I’m not sure if it was the sixth, seventh, or eighth bird that we’d missed that had given my hunting partner, Dirty J, the Sean Penn-crazy face, but certainly it was one of the three. And while I have long maintained that snipe hunting is tons of fun, there is something to be said for giving up and preserving one’s mental health.
See, for those who have never hunted snipe, it’s difficult to fully describe how maddening this can be. First, they are impossible to see on the ground, and they induce a massive coronary by flushing underfoot. Next, they wobble back and forth in an erratic flight pattern while the shooter vainly empties the shotgun without cutting a feather. All of this culminates with the little bird flying high into the sky, easing off the throttle when out of range, circling the area from where it flushed and dropping back down on the far side of it, daring you to come again.
Honestly, I believe snipe find it more entertaining tormenting hunters than most hunters do in trying to shoot them. After reading this, experienced snipe hunters have either smiled thinking of past trips a-field or have collapsed in a corner, clutching a pillow while rocking silently back and forth.
Of course, I’m fooling around, and in all honesty snipe hunting is one of the few simple pleasures offered in the wingshooting world. Dove hunting is fun, but finding a productive field locally has been difficult the past several years. Bobwhite numbers are on the decline, and the best shooting is usually on pricey game preserves. And ducks, well, duck hunting is a separate disease all its own. Snipe hunting involves rolling out of bed any time between sunup and sundown, doing a little walking and pulling the trigger on some little bird that is inexplicably difficult to hit.
And fortunately for us, we live in Florida with ample places to find these birds that torture our dreams. Snipe inhabit any place with some water – wet-weather ponds, ditch banks and flooded cow pastures. Find some soggy ground where it’s legal to tote a shotgun, and it’s a ready-made snipe hunt. No dogs or decoys required.
Right now is the time to hunt snipe. They migrate down on cold fronts throughout the winter and with the recent series of fronts and rain, Florida hunters should have no difficulty finding the birds in the next couple of weeks.
For a game this easy, it’s difficult to come up with much advice, but a couple strategies can help the day’s event. One, if alone, move slowly in a zigzag pattern across the marsh or pond edge. This covers a bit more ground than walking in a straight line. Plus, it unnerves the bird somewhat. Snipe will hold tight like a bedded whitetail buck, and it’s not uncommon for them to wait out fast-moving hunters and flush after they’ve passed. So move slow and make them nervous.
If hunting in a group, spread everyone about thirty to forty yards apart and walk together in that same slow pace. When hunting smaller areas where this is not possible, have a hunter or two lag behind fifty or so yards. As mentioned above, if a bird flushes it will usually circle around and drop down opposite of your position. The trailing hunter can squat down and possibly get a “re-entry” shot or watch where the bird lands and re-flush him. And there’s no need to go sloshing around in standing water; they aren’t seagulls. Ground that squishes like wet carpeting is just about perfect.
One other thing that is pretty important that the beginning snipe hunter must realize – killdeer are not snipe. Sandpipers are not snipe. And no, plovers are not snipe either. Plenty of species of birds that are small and probably hard to hit with a shotgun live around the marshes, but find a bird book and do a little research. Snipe are really not that well known, even amongst avid hunters, but I promise most game officers know the difference and won’t be happy inspecting a pile of killdeer, and by extension, the indiscriminate or ignorant hunter won’t be happy either.
As for shotguns, well, I miss birds with my 12 gauge pump and autoloader with such equal reliability that I am not sure how to dispense advice on what to carry. I guess just put as much lead in the air as possible. Use number 7 ½’s or 8’s with an open or modified choke. Other gear includes a pair of waterproof boots and a vest that holds plenty of shells. Some say doves require 4 to 6 shots per bird killed. Snipe will command 8 to 10 shots on most days.
If I am lucky enough to put a couple birds in the vest, people always ask me, “You really eat those things?” Snipe breasts resemble dove breasts in size, color and taste. I marinate them in an oily Caesar dressing and wrap them in bacon before grilling. I usually never have many to cook, but they make an interesting appetizer for friends and family.
A couple years ago on a deer hunt in Georgia, I sat around shucking oysters with a Florida Cracker from Ft. Pierce chatting up hunting creatures big and small. We talked deer and elk and pigs and quail until I finally asked him if he’d ever shot snipe. His eyes brightened as he told stories of his father and grandfather chasing the birds out on the ranch back in the day. He said he learned one trick from his grandfather – when the bird flushes, it’ll go Number Two, and that’s the time to shoot because they are about impossible to hit afterwards.
Well, I don’t know about all that. I am usually in a panicked rush to get my shotgun up to observe any falling snipe guano, but I do know now is the perfect time to go hunt snipe. What else is going on after the Super Bowl? Honey-do’s? Please, that’s worse for the frame of mind than snipe hunting, I promise.
Florida's 2009-10 Season ends February 15th