column By: Lee Arten, Larry E. Slaughterbeck | June, 17
My brother’s army buddy lived on a 40 outside town. The old farm had several small fields edged with “fences,” rocks that had been plowed up and piled. Between fields alders had come up thick. My springer Hog would patrol the clumps and flush birds. He was good on grouse. Woodcock held closer and made him look near perfect.
One afternoon Hog jumped a woodcock, and it crossed one of the fields. I missed with the first barrel of the over-under 20. The woodcock was still in the open, and the second shot stopped it mid-wingbeat. It fell and disappeared. Hog ran up and passed by. As he did, the bird showed against the yellow grass. Its colors have stayed in my mind since. The dark bill was almost clownish. The feathers were more chocolate-hued than those of a grouse. It was hard to understand how all those tobacco and chocolate-colored feathers had added up to such good camouflage in the grass.
A friend and I bow hunted together then. We’d been traveling on weekends to hunt Iron County, Michigan. A local spot would let us chase deer during the week. The owner of the 40 was fine with that idea, so we went scouting on a raw, wet afternoon. We walked from the owner’s yard toward an overgrown road. Before we saw deer sign, a woodcock towered. The 20 rose, and the bird dropped eight feet to our front. My friend was impressed. For a while, I didn’t mention that by not getting my head down on the stock, I’d added the lead necessary to hit the bird.
The first woodcock I missed was beyond Copper Harbor, the northernmost town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Something other than hunting had distracted me, and the bird was a surprise when it flew from the other side of a small pond. I got the 20-gauge single-shot up late but still fired. The shell, borrowed with the gun, was a 3-inch magnum. Not a good woodcock load.
The last woodcock I missed was on an old logging road near home. It flew from eight or 10 feet off in the early-October green. I fired, thinking it was a grouse. It was the same quick gray blur in the leaves as a grouse would have been.
Once, my wife and I lived on a small place outside Ontonagon. In the spring, male woodcock used to dance in the air in front of the horse barns. After supper, we’d catch the show. In the fall, I’d take my Garcia Bronco single-shot .410 and go off to “the back two” and hunt woodcock. On one edge of the woods was a boggy spot. Woodcock jumped there always flew toward the road. Across the road were my neighbor’s garage, his shed and then his house. I never fired at a bird there.
In recent years, hunting without a dog and without access to the alder-filled 40, woodcock sightings have been few. I could say it was better to leave timberdoodles alone because of the slippage in numbers. But I really stopped shooting woodcock because I couldn’t find a good way to cook them.
The late, local TV personality Fred Trost gave a woodcock recipe on his show. He said to breast out the birds, cook the meat lightly (“like rare venison”) and make a sandwich with it. I thought the recipe had possibilities. To find out, I’d have to kill another woodcock. To do that, one would have to be found. Since most places I hunt now have no alders, that could be difficult.
My son Ethan flushed a woodcock five years ago. It was in the thick stuff off a muddy trail in the Keweenaw Peninsula. He didn’t have a shot, and the bird didn’t come toward the trail.
The last few years I’ve gotten the migratory bird (woodcock) endorsement on my small game license again. Last season, probings appeared on a sandy bush road I hunt. So far this year there have been none. If a woodcock flushed there, or anywhere, would I shoot it?
Probably not. I’ve been not shooting woodcock, now, for almost 20 years.
He lived in a residential neighborhood
Brick homes on a street with a tree-lined boulevard
On a Sunday afternoon we visited
He was sitting in a burgundy leather chair
In a cherry-paneled library by a fireplace
at his feet a spaniel slept
Embers cracked in the fireplace
On a Sunday afternoon
Conversations included literary discussion about
A green-bound book in his lap and upland hunting
The beauty of nature and April’s flights of woodcocks.
From the built-in gun cabinet beside the fireplace
He took out his favorite shotgun and
Seems like only yesterday and spoke of his last hunt
On a Sunday afternoon
In the mud and muck of a rainy opening day
In a cornfield just south of town the spaniel flushed two roosters
One he watched glide over a fencerow and into a field of stubble
The Model 31 from his youth dropped the other for dinner
A bouquet with the pheasant’s tail feathers
Sat on the table in front of the bay window
Overlooking a front yard covered in late autumn leaves
In the dampness of a November day given to us
the gift of a few hours with a sportsman of the ’40s
–Larry E. Slaughterbeck