You may have been on a snipe hunt, but you’ve probably never hunted snipe.
There really is such a thing as a snipe, and folks do hunt them—especially masochists. The jacksnipe, or Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago gallinago,) is about the size of a quail. A relative of the woodcock, it likes to hang around in areas where the water table is just below the surface, such as the edges of marshes and throughout wet prairies. This facilitates its feeding, which it does by probing for worms and other small creatures with its long, prehensile bill. Its coloring is what zoologists call “cryptic,” which is to say that it mimics so well the whites, grays and browns of its habitat that it’s damned near invisible.
Back in my more savage days, I used to do some snipe hunting. Let me tell you what it is like.
Snipe hunting is done with shotguns, and lots of shotgun shells. Some people hunt them with dogs, which works fine if you’re not in sawgrass country. If you are, you spend more time tending to cuts on the dog than you do hunting. In the wet prairies, the preferred technique is as follows.
Snipe like to have an early breakfast of early worms, then hide out in the bushes during the middle of the day when the marsh hawks are patrolling, and return an hour or so before dusk for their evening meal. So, at about oh-dark-thirty, you drag your butt out of a warm bed and meet your hunting partner at the local mom-and-pop for a big breakfast. You want to get to the marsh at first light. The birds aren’t out yet, but it gives you a chance to enjoy sunrise over the foggy wetlands, stretch your legs, check your equipment, and make remarks about the sanity of people who would voluntarily do what you’re doing.
Equipment is simple. Shotgun, 12- or 20-gauge, improved—or improved/modified if a double—with plenty of number eight shells or skeet loads carried in the side pockets of an orange hunter’s vest. Jeans work well for pants, which must be tucked into high-top leather boots. The boots are less for protection against snakes than for the sawgrass. Waterproof is good. You’re going to end up with wet feet anyway, but at least you’ll feel as though you tried. A hat is a must, because you’ll need to shade your eyes from the rising sun. Caterpillar caps work well. It’s de rigueur to carry a can of Vienna sausages. Snipe hunting is the only time and place known to man when they are fit to eat. An orange or apple and a quart of water round off the victuals. Some people like to carry a .22 pistol for snakes, but I figure it’s their marsh and I’ll just pass on by. (It’s not a good idea to shoot a snake with a shotgun. They splatter, and so does the mud.)
After you watch the sunrise, you start hunting. You check the guns, double-check the canteen and goodies, load, safety, and set out. You and your partner will have agreed on position, one taking the left side from 9 to 12 o’clock, the other from 12 to 3. Such arrangements minimize the chances of blowing your partner away in the heat of the moment, and people who hunt together regularly usually stick to the same sides year after year. If one shoots right-handed and the other left-handed, it works even better.
Having scouted out a piece of wetland that looks inviting, you set out slogging through the marsh, mud, sawgrass, myrtle and what-have-you. After you’ve warmed up a bit and have your boots full of water and pants soaked to the knees you can relax and get miserable. There’s not a lot to be done from this point except be alert and watch for snakes.
You may or may not see a snake, but you’re guaranteed not to see any snipe—on the ground. Remember that cryptic coloration? Mr. and Ms. Snipe know you can’t see them, and most of the time they won’t fly until they’re pretty sure they’re about to be stepped on. A snipe takeoff is hard to believe. No matter how long you’ve hunted them, the first two or three of the day always scare the bejeezus out of you. The preferred technique from the Snipe Operations Manual is as follows: leap two feet into the air, accelerate in a straight line until you reach about 45 mph, then climb to about fifty feet. All of this takes maybe four seconds if the bird is an especially slow one. After the straightaway climb, the bird begins to circle about fifty yards out, making rude noises. Sometimes it will fly overhead to take a look.
During this time you’ve probably fired two shots, or maybe three if you have a repeater. You’ve probably also failed to hit a snipe. They’re pure hell to hit. You have two chances: during the initial acceleration run and the first part of the climb, before they’re out of range, and then—if you fancy yourself a real good wing shooter—you may elect to take another crack at it when he circles. Now remember, this bird accelerates to 45 mph in the first two seconds (that’s 66 feet per second.) You get off the first shot pretty fast, because of all the adrenaline, but you probably miss. Then you take another shot on the wild chance that the bird might get careless and fly in front of the gun. If it turns away from your side, your buddy may get a shot. In any case, the likelihood of having to find a well-camouflaged bird in all that sawgrass isn’t very high.
After allowing yourself to be humiliated for an hour or so, you’ll want to stop and eat your brunch. A couple of miles through the marsh with water-filled boots will have worked up a pretty good appetite all by itself, and all the adrenaline will have insured that your blood sugar is low, and that you’re ravenous. This is when the Vienna sausages taste really wonderful. By now the sun’s well up and it’s getting warm, so you’ll un-layer some clothing and wonder where you’re going to put the stuff you’ve taken off. Dumb luck will have insured that there are at least a couple bloody birds in the rear pocket of the hunting vest. You tie your jacket or Florida Gators sweatshirt around your waist by the arms and set off again. After it catches on brush and sawgrass a few times you say to hell with it, and stuff it in with the birds.
If you’ve planned things out right and haven’t run across any irrigation canals that were too deep to wade, you’ll eventually begin to circle back toward the car. At some point before you reach it, you’ll discover the spur canal that you bypassed on the way out, and will have to follow it back to the same area you’ve already hunted to get around the end. By now your six-and-three-quarter pound lightweight bird gun has come to weigh 22.5 pounds exactly. No one knows why this happens. By the time you reach the car, after expending more ammo on more of the damned birds, you’ll be swearing off snipe hunting for the rest of your life, and asking your partner to please just shoot you next time and save you the trouble of torturing yourself.
Some days you don’t see one bird. Other days, there’s a convention. You bag about the same number either way. Each one provides about two ounces of gamey-tasting breast meat and not much else. In my entire career, (I no longer hunt,) I got my limit about three times. One time I actually got three birds with three shots out of the same rise. When I tell other snipe hunters that, they give me that, “Yeah, OK,” look, and start to talk about football or some other manly thing.
You’re allowed to bag eight snipe. To do that, (on the rare occasions when you get your limit,) you will have used up a box or more of shells, walked three or four miles in the water and mud, had the hell scared out of you by the damned birds—or not: you stay alert anyway, because you never know when one of the little finks will jump up. You will have gotten at least a couple of sawgrass cuts, (which will be stinging like fury,) and your boots will weigh about 12 pounds. Each. Your ears will be ringing from the shotgun blasts, and your shoulder will have bruises from mounting the gun too quickly in the heat of the moment, and not getting it tight against your shoulder before pulling the trigger. (I know you’re supposed to “slap” it, but this is snipe hunting we’re talking about. Remember the adrenaline.) Your nose will be sunburned. Your eyes will be watering from gunpowder smoke, sawgrass pollen and the glare of the sun on the water. You may have fire ant bites. You’ll be miserable. I’d say it’s a guy thing, but I’ve seen snipe make women just as crazy.
You’ll be back out in the marsh the next chance you get.