Woodcock receive almost no pressure these days in Louisiana, and hunting for them is fantastic, particularly on Sherburne WMA.
Nothing short of an enigma, the woodcock is truly an oddity and always causes a hunt to stop. Following just about every successful shot at a fleeing bird, everyone in the party seemingly has to look over and ponder the features of this strange fellow. It’s inevitable and always happens.
Looking over the bird, you wonder if it can even fly, by the looks of its shape. But ask any upland bird hunter who’s crazy about woodcock hunting if such a feathered creature can fly, and you’re liable to be cussed.
Even the late, great comedian Jimmy Durante, also known as the “Schnoz,” would have been envious of this bird’s long prehensile beak used for probing worms in moist lush soils.
The bottom line is, licensed Louisiana woodcock hunters, who at one time numbered in the neighborhood of 40,000 strong and now number most years somewhere around 4,000, are passionate about this captivating bird.
Last winter, one of those enamored woodcock hunters, Philip Manuel, dropped the tailgate of his pickup truck, opened two dog boxes and released his brace of English pointers named Nick and Ike.
As the dogs got their run out, Manuel busied himself putting training collar controls, bottled water and shotgun shells into his coat pockets, while my son and I stretched and donned our hunting gear. Our day had started early having gotten up hours before sunrise to make the hour-and-a-half drive to Sherburne Wildlife Management Area from our hometown of Patterson.
Leaning on the bed of Manuel’s truck, I noticed in a nearby tree three turkey vultures who looked as tired and lethargic as us.
As the three of us passed by the tree, Manuel, with a morbid sense of humor, said, “Look alive boys,” to which my son and I looked at each other and cracked up. It seemed woodcock weren’t the only odd characters around these parts.
Manuel, whom I had met the year before at Sherburne WMA’s Stepping Out Day event, had a side to him that I hadn’t gotten to know when we first talked after doing a field demonstration with his dogs. That spontaneous sense of humor would be demonstrated throughout the day, as he guided us on what would be my son Jason’s first ever woodcock hunt with pointing dogs.
Sherburne WMA is located between two major cities, Baton Rouge and Lafayette, off of Interstate-10. And though woodcock hunter numbers have dropped the past couple of decades, Sherburne is one public area that gets lots of pressure from those who remain and are faithful to hunting this game bird. Sherburne WMA simply has prime habitat for woodcock.
Manuel, who works nights for Union Pacific Railroad as a bridge tender in Krotz Springs, loves the place.
“I’ll hunt Sherburne as many days as the weather lets me if I’m not working,” he said. “Sherburne stays wet with a lot of water in the spring, but by woodcock season, that water has gone down. But it’s still bottomland and marshland, and woodcock like to feed on worms, grubs, millipedes and stuff under those rotten leaves.”
Much of Sherburne was seriously under water this past spring for a couple months due to the Great Flood of 2011. This year’s flooding rivaled 1973, when the record-high water mark was set, falling just an inch or two short depending on what gauge along what part of the river you looked at. However, as fast as the water rose to those near-record levels, it receded nearly as quickly. Much of Sherburne has recovered after the long summer, which saw little rain outside of Tropical Storm Lee in early September.
It wasn’t long before Nick was on point, and we all maneuvered for a clear shot in the tangled understory of mixed briar and trumpet creeper. My son would walk past Ike, who was honoring Nick’s point, and flush the bird, getting first crack. Two quiet, pulsing, but different toned beeps could be heard coming from the dog’s electronic collars, which Manuel uses to keep track of where his dogs are in the dense cover.
My heart rate increased in anticipation. I could tell my son’s was too as he gingerly stepped in behind Nick, looking out in front of the dog’s nose. Suddenly, a burst of energy slapped and chopped the air like the blades of a helicopter with a certain whistle sound. The arc of the bird’s travel went up then sharply left. The booming sound of my son’s shotgun echoed through the trees and then again.
How in the thick cover did he fire once at the escaping bird I’ll never know, but the second shot is the one where feathers flew — then floated to the ground. A slap on the back ensued. Then the hunt stopped — to look and study the bird.
“Woodcock love those briars,” Manuel said. “When you find those briars, you’ll find where the birds are.
“You kind of look for mixed cover like where there are some treetops or some downed trees with briars mixed through them. You’re looking for some place where the cover provides them protection from predators. They not only need a place to feed, but a place where they can hide from predators.”
Stopping to rest and provide some water for the dogs, Manuel, 48, showed us a picture of his mangled truck following an accident he had been in 20 years prior. He had been in a coma for 18 days, and his recovery was nearly 16 months.
The conversation left my son and me quiet as we walked the bush-hogged paths between cover, while the dogs ran in and out of the woods sniffing seemingly every square inch.
While the dogs worked cover that looked birdy, Manuel approached us.
“John,” he said, “you know what the first thing was I asked that doctor after I woke up from that coma?”
I shook my head with a serious look.
“No Phil. What?”
“I asked that doctor if I could play the guitar, and he said, I sure could. And I told him, ‘Well doc, you sure are good, because I ain’t never played the guitar in my life.’”
Some recoveries you have to have a sense of humor to overcome.
In one instance, while walking, Manuel would tell a joke, but in another he would spew knowledge from years of experience.
“I pretty much look for a moist place,” he said. “You’ll find woodcock underneath myrtle bushes — they like places like that. You’ll find where they’ve been feeding, because you’ll find holes in the ground where they’ve been probing. I’ll make a mental note and always go back there, because when they feed there one time, they’re coming back. There are worms in the ground there, and it’s a feeding place.”
Other signs hunters can look for are splashes, as they are called. The chalky white fecal matter left on leaves in splotches often shows where birds have roosted. You can bet, when fresh sign like this is found, birds are close by.
Manuel’s pointer Nick was always in the lead, where Ike was younger and not quite as seasoned. Nick would go on point, and Ike would back in the classic upland hunting fashion you’d expect from a pair of good bird dogs.
Manuel, following another classic point from Nick and like a proud father doting over his child, said “That Nick — he’s so smart. He’s so smart one time I wanted to change his name to algebra.”
And once again his comedy garnered grins from my son and me.
But what to look for in a hunting dog is really an individual preference, according to Manuel. Some hunters prefer a small, close-working breed of dog, such as Brittany spaniels. Others, like Manuel, due to the high temperatures here in Louisiana, prefer shorter-hair dogs like his English pointers.
“They don’t shed as much, and they don’t get so hot when hunting in warmer weather like we sometimes have in December,” Manuel said. “You can see a difference in hot weather.
“You can see where longer-hair dogs get burned out faster.
“But in warmer weather when I see the dogs getting hot, I look for a little water if I can find it, and let them lay down in it. I don’t push them too hard, and I carry water when it’s not available so they can drink.
“But I’m also a believer in preseason conditioning to get my dogs in shape. Some dogs start out like rockets, but never make it through the day.”
Manuel is also a volunteer hunter-safety instructor, and continues to do his part introducing young hunters to woodcock hunting.
“To me, woodcock hunting is one of the best types of hunting to bring a kid,” he said. “They get all excited — they love it. When they see the dogs work and point, they always want to come back.”
I’m not sure if it was the dogs, the woodcock or Manuel’s jokes and sense of humor, but kids weren’t the only ones wanting to come back to Sherburne WMA to hunt with him. I also wanted to come back just to stop and admire a few odd looking birds too.
Woodcock season opens Dec. 18 and closes Jan. 31, 2012. The daily bag limit is three.
Sherburne – Prime woodcock study area
Woodcock banding has taken place on Sherburne WMA since 1991. With the WMA being a popular public hunting area, banding on the refuge provides the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries with critical data to determine the impact hunting pressure has on woodcock populations.
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