Snipe Hunting Defined
By Nick Johnson
Its dark out, you have your burlap sack and are prepared to make a series of loud, unnecessary vocalizations in hopes of luring the elusive snipe of lore you were sent out to capture. Your hoots and hollers shatter the dark silence of the forest, but no snipe shows. The only sounds are the rapid retreat of woodland creatures making a hasty exit and the faint but generous laughter of friends and family, overjoyed with their successful trickery. Jokes on you!
Yes, going on a snipe hunt is a fabled joke to play on the young and gullible, but in fact, the snipe IS a real creature. A migratory bird fairly common throughout much of North America, they are a small, speedy animal that can challenge even the best wingshooters as they dip and meander in their erradic flight. Not to mention they make fantastic table fare.
Hunting snipe often mimics the same strategies employed for pheasants and other upland game species with a series of walking, blocking and even dog work. One could say that snipe hunting is a combination of jump shooting ducks, grouse hunting and pheasant hunting rolled into one as far as tactics and location goes. Many do not hunt snipe though. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve talked to that have ever pursued snipe and it is truly an untapped hunting opportunity in Iowa.
Snipe are a cautious bird that can be found along marshy grasslands, damp forest edges and drainage ditches across Iowa. Pheasant hunters often unknowingly encounter snipe when hunting the edges of creeks and field drainages and duck hunters see them more frequently when entering or leaving the local duck marsh. Their morphology and color is similar to that of a Woodcock, yet they are smaller and less robust in shape. Long, flexible bills denote their feeding habits which largely include probing wet soils for worms, grubs and other invertebrates.
Snipe begin to migrate south in the fall when the first chills from the far north breathe down upon us. Their migrations patterns are similar to that of Blue Winged teal, leaving the summer nesting grounds around mid to late September, stopping along the way and finally ending up along the southern coasts of the U.S. and even Central America. Snipe can tolerate colder weather but usually when the sheet water and smaller marshes start to freeze up most of the snipe are generally gone.
Their cryptic coloration enables them to virtually disappear in the environment and it is somewhat rare for a hunter to spot a snipe before flushing it. Snipe are typically easy to flush and tend to hold tight to cover under most circumstances. They often make a scratchy “scaip…scaip” sound when flushed which is their version of an alarm call and a dead giveaway to a hunter that he or she has just jumped a snipe.
Although snipe are a unique bird, they shouldn’t be confused with other species they may resemble. Greater Yellow Legs, Sandpipers, Godwits, Willets and Dowitchers all have a similar body shape and long bills and can be found around some of the same shallow water habitats in the fall. These other species are protected and the local CO wouldn’t be too happy with you if any were found in possession. Most of these species though, frequent the shorelines of lakes and rivers and it would be uncommon for a snipe hunter to encounter them in classic snipe habitat.
Still, it pays to know what these species look like to accurately identify them in contrast to a snipe.
Many of you reading this may already know the rules and regulations involved in hunting snipe, but for those that do not, here is a brief overview. Since snipe are considered a migratory game species, the use of non-toxic shot such as steel is required. Just like waterfowl, hunters may not have lead shot in possession while hunting snipe. Season dates typically run from the beginning of September through the end of November but one must check the exact dates of the present year’s regulations to be accurate.
Shooting hours for snipe are one half hour before sunrise to sunset. The daily bag limit on snipe is eight per hunter. Orange clothing is not required but if snipe hunting in a group, it may not be a bad idea to wear an orange vest or cap especially when pushing through taller grasses, cattails and heavy cover. An orange garment will not spook snipe easily like it may other species of migratory game.
Hunters 16 years old and older must not only have a general hunting license, but also pay the migratory bird hunting fee. Hunters are not required to buy a Federal Waterfowl stamp to hunt snipe.
Note: Woodcock shooting hours are sunrise to sunset and Woodcock are infrequently encountered by snipe hunters and look very similar to snipe. Be aware of what you flush!
By now you may realize, snipe are most commonly found in habitat with a nearby water source. The edges of grass around a marsh with damp soils are by far the best places to look first. Shorter grasses will hold more snipe than tall grass as the birds can more easily feed, move about and spot danger. Farm drainage ditches, swampy forest edges and damp river bottoms with abundant grasses will hold snipe too.
Snipe also frequent the emergent aquatic vegetation along the shores of marshes and shallow lakes. I have personally shot snipe flushed from cattails while duck hunting that were rooted in a foot of water. Cattail mats that have been laid over, although extremely tough to walk through, can be good places as well. When conditions are dry, snipe will naturally be found in close proximity to a marshy water source. Immediately after, and for a few days following a rain event, snipe will venture farther into the surrounding grasses and foliage to feed as the freshly dampened soils enable them to probe their bills more easily into the ground in search of food.
Snipe hunting is not all that different from hunting upland game as far as strategy goes. You’re objective, or the groups’ objective is to push areas in hopes of flushing birds. When hunting in heavier cover it may be beneficial to hunt behind a dog. In heavy cover, snipe will sometimes stay put rather than flee by flying. A dog in this instance may help dig out and flush some of these stubborn birds.
The use of blockers may also be beneficial in some scenarios. Snipe don’t often fly very far when kicked up and they typically return to the same general location, if not shot, after the danger has passed. They will even circle the area for a brief period, giving those who are blocking a chance to take them as they pass by. Just like pheasants, snipe will also run from a hunter if they can to escape. By posting hunters along the marsh edge, you are naturally impeding a would-be escapee from fleeing on foot. Blockers also aid when snipe are jumpy and flush out of range of the pushers.
This really isn’t much of a topic for discussion as gear and clothing are basically up to the user’s discretion but I will make note of one piece of clothing that you should never be without and that is a good pair of waterproof boots or hip waders. Since many of the locations snipe are found incorporate water to some degree, a pair of waterproof footwear is imperative to keeping your tootsies dry and comfortable. Nobody likes to walk any sort of distance with soggy feet.
The other thing I would like to touch on would be the shotshells you fire from your gun. Snipe are a small bird in any respect and a shot size larger than #6 is just unnecessary. Steel trap loads are perfect for snipe and the greater number of pellets in the smaller shot sizes makes hitting these speed demons a little easier.
Combo The Hunt
Just like kicking up snipe in the pursuit of other species, it often caps off the day for a snipe hunter to bring home more than the intended game. One can even hunt waterfowl in the morning and then walk a few laps through the edge of the marsh after the morning flight subsides and add a few snipe to the bag. For me, there is no better day afield chasing snipe than bringing home a brace of teal, snipe and the occasional pheasant, slow roasted with vegetables and glazed with a savory cranberry chutney.
Aside from shooting ducks, snipe hunters also have the opportunity to shoot additional species such as rails and coots. Yes, coots; don’t turn your nose away just yet. Coots get a bad rap as being a trashy bird and of poor table quality but let me be real honest, they taste as good or better than some duck species. A coot’s primary forage is aquatic vegetation. What does a Canvasback duck eat?…….Aquatic vegetation, and they are said to be one of the finest eating ducks there is.
Rails are a small cousin to the coot and historically hard to flush. Hunters often hear them but a rail is a somewhat reclusive bird that hides among thick emergent aquatic vegetation, especially cattails. When flushed, rails are not a hard target to hit. They often fly very short distances at a slow pace.
What about doves? For you waterfowl hunters, how many times have you observed doves in the morning and evening trading back and forth around marshes and wet field areas? My guess is about every time you have been out earlier in the year. Doves can make a wonderful and delicious addition to a snipe hunters bag, especially if the snipe hunting has been slow. The same shotshells you acquired to hunt snipe will additionally work well for not only dove, but teal, rail, coot and close range pheasants. Just be sure if you intend to shoot a duck to have the federal stamp purchased and signed and in your possession.
Well there you have it. The mythical creature you grew up knowing as a joke is actually a real bird, with a real season, presenting hunters with a fun and challenging opportunity in Iowa. Most hunters, especially the upland game lovers, likely have all of the required equipment to hunt snipe, and the whole idea of hunting snipe is just another fun activity for those looking to try a new species. Snipe may be small but they make up for it in their sporting qualities and table fare. When September rolls around this year I hope to see a few of you out in the field! Happy hunting.