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You take one of these things, pluck it, cut off the head, feet and wings. You split its back, open it up, take out the innards except for the heart. Turn it over, salt and pepper, and sprinkle on the poultry seasoning, broil it just 10 minutes and eat it. Mmmm! It is truly a delight, white meat on the little legs and dark meat on the breast that tastes something like venison, steak and liver combined. Delicious, but there's about as much meat on a woodcock as there is on the heel of your thumb.
Nevertheless, I know a man who becomes almost gleeful with ridicule of the multitudes who prefer to tramp through the vast Adirondack forests after whitetail deer when they could actually have something happen once in a while in the woodcock coverts. He called me on the very eve of the deer-hunting season this fall and asked me if I was going to be ridiculous all this season or did I want to join him.
I told my friend that I hunt, yeah, but for food. I said I wanted Cleveland Amory to have his littlest argument with me. Amory said on CBS a short while ago that there wasn't any excuse for hunters, period, but he had his least argument with those who hunted self-reliantly and only for what they needed or wanted to eat. Granted, I hunt because I like to and, possibly, even because of the prehistoric savage in me, but actually I talk a better hunt than I make, and when I do kill something I'd like it to have some heft to it. I might feel foolish burning up a 25� shotgun shell to get a nickel's worth of liver.
Besides which, all I had was my grandfather's old Model 17 Remington, a pump-action 20-gauge with a long barrel and full choke. The safety button is on the wrong side, so I have to carry the gun upside down for my trigger finger to push the safety off. Then, when I turn the gun right side up and insert my finger inside the trigger guard, usually the fat second joint of my finger will secretly push the safety back on while I aim. I said, "I haven't shot up a box of shotgun shells in my whole life together. Haven't had the gun in my hands in two years. Right now it is at my brother's and he is at a funeral, so I would have to go over to his house and jimmy open a window and steal it, and possibly get attacked by his dog in the deal."
But I wanted to go on this woodcock hunt. What made me want very much to go was the dog. I believe in having the tools you need for whatever life-style, craft or passion you possess. I believe in getting right out and spending on those things, having the equipment at whatever cost. That is why I have never owned a bird dog. But my friend has Brittany Spaniels. I had never in my life hunted upland game birds, or anything else, with a dog.
I'd never hunted woodcock at all, only grouse. Without a dog, hunting grouse had always been for me an exercise in self-satire. When a grouse goes up, it is like somebody letting go a window shade next to your head when you're taking a nap. You have less time to react properly than in any other form of hunting I know. Accordingly, most people around where I live hunt grouse from cars, driving the gravel roads slowly at the time of day when the birds are likely to be putting some abrasives in their crops. When they hear or see a bird, they get out of the car, leaving it running, and shoot the grouse on the ground or in a tree, right where it stands. Under those conditions the grouse will wait for the pattern to emerge, as it were. But for shooting them on the wing, I always thought it would be terrific to know right where one of those window shades was a little in advance. Like having a dog tell you.
In the process of self-satirically scuffing around after window shades I have, naturally, flushed a woodcock occasionally. They migrate through here in the early part of the grouse season, moving at night, seldom observed en route. They favor the thickest growth of young alders, poplars and gray birches. Flushed, they simply elevate upward to the top of this cover until they get flying room, their wings producing a special whistling, whirring sound. You notice their big dark eyes, their long, very slender bills. They remind you of sandpipers, even of hummingbirds a little, because of their downward-cocked beaks. They usually don't jump until you are right beside them, and for all the high-frequency whistling of their wings their elevation is leisurely compared to a grouse's. Bill is a fanatical grouse hunter, but he can hunt grouse through January and he likes to devote several days to the woodcock during their migration.
We are still on the phone. "Myself," Bill says, "I'm a man of action. At least I like some action. I'll kill a deer when I'm out of venison, but I'm strictly a pothunter as far as deer go. When I want to enjoy a day of hunting I hunt woodcock or grouse. I get 20 times the action. Heck, 50 times the action. Besides, those woodcock taste awfully good. If they taste like liver it's because people cook them too much. If they're done, it's too much. Are you coming with me or are you going to spend all day in the woods and tramp 15 miles and never see anything to shoot at at all? Except other hunters? Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful that every one of those darn fools is a darn fool. The less they wake up to what they're missing the better. I'll be putting out traps on the river till 10. It's opening day on muskrats, too. If you're not here at 10:30 I won't wait. G'bye."
I bought a box of 9s. It was so long since anybody bought shells with such small shot in that backwoods store that they only cost $2.55 for a box, just a bit more than 10� each.
Wet ground, old pastures gone to alders on remote Depression-busted farms, with sad old spread-out linear stone piles running through them. Hunting woodcock is marching right through such country all day long, deliberately avoiding the clear. The dog has a bell like a small cowbell on his leather collar. He gets out of sight frequently but you can always hear the bell. If it stops, he might be on point. You call his name, and if the bell starts ringing again you know he was "just looking." When he's really on to something he doesn't move a hair. All the rest of the time his little stub of a tail never stops wagging.