Woodcock tips from a Carolina guide

Carolina guide shares woodcock hunting tips

Ask a 5-year-old what he wants to be when he grows up, and you’ll get answers like astronaut, fireman or maybe even police officer. 

 This is just another example of why we don’t let children vote. Because if these kids had any sense, they would know that the real dream job —­­­ t­he pinnacle of professional achievement — is to be a woodcock guide and dog trainer. Getting paid to traipse through shoulder-high patches of cane, knee-deep in a boot-sucking swamp chasing woodcock behind a brace of fine English setters is heaven on earth. 

There’s no doubt about it.

Enter Casey Trantham.

Trantham and his wife, Mackenzie, live in Linwood, N.C. with their dogs: three English setters, two Boykin spaniels, and a French Brittany. For the past 2 years, when he is not working full-time driving a truck or training the next generation of pointers and retrievers at his kennel, Cedar Grove Gun Dogs, he’s leading a lucky few hunters on guided woodcock hunts. 

Why did he pursue the life of a woodcock hunting guide? 

“That’s simple. The bird honors the dog. If the bird is pointed by the dog, they hold tight until you walk in to flush, unlike pheasants out west or a lot of other birds that tend to move around after being pointed,” Trantham said. “Also, I love the woods. I’m a woodsman at heart. Not many birds love the woods. Most are ‘edge birds’ around prairies or ragged edges around farmers’ fields. Woodcock are different. You can enjoy a nice walk in the woods with your dogs and watch great dog work all at the same time.”

It’s not every day someone with his “dream job,” shares his ideas about finding and flushing more woodcock with “lesser men.” Here are five tips straight from the man himself:

A fine brace of woodcocks makes a prized photo after a day of hunting.

Find good “stem density”

According to Trantham, “You want to find habitat with good stem density that provides a clean forest floor for them to move under the canopy. So they’re protected from predators.”

Be wary of thick habitat such as some privet patches that are so thick at the bottom you have difficulty moving through them. If you can’t move your feet, it’s likely that a woodcock can’t move his, either. This is what makes cane such a great woodcock attractant. It grows straight up with leaves extending in all directions providing cover at the top and an open understory that allows birds to move around.

Casey Trantham’s passion lies in hunting woodcocks and training dogs to do the same.

Hunt drainages when cold

Ask any fisherman worth his salt and he’ll tell you, if you aim to catch fish, you’ve got to watch the weather.

The same goes for woodcock.

These little migratory birds are constantly riding the freeze line up and down the coast in the winter, moving south to warmer climates when the cold winds begin to blow and moving back north as the cold fronts inevitably recede. 

But knowing when the birds will begin moving into your area is only half the battle. To find them requires a bit more specialized knowledge.

For example, on mornings when the temperature dips below the freezing mark, you want to hunt around drainage ditches holding moisture in pine thickets. 

“Needles hold moisture underneath. Look for skidder paths or old logging roads, anything that holds moisture so they can use their beak to pick worms,” Trantham said. “However, when there is plenty of moisture from wet weather, try a hillside adjacent to covers that catch the morning sunlight. This type of habitat is best hunted with close-working pointer breeds: Brittanies, French Brittanies, setters or flushing dogs like an English Springer spaniel.”

In other words, worms will be attracted to wet soil that is maintaining a bit of warmth, and the birds will be attracted to the worms.

Watching the dogs work is a big part of Woodcock hunting.

North-to-south streams

Similar to ducks, woodcock rely on a lot of factors to help them make their way south in the winter. The weather is a significant motivator to start them seeking warmer climates. But geographic landmarks also help them chart their course from the great snowy north to Palmetto-lined beaches of the Carolinas.

“Woodcock coming from the north love to use these north-to-south river systems to navigate at night,” Trantham said. “I like to find a river or stream that sort of flows north-to-south and then look for a smaller tributary off of that main river. These smaller tributaries seem to consistently hold woodcock.”

Woodcocks prefer overhead cover with open ground areas underneath.

More than just cane

This may come as a shock to many hunters, but woodcock can be found in mature forest environments as well.

 “I also like to look for short pines in between mature pines,” Trantham said. “If you have some mature pines and a lot of short pines between 5 and 6 feet tall or other early growth near water or soft soil, you’re going to more than likely be in birds.

 “There’s nothing wrong with some mature cover as long as the young growth is there as well. It only becomes a problem when there is only mature cover sucking out the nutrients and turning the soil acidic.”

So, on days when your traditional coverts just aren’t producing the way they should, don’t hesitate to mix it up and look for timberdoodles in places that you may pass up for one reason or another but still have some of the prerequisites to keep woodcock fat and happy.

Move around

Did you notice a new covert on the way to the woods that looked like it might hold moisture? Give it a shot. It is surprising how many people hunt the same spots over and over. We all have our favorite coverts. But if you’re going to learn to consistently find birds, you can’t be afraid to try new places. You might be surprised at what other tips and tricks you may discover in the process. 

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. If you find yourself in a bird-hunting rut, check out that other public land in the neighboring county instead of the one just down the road. It might prove to be worth the trip.

Carolina woodcock seasons

In North Carolina, woodcock season begins Dec. 10 and runs through Jan. 31, 2022. In South Carolina, woodcock season begins Dec. 18 and runs through Jan. 31, 2022. The daily bag limit in both states is three birds.

About Justin Goethe 2 Articles
Justin Goethe is a freelance writer from the South Carolina Lowcountry. He graduated from Clemson University and works full-time as an industrial engineer for the automotive industry.

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