delicious strawberries and cream, washed down with some strong coffee, we gave our thanks and made our goodbyes.

Shaw took the woodcock home because he has participated in a federal wing study for about 10 years. A wing from each woodcock is sent to biologists, who can then determine the bird’s age and sex and get an idea on how successful the hatch was. The wings also provide information on the number and health of the woodcock and how many birds are being harvested. After the season closes, a report is sent back to the participating hunters.

Chasing woodcock is demanding and requires negotiating thick cover. But Louisiana provides some of the country’s best hunting. Anyone who enjoys quail hunting or is looking for something a little bit different should give it a try.

About Terry L. Jones 115 Articles
A native of Winn Parish, Terry L. Jones has enjoyed hunting and fishing North Louisiana’s woods and water for 50 years. He lives in West Monroe with his wife, Carol.