by Naomi K. Shapiro
For years, bird hunters taking to the woods and water search out grouse, pheasants, ducks, and geese. But as you target these birds, you will often hear this little "whistling" sound flying by, and see a small, faster bird with a very long beak zig-zagging through the trees and brush. This distinct "whistling" sound belongs to the tiny–but very tasty--woodcock.
In comparison to other hunted fowl, woodcock are somewhat rare--and they're very challenging to hunt. Try to remember the last time you heard any hunter you know say that he/she got a woodcock. It doesn't happen often.
Guide Phil Schweik says that woodcock hunting can be very rewarding, albeit difficult to do. Most hunters will get woodcock while going after grouse. Having said that, there are some very dedicated woodcock hunters—almost a "cult"--that specifically target the species.
When hunting woodcock, look for field edges, near a swamp or tag alder thicket, which is generally where woodcock locate. Indeed, the "perfect" woodcock locale is a previously clearcut popple stand (popple is a tree that is the beaver's favorite food, and is used by paper mills), with "popple flashings" (freshly grown popple trees, a year or two old, which are one to two feet tall, and quite narrow). Popple grow quickly and have a VERY distinct odor--a sweetish smell. You'll know when you're in popple.
Even if you're in the "perfect area" it's not easy to find woodcock. If you do get lucky--that's really what it comes down to--and find an area where there are woodcock, be there at dusk. You'll see them flying around, zig-zagging like crazy all over the place. It's like watching a big group of ping-pong balls in the woods. And of course there's that distinct "whistle." Just sashay through the woods and hope there's enough light, and if you're a good enough shot, you'll get a few.
And you'd better be a TOP SHOT! Use your regular shotgun, but it's suggested that, because the woodcock is so quick and agile, you'll want a wide pattern. Lots of pellets--like #7 or #8 shot. It doesn't take much to kill a woodcock.
The woodcock has a breast the size of an artichoke. They're very tasty, and have a superb, distinct flavor that is unmatched by any other bird. And don't for a moment think that you can use woodcock as a "main meal." Won't happen. They are just too small, and your chances of getting enough for a full meal are slim at best. However, they make a wonderful quick snack or unique appetizer before dinner. Woodcock can be prepared by pan frying in butter, wine, shallots and herbs, or grilling. They cook quick. And, oh yeah--if you're the host, forget it--you won't be tasting any. Your guests will gobble them up and then sneer at the expensive prime rib you're serving for dinner, asking you why you didn't make woodcock the entrée!