A hunter finally works his way through a briar tangle, only to have his feet mire to the ankles or wedge between the gnarled knees of an ancient cypress.

At the precise moment he is trying to extract his feet and unravel his shotgun from the greenbrier web, a twittering bird takes flight, dodging between saplings and showing an orange streak along the trailing edges of its wings.

By the time the hunter mounts his unfired shotgun, the bird drops to the forest floor, mere yards away. To the observant hunter who knows his upland game birds, the hunt for this particular woodcock is not yet over.

"A woodcock might give you several chances to shoot if you watch where he sets down," said Basil Watts, a 57-year-old retired Cape Fear River pilot who hunts woodcock in coastal swamps.

He hunted with pointing dogs a few years ago, but he now has the time to hunt for so much other game he simply includes woodcock hunting incidental to other hunting trips.

"The place we hunt has a woodcock singing ground, and birds would show up there in the winter," he said. "When I first hunted them, it was incidental to quail hunting. But once I found the singing ground where they concentrated every year, I began hunting woodcock on purpose.

"They feed in a low place in that swamp. But I've also seen them do their mating flight. The male spirals way up in the air, singing that song, then just plummets, spreading his wings before he hits the ground. The mating flight happens at dusk, but they continue flying all night."

Watts said he finds woodcock in other places, including the Waccamaw River and Little Pee Dee heritage preserves. He sometimes finds them by checking certain places while deer hunting, duck hunting or squirrel hunting.

He checks uprooted trees; where the roots were once in the ground, a cleared place remains. Woodcock not only feed in the soft, bare soil, they also hide among the fallen treetops.

"There are always trees blown over at Waccamaw and Pee Dee heritage preserves," Watts said. "Any blowdown or other soft, wet spot is a good place to find woodcock."

Sometimes, he finds more than one woodcock in the same place, or he may simply find woodcock sign. Either event is a good reason to switch gears to hunting woodcock from other game.

"If I bump more than one or two woodcock or find droppings, I head back to the truck and get my woodcock gear. Then I slip around looking for them," he said. "I look for whitewash droppings and tracks. Then I walk slowly through the area. Going slow is important, because you need to keep your balance and your shotgun in a position where you can always swing it to your shoulder.

"He's going to bust wild, and you hope you're going to be in a place where it's not so thick you can't raise the gun. You can shoot up a bunch of bushes, because hitting a woodcock isn't easy. A woodcock must have one wing shorter than the other the way he dodges through the woods."

Watts said the birds seldom fly far - even if he shoots and misses. He stops, listens and watches in the direction they were headed.

"If you keep moving in the same direction, you'll usually find him again. Sometimes, you can see a woodcock land on the ground, but they usually aren't found in areas that are open enough to watch them set down. You're lucky to be able to see 20 yards."

Watts usually wears hip boots, but he gets by wearing rubber knee boots in some places. He said the big, grassy openings at Little Pee Dee Heritage Preserve are good places to find woodcock.

"We've had a drought that concentrates what birds there are," he said. "Anywhere there's water is likely to hold a woodcock. You'll be lucky to find a spot with ankle-deep water outside of the floodplane this year. At Waccamaw Heri-tage Preserve, it's nearly all swamp. So, as long as it doesn't freeze, and there's enough water for a woodcock to work his flexible bill into the ground, there are going to be some birds there."

Watts said since he now hunts without a dog, he sometimes downs a woodcock he can't find.

"On occasion, I have lost a bird," he said. "They're at least as hard to find as a dove. You've got to keep your eye right on the exact spot where the bird fell and don't look anywhere else until you pick him up."

Besides waterproof, ballistic Nylon footwear, Watts wears leather gloves and a canvas coat. Everywhere there are woodcock, there are briars.

"I use an over-under 20- gauge, double-barrel shotgun with 26-inch barrels," he said. "I used a reamer to take all the choke out of the barrels. I also shoot a .410 double-barrel. It's always a quick shot, so it's more important to use a fast-handling gun than a heavy shot charge. Light loads of No. 8s work just fine."

Watts said he once had a Brittany spaniel that was worthless as a quail dog, but she was an excellent woodcock dog.

"If the bird twitched an inch, she would jump it," he said. "But a Brittany won't get over 15 yards from you, and that's more important. Woodcock were a good bird for that particular dog because they hold tight.

Billy Dukes is the SCDNR's small game biologist. He and a couple of friends hunt woodcock at Sumter National Forest, and he sometimes hunts them alone.

"I hunt woodcock with a flushing Lab," he said. "My buddy has a Lab that points. We do well, whether we're using flushing or pointing dogs. As long as the dog works close, he's a good one for woodcock. My dog is trained to come in to a whistle. I can read the dog and tell when she's getting birdy and usually shoot the birds on the first flush. We have an unwritten rule that if we haven't got the birds after the second flush, we let them go."

Dukes uses WMA maps paired with topographic maps to find places where roads cross creeks. Once he finds a likely spot on his maps, he verifies them on the ground.

"If there's good cover, I give it a try," he said. "I look for low cover and a heavy mid-story. Key woodcock vegetation is privet, a non-native evergreen shrub, which was introduced in the 20th century and became a noxious plant, and native switchcane. Privet grows in thickets and provides lots of overhead cover. But we also find birds inside the canebrakes. These indicator species increase the likelihood woodcock are there.

"As long as you have low, shrubby growth in a low moist area with of earthworms, the place probably has woodcock. If I look at a stream crossing and it has a closed canopy forest, I eliminate that area."

Dukes said word has gotten around about how good the woodcock hunting can be. But most South Carolina hunters still don't hunt them.

"In the Northeast, woodcock hunting is a big sport," he said. "I had a call from a guy from New York who moved to Myrtle Beach. He didn't know what privet and switchcane were. He went hunting and called me after the season, and I told him to do exactly what to do, and he found birds with no dogs. He said he flushed 10 and killed two, which isn't bad for a hunter with no dog."

In the territory where Dukes hunts, very open compared to the coastal swamps where Watts shoots flushing woodcock so close he can swat them with the gun barrels, Dukes said it's a great hunting opportunity for youths.

"In a one-hour hunt you can flush six birds," Dukes said. "It's a more active event than sitting in a deer stand, and kids don't want to be bored."

As Watts also observed, Dukes said there is a breeding population of woodcock in South Carolina. But many birds taken by hunters are migrants.

"While we have a breeding population, our hunting success doesn't depend on home-grown woodcock," he said. "They can migrate 50 miles in one day. They don't migrate like a duck. They hopscotch their way along and don't fly high on the wind currents. They get to the piedmont before they get to the coastal plain. The peak in numbers at Francis Marion the second or third week in January based on some old research. Our season is Jan. 2 through 31, and we partly used that research to set the season dates. Another reason for the December season is to maximize woodcock hunting opportunity without having conflicts with deer hunters."

Once Dukes leaves his vehicle, he and his partner release the dogs. Then, they bounce from one patch of cover to another.

"We might get large, continuous patches of cane where we can hunt two or three hunters abreast with dogs out front," he said. "You have to be safety conscious with a low-flying bird like a woodcock. We pick up after a 2-hour hunt then move to another spot. Sometimes we hunt one dog, then hunt a different dog after we switch locations."

Dukes said he wears briar protection, including a canvas coat or vest and chaps or pants. He also wears a hunter orange vest with a game pouch and rubber hip or knee boots.

"There's no magic boot for woodcock hunting," he said. "I've poked holes in boots by stepping on beaver-gnawed sticks. Beaver ponds are good places to look, because they have the right vegetation around the edges, and the pond brings the water table up for the worms."

Dukes said he finds woodcock in singles and bunches. Once he finds one, he's likely to flush another.

"They won't necessarily be right together," he said, "but there can be several in the same stand of cover. We've flushed as many as a dozen in an hour of hunting."

Dukes said he looks for new spots ever season. With this year's drought conditions, finding new coverts is especially important. Receding water can leave normally productive places as dry and hard concrete.

"Sumter National Forest has more uplands than wetlands," he said. "But on the coast, there's more good woodcock habitat. There are a lot of wet floodplains associated with those coastal rivers and tributaries. Typically, the floodplain is along one side of the creek, and that's the side you want to hunt on."

Dukes lets the dogs have their head, then brings them back toward the hunters.

"They go out to about 50 to 75 yards and return on short whistle blasts," he said. "To the average hunter, it appears chaotic. But it's a teamwork scenario. If we see something the dogs miss, we put them into a specific block of cover. We watch the dogs every second so we don't miss a flush. Some cane thickets are over your head. You may hear birds flushing before you see them."

While he hunts many areas, Dukes said he seldom encounters another woodcock hunter.

"We've got habitat to accommodate lots of woodcock and lots of hunters," he said. "All you have to do is find the spots that hold the birds. You can probably find spots under any water conditions, drought or flood. You just hunt the wet margins. Any damp spot might hold a woodcock if the cover conditions are right."

Dukes uses 20-gauge and 28-gauge shotguns stoked with light loads of No. 8 lead shot. He typically uses improved cylinder and modified chokes. He enjoys eating woodcock almost as much as he enjoys hunting them.

"You can cook them a number of ways," he said. "I like to fry them and put them in brown gravy poured over grits. If you like to eat doves and ducks, you'll love eating woodcock."