Truth be told, the only two birds Mississippi hunters really care about are doves and ducks. But what if you could combine the fast-paced action of dove hunting with the watery environment that accompanies duck hunting? What if there were a way to extend your hunting opportunities on that high-dollar duck lease, or get out on coveted public land and not be subject to the draw system and elbow-to-elbow crowds?
Well, there is.
There is a fast-flying, hard-to-hit, tasty little bird that frequents the marshes and flooded fields throughout the Magnolia State that very few hunters even give the time of day. The hunting season opens in November and runs through the end of February and the limit is eight per day. The chances are very high that if you should choose to take to the field after this species, you will be alone and have vast amounts of acreage all to yourself.
You will rarely be turned down if you ask for permission to hunt this bird on private land. Most of the time you will be laughed at when you tell people you are hunting them. You will almost certainly hear jokes and you will surely be asked, "Can you eat them?"
Well let me tell you, you can eat them indeed and they are fine table fare. Of the many species of shorebirds in North America, only two of them can be legally hunted under the provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. One is the woodcock. The other is the snipe, or Wilson's snipe as listed in the Sibley guide to birds. Gallinago delicata is the scientific name, and this little bird has a wingspan of approximately 18 inches and weighs in at just under 4 ounces.
You will rarely see them in large flocks, but more typically in small scattered groups of seldom more than a couple dozen birds. They frequent freshwater pond margins and shallow flooded areas of open fields where they probe the wet soil for prey items. Superbly camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings of dark soil and dead grasses, you will usually see them as they flush right before you and fly away.
A snipe story
"Christmas time often conjures the thoughts of relaxing by a warm fire, and drinking a big mug of hot chocolate," said Nate Young from Memphis. "My last Christmas Eve was spent slightly differently.
"After a fantastic duck hunt with my seemingly long lost brother, and a big breakfast, the next undertaking on that day was a quest for snipe with my recently acquired 20-gauge over/under. My dad and brother chose to relax inside and hold with the traditional Christmas Eve responsibilities as opposed to trudging through ankle-deep muck on an unproven mission for a flighty quarry.
"With the recent rain, a nearby field with a small standing corn crop next to a wide open mud flat had now accumulated a couple inches of water, making it ideal for snipe. That is where I set out with my lab, my new gun and a box of No. 7 steel.
"Having low expectations, I simply put the shells in various pockets of my waxed cotton overalls, not even thinking of where I would put the snipe if I actually killed any. As we approached the field edge, we quickly jumped a couple snipe sitting on the mud flat 40 yards from us, and well out of range by the time I could shoulder my gun. It was a good sign, though.
"Taking the first steps into water bordering the corn, I was greeted by a handful of snipe getting up out of the corn. I missed the first shot, but dropped one with the top barrel. My lab was on it immediately, so I crouched back down anticipating the inevitable circling of the group I had flushed. As expected, they passed right overhead, resulting in another bird down. Having no place to put the birds, I simply held them between my fingers in my left hand. Quickly however, I had five birds down, and more shells burned than I care to admit. This left one of my pockets open to fit four of the birds.
"My dog and I continued walking the muddy edge with the same tactic of flushing and then crouching. Perhaps the only thing a snipe does that makes them a viable bird to hunt is their willingness to circle back over their original point where they were flushed. Counting on being able to shoot more than a couple birds in a hunt simply off their initial flush would be unreliable at best.
"Limits of snipe are rare most of the time in a vast majority of Mississippi. Weather changes seem to bring influxes of birds, just like with ducks. These are the times when it makes a snipe hunt worth all the effort. In other times, you may be lucky to jump a half dozen. On that particular morning, that small field with about 1 acre of water on it, held a couple hundred snipe. In less than 45 minutes, I had my limit of eight, and had one heck of a workout making my way though that thick, sticky mud."
Tricks of the trade
As Young mentioned, snipe have a peculiar habit of flushing then circling back to the spot from where they flushed. It is this "fault," if they have one, that the hunter can capitalize on to get the upper hand. You might resist the urge to flock shoot a group of flushing snipe in hopes that you can get off multiple shots at single birds as they circle back to land. They want to come back to that same spot they just left in order to feed.
Another trick I use when hunting snipe is listening for their screeching alarm call. Often times, other shorebirds like dowitchers will be feeding on the same mud flats as the snipe. To the untrained eye, these two species look very similar, as do a few other shorebirds. It's the alarm call of the snipe that cannot be mistaken for any other shorebird that I've heard. This will alert you to the approaching snipe as it circles back around after the flush.
"To the uninitiated, snipe look a lot like long-billed dowitchers or greater yellowlegs," said Ed Penny, Chief of Wildlife for the MDWFP. "Positive ID prior to shooting is important."
Young also mentioned using a retriever when snipe hunting. This is a very good idea. If there ever were a perfect camo cloak for an animal, the snipe has it. Many times I have shot a snipe, watched it fall and walked around for five or 10 minutes before finally spotting the dead bird right at my feet. It is amazing how well they blend in with dark clay soil and dead grass. A retriever will enable you to recover more downed birds, especially those in thick patches of vegetation.
In the winter of 2011, I had a particular duck hole that had been planted in rice. After the season I drained the water to accommodate tree planters that were to arrive in February to plant seedling cypress trees. With a dense mat of rice straw blanketing the ground and only a couple of inches of water covering the field, the snipe were drawn to it in droves.
The hunting was particularly intense when sub-freezing temperatures arrived and locked up most of the sheet water in surrounding fields. As the water drained out of my pond, it created an area of open, flowing water near the drain, and the snipe were stacked in there on top of each other. This area provided several days of excellent hunting until warmer temperatures arrived and then the snipe spread out to less-pressured areas.
Several of us spread out down the length of the pond as if we were on a dove hunt and as one hunter flushed the snipe, the next hunter down the line would take a shot at the passing birds.
Even when hunting alone, the snipe usually returned to their favorite spot by the drain if the hunter was patient for a half-hour or so. Northern harriers, or marsh hawks, routinely patrolled the edge of the pond looking for lunch, and they always seemed to flush snipe in my direction.
"Wildlife management areas such as Howard Miller, Mahannah, Muscadine Farms and O'Keefe offer quality snipe hunting during the late season after waterfowl seasons have closed," said Houston Havens, conservation resources biologist with the MDWFP Waterfowl Program. "As wetland impoundments are drawn down, mudflats are exposed, creating excellent foraging habitat for snipe and other shorebirds."
Mahannah WMA near Vicksburg, Muscadine WMA near Greenville, Howard Miller WMA near Mayersville and O'Keefe WMA near Lambert all offer vast open fields managed for waterfowl hunting. Moist soil plants and agricultural crops flooded very shallow are prime snipe hunting habitats. Some of these areas are draw-only for waterfowl hunting, so during the waterfowl season, only those drawn for waterfowl hunts are allowed to hunt snipe. However, after waterfowl season closes, anyone can hunt these areas. Check the WMA regulations at mdwfp.com for permit requirements and other regulations, especially those concerning toxic shot.
Not much gear is needed to become a snipe hunter. A good pair of knee or hip boots, a game vest and a handful of No. 7.5 or 8 shot is all that you need. OK, maybe a couple boxes of ammunition because snipe present very challenging shots! If you thought doves were masters at aerial trickery, they will look like straight-line flyers compared to the acrobatic snipe.
A hunter who brings home an eight-bird limit of snipe and has any shells left out of a box of ammunition is a skilled marksman.