29 August 2012

Fire Hunting Woodcock a Historic Endeavor

I an unable to give you a large hunting story, as I have not been driving, but I had some sport last night in killing woodcock, which are here very numerous, and come in from the swamps after night to feed in the cotton fields. We started from the house with a large pine torch, (held by a negro,) which gave a brilliant light, giving us sight of the bird, and at the time blinding it, and allowing use to approach close enough to shoot it with a squib. We only killed twelve brace, on account of the moon. A negro, who followed us, however, took a more novel mode of dispatching the bird — knocking them over with a long cane, in which he succeeded wonderfully, much to his own gratification and amazement.

March 24, 1842. A hunting story. New-York American 24(2669): 6. From a letter in the Grand Gulf Advertiser.

Grand Gulf is in Claiborne county, Mississippi.

Fire Hunting for Woodcock.

An Old-time Mississippi Sport Introduced to Pike County.

Lackawaxen, Pa., Sept. 21 — On Friday last a method of hunting woodcock never before heard of among the sportsmen of this region was tried on a well-known woodcock ground along the Shohola Creek, twelve miles back in the woods from this place. It was introduced by Dr. J.H. Butte, a Southerner, who with some New York friends and one or two local sportsmen, had been spending some days hunting in the Shohola country. The party had had poor success with woodcock, although indications of their presence were abundant. On Friday Dr. Butte suggested that the party try the Mississippi style of killing the wily bird by "fire hunting."

"Woodcock are plenty in Mississippi," said the Southern sportsman, "but they seem to have different habits there than here, or at least have better opportunities for evading the hunter and preventing him from enjoying the shooting of them from behind a dog. The swamps and brakes are so dense about the haunts of the woodcock in Mississippi that it is next to impossible to make your way into them, and in these great thickets the birds lie close all day. When night comes, however, they rise and seek the cultivated open lands where they feed, as they do here, on the worms that find their natural breeding places in such soil. I don't know who first conceived the idea of getting the best of the woodcock on these feeding grounds, but as long as I can remember that has been most effectually done by fire hunting. The outfit of a fire hunter, before the war, consisted of a gun, a big pine-knot torch, and the strongest slave on the plantation. Since the war the slave has been left out of the outfit, but the tradition is preserved by hiring some muscular darky to perform his duties. The torch might more appropriately be called a pillar of fire, for it is a fire made of the fattest kind of pine knots in a large iron wickerwork cage secured to one end of a stout pole twelve or fifteen feet high, and carried aloft by the negro. It casts a bright light over an area of several rods around. The hunter or hunters, as soon as it is dark, proceed to the woodcock ground. The torch bearer lights the pine knots and walks slowly along. The hunter follows closely. In the bright light he soon sees the lustrous, staring eyes of the woodcock, disturbed in its feeding, fixed with a startled look and apparent fascination on the glaring torch. Some hunters will not wait for the bird to rise, but kill it as it sits. The more scientific gunner waits till it rises with its peculiar cry, and brings it down by a quick shot. The shot has got to be quick, too, for the bird is seen but a second as it flashes upward, and is then lost in the darkness beyond the boundaries of the torch rays. To bring down a woodcock before it escapes in the darkness requires a hunter that knows his business. It often happens that a score of birds will rise at the same time and whirr for an instant in the glare of the torch, and so, generally, there are several gunners in a party, and one evening's fire hunting may result in the bagging of a hundred birds or more."

Dr. Butte questioned whether fire hunting was a legitimate or fair way to hunt woodcock where the country permitted the use of dogs in their covers; but it was resolved, for the novelty of the thing, to give it a trial in Pike county. A corn field where the bottom showed abundant evidence that woodcock fed there by night was selected for the trial. A camp kettle was tied to the end of a long pole, and filled with pine knot bits. On Friday night the hunters sought the corn field. The torch was lighted and carried by a stalwart Pike county guide. The field had hardly been entered before three woodcock were discovered, as Dr. Butte had described. They flushed, and each one was brought to bag. The hunt lasted an hour, and twenty-seven birds were killed.

It is not likely that this questionable sport will be indulged in to any extent by legitimate hunters, who find the greatest enjoyment in woodcock shooting in the exciting maneuvers of their blooded dogs in the covey and the wild rise of the game in its rush for a place of safety; but there are many men, who hunt only for profit, who will lose no opportunity to take advantage of this southern idea, if it proves to be as successful as the trial of Friday night, and consequently its introduction in game haunts, already seriously abused by pot hunters, is greatly to be regretted.

September 28, 1884. Fire hunting for woodcock. An old-time Mississippi sport introduced in Pike County. New York Sun 52(28): 3.