A few years ago, I found myself along Mud Lick Creek in the heart of the Belfast Plantation WMA, meandering along, looking for game. My female Boykin spaniel, Walter, found the musty scent of woodcock in her nose, and her bobbed tail wagged violently. Her rushed gait told me we were getting close. In a short stretch, she flushed no fewer than 24 woodcock, some  holding so tight, I almost stepped on them as I plodded along.

It was one of those magical days when the birds were thick, the cover tight and the shooting was — well less than desirable. Despite that handicap, seldom does a January cold spell pass that I am not walking along a stream in the piedmont of South Carolina looking for woodcock. 

For upland game hunters in South Carolina, finding wild quail is difficult at best. Thankfully, we have an alternative that presents itself late in the season. Woodcock can be abundant along the river drainages of the Midlands and Lowcountry at certain times of the year. They begin to migrate into the state in late October and November, and as the cold of the New England winter pushes them down, more hunters find timberdoodles along the riparian zones that border our major rivers, streams and creeks. 

Willie Simmons, the small-game coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said woodcock will be around as long as conditions are in their favor — “as long as there is good food and the ground doesn’t freeze,” he said.

Woodcock season runs from Dec. 18-Jan. 31, with hunting allowed from 30 minutes before sunrise until sunset; the daily bag limit is three, with a possession limit of nine.

Simmons said the relatively small bag limit and overall lack of pressure doesn’t seem to impact the population, so a 1-percent annual decline he has noticed over the past decade doesn’t detract from the challenge of hunting these quick game birds.

Woodcock eat worms exclusively, so finding the telltale holes where they probe for worms with their long, slender beaks helps hunters know they’re around. Woodcock love damp to wet conditions, which makes the sloughs, marshes and flood zones along creeks and rivers prime habitat. It is not uncommon to find woodcock in cover so thick you cannot swing your gun to get on them. Good wet ground is more important than thick cover, but finding the two together is better yet.

For opportunities in the Midlands, the Belfast Plantation WMA along the border between Newberry and Laurens counties is a great place to start. The 4,464-acre plantation, about 10 miles northwest of Newberry near the Kinards community, has two major creeks and a small river crossing it that provide great habitat for woodcock.

“Belfast offers great small-game hunting along the Little River and Mud Lick Creek, and both of these are great areas to find woodcock.” Simmons said.

SCDNR obtained half the property in 2008 and the other half in 2010. Formerly paper company land, the plantation had been managed for recreation and forest-products production for years. SCDNR manages the property with wildlife plantings in some open areas and pine thinning and prescribed burns.

Gun hunts for deer and turkey are by drawing only, with a few special hunts for youth and mobility-impaired participants, but small-game hunting, including woodcock, is wide open, except that all hunters must have a WMA permit, sign in and sign out and complete data cards.

While a trained dog isn’t necessary, it certainly helps to find the little birds and especially to recover downed birds. Their brown color is perfect camouflage in the leaf clutter that covers the areas they prefer. 

Shotguns of smaller gauges — 20, 28 and .410 — are perfect additions to a hunter’s arsenal for woodcock. The birds are small, weighing barely 5 ounces and while fast, they seldom fly straight, preferring to dash and dart among the thick underbrush. Lightweight, fast-swinging shotguns are the norm, easy to carry and quick to shoot in cover. No. 8 shot is ideal, but some hunters prefer No. 9 for the dozens of extra pellets a shall carries. Once shot, woodcock can be next to impossible to find, so marking down a bird’s descent is critical. Getting a second shot is almost impossible, so hunters seldom need to load more than a couple of shells.  

For upland hunters looking for a great, mid-winter opportunity — and for great exercise and fun chasing gamebirds with a lot of action and weight in their game bag — give woodcock a try.