I love good food, and my highlight for 1999 was a wild game dinner at the home of neighbor Jack Steere, who trotted out a sensational appetizer--woodcock breasts, broiled rare and nestled on a bed of sauteed onions atop toast points. I'm afraid I made a pig of myself gobbling more than my share of the dark, rich, moist nuggets.
"Where on Earth did you get all these woodcock?" I asked.
Steere said he'd bagged the plump, migrating birds with the long beaks during a couple of well-timed visits to the Millington Wildlife Management Area on the Eastern Shore.
I have taken a few woodcock over the years, mostly by accident while grouse or quail hunting. They are mystery birds, arriving and departing on an almost impenetrably subtle schedule that only occasionally coincides with the brief seasons state game departments set for hunting them.
I know just one person who actively pursues them--Bob Poole, associate publisher at National Geographic magazine, who for the past several years has made lone forays as far away as New Brunswick and Louisiana with his Brittany spaniel, Bart, to intercept woodcock on their annual migration south from the nesting grounds. He loves everything about them, from the whirring sound they make when they take off to the earthy buff brown of their breast feathers to the way they taste on toast.
With an appetite whetted by Steere's cooking, I was an easy mark for Poole when he called to see if I had any interest in hunting on the lower Eastern Shore in Virginia, where the birds are said to mass around Christmas.
That set off a series of phone calls that led us to bearded Barry Truitt, director of science and stewardship at the Nature Conservancy's office in Brownsville, Va., at the end of the Delmarva Peninsula. The Nature Conservancy is the largest landowner on Virginia's Eastern Shore, with thousands of acres of marsh islands and seaside farms it is protecting from the rampant development that is fast ruining the rest of the coast.
Truitt also is a keen bird hunter. Had he seen any woodcock lately?
"To be honest," he said, "this year it's the fewest ever. Sometimes they're here by the thousands but it's been so warm, there's been nothing to push them south. But the limit is only three birds and the season just reopened. We ought to be able to get our limits."
Which is how Poole and Bart and I came to make the long haul south to hunt on the shortest day of the year last week, forging through fog and rain down Route 13 to the place where Delmarva falls off into the Atlantic.
What a glorious, unpeopled place to hunt, especially when guided by the Nature Conservancy's man. Truitt has been there since 1972, when he bailed out of Norfolk, and he knows the territory better than a native. He led us from one tangled woods thicket to another and the hunting got better at every stop.
He brought along Spot, an English setter, who snarled once at Bart before settling down to hunt side-by-side. Both were spirited bird dogs in the prime of life and could run all day.
The dogs plunged into the thickest cover and slammed to a halt any time they got a whiff of game. On the lower Shore this time of year that could mean woodcock or wild quail, also in season. At the first two stops the mix was about equal, and Poole and I showed about equal skill, emptying our double-barrelled shotguns several times without negative effect on either species.
Each time we stopped, Truitt scanned the territory, sniffed the air and made a pronouncement on the prospects for woodcock. "They belongs to be here," he'd say, a localism rich with hope.
At the third stop, his so-called honey hole at the southern tip of the 200-mile peninsula, they really were there. The dogs were no sooner out of the truck than they locked on point, tails high, noses aquiver. When I strode into the greenbriers and rustled the stalks with my boots, two woodcocks came highballing out, beaks and buff breasts back-lit against the gray winter sky.
The long guns boomed and one bird tumbled. It was the auspicious beginning of a two-hour string of fabulous gunning as we pushed through the tangled woods, and woodcocks and quail erupted, whirring and wheeling through the trees, mostly dodging our shots but not always.
At times like that, you find yourself at first giddy with excitement, then curiously calm as you realize it's no fluke--there are truly a lot of birds around, and if you play your hand right, you can do all right with them.
The dogs were a bit giddy at first, too, and more than once ran past a bird while racing to sniff out another. One woodcock came out unexpectedly from practically between my feet. That's usually a formula for a wild miss, but for the first time since we'd started in the morning I managed to slow down, shoulder the gun fully, swing through the target and touch off a load of No. 8 shot that neatly folded the bird. So simple! Why is it so hard to do?
Poole and I got our limits, as promised, and were done before dusk's early arrival. That left time for supper at Sting Ray's, the famous eatery in Cape Charles that's inside an actual gas station and is known locally as Chez Exxon. They didn't have woodcock on the menu, but they did have juicy bay scallops, flounder and fried oysters, all of which went down well with a chilled, dry white wine.
As we dined, Truitt told of the times he's been in the woods at dawn and dusk in the middle of what's called a "fall of woodcock," when hundreds of the migrating birds come whistling in on the wings of a winter northwester and land all around you. "There's supposed to be a cold front later this week," he said. "That should bring a bunch of new birds in. You guys want to try again?"
I saw Poole's eyes light up.
Woodcock season runs through Jan. 1 in Virginia. In Maryland, the season reopens Jan. 10 and runs through Jan. 19.