Upland hunters often aspire to bag the American woodcock, one of Michigan’s most challenging birds to hunt. Woodcock, or “timber doodles” as they are nicknamed, are small birds that inhabit cover similar to that of the ruffed grouse. Michigan is prime breeding ground for woodcock and as such, is a true hunting destination for those up to the challenge. There are some great reasons to chase doodles this fall across Michigan.
1. There’s lots of them
Woodcock numbers are stable according to data reported to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). According to hunter surveys from last season, 75 percent of respondents said the population was either increased or holding from previous seasons. This is a stark turnaround from the steady decline woodcock were in for many years.
Part of the reason for the stability of the population is the abundance of habitat Michigan has to offer. Woodcock prefer new growth forest with ample small clearings, which provide singing grounds for the males during the mating season. Forestry operations in the state have produced a lot of young, second-growth shrubs like alders, birch and aspen hardwoods in Northern Michigan, and young stands of maple and ash in Southern Michigan. These areas provide nesting and brood-rearing cover. The birds often roost in old fields, hayfields, grasslands, or cut young forest areas. These areas also have moist, rich soils that provide the earthworms that woodcock eat.
2. The hunt is exciting
While you may find some success hunting entirely on your own (and you may fill your game bag with grouse along the way), hunting with a dog is the key to timber doodle success. A close-working flushing dog or pointer will put you on woodcock. The little birds behave like pheasants in that they hold tight to cover and will run before taking flight. This results in tight flushes and exciting hunting.
If you are hunting without a dog, you’re going to need to be lucky. If you flush one, it will be extremely close. Like many game birds, doodles are social and there will most likely be others close by. Start a grid pattern of the area you flushed on, and be ready for just about anything.
Unlike grouse, which rely on speed for their escape, doodles rely on an erratic path—both when they run and when they fly. Their flight speed is much slower than grouse, and they are much smaller. These things all combine to frustrate and challenge hunters. Practice quick shots at the range. Some Michigan ranges offer a “woodock tune-up” sporting clays round. My old club did a doodle round with small clays that came out from any direction. A lightweight, autoloading shotgun like the Weatherby SA-08 makes for the prefect doodle gun.
3. There’s ample land for hunting
With thousands of acres of public forests, Michigan is a hunter’s dream. The opportunities and habitat not only bring game birds back to Michigan, but hunters as well. Bob St. Pierre, the vice president of marketing for Pheasants Forever, is an Escanaba native who travels back to the Great Lake State every season just for grouse and woodcock.
“The Upper Peninsula is a timber doodle hunter’s paradise,” St. Pierre said. “There are hundreds of thousands of acres of county, state, and national forests open to bird hunters. A good map and a good dog will put you on dozens of flushes each day during the migration. Just don’t forget your compass or GPS; the woods are big. It doesn’t take but one corkscrewing woodcock flushing in a stand of alders to completely cause a loss of bearings.”
St. Pierre suggested hunters travel to new growth forest near Trenary, Crystal Falls, and Feltch, all centrally located in the Upper Peninsula. However, woodcock can be found across the state. Look for areas with that all-important new growth. Some areas that experienced forest fires in recent years will be great habitat for doodles. I expect good hunting to be found near the Tahquamenon River in coming years after the Duck Lake fire burned 7,500 acres in early 2013—reforesting operations began immediately. In the Lower Peninsula, There is plenty of new growth forest around the towns of Grayling and Houghton Lake. Look for the right habitat and go hunting.
4. They taste great
Like many game birds, woodcock make for great table fare. Two birds can make a meal for a single person, although served singly they are an outstanding addition to any plate.
The meat is very rich, but doesn’t have an overly “gamey” flavor. The meat is, however, extremely lean, so most recipes call for some form of added fat source. In other words, be prepared to wrap the meat in bacon.
5. The timing is great
“I believe the migration tends to peak during the week of Halloween,” St. Pierre said. “If you’re looking for a ‘doodle destination’ trip, then bring your trick-or-treat bags with you to the U.P.”
Is there any better way for an outdoor enthusiast to spend an autumn day than walking through a Pure Michigan forest while pursuing game? The timing of the migration coincides with the peak of autumn, so the colors and smells of the forest are exactly what every hunter needs. The season begins September 20 and runs for 45 days—so plan your hunt now, and get out there when you can!
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.
Images by Bob St. Pierre