Running Spring Woodcock - By Tom Keer

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A pro trainer recently asked me about my training bird bill.

“Last year was kind of high,” I said. “It was about $500.”

“You’re kidding me,” he said. “Mine was 100 times as much.”

I’m better with words than with numbers, but that math ain’t heavy lifting. He’s currently got 90 dogs in his kennel, and that’s more than I’ll have in my lifetime. But still, 50 grand is 50 grand, and that’s the lesser advantage of training on wild birds. The biggest one is dog contacts on what is my focus during hunting season. I don’t know you can put a price on the learning that comes from handling spring woodcock.



I relish the sound of bells clanging and beepers chirping during those first runs of the new year. It’s been a long, snowy winter up North, and the warming temperatures have an unparalleled affect on my mind, body and soul. Gone are the days when the snow drifts were so high that I shoveled my way past the front door. No longer are my setters paws loaded with snowballs. Heck, they’re even sick of lounging by the fire! They are ready to go to work, and so am I. We both take to the spring woods like a magnet to steel.

In March, enough of the snow has melted and the ground is soft. Buds form on the trees and the mashed-down understory shows signs of turning green. The robins have returned from their winter vacation, and that means that the woodcock are on their way, too. Time for me to shed wool coats and gloves and pull out brush shirts and fleece vests. The dogs have an easier time as clumps of fur are left in their boxes, on the truck tailgate, and throughout the branches in a cover.

Spring woodcock season is a short season in New England, and it is different from where we left off in the Fall. Starter pistols replace shotguns, but when I pop a blank the smell of gunsmoke makes me smile. “Dead bird,” I think. On some days the birds appear to flush in slow motion, and are so easy to see that I actually believe if I had a shotgun I would hit 100%. That won’t hold up in the fall, so I tell myself that each and every flush was an easy shot, even though I know it’s not true. When the bird flies away I say “c’mon dogs, let’s go find some more.”

The river-bottom lowlands are pockmarked with leafless but budding trees, but in the spring it is a warm trade wind that pushes through the coverts. It’s different from November when the winds blew hard from the Northwest. Now they luff Southwest, and they remove ice from my veins and frost from the grounds. Those Southern winds channel welcoming warmth from far beyond the Mason-Dixon line. Thankfully it’ll be a while before they retract.

Every day the temperatures seem to climb just a little bit more. Those warming temperatures come at a cost, for when they mix the cold ground they create fog. That fog muffles sounds and decreases vision, but it’ll disappear when the sun strengthens and the wind kicks up. It’s a pattern similar in the fall but in reverse. I’ll be able to see by mid-morning, but for now I enjoy the solitude.



The spring smell is very different, too. October’s fallen leaves that decompose on the forest floor smell musty and earthy. But in the spring, everything smells clean. Maybe it’s from the chill or the new leaves, but it’s different. I don’t know that folks can smell rebirth, but if that’s possible I nominate a woodcock cover as a description. Muddy paws on chocolate-brown setters, boot soles clotted with muck and dirty chaps are par for the course. I love the aroma of a coverts as much as I love the smells of a dairy farm and of dogs and horses, too.

The conditioning that comes from running spring woodcock is great for us all. I can think of no better way to work off the winter pouts on our bellies. The workouts are great for correcting sagging tails, for staunching up points, and for exposing young dogs to wild birds. Puppies and young dogs get the opportunity to cut their teeth on what I feel is the best bird for pointing breeds. Sometimes they get it right, other times they bump ‘em, but all of the time it’s fantastic. Spring is a wonderful time of year to be alive, working hard, and doing what we love to do. We enjoy every day while we can.



Even better than listening to the bells is the silence that comes when they stop. A dog is on point! Hot air pours out of their nostrils and makes ‘em look like bulls about to charge. After being cooped up indoors for months every point is a cause for celebration. The anticipation that comes from walking in on a point has returned, and I realize it’s what I have missed while the winter snow fell. My heart pounds with the same excitement that causes me to miss shots during hunting season and it is wonderful. As more woodcock return the dogs will get more points every day. I am thankful for each and every one.

Like our regular woodcock season we only have a short window of opportunity, Mother Nature always sees to that. When the coverts are full, the birds tired from their long migration will loaf and eat. After a while they will have settled in to their spring homes and their thoughts will turn to love. Just before that time we disappear. I’ll walk through the fields in the evenings and watch their skydances and peenting, but the dogs won’t be with me. They’ll have to be content with pigeons and raised quail for a while. Life is full of compromises and this one is welcomed.

When the woodcock are on their late Spring nests the rest of the woods will have come to life. The wilted and brown understory gets a dose of strength. Green shoots sprout from the ground, and the empty spaces in between the thin alders and white birch fill up. Buds form on tree limbs, and as more sun shines on them they grow bigger and bigger until they burst wide open. When I’m in the Spring woodcock woods I get a glimpse of what is to come. The fall doesn’t see so very far away anymore, but still…I can hardly wait.



About the Author

Tom Keer
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Tom Keer owns The Keer Group, an outdoor marketing company which works perfectly with his freelance writing career. He casts his four English setters in Northeast upland coverts and Southern quail fields with fortunate regularity. Hes been lucky to be surrounded by people and dogs that are much smarter than him. Visit him at www.thekeergroup.com or at www.tomkeer.com

 


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