Six armed men in line abreast formation headed across a soggy pasture to search for an elusive quarry.
Without warning, a tiny screeching object exploded from beneath a clump of weeds almost at the feet of one man. It hurtled itself toward another man and zipped along in erratic flight screaming like a banshee on fire.
With little time to react, the camo-clad man turned and fired instinctively three times without effect. Showing no signs of injury, the creature flashed past another man and landed about 100 yards away.
“I saw where he went down,” said Wayne Jenkins, an avid snipe hunter. “That’s the great thing about snipe. They fly fast and furious, but they don’t usually fly very far. We can kick him up again for another chance.”
Because of a legendary practical joke, many people refuse to believe that such a bird as a snipe even exists. Most people have heard about “snipe hunts.” A “snipe hunt” of legend typically occurs when someone wants to play a trick on a rather dim-witted or gullible and often inebriated acquaintance.
Typically fueled by copious quantities of adult beverages, a group of “sportsmen” convinces a neophyte outdoorsman to go to some remote location at night. The jokesters tell the intended victim to hold a sack and stand in the woods making strange sounds to call the snipe. The perpetrators of the ruse promise to beat the bushes to flush the snipe so that their victim, er, hunting partner, can catch the creatures in the sack. Instead, the pranksters get in their vehicles and leave the poor individual stranded in the dark and literally holding the bag.
Real snipe hunting, for an actual live gamebird with loaded firearms as opposed to “loaded” pranksters, looks nothing like the snipe hunting of legend. In the United States, people hunt common snipe, also called Wilson’s snipe. Many people incorrectly refer to the birds as a “jack snipe,” a small, rare shorebird cousin native to the British Isles.
One of 81 sandpiper species, the largest family of shorebirds, common snipe sport relatively long wings, short tails and long probing bills like woodcock. Longer and more streamlined than woodcock, snipe grow mottled and striped feathers with flecks of brown, black and buff camouflage compared to the rich chestnut brown of woodcock.
Like their woodcock cousins, snipe use their extremely long, flexible bills to probe soft mud for food. With incredibly sensitive tips on their bills, the birds can locate food underground just by feel. These wading birds eat insects, worms, small mollusks, grubs, snails, small crustaceans or other tiny creatures.
Unlike woodcock, which prefer thickly wooded swamps and forested bottomlands, snipe seek open country such as rice fields and marshes. Although they prefer fresh to brackish marshes, they visit salt marshes.
Migratory and abundant, snipe breed in Canada and the northern United States. Each fall, these birds head south and descend upon marshes and damp fields along the Gulf Coast. They begin arriving on the Gulf Coast by mid-October and remain until April. Sportsmen might not see a bird one day, but a severe cold front can push thousands of snipe south to Texas by the next day.
In Texas, most snipe congregate in the freshwater marshes and river deltas along the coast. However, snipe do venture far inland and might appear almost anywhere in the Lone Star State where they can find soft soil and food.
Away from the coast, snipe can thrive in meadows, cow pastures, moist soil units, reedy lake shorelines, river sandbars, bogs, fallow fields, soggy pastures, damp agricultural lands or any other mushy spots. Unlike ducks, which like standing water, snipe prefer dampness rather than wetness and head to the soft, muddy shorelines of major water bodies.
The crop fields between Austin, Victoria and Houston can hold abundant snipe. Away from the coastal plain, the prairies between Waco and the Red River traditionally hold numerous birds every winter. In the arid country of central to West Texas and up to the Panhandle, snipe might even occasionally appear probing the mud around reservoirs, streams, stock tanks or farm pounds.
Swift and erratic fliers, snipe challenge even the best wing shots. Knocking down these diminutive feathered rockets doesn’t require heavy firepower. One or two pellets could bring a bird down. However, making those pellets land in the right place requires considerable skill. Some might say luck. In a good area, sportsmen can burn up a lot of ammunition before bagging a daily limit of eight snipe.
Snipe fly so erratically that the word “sniper,” describing a military marksman, originated with British sportsmen hunting jacksnipe. With the guns available before the 20th century, only the best shots could hit these unpredictable, swift fliers. Shooters who could consistently hit these little speedsters earned the title “snipers.”
Although offering extremely challenging sport, these tiny shorebirds generally don’t attract much attention. Most snipe probably fall to sportsmen pursuing other game than people intentionally hunting them. Rabbit, quail or dove hunters might occasionally kick them up in soggy fields or wet pastures.
More snipe probably fall to coastal waterfowl hunters as bonus game than anyone actually targeting the long-billed birds. Any place that might attract ducks or geese would also appeal to snipe. Waterfowlers frequently see snipe flying over their blinds as they hunker down in the marshes or rice fields waiting for ducks or geese to appear. Sometimes, flocks of zooming snipe briefly fool waterfowlers into thinking teal buzzed them, until they see their long bills.
Quite often, hunters grow bored watching empty skies waiting for ducks or geese to appear. On good days, sportsmen might bag a quick limit of waterfowl, but don’t want to head home so early. On those days, waterfowlers might begin walking the marshes or fields to kick up snipe. Many a snipe fell to a full choke load of Number 4 or BB-sized steel, although no one would recommend those shot sizes for hunting these diminutive birds.
People who intentionally target snipe should bring Number 7.5 or 8 lead shot, where legal, and shoot an improved cylinder or open choke. Not classified as waterfowl, snipe do not fall under the federal non-toxic shot rules. However, some properties, particularly federal refuges, might stipulate the use of non-toxic shot for all game species. If so, use Number 6 or 7.5 steel – and bring lots of it. Snipe make a habit of humbling even outstanding wing shooters.
To hunt snipe, sportsmen don’t need to arrive before dawn or set out hundreds of decoys like waterfowlers, although old market hunters did use wooden shorebird decoys. In fact, snipe hunters don’t need much elaborate equipment at all. Just a good scattergun, boots and plenty of ammunition would suffice. In the rice fields, marshes and wet prairies of Texas, many people might hunt ducks in the morning, return to the lodge for lunch and a nap. Then, head out that afternoon to walk the same fields where they hunted that morning kicking up snipe.
When hunting snipe, sportsmen can work in teams. Spread out through a field or marsh in a line at safe intervals and walk to flush birds from thick cover. A snipe often freezes in a grass clump, flushing only at the last second right before someone steps on it. Startled snipe let out a distinctive, yet indescribable raspy scream. Few who hear the sound of snipe exploding in their faces could possibly forget the experience. Just one or two such encounters could turn a normal hunter into a snipe addict for life.
When flushed, snipe zigzag over the grass tops with rapidly beating wings pushing them at high speed, but not for long. Snipe routinely fly just long enough to escape danger and frequently land again in the same field or section of marsh. Sometimes, they land behind the hunter, perhaps where they flushed previously. Hunters who mark snipe landing sites can keep jumping the birds several times.
Sometimes, hunters split into two groups. One group skirts around the hunting area, takes up positions at the opposite end and waits. The other group pushes toward the first group as long as safety permits. The driving party might take shots at flushing birds. The stationary hunters may fire at birds driven in their direction. Sometimes, hunters in a wide plowed field, cow pasture or extensive marsh can keep snipe moving for hours.
Flushing dogs can help on a snipe hunt; even goofy partially trained ones, as long as they stay fairly close to the sportsmen. Wide-ranging dogs might jump snipe well out of range. A good retriever may find more birds in thick grass. With outstanding marsh camouflage, these buff-colored little birds can fall into thick grass and easily disappear almost at the feet of a hunter.
Since people don’t need much equipment or finesse to bag birds, hunting snipe makes a great way to introduce children to wing shooting. In a good area, the youngsters see plenty of action and can fire their guns frequently. If they can learn to hit snipe, they can hit anything that flies. On a highly mobile, hunt, they can walk, talk and don’t need to sit still or quiet for long periods. People could even work over a part of a field, head back to the truck or boat to take a break and then go back out hunting again.
In Texas, sportsmen can hunt snipe from Oct. 29, 2016, to Feb. 12, 2017, this season. Most snipe hunting takes place in conjunction with waterfowl seasons, but after those seasons end, sportsmen might find themselves alone on coastal prairies, marshes or wet agricultural fields surrounded by thousands of snipe.
—story by John N. Felsher