Before I ever shot a clay target or took a lesson, I got my early shotgun training from one of the best teachers around: the Wilson’s snipe.
I never would have fallen for the classic summer-camp “snipe hunt” practical joke (in which the victim is given a sack or pillowcase, brought into the woods at night, and told to say “Snipe!” or clack rocks together to attract the birds), because I always knew you hunted snipe with a shotgun. I remember my father coming home muddy, tired, and happy when I was very young, with four or five long-billed, brown-and-white birds in hand. Snipe were the first bird I ever limited on–and the first bird I ever doubled on, that same memorable day. Years passed before I shot another limit on snipe (I’m still looking for that second double), but it hasn’t been for lack of opportunities. Snipe have brightened duckless duck hunts and added variety to marshy pheasant hunts.
Find one snipe and you’ve usually found a bunch, yet only once in 30 years have I run into another snipe hunter in the field. Snipe hunting doesn’t require calling, decoying, or fancy dog work. It doesn’t offer the social aspect of most upland bird hunting; basically you walk around in the mud. Maybe that’s why snipe aren’t very popular gamebirds. A few times every fall, though, I go for a slog in the marshes. Sometimes the birds teach me more about shotgunning, and just as often, they teach a lesson in humility.
The snipe’s juking flight demands good fundamentals, and they give you plenty of repetitions. The limit is high–federal frameworks allow states to set daily bags as high as eight–and you burn a lot of shells to get there. There’s no better practice for upland shooting. Even better, snipe travel to where you live to give lessons: They migrate from Canada and far northern states with cold weather and are found everywhere in Alaska and the Lower 48 (Texas, Florida, and Louisiana hold especially high concentrations of wintering snipe). Take a snipe class now and you’ll ace your finals in the uplands later this fall.
A Wilson’s snipe resembles a slimmed-down version of a woodcock, its upland cousin. Ten to 12 inches high, with a long, flexible bill, a snipe probes the mud for invertebrates. Its mottled brown feathers blend perfectly into marsh grasses, and you rarely see one until it flushes with an indignant squawk, usually rendered as scaipe! A flock of snipe is called a wisp, although you usually flush them in singles and pairs. Their flight is low, swift, and erratic. (Check out thesnipehunter.com for recipes and other info.)
Snipe prefer wet grassy fields, pastures, mudflats, coastal lagoons, salt marshes, bogs, and other marshy wetland areas, so at the very least you’ll need to wear rubber boots. Hip boots or even breathable waders work better in marshy areas. You can expect to walk a lot in conditions varying from solid, wet pasture ground to boot-sucking marsh muck.
Use an open-choked upland gun–20 gauge is ideal–and light loads of No. 8 lead (where legal) or steel 7 shot. Bring lots of ammunition. A box would be the minimum; two is better.
Dogs are optional. I bring mine only because I hate to leave him home. Snipe flush readily on their own and rarely sit well for pointing dogs. A retriever can help you find downed birds. Snipe are not active cripples, but the dead ones will hit the ground and blend in immediately. If you mark their fall carefully, you will recover all the birds you shoot even without the help of a dog.
Snipe teach good shooting skills better than any other bird–or clay target–because they refuse to fly straight. Shooting at them hammers home the value of a good gun mount, tight focus on the target, and firing when the butt hits your shoulder.
When a snipe flushes, lock your eyes on the bird. Move the muzzle toward the snipe as you raise the stock to your face. If you look hard at the bird and don’t try to consciously aim the shot, your hands will automatically adjust the gun to follow the bird’s gyrations.
Trust your eye-hand coordination and shoot the instant the butt hits your shoulder. Riding a bird after the gun is mounted to make sure of the shot only increases the chances the snipe will juke out of the way, or that you will look at the muzzle to check your lead, which will stop the gun.
This shooting technique will serve you in excellent stead no matter what species of flushing game you pursue. If you can hit snipe, pheasants and quail are easy.
Snipe give bonus lessons in dove and waterfowl shooting, too. After flushing, snipe climb, fly a long way, and often circle back to the spot where they were jumped. If you stay put and wait patiently, they may give you an overhead or high crossing shot. Snipe considerately bring a pointer to class: That long beak serves as a convenient indicator of the direction the snipe is flying and the necessary lead you’ll need to make the shot.
A snipe hunt is more than a shooting lesson, and snipe are far more than mere targets. A walk in the mud with a pocketful of shells and snipe rising in front of you isn’t practice for the real thing…it is the real thing.