by Bryce Towsley - Monday, October 7, 2013
“New England woodcock hunting over dogs is a unique wingshooting experience,” said Bob Rose. But I was only half-listening. He was uncasing a vintage, sidelever Purdy 16-bore double gun and I was having a hard time focusing. It’s the kind of gun I dream about and I suspected it had to be worth more than my truck. I ached to be hunting with such a shotgun until I started thinking about the tough life my hunting shotguns experience. I was in mourning for weeks after submerging my Fox double (and myself) in a muddy bog. I am not the most graceful guy, and if I fell with this Purdy I couldn’t afford the penance.
“This is not the high-volume shooting you may have experienced in other places,” Bob continued. “If we put 12 birds in the air it’s a good day. If I have 24 birds in the air that’s a great day. Any more than that and they are writing poetry and singing songs.”“What?” I asked, coming out of my stupor. “Who is singing songs? Not me, I am tone deaf and it will just make the dogs howl.”
Bob’s look told me he was questioning the wisdom of his invitation. Then he snugged up his hip boots and started wading through the rain-swollen river. Bob is much taller than I am; the river was at the top of his hip boots but about 3 inches over mine. By the time I stumbled to the far bank and laid on my back to drain my boots, he was off in the alders and the dog was holding a point. I stumbled up behind Zephyr and when the bird flushed it went right over my head. I leaned back like Neo in “The Matrix,” dusted it with the right barrel and turned smug. I should have known it was the last good shot I would make that day.
The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is also called the timberdoodle, but not by anybody with whom I will appear in public. He is a robin-sized, goofy looking bird with eyes on the side of his head and a long bill with a prehensile tip. His nostrils are located high on his bill, close to his skull, and his ears are ahead of his eyes, between the base of his bill and eye sockets. If you weren’t sure, you might think he was designed by a committee using leftover parts.
The brain of an American woodcock is unique among birds. The cerebellum, which controls muscle coordination and balance, sits below the rest of the brain and above the spinal column. In most birds, the cerebellum occupies the rear of the skull. One theory holds that as the woodcock evolved, the eyes moved back in the skull, the bill lengthened and the nostrils approached the base of the bill, allowing for enhanced ground-probing abilities. As a result, things got rearranged so that today the woodcock has an upside-down brain.
Woodcocks are plump, compact birds. Females generally average a bit heavier than males (7.6 ounces vs. 6.2 ounces depending on the time of year). Their plumage is an overall mottled russet or brown. This is described as “cryptic,” which means camouflage in ornithology-nerd speak.
I can tell you firsthand it works well. A downed woodcock is hard to spot on the forest floor. I once shot a woodcock and saw it fall beside an ice-filled beaver pond. While I was looking for the bird, it flushed again and this time when I shot it fell into the water. I do not waste game, and I was young and foolish then. I stripped naked and, breaking ice ahead of me, waded far out into the chest-deep water to retrieve the bird. I forgot about all those sharp, beaver-chewed sticks lining the bottom, so it was even more difficult than it seems. After I dressed and stopped shivering, I picked my hunting vest off the ground and the first bird I shot at was lying dead underneath it. Because this happened 30 years ago I think it’s safe to mention that when this all started I was one bird short of a limit. So, had I found the first bird, I never would have shot at the one that made a water landing. Now I had one too many. I decided to return home, call the game warden and throw myself on his mercy. But when I got home I could find only three birds, which was the limit. I wondered for days what happened to the extra bird. The next weekend when I was getting ready to hunt again, I learned. That old vest had a ripped seam in the game bag I didn’t know about, and the bird had slipped between the layers of cloth. It was pretty ripe by the time I found it.
The woodcock lives in young forest, usually near streams, rivers and wetlands. With new land-management practices, often initiated by ignorant people using emotion rather than science or logic, young forests are becoming scarce in the Northeast. Like many other species, woodcocks rely on early-successional habitat, which was historically created by forest fires. After we started putting out the fires, that habitat was, until recently, created by clear-cut logging operations. Now that it’s considered better to hug a tree than to cut it down, good habitat is becoming harder to find in the northern United States. As a result, according to timberdoodle.org, the woodcock population has fallen by about 1 percent each year since the 1960s.
Woodcocks eat worms, which they catch by probing the soil with their long bills. They breed across eastern North America from Atlantic Canada to the Great Lakes, and spend the winter in lowlands, mainly in the Southern and Gulf Coast states. This means they are migratory so, in addition to native birds, a Northern hunter can depend on the flights heading south out of Canada to provide enough birds to keep hunting interesting.
New England and woodcock hunting have a long and happy history. The air of a crisp fall morning, red maple leaves and woodcocks have built a tradition that runs strong and deep in the wingshooting community. People travel thousands of miles to experience one of upland hunting’s top bucket-list check-offs.
Even though I am a native Vermonter, woodcocks for me have always been an afterthought. Our game bird is the ruffed grouse. But unless you want to be labeled a flatlander, never call them that. We call them partridge, and I was obsessed with hunting them for years.
I never had a dog, and I never hunted with anybody else’s that was worth feeding. I believed a dog was a problem and, based on my experience, they were. Years later, I learned I didn’t know it all and that a good dog is a wonderful thing for any bird hunting.
Back then, I just worked the coverts and learned the tricks of finding and flushing birds. Woodcocks were just the odd, whistling birds that sometimes showed up in the partridge woods and added a bit of excitement. When they were there, I would shoot them. But I never sought them out. That’s not to say I didn’t have some great woodcock hunting. There were a lot of days I shot a limit in addition to whatever partridge were unlucky enough to fly into my patterns.
Then one day I realized that I am in my 50s. I have been fortunate enough to wingshoot over a good portion of this big wide world, but I had never experienced the famous woodcock hunting in my own home state, at least not properly.
Well, the truth is I realized that character flaw after I met Bob at a United States Practical Shooting Association pistol match and he started talking about his passion. Judging from my scores that day, sending me into depression was a winning strategy. I suppose that’s why he waited until we were in the parking lot after the match to extend an invitation to hunt with him. So, that’s how October found me in that bog with wet boots and woodcock feathers floating down on my head.
The thing with woodcocks is they live in some nasty places, and even on those “singing songs” days all those birds in the air do not guarantee you will burn much powder. But that’s really not the point. Sometimes I think Bob would be just as happy to leave that elegant shotgun at home and just watch the dogs work. Like a lot of hard-core bird hunters, for him, it’s all about the dogs. And Bob’s dogs are something special.
They are from the “Old Hemlock” line started by the legendary writer and hunter George “Bird” Evans (Dec. 26, 1906-May 5, 1998). Evans was an author, illustrator and dog breeder. He was also a friend of Bob’s father. Evans was born in Uniontown, Pa., and was educated at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech and the Chicago Art Institute. A creative man, he played jazz saxophone and earned his daily bread as a freelance illustrator for Cosmopolitan and other publications.
In 1939, Evans bought a farm near Brandonville in Preston County, W.Va., where he developed the Old Hemlock line of setters. Evans wrote 27 upland shooting books and 115 magazine stories and reviews, as well as book introductions and other short pieces. He published many of his own books, many of which were limited editions. He and his wife, Kay, also jointly wrote five mystery books, using the pen name Brandon Bird.
A true dog man, he often wrote about dogs and grouse hunting more than actually shooting birds. Much of his writing was what many strive for, but often fail to achieve; it was elegant and thought-provoking, with a constant flow that often left you with a hollow feeling that it ended so soon.
Old Hemlock dogs are, according to a passage on the website of the Old Hemlock Foundation, “a line of English Setters developed by George and Kay Evans using a dog obtained from George Ryman, Old Hemlock Blue, and then breeding for the type. The Evanses were looking for a companion gun dog for primarily grouse and woodcock hunting. Old Hemlock Setters are often referred to as belton setters, but belton is a color: blue belton, orange belton or tri-belton. On page 224 of the Upland Shooting Life George describes the line of dogs: ‘In our Old Hemlock line we have developed a handsome belton type averaging fifty-five pounds for the males, under fifty for the females, with a deep muzzle, a typical long, fine-boned head. They hunt almost daily through our long grouse seasons in roughest cover, and they are natural gun dogs with nose and style. They are companion gun dogs that hunt to the extent of bell range and have the fire and drive necessary to find birds but hunt for and check in with the gunner.’”
In listening to Bob talk about the dogs, that all seems a bit clinical. He speaks with the passion that I suspect runs throughout the entire Old Hemlock social strata. Theirs is a proud and protective clan. The dogs are monitored to keep the breed pure and true, and the people who own Old Hemlock dogs are fiercely loyal to the breed and to the Old Hemlock name. They meet annually to spend a week celebrating their dogs and their passions. I felt honored when Bob invited me to that event last year, and I was deeply disappointed when my schedule would not allow me to attend.
When I made that first hunt with Bob, Zephyr was nearly 10 years old. Knowing his years of hunting are limited, Bob wanted to bring along another dog, and recently he added Fionn. I hunted with Fionn a few times last year when he was still less than a year old. This dog will do the Old Hemlock line proud. He was working well, honoring Zephyr’s points and actually finding woodcocks on his own. In fact, I shot the first woodcock he pointed and retrieved by himself. No dog could have done it better.
I have seen firsthand that there are a lot of outstanding bird dogs in the world. Good breeding and proper training usually produce a productive hunting dog. But these Old Hemlock dogs move it past simple bird hunting. They preserve a long and proud tradition of upland hunting, a tradition that is fading in today’s increasingly humanized world of hunting. Certainly there is value in that.
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