Snipe: The accessible bird for the Florida wingshooter.
Bird hunting can be a passion that consumes a big part of a hunter’s life; maintaining and training dogs year-round, traveling from state to state with changing seasons, maybe flying to Argentina for fast and furious shooting, rising at 3 a.m. to lug and set decoys, and even raising and stocking quail to ensure action on hunts. This is all well and good, but what about the hunter who just wants a Saturday morning outing in the Florida outdoors with a bit of wingshooting? The answer is snipe, the perfect game bird for the solitary hunter, a pair of hunters, or a group of hunters with or without dogs. They are easy to find, hard to hit, and even warn you when they up and fly! The bag limit is generous enough to supply a few hours of fun and exercise.
Okay, no doubt you’ve heard of the snipe hunting gag and the term “bag” limit even reinforces the idea of the joke because the novice is supposed to catch the birds at night in a bag or pillow case while the guys playing the joke leave him alone in the swamp, but snipe are real birds and truly fun to pursue in the daytime. They have long bills and a sandpiper like appearance. The bills are of interest because they have remarkable sensory capabilities that allow the bird to find insects and worms and such deep in the soil well out of eyesight. The brown, white, rust and black markings on the plumage render the bird nearly invisible when stationary in most of their customary habitats.
Snipe are found in marshy areas, particularly near exposed earth and especially near exposed black, mucky earth. Their tracks, droppings, and the holes they make while feeding give evidence of their presence. The holes are round and a little smaller than a pencil in diameter. When this sign is discovered, snipe are sure to be in the vicinity. They feed mostly in early morning, late evening, and night and hide during the mid-day in grasses, reeds, myrtles or other vegetation. Walking along pond edges or the flood plains of rivers is usually all it takes to flush some birds. They are often solitary or in small groups. As a snipe takes off, it utters a sound like “mreenk!” although some people describe it as “scaipe” claiming it is short for “escape.” However it may sound to your ears, let that noise serve as a warning that the bird is up and winging away at good speed. Snipe may let a hunter walk past and then jump and, at these times, this cry may be the only thing to alert the birdshooter of its presence.
Snipe accelerate rapidly from their jump and their flight zigs erratically. This tendency is exactly why they are so challenging and enjoyable and yet at times exasperating to hunt. Often precisely when the shooter’s brain, feeling the gun is aimed on the bird with the correct amount of lead, sends the message to the finger to squeeze the trigger, the snipe veers a bit. The hunter sees it happen, but doesn’t have time to rescind the brain’s command! The pronounced difficulty in hitting the birds is why the term ‘sniper’ is used to indicate an expert marksman.
When these birds are startled singly or in groups they typically fly fast and far, but circle high and come back down near the same locale so it is prudent to watch spooked birds for a while. Even ones that become distant specks that nearly disappear in the clouds may end up swooping back to earth nearby. The shooter can then mark the spot and rejump them. Letting them land offers two advantages over trying to take them as they come back past.
First, their drop from altitude furnishes them a boost in speed, making it tricky to judge the proper lead especially when they are heading toward the hunter. The second advantage is that they often choose to light near other snipe and thereby lure the hunter to even more game. I assume they discern other birds by sight and if this is the case it demonstrates incredible eyesight because few creatures have better natural camouflage.
This coloration also can make it difficult to find downed birds. Sometimes they fall in the open with their white bellies showing like beacons, but a high proportion somehow land in a tuft of brown grass with nothing but their tail feathers sticking up and effectively disappear, leaving a hunter stymied in the search. I remember days I spent more time searching for dead birds than for live ones to shoot! A hunter is well-advised to carefully take note of the precise spot from which a shot was fired as well as where the bird appeared to tumble. If the shooter’s position is marked and a landmark, even a distant one, in line with where the snipe fell is selected, the times when a bird is maddeningly difficult to find can be made easier by narrowing the search area. This is even more important when two birds are dropped from one jump. In the excitement, it is easy to retrieve one snipe and then realize the new vantage point makes it difficult to pinpoint where to look for the second one.
While dogs are not necessary, they can be helpful and their enthusiasm and exuberance add to the pleasure of the outing. Even dogs with little or no hunting training are often able to sniff out downed game and many will naturally retrieve. Their greatest contribution is, of course, helping the hunter locate dropped birds, but some can find and point unflushed snipe and allow the hunter a state of readiness and to choose his or her approach path. Hunting with a dog is a joy and a big part of that stems from sharing the dog’s unbridled alacrity.
Regarding the approach path, it is worth noting that snipe typically either jump up into the wind or turn into the wind soon after their jump. Many people know Maurice Thompson as the father of modern bowhunting and author of The Witchery of Archery, but in other writings from 1886 he offers this advice: “Most birds, like snipe and plover, will rise against the wind, so that the time to shoot them is just as they turn. To do this, hunt them down the wind if possible.” (Please note that plover are not now considered game birds nor are they legal to hunt.) Snipe also often wing away fairly low in the sky so it is extremely important to be aware of the location of fellow hunters and dogs.
Snipe are migratory birds and most years they show up in central Florida in November. Some years a few will be present as early as September and October, but even then their numbers swell as the weather cools in the last two months of the year.
Although snipe spread out and aren’t found in gigantic congregations, they are reputed to migrate at night in large flocks. While I’ve never witnessed such a night flight, the way all the ponds suddenly harbor the birds and also the way they suddenly disappear seems quite in concert with such behavior.
Gear required for snipe hunting is simple and minimal. Comfortable rubber boots are helpful or old tennis shoes you have no qualms about getting muddy and wet. A vest or belt with a game bag and pockets for live and spent shotgun shells is convenient. A hat or cap is useful as well. Bright clothing may increase visibility to others if hunting in a group. Concerning shotguns; 20, 12, 16, 28 gauge and .410s all work. The main thing is for the gun to be one the shooter can point and shoot well. Seven and a half shot, eight shot, and nine shot all work for snipe with eight load being the most common choice.
There are two main ways to clean snipe, the classic way of plucking the bird leaving the skin intact and attached or the somewhat easier and quicker way of skinning it. With either technique, the wings, feet, and head are cut off with a knife or shears. The entrails are pulled with fingers or a bird hook. If the skin is left on, it bastes the meat with its fat and helps hold moisture in through the cooking process. The skinned bird can be marinated or basted with Italian dressing or another oil to serve the same purpose.
Baking snipe has never endeared the bird to me as a food item, but grilling the birds over a fire or coals is both simple and delicious. Charles Whitehead in Campfires of the Everglades (written in 1891) describes it perfectly: “- – – and flank it with nothing discordant and gross, but with some game bird, and nothing better than an English snipe, and then thank the Lord who giveth us our meat in due season, for never since man had dominion over the fowls of the air has there been cooked a daintier dish.” The methods Whitehead used was to impale the plucked and cleaned snipe on slim palmetto frond stems and allow them to bob over the fire and to suspend others from overhanging limbs with twine twisted tightly so the birds rotated and spun just above the reach of the flames.
Snipe season persists after deer season ends and because of that arrangement I discovered another excellent way to prepare the birds. After whitetail season, I come out to our camp and prepare a seasoned brine (Herter’s Bull Cook cookbook has a great corning brine recipe) to corn some of my venison. Mixing in the fun of a snipe hunt with the task left me at the cleaning station, I tossed some cleaned snipe into the six-gallon bucket of brine with the venison. After fifteen days I removed them with the rest of the meat and discovered they could be cooked in any fashion, grilling, baking, or frying without drying out or losing any of their flavor.
The beauty of snipe hunting is that it can be done on the spur of the moment with a minimum of gear and preparation. It is a superb enticement to enjoy nature in solitude or with friends. FS
This year’s snipe season runs Nov. 1 through Feb. 15, 2018. Bag limit is 8 per person; possession limit is 24. Legal shooting hours are ½ hour before sunrise till sunset.
In addition to a Florida hunting license, snipe hunters need a migratory bird permit. Management areas require management stamps and may have special rules so it is always advisable to check their individual regulations. Note, too, that while nontoxic (lead alternative) shot is not expressly specified for snipe shooting, hunters are likely to encounter ducks in some of the same marshy terrain favored by snipe. If you wish to harvest ducks on the same trip, you may not have lead shot in your possession. Steel target loads are an affordable snipe option here.
First published Florida Sportsman December 2015