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Woodcock Hunting is an Exhilarating, and Delicious, Experience

By Jonathan Bowman

Photos by Jonathan Bowman

This month I’m thrilled to highlight another under-hunted species, the delectable woodcock, known in some circles as the ultimate game bird for table fare. Anecdotally, I have met very few hunters who have ever hunted woodcock. Much like goose meat, people seem to hold to a long time myth that woodcock is not worth hunting because it is not worth eating. On the contrary, esteemed French chef Augusta Escoffier cites the woodcock as the king of all game birds in Le Guide Culinaire.

I recently had the opportunity to join my friend Joel Elswick (and his dog Dax) on a woodcock hunt in central Virginia. It is an incredible experience which involves lots of walking and careful, but quick shotgunning. The dog will run all around the woods ahead of you as they scour for the scent of a bird on the ground. Once they have found a solid scent trail and believe they are close to the woodcock, the dog will stop and “point” at the bird with their nose and/or body. The whole group approaches the point, and upon command from the dog’s handler the bird dog will flush the bird up and after a flutter of wings that always seems to surprise me, you have about three seconds to find the departing bird and pull the trigger. Whether the bird comes down or not, it’s an exhilarating experience.

I asked Joel a few questions to help gives some insight on how to get started with woodcock hunting that I will share below.

Tell us about Dax and how you gained him as a hunting partner.

Dax is a 4-year-old pointer with a lot of Elhew blood. I got him as a started dog in the spring of 2020 when a mentor of mine knew his previous owner was interested in selling him to the right home. My old Brittany was running into more and more health issues, and I was not going to be able to convince my wife to add a new puppy to the equation with a young family. It was just one of those fortunate situations where needs and timing worked out.

What are a few things you would want anyone to know about woodcock hunting/hunting them with Dax and why you love it so much?

The dog work is really what drew me into bird hunting. When I started hunting woodcock, it was really just a bird of convenience or desperation to get dog work on wild birds that were accessible for a novice on local public land. As I’ve spent more time pursuing them, my appreciation for them has grown. No, they’re not generally the most challenging bird for a dog to handle, but they will surprise you by acting pretty differently from day to day. I used to view them as the junior varsity upland bird, but that has changed over the last few season. Their quirks fascinate me the more I chase them.

What are two or three recommendations/first steps for where to begin/how to find someone who can help teach you?

I guess that would depend on whether or not you have a dog of your own that you’re interested in involving in the process. Regardless, a mentor can really shorten the learning curve. There are two main reasons an experienced bird hunter might be hesitant to take someone out for the first time. The safety of their dogs is going to be their primary concern, so you’ll need to be able to show them an understanding of general gun safety, and also be able to assure them of your understanding that no bird is worth taking a risky shot that could endanger their dog.

Secondarily, bird hunters work pretty hard to find their covers, so be clear up front that you’re willing to keep any location information as confidential as they prefer. Additionally, I’d just say to not treat someone like a guide service. People are much more likely to help out someone who genuinely want to learn opposed to those who just want to go shoot three birds with as little effort as possible.

Any recommendations on how to find woodcock spots/what are the main things you looking for when scouting?

I generally look for moisture and stem density when scouting a new spot. Woodcock get the vast majority of their calories from earthworms, so you’ll need to target areas where they can feed. Younger forest habitat will give them the cover they need from predators. At the end of the day, just start walking. The old saying that boot leather kills birds is especially true for newer hunters. For example, we had very successful days this year in more mature areas that had plenty of deadfalls for them to get some protection. I would’ve never targeted that spot based on satellite imagery.

Share one or two of your favorite memories woodcock hunting.

I can still remember the first one I ever shot. That one is a memory I hope to never forget. The more I do it, the more I enjoy taking friends out. Some of the most memorable hunts I’ve had were ones where I left my gun in the truck. It just seems easier to take in the experience that way. And there is always the added bonus of being able to make fun of another hunter’s misses without the risk of missing yourself!

A great way to cook your first woodcock

Jonathan Bowman lives in Amelia County, where he spends as much time as possible hunting, fishing, and cooking. Jonathan loves sharing his passions with others, and is determined to one day convince his wife to join him on a turkey hunt.

  • February 2, 2023