Those never having experienced a hunt for woodcock or grouse or virtually anything else in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom may wonder at the relationship between the three nouns in headline of this article. But anyone who has ventured off a dirt road and into the woods in this locale has probably gotten the point perhaps more than once.
Great stands of mature trees that look as though they have been here since before the arrival of Columbus are in reality, not all that old. Shortly after the Europeans arrived, they cut down most of the old forests. It is a fact that only 100 years ago, a mere fourth of Vermont’s terrain was still wooded. The rest was either farmland or barren hillside stripped of all life.
The end of World War II brought radical changes in Vermont. Returning servicemen, perhaps having seen more of the world, were loath to return to the rigors of farming. The machine tool industry and other types of factories lured folks away from their farms with eight-hour workdays and weekends off. The abandoned farmland soon reverted back to forest, and by the late 1980’s Vermont’s landscape was better than 80 percent wooded.
Throughout most of this forest today, one can still find evidence of long forgotten farms in the form of rock walls, the remnants of fieldstone foundations; cellar holes, wells, and rusting strands of barbed wire embedded deep in the trunks of matures trees, the original intent of which can only be guessed at.
All of this new grown forest provides an excellent home for native birds like ruffed grouse and woodcock. The birdhunting in the Northeast Kingdom can be truly extraordinary.
20 Years Of Experience
For 20 years my partner and I have hunted and fished here, with ruffed grouse being the primary focus of our attention. One season, we had a week off together and had a little contest going to see who would shoot the most birds. Bob had taken an early lead and was tenaciously hanging onto it by a half point — the value of a woodcock, as compared to a full point for a grouse — when we entered a historically productive cover. I had just killed three grouse in a row and I was eager to get into the next bunch of birds.
A grass field sloped down to a brook that tumbled through a small ravine, the head of which was an alder thicket bordered by apple trees on one side. It was home to both grouse and woodcock. I made my approach along the brook, while Bob came along the inside of a barbed wire fence that bordered the field.
My luck held and I flushed the first bird. A woodcock twittered up from the ground and tried to make his escape over the treetops. I let the bird get out a bit and killed it dead in the air with one shot. For some reason I was distracted as it tumbled down and did not see exactly where it fell. This can be a problem with woodcock. It is only the size of a robin and perfectly camouflaged to match the fall foliage — very difficult to find, even when you know exactly where to look.
Fortunately, Bob had seen the bird go down and was hurrying over to help me find it. On his way, however, he ran into a strand of ancient barbed wire. It got up under his pant leg and tore a long gash in his shin and was still embedded in his leg when he looked down. I did not see any of this; I was intent on finding my bird. He came hobbling over and said, “Come on, let’s go, I cut my leg pretty bad.”
I had just taken a first aid course, so I went right up to take a look. It was an ugly wound to be sure– a quarter inch deep and about 9 inches long, running straight up the shin, but not bleeding much.
“Yeah, we better get you to a doctor right after I find my woodcock.”
He looked at me incredulously and said, “Freddie! My leg!”
“You are not going to bleed to death — now where is that bird?”
He raised his eyebrows and looked to the heavens. “Over there by that little pine tree.”
I searched the ground around the pine, promptly located my bird, wrapped my friend’s wounded leg with my hunting shirt and we were off to the doctor’s. Hour and a half later he emerged from the office with 13 stitches and the doctor’s blessings to go play. The game was on, the score tied.