Woodcock Camp 2024

Canaan Valley Flight Path

by Chris McCotter

For many years I have studied the ways of the American woodcock. I have spent countless hours looking at maps, reading books and walking woods, swamps and some pretty salty briar patches not even Brer Rabbit would inhabit.

  Along the way I’ve learned much; like what to wear to protect from purple, green and gray briars, to bring two pairs of waterproof boots on any multi-day expedition as well as the boot dryer, not to wear long underwear no matter how cold it is, to train a dog with love and firmness and to hunt where the birds are.

  I’ve also learned how satisfying it is to pay dues and then find the door to the club finally open.

  I didn’t have anyone show me how to woodcock hunt. I am self-taught, so it probably took me three times as long to learn the tradition, but that’s ok. As Oscar Wilde said, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well. If it is worth having, it is worth waiting for. If it is worth attaining, it is worth fighting for. If it is worth experiencing, it is worth putting aside time for.”

   So, when I planned my now annual woodcock camp expedition to Canaan Valley, West Virginia at the beginning of November, I had all these years of experiences to draw on.

   I was definitely hunting where the birds were. Canaan Valley offers some of the best woodcock hunting in the country. I had a six-month-old pup I have lovingly and firmly trained. I had two (actually three) pairs of waterproof boots and the boot dryer. I left the long underwear at home. I put aside time.

  In four days of hunting time at woodcock camp, I took my three-bird limit each day. When my 21-year-old son joined me for the last two days, he too dropped his limit. I hunted on two, beautiful fall days with 60-degree afternoons. I hunted a day in snow falling that looked like goose down. Our final day had snow still on the ground but clear skies. It was an absolutely magical adventure I don’t think I could ever top. 

  Join me now for a few minutes of daydreaming of walking secret coverts, of watching a young dog point her first, wild bird, of toasting a limit after the hunt and being so tired at the end of the day all your cares are gone and you sleep peacefully.

   Basecamp for this year’s expedition was once again a modest rental home in the Old Timberline community. The home must have a hot tub; a required indulgence after hunting six to seven miles each day through heavy cover. I have stayed many places over the years in my bird hunting travels, ranging from motor lodges to said rental. Really the most important aspect of your lodging is that it’s close to where you are hunting, and I can be hunting in 10 minutes from Old Timberline.

  We hunt the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge – a piece of hunting paradise that encompasses 17,000 acres of prime hunting grounds (and resort real estate) along the Blackwater River in between two mountain ridges and the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. I’ve walked a lot of it over the past 18 years, logging what areas attract birds and what areas do not.

   The woodcock terrain is mostly flat. The cover varies from old farmland to aspen thickets. Hawthorn trees tend to be important. Open ground under trees with little undergrowth is a micro pattern. Then there’s the briar bush micro pattern and the golden rod pattern. I could go on and on. It’s like a spreadsheet in my head, and I am always looking for trends in the analytics.

   Woodcock are secretive birds. Many studies have been undertaken and continue to be to better understand the habits of this unique upland, migratory bird. Unique might be an understatement. A woodcock’s eyes are on either side of its head and its ears are below its eyes. It has a long beak it uses to probe for earthworms in soft soil (under the trees) and somewhat long legs and a short, tuffed tail. The plumage is 100 shades of brown and black and permits the bird to easily blend into a forest floor. So much so, you have to look very carefully to see them even when a foot from a pointing dog’s nose! In addition to all of this, woodcock make a marvelous sound when they flush – a kind of high-pitched whirring, unmistakeable in the bird world.

    I like to eat them, too. I breast them out, sprinkle with a grilling seasoning and wrap a half piece of bacon around each. I then grill or oven bake until the bacon is somewhat crisp. Don’t bother with a fork and knife – these birds are finger-licking good.

  Woodcock isn’t for everyone. I don’t just mean eating them. I also mean the hunting. It’s demanding, can be painful (briars) and you need to be a pretty good shot to maneuver your gun through trees in hopes of getting a clear shot.

   We use 20 ga. shotguns to hunt these birds. For years I’ve used a Daly over and under my grandfather gave me. After noticing the gun was getting a bit beat up and seeing it’s value increase, I bought an inexpensive, Turkish made ATI Calvary SVE 26” 20 ga. It has the MobilChoke system a chrome moly, vent-rib barrel an aluminum-alloy receiver with a Turkish walnut stock and grouse engravings along the receiver as well as a bead sight. It came with five chokes. It weighs only six pounds. It looks like a more expensive gun and so far (three hunts and 150 rounds), has held up. My only complaint is that the safety is very sticky. Hopefully that will loosen up over time as I have “safetied” a number of birds.

   Over the years I’ve compiled a series of areas in Canaan that tend to hold birds, but the timing has to be just right. The key is visiting when the annual migration or “flight” of woodcock is under way and the northern birds are visiting the valley on their way to warmer climates like South Carolina and Louisiana. From what I can tell, the flight usually gets started at the end of October/beginning of November and can be spurred on by the passing of sudden and extreme cold fronts. As I noted above, we had a day of snow during my stay.

   In all my years hunting, and the past four have been what I would consider the most knowlegeable, I have never hit the migration just right. This year we did. Everywhere we hunted we flushed woodcock. Each day we flushed 15-25 birds. Like I said, this trip was magical.

   The pup was pretty darn good for a six-month-old self trained project. Birdie (Lady Bird of Lake Anna) came from Eric Lowman’s Smokingun kennel and is my third Brittany spaniel. She’s petite but full of fire. She found every bird we dropped and retrieved them all. She preferred to bring us the ones she watched fall versus the ones she didn’t see drop. She never broke a nail, she never quit hunting even in the snow. The only time she paused was when she came to me with a two-inch hawthorn in her paw to remove.

  An unexpected highlight of the trip was meeting LeJay Graffious, a paragon of woodcock study. He’s the Administrator of the Old Hemlock Society, a group that owns Old Hemlock setters, a breed developed by the noted artist, author and outdoorsman George Bird Evans, and has studied woodcock for years, even tagging and equipping birds he’s captured with GPS transmitters.

   Last year, my son harvested a tagged woodcock. He went online and recorded the tag numbers and location of the harvest. Turns out LeJay had tagged the bird. In fact, the bird is going to be featured in a documentary on the refuge by Peter Schriemer. Graffious was kind enough to chat with my son and I about his vast knowledge of bird hunting and we parted grateful he took the time to chat with us.

   The good news is that you don’t have to travel to West Virginia to hunt woodcock. In fact, much of Virginia offers good opportunity as the birds migrate their way south each fall and winter. Some even spend the winter here.

   Most of the Virginia Wildlife Management Areas east of the Blue Ridge Mountains have habitat that will attract the birds. The best ones are in the coastal plain region like Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Big Woods, Flippo-Gentry, Land’s End, Merrimac Farm and Robert W. Duncan. Don’t overlook those WMAs in the Piedmont either like Amelia, C.F. Phelps, Dick Cross, Hardware River, Horsepen Lake, James River, Oakley Forest, Pettigrew, Powhatan, Rapidan and Thompson.

    The second half of the Virginia woodcock season runs from December 26 through January 21. If the winter is mild, you can flush plenty of birds right up to the last day of the season. The three-bird limit doesn’t seem too difficult but trust me, I’ve shot 18 times to get it. My son has done it in three!

   Virginia woodcock will inhabit wet woods and fields. The more protection from overhead predators the better. You’ll need to hunt fields of briars, dense alder thickets, bottomlands bordering rivers, creeks and swamps and sometimes pines.

  What makes the Canaan Valley trip so special is that the entire alpine valley looks more like Canada. Fragrant spruce trees, stands of aspen, cranberry bogs, alders, hawthorn and apple trees on overgrown farmland with mountains all around; it’s all there to explore. You’ll need a six-day small game hunting permit and the Conservation license. I also get a National Forest Permit. The grand total is $44 and well worth it.

  Do you need a dog to hunt woodcock? Absolutely not, however, it does make the hunt more predictable when a dog points birds versus when they flush at your feet without warning. The dogs absolutely love it, too.

  I highly recommend chaps over briar pants. I use Filson brand waxed cotton chaps. They not only protect you from briar sticks but they also keep the water from plants you contact from soaking your pants.

  I saved most of the woodcock to serve at Thanksgiving, but my son and I did dine on three prior to dinner one night. Their dark breast meat tasted earthy but savory and went well with a Samuel Adams Octoberfest beer.

  Another woodcock camp tradition I cherish is the toast to the timberdoodle. Enjoying a small tipple of Bird Dog blackberry whiskey after the hunt when you limit out is a nice way to celebrate and savor everything that goes into a successful outing.

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