Want to go on a snipe hunt? Many hear that and imagine wandering on a dark, moonless night, carrying a burlap sack and a flashlight to the sounds of laughter.
Few people know the snipe, the very real gamebird, intimately, and even fewer have spent a morning in the marsh specifically seeking this fascinating little mystery of wetland evolution. What wingshooters need to know initially about the snipe is that if they’re not spending at least a day or two hunting this little brown rocket, they’re missing out on some of the greatest bird hunting available in the United States, bar none.
Finding snipe in sufficient numbers is a process of where and when. A bird of the wetlands, snipe are attracted to moist, soggy soils where they can easily find any number of the small invertebrates and worms upon which they regularly feed. Low-lying, damp harvested cornfields are a favorite habit for snipe, as are soggy pasture fields and open, but likewise damp grasslands. Snipe, like their cousin, the woodcock, are short-legged former shorebirds that shy away from areas of heavy ground-level brush and cover, and instead prefer open areas where they can use their long bills to probe the soft, wet soil for food, and their eyes to constantly search their surroundings for danger.
This might be a good point at which to mention snipe identification. Typical snipe habitat is home to dozens of non-game bird species, some of which can, to the novice, at first appear to be snipe. A little smaller than a robin, snipe somewhat resemble ruffed grouse or bobwhite quail in their browns, tans, and white coloration. A long bill and short legs set them apart from these familiar upland favorites; however, such qualifiers don’t differentiate them from the many non-game wetland bird species that share a similar environment. Two characteristics that do make identifying snipe easy are their corkscrewing, twisting style of flying, and the grating “Scraipe!!” call they make at the flush. Both are readily recognizable, and identification becomes immediate after only a handful of such encounters.
The “when” portion of the snipe equation is usually the most difficult to predict. In eastern Iowa where we make our home, snipe migrations traditionally begin in mid-October, with peaks around Halloween or the first week of November. This isn’t to say, however, that some snipe can’t be found earlier in the season. Again using Iowa as an example, the snipe season begins in early September; with some diligent looking, a hunter can find some small pockets of birds in and around traditional wetland areas commonly associated with waterfowling.
Of the three variables, “how” is probably the most easily answered question. Although I have talked with some Southern snipe hunters who have successfully decoyed snipe into shooting range, the vast majority of snipe shooting is done in a “walk ‘em up” style of hunting. Owners of two black labs, my wife, Julie, and I include our dogs in each and every snipe hunt, and have found the little birds to be excellent training tools.
Firearms and ammunition requirements for the successful snipe hunter are essentially a matter of personal preference. Both Julie and I shoot Remington Model 11-87 autoloading 12s filled with three one-ounce loads of Winchester steel #7s. I choose steel for two reasons. One, the Remingtons provide a fast load of small shot that patterns very well in both of the 11-87s, and two, the steel allows us to include smaller ducks such as teal or woodies in the bag if we’re given the opportunity. Light over/unders or side-by-sides in 12-gauge or 20 will also work well.
And last but not least, there’s the eating part of the snipe hunting adventure. Dark-meated birds due to their long-distance migratory ways, snipe provide an excellent, rich culinary experience. Although we have experimented with different ones, our favorite snipe recipe involves breasting the birds in much the same way as we do doves. The entire bone-in breast is then rinsed, seasoned with salt and pepper, and lightly dusted with flour. Several breasts are then browned in bacon grease and set aside to drain. Once dry, the breasts are layered in a Dutch oven or baking dish over a bed of rice and broccoli. Some sliced Vadalia onions and a can of cream of mushroom soup complete the recipe. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 45 minutes to one hour.
So whether it’s on the wing or on the table, there’s really only one word for snipe, and that’s fantastic.
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