John Madson, the author of "Our Home," a book filled with wonderfuly tales of the outdoors, says woodcock hunters are flakier even than avid quail shooters. That's saying a mouthful, but Madson should know. He'd be the first to admit to being a bit on the flaky side himself.
Madson is a fanatic follower of the timberdoodle, as the long-billed woodcocks are called by those who love them and who suffer through the sweet agony of wet bogs, brambles and snagging underbrush to bag them.
But if woodcock fanatics must accept affectionately meant descriptions that question their sanity, an unabridged dictionary would be hardpressed to deliver enough verbs and adjectives to explain why on God's green earth a man would hunt something called a gallinule.
Or a snipe.Or a rail.
No offense meant. But in this corner we'll readily subscribe to ducks and Canada geese. Throw in a cottontail rabbit, a pheasant or a fat-rumped whitetail deer and it translates into memorable days afield -- and even more memorable evenings at the table.
Yet in the mid-Atlantic states there is a small, loyal band of hunters who will forego the pleasures of walking frozen cornfields in favor of four gamebirds that most novice hunters can only crack jokes about.
Okay. Go ahead. We'll play straightman and say, "Let's go snipe-hunting," then await a hundred chuckles and offers of getting a sack and a broom for sweeping the snipe into the bag. The gag's as old as the hills. But there really is such a bird, oneliners notwithstanding.
For starters, no one hunts snipe only. Snipe are frequently shot by folks who watch the almanac -- people who wait for full moons and predictable high tides -- because the marsh hens come alive then.
There we go again. What a marsh hen is to some is, to others, a rail. At any rate, rail birds -- ring, clapper or sora rails -- are all the rage when September 12 dawns in the little Atlantic community of Wachapreague. It's the beginning of the Virginia rail-hunting season. If a full moon is the odds-on favorite for that time, we'll bet the farm that the brothers Earl and Ray Parker of Wachapreague will phone to say, "Marsh hennin' will be good tomorrow."
That means a good 3 1/2-hour ride, boarding a long, wooden skiff, pushing and cursing through flooded tidal grassbeds, and eventually flushing a bird that flies like an inebriated butterfly. Skinny, long legs dangle from its body in flight and it prefers to light in the reds as quickly as it comes up. So a 20-gauge double-barrel is raised. A load or two of Number 9s peppers into the sky. With any luck, one of the rails stays with you and the good people of Wachapreague will laugh and slap backs and say, "You got 'im."
Talk a local guide into poling the boat through the marsh flats and the shooting can be fun, although who's all that fond of dining on rail breasts?
A bit farther inland, where woodlands meet salt and brackish marshes, the chance for snipe is fair starting around October 17, the day the Virginia season begins. The same holds for the bays and bogs just north of there, in Maryland, where the snipe season starts September 14. Jacksnipe, the boys call this bird that an old market hunter of many decades ago called "a long bill, a bundle o' feathers, and about a tablespoonful o' meat."
Along the salt marshes of the Atlantic the snipe can be a tricky adversary. Walk the soft bogs, upwind with a stiff breeze blowing, and watch for a single to burst from low-growing cover. It will rise fast, tower straight up and level out. Plenty of time for a decent shot. Guns here, too, point to light-weight improved cylinder or modified smoothbores with small shot, the same as rail-hunting.
Somewhere between the snipe- and rail-hunting grounds of the sale and freshwater bays of Maryland and Virginia you may run across someone who hunts gallinules, a larger, more colorful cousin of the rail. Gallinules, more colorful cousin of the rail. Gallinules are long-legged inhabitants of lily pads and marsh reeds that swim well and fly poorly. We've never met anyone who'll admit to being a gallinule hunter. It may be just as well, since they're poor table fare and even poorer shooting.
But the most devoted group of long-bill hunters belongs to the woodcock.The freshwater marshes of a creek or pond, from Montgomery County to the Canaan Valley in West Virginia, back to Sussex, or Dorchester County -- all can come up with woodcock.
The woodcock is definitely one of the strangest-looking birds: Its eyes sit almost on top of its head. It uses its long bill to probe for worms, its favorite food. It will sit so tight that a hunter looking for anything else more often than not will walk past it. Woodcocks don't like to flush; that's way pointing dogs come into play. In New Hampshire or western Maryland, it doesn't matter: Find a stand of timber along a stream's wet bottomland. If it's mixed with scattered shallow growth and rising bushes, the migratory timberdoodle will be on hand.
To get a hunter to reveal a decent woodcock covert (favorite hangout) is akin to squeezing a secret from a CIA man. Timberdoodlers keep such things to themselves. But find a bog with decent cover that shows earthworms, and you're practically ready to load a fast-swinging shotgun loaded with 7 1/2, 8 or 9 shot. Again, stick to the improved cylinder guns, since most shots will be at close range. More often than not you'll be pruning the lower branchers of trees as the erratically flying bird gets the last laugh: one reason a poor pointing dog is better than 12 good human hunters.
Beter get ging: The woodcock leaves his covert as soon as a freeze makes it too difficult for him to probe for worms. They'll be on their way to Louisiana before you can set a match to a handwarmer.