It’s a real blessing living in New Hampshire. We have 3 species of upland birds; ruffed grouse, woodcock, and state released pheasants. There are dozens of pheasant stock sites all over the state. We treat them as bonus covers coming back through the state from the north country grouse covers. If you’re reading this hoping to find locations to hunt, this is not the blog for you. It’s simply a testimony on the beauty and excitement of hunting New Hampshire.
Let’s talk about woodcock hunting first. Woodcock are probably one of my favorite birds to hunt. The iconic warble of the timber doodle flushing, the tight dog points, having the time to work the bird intelligently and safely. There’s nothing quite like it. Finding woodcock covers is very easy. Coincidently enough the mud bats are back! It’s March 23rd and the first woodcock sightings are being reported. New Hampshire wildlife preserves don’t allow dog work March 15-July 15th. This doesn’t mean you can’t get your dog in the woods. Now is the time to get dog work in for Spring training.
If you’ve never hunted woodcock and are unsure on what their habitat is, Here’s a quick guide for you. This is based on my experience. Woodcock love lowlands that are wet, but not too wet. Woodcock eat worms. They use their longs bills to probe the dirt. With their diet in mind, observing the soil of a lowland spot is the first step! They won’t hangout if they don’t have food. When I describe lowlands, I’m talking about flat flood planes or strips of cover with new to mid growth, high stem density, available exposed earth for probing, and not a lot of grass. More grass, less woodcocks. Woodcocks love old apple orchards too.
They aren’t crazy about tall old growth trees either. Old growth trees provide roosts for predatory birds, paired with a more sparse ground cover and is an unsavory environment for woodcock. The most success I’ve had hunting the birds is definitely in covers that have an active water source. I hunt an old orchard, and they higher density birds is always near where there is some standing water. There is a stream near my house with young birch and beech trees, shadowed by 12 year oaks. They love this cover as well. In November, we were able to bag 3-4 woodcocks a day from this tiny cover, as the flights moved south.
The Woodcock Flush
I forgot to mention, woodcock are migratory birds. They summer in Canada from March through the end of November. Obviously, not all woodcock make the northern journey and make their residence more south in New England and upstate New York. These lazy birds are the opportunity in the off-months to get dog work in. They are what is called “resident” birds. Resident woodcock are very different from the flight birds hunted in the fall. They learn their environment all summer and have a keen knowledge of their cover come hunting season. This is indicative of the woodcocks wild flushing on longer points, flushing before points, low flying in an already chosen direction. Flight birds flush more vertical while picking a direction to fly, and this is the hunter’s best chance of success on woodcock. That tiny lag while they make a decision. Woodcock can travel hundreds of miles a night during migration. Almost like a renewable source of food for hunters! You can expect new birds almost daily (if the conditions are right). Conditions are key. We tend to see higher numbers the day or two after a frost. Freezing ground drives the birds south in a mass migration, in search of softer earth.
Best Shotgun for Woodcock Hunting
Shoot woodcock with what ever you feel most comfortable with. My first woodcock kills are below with a 12 gauge CZ Supreme Field (https://cz-usa.com/product/cz-supreme-field/). 7 1/2 lead shot gets the job done.
I transitioned over the the CZ Sharp-tail 20 Gauge Side-by-side (https://cz-usa.com/product/cz-sharp-tail/). I felt super comfortable shooting the SXS instead of the O/U. The CZ Sharp-tail is a fantastic entry level side-by-side shotgun. I greatly preferred 20 gauge over the 12 gauge. It was significantly lighter weight and more capable to manipulate. Pushing through thick stem density covers is very taxing. Lighter is better, and ounces are pounds over time.
CZ Bobwhite 28 gauge (https://cz-usa.com/product/cz-bobwhite-g2/). I periodically ran the Bobwhite, but hadn’t full adopted the two-trigger with English stock.
In 2021, I officially upgraded and Savage Grade A Fox 20 gauge I purchased from CT Shotgun (https://connecticutshotgun.co/savage-fox/). This side-by-side is just downright gorgeous. The case hardening has stunning blues and oranges. The tiger striping of the wood is beautiful in the fall sun. It is so light compared to my other shotguns and a real pleasure to carry.
The only qualm I have with the Savage Grade A FOX is the checkering. It’s very fine and quite weak. I have flat spotted a few sections and the checkering tops of the diamonds have broken off a bit. This is a woodcock and grouse gun, so I expected it to get beat up a bit, but did not expect the checkering to be so weak.
The FOX does have auto-ejectors. I have learned to love them, catching spent shells as they eject is faster than removing them individually. It’s also nice during clay practice to not pluck them, and eject into the bin.
How to ID the Sex of the Woodcock
This is short and sweet. The easiest way to sex a woodcock is to sling a US bill into the beak of the woodcock. If the beak is longer than the width of the dollar bill, the bird is most likely a female. If it is equal or shorter width than the dollar bill, it’s presumably a male.
No Dog Hunting Woodcock
Before having a female DK, my friend Gil and I would no-dog hunt woodcock and pheasant. We had a few decent woodcock covers that we would hit during peak migration days and limit out often! No-dog woodcock hunting is very easy, as long as you have good covers to hit with the correct timing, and you put in the miles. Putting in the miles is the key to almost all n-dog hunts. You just have to cover as much ground as you can to raise the probability of flushing birds.
Our favorite places to no-dog woodcock hunt are old apple orchards. The ground is extremely fertile. There is generally some moving or standing water in or near by to the orchard. The apple trees are short with tons of overgrowth and very few tall old-growth trees for birds of prey perches. We slowly walk towards the base of each apple tree (tented in bittersweet and briars), gently kicking brush around with our feet. Systematically hitting each and every tree in the orchard, pausing intermittently for 5-10 secs. The pauses cause the woodcock to panic into a flush. The panicked flushes are usually from birds within barrel distance of the hunter and can make for a funny jump scare. Take a quick deep breath, settle the barrel, and take the shot!
Dog Work on Woodcock
No real explanation here. Dogs make woodcock hunting a breeze, in certain cases. Most woodcock covers are the toughest covers with high stem-density and lots of sharp thorns and branches to weed of the predators. Dogs can get into the tough to get places and get on a hard point. Now it’s your turn to get torn up and in a position to flush and shoot the bird. If it flies, it dies. Shoot regardless. If you’re hoping for that perfect shot in a woodcock cover, you’ll never put birds in the bag. Take what you can get, as woodcock fold easily.
We really love working woodcock because if you miss, you generally have a second, or third chance of taking the bird. This is great for dog work. Woodcock are almost a renewable resource (for a short time) for dogs. In tough covers, we have witnessed a rough average of 50 yards that the bird flies before taking a landing. Just keep an eye on the woodcock’s line, and let the chase begin!
Woodcock hold fairly tight. I have nearly stepped on a pointed woodcock, and it still didn’t flush. Resident birds tend to flush easier than the flight birds coming down in migration. Dogs just help you suffer less when hunting woodcock. It’s also great for getting dogs trained because it forces them to get into the crappiest of covers and thickets to find birds. It makes them more versatile and bold than field only dogs.
Below is the moment Ryu pointed and retrieved her first woodcock. Somewhere in the North Country of New Hampshire, long before the first frosts and leaves clouding our vision.
Hunting woodcock in New Hampshire is a blast. It is always more fun, shared with friends. Find yourself a hunting buddy, and go put in those miles! Dog or not, you can be quite successful hunting woodcock in New Hampshire, if you just know what you’re looking for. Good luck this 2022 Fall season, we hope you fill your bags often.
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