Chuck Riley killed two woodcock at our first stop. At our second, Molly, his black-and-white German shorthair, went on point quickly; a bird got up, I shot it, and at the shotgun’s report, a second bird got up nearby and I shot that one, too.
Caught up in a hurry, eh?
But before I could even reload, Molly was on point again, right in the same area. Riley stepped up and finished his limit, leaving me with one to get.
It was the last day of woodcock season and I was making my second hunt of the season with Riley, a retiree from the Department of Natural Resources and one of the more dedicated woodcock hunters I know. I’ve hunted with Riley a day or two a year for a number of years now and it’s rare we don’t kill a bunch of birds.
Everybody is always hot to go on opening day, whatever season it is, but I like to hunt (or fish) the last day of the season even more, simply because that’s it for a while.
It would be roughly 320 days before we could hunt woodcock again. And, if possible, I like to end the season on a high note.
But it would take some doing for me to finish my limit. It took eight more flushes.
The first one came when I was behind a brushy willow and I tried to shoot through it. No dice. I shot the next bird — it came down with a broken wing — but we couldn’t find it. The next five I couldn’t shoot at as I was out of position in the willows and other brush and I never got a clean look at them. But the eighth came up while I was in good position, flew straight away, and I dumped it.
All in all, it took about two hours — but probably 20 flushes, maybe more — for us to get our six birds.
What was most unusual was we were in southern Michigan, miles south of where most woodcock hunting takes place in this state.
Riley does most of his woodcock hunting in southern Michigan, something he’s been doing since the ‘70s.
He started hunting southern Michigan shortly after he started spring banding. He went out banding with Andy Ammon — the godfather of woodcock banding — on several southern Michigan state game areas and found birds and gradually stared concentrating his hunting efforts in southern Michigan, too.
Woodcock have been in long-term decline and no one is really sure what the issue is. Michigan is the woodcock-huntingest state in the union and has outstanding habitat, all across the state, so that’s not likely the issue, Riley says.
“There’s plenty of habitat in Michigan,” said Riley, 74. “If it was only a habitat issue, then every chunk of habitat would be overloaded with birds. Well, it isn’t.”
Riley said he found birds every time he hunted this year, though early in the season it was tough getting any shooting because the habitat was too thick.
But over the last couple of weeks, now that a lot of leaves have dropped and the woodcock are migrating, he has been killing limits steadily.
He had a couple of friends in from out of state, they hunted almost every day for a week and killed limits every time.
“There were times we were getting a point every two or three minutes,” he said. “I had four shots in 15 minutes yesterday. We’ve had great flights. I’ll bet it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen these kinds of concentrations. There were years when if you missed a shot you wouldn’t get your limit because you wouldn’t get that many chances. Not this year.”
Riley guesses he shot around 50 woodcock this year.
“I must have had 80 shot over my dog,” he said.
Maybe more. I shot six the two days we hunted and most days his other partners have shot their birds. If there’s anything that’s slowing Riley down, it’s a lack of hunting partners.
“I can’t seem to get any young people interested in going,” he said. “I mostly hunt by myself. The people who hunt with me are all over 60. We’re kind of a dying breed.”
That’s Michigan these days: all deer all the time.
This year’s outstanding woodcock hunting season was an unexpected surprise, Riley said. This spring, he only banded 25 woodcock chicks, which is low for him.
But other banders did well; Al Stewart, the upland game bird specialist with the DNR, said volunteers banded more woodcock this spring than they had since 2004. And that’s sort of hard to figure because we had so much rain and cold weather this spring it’s hard to believe the birds nested so successfully.
The best guess is that, for whatever reason, the birds delayed nesting this spring.
“Guys to the north of us reported finding broods all the way into June,” Riley said. “I found six or seven chick in June myself. That’s late for me.”
But at the same time, Riley said he didn’t think the birds were re-nesting after earlier nesting failures because most of the time he found four chicks.
Typically, broods are smaller during re-nesting.
If there’s a downside to hunting southern Michigan it’s a lack of grouse. Riley said he’s only had two shots at grouse this season.
But grouse hunting has been fair to good in northern Michigan and barring an early, hard winter, there’s still plenty of grouse hunting opportunity left.