Tips for hunting the popular woodcock
The fall hunting season is upon us. In addition to bear, archery deer, squirrel, rabbit, mourning dove, grouse, and waterfowl, the woodcock season is now open. Woodcock are a migratory bird, so if you wish to hunt them, there are some restrictions compared to resident birds such as grouse. Only shotguns capable of holding three or fewer shells with bores 10 gauge or smaller are legal. You do not need to hunt them with non-toxic shot at this time, but you do need to have HIP certification.
HIP stands for Hunter Information Program, and it is basically a verbal survey they perform with hunters of migratory birds each year when they buy a license. They ask if you hunted migratory game birds, and if so, how many woodcock, rail, moorhen, ducks, mourning doves, and other migratory birds you harvested the previous year. This is not an enforcement action, it is simply an indicator used to help estimate the harvest of certain birds. HIP is free, and if you didn’t have it added to your license at time of purchase, you can go back in and ask for it. Wisconsin is ranked second in the nation for woodcock hunters, with more than 14,000 hunters spending more than 65,000 days afield; the harvest is estimated at about 36,000 birds.
If you are unfamiliar with woodcock hunting, here are a couple of quick pointers. They prefer habitat very similar to that frequented by ruffed grouse, so start with areas where aspen was cut 5-15 years ago, and has grown to a thick dense stand. The gap between trees is likely less than shoulder width, and the trees might be about as thick as your wrist. Hunt along edges, where the older and younger trees meet, or along streams, bogs, or old log landings or clearings. These birds eat earthworms, so they need soil moist enough to host worms within 3 inches of the surface. Logging roads and trails will have telltale signs of woodcock presence. Look for almost dry or recently dried puddles. You may find what is called a splash, an area of mud disturbed by a bathing woodcock. If you look closely, you may also find small, slightly oval-shaped holes slightly smaller than a drinking straw. These are probe holes made by a woodcock beak. Tag alder is another great woodcock habitat. Look for areas that have squishy soil, especially with all the moisture we have been getting this year. You should see some lowland alder, maybe tamarack or spruce. These are great areas to work along the fringe where it starts to move from wet to dry, along the bottoms of ridges or hills. For more information about woodcock and woodcock hunting, check www.timberdoodle.org or www.ruffedgrousesociety.org.
Remember, you can check your county’s webpage for hunting opportunities; for example, the Oneida County Forestry and Parks recreation homepage has a great link to all sorts of hunter walking trail maps. You can also download the two free Wisconsin DNR hunting apps, Pocket Ranger and FFLIGHT. Pocket ranger has lots of great stuff – regulations, legal shooting hours, even GPS mapping. You can enter a friend’s ID and their location will appear on the map, so you know where you can find the other members of your group.
FFLIGHT helps hunters of all types locate young aspen and alder habitat, pheasant-stocked public hunting grounds, and managed dove fields. Features available within FFLIGHT will help hunters locate DNR public parking areas, overlay township descriptions, and view topographic maps or aerial photos of prospective hunting areas. Each user can choose which type of habitat to highlight – FFLIGHT can help you find the best grouse and woodcock cover in the woods near your cabin. The FFLIGHT mapping application is compatible with all major desktop and mobile web browsers (internet access required). To learn more and start your search for hunting land, visit dnr.wi.gov and search keyword “FFLIGHT.”
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.