That Sir, Is a Snipe
By Upper Lisle
I killed my first snipe nearly 31 years ago, October 21, 1976, to be exact. It was a Thursday afternoon, according to my shooting journal, and I was hunting a favorite grouse and woodcock cover with my wonderful German shorthaired pointer, Hannah. To say simply that she pointed the bird and I shot it would grossly understate the experience and its lasting impact more than three decades later.
Grouse, woodcock and pheasants are our upland game birds in the south-central region of Upstate New York. Quail, chukars and Huns are preserve-only birds around here, and snipe encounters are incidental and few and far between.
For example, the 2006 snipe season opened on September 1 and closed on November 9. I saw just seven birds during the entire season and one more northing migrant in March 2007. I had a longish shot at just one of the autumn birds and missed it, of course, with both barrels. The rest of the birds flushed wild and far and offered no shots.
So few birds and so little wing-shooting opportunity; yet the common snipe commands an uncommon amount of my time and attention. I seek its company in the field, on the printed page and in cyber space and I proselytize among the naysayers, most of whom ignore the bird, make bad jokes and miss the point.
I encountered a wildfowler a couple of Septembers ago who was taking advantage of our early goose season to give his young retriever some real-world field experience. Seeing me walking the edge of a marsh, he assumed I was on a similar mission. Then he noticed my little 28-ga. double gun and snorted, "You don't hunt Canadas with that, do you?"
"I'm not after geese," I replied. "I'm hunting snipe."
"Snipe," he laughed. "Where's your burlap sack?"
I ran into the same goose hunter coming out of the marsh later that morning. He was empty-handed, but I was lucky enough to have scratched down a single, wild-flushing bird. Carefully removing this trophy from my game bag, I smoothed its feathers, and then displayed it in the palm of my hand. "That, sir, is a snipe," I said, "and the shooting is as sporty as it gets."
Smiling as I walked back to the car, I gave thanks, as I always do, to that wet, blustery October Thursday in 1976. That's when my largely unrequited affair with snipe really began.
According to my journal, Upstate New York had been buffeted by heavy rainstorms and strong winds all that week. It was late on a wet and windy afternoon when Hannah and I entered a usually reliable woodcock cover near the Pennsylvania border. With little more than an hour to hunt, we had high hopes of encountering flight birds driven south by the storms.
While I routinely hunted with a light, open-choked, 20-ga. side-by-side, I was carrying a much heavier 12-ga. Ithaca Model 51autoloader that afternoon. This selection was made in anticipation of using the new and unfamiliar gun during an upcoming Delaware goose hunt. More about that weapon later; for now it's enough to know that compared to the light double it felt more like an awkward machine than an upland bird gun.
Always soggy, thanks to a network of underground springs that veined the body of our cover, the mixed birch and popple stand was now pooled with standing water. Skirting the really wet stuff, we hunted west to east out of habit, but there was no late-afternoon sun at our backs that Thursday.
Clouds hung low on the hilltops, making it harder than usual to see tell-tale woodcock splash and the much larger cow pies that dotted the fringe cover. The latter were deposited by renegades from a small dairy herd that sometimes wandered through breaks in a wire fence bordering the northern edge of our cover. Their pasture also offered brief sanctuary to a few elderly horses with one-way tickets to a nearby rendering plant. Hence, the place was known to us bird hunters as The Last Chance Ranch.
Fresh splash was everywhere on our side of the fence, promising an hour of pointed woodcock and an Epicurean treat to follow. In fact, I was mentally skipping woodcock breasts through a sizzling skillet of butter, bourbon and beach plum jelly when Hannah started making game near the fence line. Casting, circling and recasting, she was more tentative than usual, body language that I attributed to the presence of jumpy flight birds. Then she locked up on a solid point, with her stub tail rigid and her head held high.
I had been woolgathering and was about 50 yards behind Hannah, so I quickstepped toward her point. The bird was in no mood to wait, however, and it flushed when I was still 35-40 yards from the dog. It was a longish but not unreasonable shot for a 12-ga. shotgun and a modified choke. I swung on the whiffling bird and pulled the trigger just as a small window was about to close.
Even before the shot I was processing emerging awareness that the bird neither flew nor sounded exactly like a woodcock. Instead of a twitter, I heard a scaip, and its evasive tactics were downright unnerving. "Holy schnikes (or words to that effect), that's a snipe!" I said as the bird fell dead and Hannah released to retrieve.
When Hannah reached the snipe, she snatched the bird up and immediately dropped it. My usually eager retriever was puzzled and uncertain. "Now what have you gotten me into?" she seemed to be saying. With coaxing, she eventually delivered the bird to hand, and I recognized the snipe immediately, having seen them while bird watching on Cape Cod and during down time in assorted goose pits and duck blinds along the Atlantic Flyway.
I had admired snipe aeronautics from those vantage points, and capella gallinago was already in my wing-shooting imagination. But now with a bird in hand snipe were in my blood as well, and there they have stayed for the past 31 years. September is reserved for snipe hunting; that's when they are my specific focal point. Because we encounter so few of them here, snipe become "incidental" after the grouse, woodcock and pheasant seasons open in October. But even then I'm always on the look out for snipe.
I've killed a few birds over three decades and missed a great many more. Given their relative scarcity here, actually shooting snipe is much less the point than is simply pursuing them in the meadows and marshes, river flats and creek bottoms I eagerly prowl. I know of no other snipe hunters in these parts, but that's all right. Bird hunting with a dog is never a solitary pursuit. And whether I shoot a snipe or not, each outing is a voyage of discovery and each flush is a treasure to be stored in memory.
Someday, I tell myself, I'm going to hunt where there are actual wisps of snipe and hunters who appreciate them. In the meantime, this will do.
Now about that Ithaca Model 51. Although I'm told that some trap shooters speak highly of them, I thought it was a dreadful gun, graceless and unreliable. Model 51s were manufactured at a time when the Ithaca Gun Co. was in decline, and I was glad to be rid of mine. I took it to Delaware just once and was so frustrated by its awkward, undependable nature that I traded it for a 12-ga. Remington 870 Wingmaster as soon as I got back. The now battered 870 pump is a gun I love and still use for waterfowl nearly 30 years later.
A duck hunting friend was not so lucky. He bought a Model 51 at about the same time I did, and although the gun routinely broke his heart he remained stubbornly loyal to Ithaca for several seasons thereafter. With ducks or geese circling overhead, literally begging to be invited into our decoy spreads, the gun malfunctioned with maddening regularity. He might as well have been shooting a single-shot; at least then there would be no expectation of a second or third shot.
The last time I saw that gun we were hunkered in a camouflaged canoe, guarding decoys on central New York's Otselic River. The duck action was steady, and I already had two mallards on the water when I heard the by-now familiar bang-click of the Model 51. For a heartbeat there was silence. Then with a great oath my friend stood up in the bow, raised the shotgun over his head and howled, "You whore!"
I never saw that gun again.
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