May 03, 2021
Winters for Northern tier bird doggers are impossibly hard. The average snowfall from Minnesota to Maine ranges between three and six feet, and unless we head South, we spend more time shoveling than running dogs.
But soon enough it ends, and we rejoice when those Northerlies become Southerlies. The change brings warm trade winds, and migratory species of all sorts return. Striped bass, squeteague, Atlantic salmon, and waterfowl return home, but our eyes are focused on a different traveler. As passionate bird doggers we take to the woods we left behind in search of the American woodcock. Their arrival breathes excitement into us and our dogs.
The majority of woodcock spend spring, summer, and fall in northern reaches that stretch from Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula to the east, to Northern Minnesota to the west. Woodcock are smart birds, for once it gets cold, they head south for the winter. These snowbirds spend their winters in the marshes of Maryland, the Carolina lowlands, the piney woods of Georgia, and throughout many Southcentral states all the way to East Texas.
They migrate to find food. The most striking feature of the woodcock is their long, thin bill. The bill is prehensile–which means a special bone-muscle arrangement allows the tip of the upper bill, or mandible, to be opened while the bill is probed underground while searching for their favorite food, the earthworm. Dropping air temperatures cause the ground to freeze, and the lack of food causes the birds to migrate to regions that offer soft, damp soil.
After the snow is gone we can run the coverts with our bird dogs as returning flight birds start to trickle northward around late February through March, giving us about four to six weeks to have some fun In April, they’ll pair up and mate, and when the birds begin their courtship, it’s time to leave them alone until the fall. May hens sit on nests raising the next generation. There’s no glory in running dogs on nesting birds. It’s why we don’t cast to fish on a red either. Summer and fall are their pleasant times until the pattern begins again.
Spring Training Objectives
But for that month or so, running dogs on spring woodcock is widely successful for a lot of reasons.
- Wild bird contacts develop excellent dogs. Wild birds smell, fly, and behave differently than released birds. Every contact is invaluable for developing puppies and dogs, for there is nothing like training on the real deal.
- Conditioning in the spring is ideal. Air temperatures are low, which keeps dogs from overheating. We can start slowly after the long offseason and build stamina and muscle while trimming fat. Spring conditioning runs on wild birds sets a strong foundation for summer finish work, too.
- It’s a perfect time to correct last fall’s mistakes, especially if we’ve stewed on ‘em all winter. We can work on handling, bird contacts, and staunchness.
- We can expose puppies we’ve acquired over the winter to wild birds. Those initial contacts are key, and when they’re young we can let them have fun while firing up their prey drive. There isn’t a chance a pup will catch a wild woodcock, and those initial runs set up a solid foundation for breaking in the summer. Who knows how the pup will develop, but we might have a productive new member in our string come fall.
- Finding coverts. Spring means exploring new coverts, ones that we found on topo maps during the offseason. The next motherlode is always around the corner, but we won’t find them if we’re cooped up indoors.
- And there is a cost savings too. We pay for fewer training birds which means we can keep some greenbacks in our pockets either for a new gunning iron…or probably for another pup.
Same But Different
In some ways, the conditions are similar in both spring and fall. In the spring, the trees are bare as the buds haven’t popped, while in the fall leaves have fallen to the ground. Running conditions are great for the air temperatures are cool in the morning and warm up during the middle of the day. It’s damp during both times, and when combined with winds that haven’t laid down as they do in the summer, the scenting conditions are good. The ground is soft, wet, and muddy, and the birds are in. There is one difference which is that we trade our shotguns for starter pistols. Instead of the smell of gunpowder we content ourselves by pointing a finger at a flying bird, saying bang! It’s the only time of the year when we’ll shoot 100 percent, and we won’t have a dirty bore to clean.
Spring Woodcock Ethics
One camp says leave ‘em alone following their migration while the other camp says it’s fine until they get ready to nest. We fish for a lot of migratory species that return to their home waters to spawn (striped bass, Atlantic salmon, Steelhead, Shad). A lot of those fish are harvested, whereas running spring woodcock is oddly a ‘catch (point) and release’ affair. We get the dog work, the bird flies away unharmed, and all is well with the world.
I’ll leave the woods when I see skydances for I know that the egg laying is getting close. Spooking momma hen from her nest leaves her eggs vulnerable to egg-eating thieves like skunks or opossums that can do damage to the woodcock population. There is no glory in that approach. After a few weeks of wild bird contacts, we can leave the woods and break dogs on pigeons and released quail over the summer months.
Some states have laws that outline regulations on the training of hunting dogs. Some states do not permit dogs in the spring woods at all and others mandate to have dogs out of the woods by a particular date. Michigan for instance, allows handlers to train dogs in the woods, but not between April 16 and July 7. That’s to protect nesting birds of all kinds, so check with your state to be compliant with the regulations.
In the spring, we’re all just happy to be out of the house doing what we we’re bred to do. This time of year is like a rest stop on a long drive and running spring woodcock scratches the itch. It shortens the distance to opening day, for fall isn’t that far off now.