Written by: Jeffrey Wilkerson
It’s possible, I suppose, that some people live their lives in such an ordered and planned fashion that fickle chance and unthinking habit play a minimal role, but I suspect these influences are more a part of most people’s lives than they care to realize. When we look back at the tapestry of our lives, it’s hard to decipher how much control we had over which threads. Twenty-five years ago, seeking a narrowly defined type of job in a miniscule slice of the employment world, I landed in the northeast corner of Iowa, where the unglaciated coulees trickle into the expanses of prairie to the west. I was awed by the magic I found in the land, with the big river a mere 40 miles to the east, Minnesota 15 miles to the north and the sporadic edge of prairie potholes an easy drive to the west. The forest held turkeys, grouse and woodcock. The prairie grass erupted with pheasants and the occasional hun. Ducks, rails and snipe were plentiful in the marshes.
I quickly became a rough shooter, relishing the evolution of autumn as the passing weeks turned my focus from rails and snipe to wood ducks, then pheasants followed by ruffed grouse, turkeys and late-season ducks. Somewhere in there the time, maybe just a day, would be right for woodcock. And woodcock rose to the pinnacle of my bird hunting pyramid. Something about those birds touched my soul despite the fact that I rarely shot more than one woodcock per year and I have never shot more than two in a year. That’s enough of those impossibly delicate yet rugged, beautiful yet humble birds in my hand. My journals record 23 woodcock bagged in the past 22 years. For the recent third of that span the allure of woodcock has grown as I have been part of the USFWS woodcock wing survey. Last year I submitted one of the two wings from the state of Iowa. While others build a Thanksgiving meal around a much larger bird, we devote energy to planning something special with a woodcock course.
For the story being recounted here, we must recognize that I hunt without a dog. This oddity is a result of one of those temporary things that becomes habit and part of what one has always done. That same niche job that landed me in this special place made the thought of doing right by a dog daunting in those early days. It wouldn’t have been fair to the dog. I imagine it as a bit like my buying a blank canvas and slopping paint on it. Sure, there are plenty of canvases in the world, but I would always look at that canvas and ache a little, knowing what it might have been in different hands. So it was I became a lone hunter, drinking in the solitude as I covered every square mile of public land I could find. Now my wife hunts with me always. Time has done what time will do in other ways too. The ruffed grouse are all but gone from Iowa. The turkeys are on a down part of a cycle. Bow hunters for deer seem to swarm over our coverts. The legs don’t want the all-day hunts they once did. But that one woodcock has remained the most essential part of each autumn afield.
Several years ago, I found myself on the last day of woodcock season without my bird. Now, this wasn’t unique but it was uncommon. Three times in the past twenty-two years I have failed to bag a woodcock. Fate smiled benignly on me as I had the ability to take the morning off for a hunt that day. I tried to turn my back on fate. Unfathomably in retrospect, I chose to hunt a marsh for ducks that morning instead of visiting a woodcock woods. It was likely some practical streak that
led me there. I had hunted the woodcock coverts hard in recent days without a flush or any whitewash. Surely, the birds were gone or not yet in.
Whatever led there, I found myself sitting by a few decoys, watching and hearing the marsh come to life. Diagonally across the pool, the unexpected sounds of wood ducks getting ready for the day originated. Most wood ducks were long gone and this marsh was on the edge of the prairie. Large trees were confined to the banks of a river some ways off. I rarely see wood ducks out on this open expanse. I was suddenly excited for a novel opportunity; if I bagged a wood duck it would be my first from this property and the latest in the year I had ever gotten one. As the ducks got up I gave them one quick call. Woodies being woodies, I knew my calling and dekes held little appeal, but I hoped to arouse a bit of curiosity. Indeed, they came my way. True to form they didn’t slow as they buzzed the tiny spread but they had gotten close enough.
I should note that as a dogless hunter, I have honed my bird retrieving skills to the point that I lose about 1 in 15 or 1 in 20 of the birds I down, the thick marsh being a particularly tough locale. Still, that retrieval success would be the envy of some hunters I know who hunt over enthusiastic labs. I got where I am by picking shots that are close, focusing hard on where a bird goes down, getting there quickly and searching tenaciously. Despite all that, things will go wrong and it is the challenges juxtaposed against the beauty that often give hunting its unique charm. My heart sank to the boots of my waders when the small flock banked hard left while a lone bird, my bird, curled out right, wings set, gliding and gliding and gliding. The bird settled into the thickest part of the cattails 120 yards away, very much alive.
It was hopeless, dog or no dog. I simply made a bad shot. Had I picked up the decoys, walked to the truck and driven home, my chances of finding that bird would not have changed noticeably. Yet, search we must. I circled those cattails and kicked for 45 minutes, until my legs could take no more. The easiest way out was through a small willow thicket that led to a dike and got me out of the cattail nightmare the fastest. When at last I broke free into the edge of the thicket, I paused to catch my breath. We all know what wonders that pause can bring. The woodcock erupted at my feet. I didn’t raise my gun. Perhaps it was surprise or fatigue; likely it was that one never raises a gun at the appearance of a mirage or ghost. I gathered my wits, slowed my breathing and walked the 15 yards to where the bird had landed. The thicket was so tiny that there was nowhere for that bird to go but out over the open marsh, making it one of the easiest woodcock shots I had ever made.
I have certainly shot my share of woodcock from willow thickets in bogs, but never so far from bigger woods or in a thicket so sparse and small, in a place that is more cattail marsh and rolling prairie than anything else. All that suggests I should exclaim that this was the most special woodcock ever, but they are all the most special ever. Maybe there was more magic in the land than usual that day. On the wind I could sense the universe talking to me, saying something like, “You have made an honest effort here today. You have been true to both the ducks and the woodcock. Remember to be more careful next time. Here is this year’s woodcock for you. Appreciate all that it is.” Was it a perfect day? Most would say no. What it was, was hunting, with all its highs and lows, and gains and losses. Maybe that does make it perfect.