Open a book on woodcock hunting, and probably the writer will recall an episode along a stretch of creek bottom in Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota. But woodcock hunting in Central Maryland deserves a chapter.
Al Geis of Clarksville is a guy who knows much of the woodcock, a small, secretive bird that feeds on worms and insects at night and lies low during the day. The woodcock, in fact, is Geis' game bird of choice.
"I love to hunt grouse and woodcock in combination," said Geis, 62, an expert on migratory game birds who retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after more than 30 years of service. "That has to be the highest sport imaginable. . . . I essentially hunt woodcock and grouse incidentally. Most people reverse the order."
For hunting Central Maryland during the past 35 years, Geis has reversed conventional thinking about when and where to find the woodcock.
"They are in habitat that is somewhat different than the traditional habitat that people read about," said Geis, who was instrumental some years ago in changing Maryland's woodcock
dates to coincide with migratory flights. "They are not down in the stream bottoms. They are not necessarily in alder, like you read about in New England.
"They use early successional stages, like old abandoned fields that are just beginning to grow into woody cover. Around here, those are often full of dense tangle -- and it is very hard work."
The ideal cover in Central Maryland is a clearing perhaps a foot wide at the base of young hardwoods surrounded by low overstory thick enough to shade the ground but not dense enough to be impenetrable. The physical characteristic of the cover is more important than a particular plant.
"For example, I found some woodcock once in a stand of giant ragweed in West Virginia," Geis said Thursday. "Here, they are in more upland situations than a lot of people imagine."
The nature of the hunt makes it hard work compared to Western Maryland and Pennsylvania, where the cover is less dense. In Geis' opinion, the rough going is part of the mystique of hunting woodcock.
"People guard their covers very zealously," Geis said. "They don't advertise them. You don't invite everybody and their half-wit brother to hunt in your favorite covers."
Earlier in the day, Geis had strapped on his hunter orange riding helmet and taken a small party out on a tract of land in Howard County, where rose briars and honeysuckle clung to hardwoods, cedars and hunters alike. In small ground clearings, there were white splashes, woodcock waste. Here and there, a deer bed or rub.
Once, late in the afternoon, a young doe came face to face with a hunter and after a split second disappeared into the brush.
The dogs reveled in the thick going, working closely ahead. Joey and Shy Boy, a pair of Brittanys, twisted through the cover, inspecting old splashes, coming to point and flushing almost a dozen birds in a few hours.
It was, Geis said, neither the best of days nor the worst of days. We were afield between flights of migrant woodcock, and although there were abundant splashes through Geis' favorite acres, we apparently were a week late.
Woodcock migrate along with weather fronts, with flights of birds closely following the passage of cold air from the north. How long they remain in an area is unclear. But they certainly will be gone after the first good freeze.
"But you could tell from those splashings that a lot of birds had left," Geis said. "We were in some areas where there had been a lot of woodcock, and they weren't local birds; they were migrants" brought in by a cold front that passed a week earlier.
Maryland is on the fringe of the woodcock's breeding range, but Geis said there are many more of the birds that live and breed here than most people believe.
"But you get real good hunting with these waves of migrants," Geis said. "And if you shoot real well and have a good dog, with a three-bird limit, you can quite frequently get the limit."
Limiting out is something Geis does often -- having harvested more than 100 birds in a season -- but it is not only the business of harvesting birds that keeps him afield at 62 despite an artificial hip.
"The mystique of woodcock hunting is that it isn't totally predictable," Geis said. "You never know -- and it is sporty shooting, zigging and zagging around in that brush.
"And when you get into them, you really get into them."
When: The first session of woodcock season runs through Nov. 23. The second session runs from Dec. 9 to Dec. 14. Migrant birds pass through the Washington-Baltimore area between the last week in October and the first 2 weeks of November.
Where: In central Maryland, the woodcock is likely to be found in decent numbers in abandoned fields that are just beginning to grow into little clumps of hardwood.
Shotguns: Ideally, a very open shooting shotgun is best with small shot. Geis uses a skeet barrel with No. 9 shot.
Dogs: Without a good bird dog, you can be in the right place at the right time with the right equipment and never flush a bird.