North America’s “other” upland bird flies like a bat out of Hell, promising gunning challenges and rewards no hunter should miss.
By Ken Marsh
“Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of 10 and be considered a good performer.”
– Ted Williams
Nobody ever whacked a baseball harder or more consistently than Ted Williams. The late ballpark legend was a respected wingshooter in his day, too, with an off-days passion for pigeon shooting at Fenway Park (a pastime that on at least one occasion outraged the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Then there was his famous “three times out of 10” quote which, in the wake of my fourth straight miss one morning last September, made me wonder if “the Thumper” had ever taken a swing at snipe.
Comparable in size to mourning doves and at least as hard to hit on the wing, snipe are enigmatic little swamp squatters that, unlike doves, rarely offer consistent pass-shooting opportunities. Rather, they hunker and wait to be kicked up along lakeshores and coastal marsh edges by hunters with or without dogs. And when these birds bust from the sedges, be advised: They come unhinged. Like bats out of Hell they spring up with a screech only to haul ass low and crazy-fast, twisting and jinking. They’ll fluster the sharpest shooters, presenting the kind of shotgunning challenge that is at the heart of upland hunting.
And that’s not all. The pièce de resistance of snipe hunting: These little birds are damned good eating. Roasted hot and fast, a platter of snipe can make an hour or two of decent shooting worth more than every penny paid for a box of 20-gauge No. 7 steel.
Specifically, we’re talking Wilson’s snipe, Gallinago delicata. Not to be confused with dowitchers, yellowlegs, or any of more than 50 species of little brown North American shorebirds, Wilson’s snipe are stocky, long-billed creatures vaguely resembling and distantly related to woodcock (the lineages between snipe and woodcock are thought to have diverged during the Eocene some 34- to 56-million years ago). Snipe are migratory birds, ranging seasonally from my home state of Alaska south through Canada, California, the Midwest, Florida, Texas and into South America. Snipe are also found in Britain and Europe where they have long provided popular rough-shooting sport.
Beyond the hiss of an incoming or outgoing tide, the coastal flats I hunt in Southcentral Alaska are normally quiet when I arrive around noon. Uh, wait a minute. Noon? That’s right, it’s not necessary to hit the swamps at daybreak for snipe. The birds fly mostly at night and spend days resting and feeding in wet fields, bogs, and along shorelines.
If you’re hunting in areas popular among duck and goose hunters, waiting until midday allows the boys in the blinds (and you, too, if so inclined) time to enjoy the early-morning hours that are generally more productive for those species. Rather than marching around early in the morning flaring web-footed fowl away from waiting gunners, I usually put off snipe hunting until after their decoys have been packed up and operations ceased for the day.
Look for snipe in damp – but not flooded – grassy areas. Some of the most productive covers I’ve found have included broken patches of ankle- to knee-high grasses and sedges bordering shallow, brackish, mud-bottomed ponds. Then again, I’ve also flushed them from wet areas next to trails in the middle of large forests, along muskeg edges, and even from alpine tundra. I suspect birds in these marginal areas simply settle there for the day because that’s where sunrise happens to find them.
Dogs are helpful, but not absolutely necessary for hunting snipe. I’ve hunted over springer spaniels with great success, and good pointers would no doubt be wonderful for these tight-sitting birds. Well-trained dogs can be good not only for locating sitting birds, but for finding fallen snipe whose camouflaged plumage tends to blend perfectly with natural cover. Hunters who don’t have dogs can also do well when birds are plentiful. Hunting dogless and alone on three particular afternoons last fall, I kicked up countless snipe, shot 19 birds, and was unable to retrieve only one.
Hip-boots and even rubber knee boots, depending upon terrain, can be adequate for hunting snipe. Light, breathable chest waders, however, cover nearly all bases by allowing hunters to cross ditches, reach birds that have fallen in ponds, and keep you dry while sitting on the mud when a break is needed. And breaks will be needed, as snipe hunters can typically count on putting in a good bit of hiking in their quests for birds.
Beyond waders, the gear for hunting snipe is pretty simple. Hunters need little more than weather-appropriate clothing, a shooting vest, light shotgun, and a box or so of ammunition. Oh, and a regional hunting license – federal waterfowl stamps aren’t required for hunting snipe in the United States. Hunters should, however, always check local hunting regulations to confirm whether state stamps or registrations are needed in the areas they plan to hunt.
I spent last fall shooting a 20-gauge CZ Drake over-and-under, a relatively inexpensive and lightweight double gun weighing 6 ½ pounds. The gun features interchangeable choke tubes and I found No. 7 steel shot through an improved cylinder- and modified choke combination to work nicely on snipe that generally flushed at close ranges. Certainly, lighter shotguns – 28-gauge and .410 – would be fantastic, sporting choices in the right hands.
Bag limits for snipe are generally liberal. In my region the limit is eight per day. And tough as these crazy fliers can be to hit, a little practice can go a long way. My best run last season was five birds for five shots, which was almost too good as I ended up limiting out in less than an hour. Spending time walking the wetlands and putting up birds is a pastime I prefer to stretch out and savor when possible.
A hunter’s appreciation for snipe hunting needn’t end in the field, though. Moist and mild-flavored, the birds are excellent eating. They can be plucked or skinned and, traditionally, English shooters don’t even bother to draw them (a preference I will leave to my British brothers). For my purposes, I’ll hang snipe outdoors overnight if temperatures are cool – say not much warmer than 40 degrees F. Otherwise, I simply place them in the refrigerator in a paper bag.
My favorite way to prepare and eat snipe is quick and simple. First, draw and skin them, then brush with olive oil. From there, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic granules, then wrap each bird in a slice of prosciutto – a snug wrap not only flavors the meat, but seals in moisture. Place on a cookie sheet and pop into an oven preheated to 475 F for 10 minutes. Do not overcook these tasty morsels!
In a hot oven, the prosciutto will form a layer over the birds that is tasty and crunchy as crisp bacon. I’ll say it again, though: Keep those breasts pink and moist in the center.
Oh, and forget the knife and fork. Snipe are finger food. Four birds with a side of rice or potatoes and some steamed or sauteed vegetables make a perfect meal for me; and three birds would probably work for the average diner. If you happen to have any leftovers (a rarity for me), pop them in the refrigerator – roasted snipe wrapped in prosciutto are awesome cold!
Ted Williams boasted a career batting average of .344 in the ballpark. It doesn’t get better than that in baseball. And if you can consistently beat that average shooting snipe in the field, you may consider yourself a legend, too.