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The Snipe - America's Forgotten Gamebird by Mel & Sandy Toponce

Snipe taken along the Willamette River in Oregon. The gun is a 16-gauge Parker VHE side–by–side. Note the pointed wings and orange tail on the snipe. These are very aerodynamic birds!

ention the word snipe to anyone and they most likely will conjure up images of two tenderfoot Boy Scouts out in the woods at night being duped by senior scouts into directing a flashlight beam into the open mouth of a gunnysack held at ground level in anticipation of capturing one of these elusive birds. Meanwhile, the senior scouts, acting as “beaters” or “drivers,” scurry about in the dark, shouting an occasional, “There goes one!” to legitimize the entire affair. Of course, the tenderfoots, who have been given specific instructions not to leave their post under any circumstances, eventually realize they have been duped and come dragging into camp hours later, only to find the perpetrators fast asleep in their tents!

But wait! The snipe, or “jacksnipe” as it is erroneously but affectionately called in America by those who pursue it, actually exists and is one of the most challenging gamebirds at which you will ever point a shotgun. (The jacksnipe is actually an Asian and European variety of snipe.)

What Is A Snipe?

The common or Wilson’s snipe (capella gallinago) is a small, brownish–colored migratory bird with buff stripes on its back and head and white markings. It has a long bill, long legs, pointed wings and a short, tawny–orange tail. It is related to the sandpiper and has a similar body shape, although with shorter legs. It is one of 17 species of snipe in the world and enjoys almost worldwide distribution. It is a frequenter of open marshes, bogs, wet meadows, wet pasture land and exposed gravel bars along rivers. When flushed, it utters a telltale “croak” or raspy “scaip” and makes off in a rapid zigzag flight.

Those of you who read our article “Woodcock – Southern Style” in the February 2007 issue of Shotgun Sports may recall the woodcock and snipe are related by virtue of both being members of the sandpiper family. The American woodcock (scolopax minor) is slightly larger and plumper than the common snipe and is buff–colored with a broadly barred crown. It is almost neck–less, with a disproportionately large head with eyes located near the top. It has rounded wings and a chunky, rotund shape. Its tail has a ruddy band near the base. When flushed from its preferred habitat of wet thickets, moist woods or brushy swamps, a woodcock springs into the air and flies away in an erratic, almost bat–like flight. Although it utters no sound through its beak upon being flushed, it creates a vibration with its wings that enables an alert hunter to locate it before actually seeing it in flight. Its favorite food is earthworms, which it finds by probing in the soft soil with its long bill. The snipe, too, probes in the mud for a few worms and crustaceans, but also picks up insects and fly larvae, which make up 80% of its diet.

Hunting The Snipe

Mel’s first experience hunting snipe occurred about 30 years ago when our close friend and shooting buddy, Kurt Rose, invited us to accompany him on a hunt in the Los Banos Wildlife Area near the city of Los Banos in central California. Kurt had been hunting snipe in this facility previously and knew where to find the birds, which tend to cluster and sometimes be difficult to locate.

We slogged through the marshes all day and fired many rounds from our small–gauge shotguns. When the day was about spent, we returned to the check station with respectable bags of snipe and a deep appreciation for the sporting qualities these splendid little gamebirds provide. Mel was hooked and never looked back.

Since that day, we have hunted snipe in California, Oregon, Michigan, North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and on the Isle of Islay in the Inner Hebrides Isles of Scotland. We enjoy the challenges they present.

Wildlife Technician Nancy Overton and Al Mastroianni

Wildlife Technician Nancy Overton and Al Mastroianni examine snipe at the check station after our hunt in the Volta Wildlife Area in California.

Don’t expect your kill average to be very high when hunting these feathered buzz–bombs. One late afternoon we were hunting with Kurt, who is a very accomplished wingshot, in a field near Dixon, California, and we blazed away at birds coming from perhaps 50 yards up then folding their wings and rocketing downward to attempt a landing. When a final tally was taken, we had fired 13 shots per bird! Another shooting buddy, Al Mastroianni, who is a marvelous shotgunner and sometimes breaks 100 straight at trap, once bagged four birds with 40 shots from a Winchester Model 42 .410 pump. The total kill for his first 24 rounds was one!

Mel’s best eight–bird limit was taken while using a Beretta .410 single–shot, and that came after firing only 13 rounds. Actually, he has accomplished that feat twice on hunts about ten years apart. The worst day? We don’t even want to talk about that! Kurt told us he once collected eight snipe with eight shots. We jokingly told him we didn’t believe him. A person can be on one day and off the next, and there is simply no explanation for it. Guess that is what makes snipe hunting the challenge it is.

Snipe often flush at extreme ranges, leaving precious little time for the gunner to mount his gun and fire. Over the last few years while using the 28 gauge, Mel bagged one bird at a paced–off 47 yards. Another was downed with the .410 at 52 yards. And the granddaddy of all shots while using the 20 gauge was 62 yards! These figures illustrate the remarkable capability of the snipe to put distance between itself and the shooter.

Another often–maddening trait of these little speedsters is the way they can remain close to the terrain during their escape flight. This makes target identification difficult, and you often have to refrain from shooting for fear of downing the protected dowitcher, which can be mistaken in flight for a snipe.

A Good Snipe Gun & Load

Although opinions vary as to what makes a good snipe gun, one of the main things for an upland hunter to bear in mind is a good woodcock gun is not necessarily a good snipe gun. Since the ranges at which snipe are bagged are generally much greater than those experienced with woodcock, short, stubby, point–and–shoot guns are out and longer–barreled, stable–swinging guns are in.

We have hunted snipe with 12, 20 and 28–gauge and .410–bore shotguns in over & under, side–by–side, pump and single–shot configurations. They all worked well under certain conditions. One conclusion our buddies and we have drawn is hunting snipe with 12 and 16–gauge guns is over–gunning the quarry. We believe the 20 gauge is the absolute largest a hunter should consider, and this gauge would be our suggestion for a first–time snipe hunter to use. We have a strong preference for the 28 gauge and .410 bore. If we had to pick a favorite? The .410, hands down.

To maximize shooting pleasure, we have come to prefer the Bornaghi load with ¾–ounce of No. 9 lead shot (where lead is permitted) in the 28 gauge and Winchester 2½" AA skeet loads of ½–ounce of No. 9 lead shot in the .410.

As to chokes, when using a delightful Rizzini Aurum over & under 28 gauge, which is as nimble as a ballerina and weighs a mere 5¾ pounds with 28" barrels, we opt for Modified choke in the first barrel and Improved Modified in the second. (This is in direct contrast to our choke selections for woodcock, which are Cylinder in the first barrel and Skeet in the second.) When using the .410, we prefer Full choke. Since snipe in open marshlands and wet pastures will flush at 35 yards or more, hunters are best advised to stay with the tighter chokes.

Where To Hunt Snipe

One of the appealing things about snipe hunting is it can be done on public wildlife areas and at very little cost. We are often able to drive right on at Volta Wildlife Area near the town of Volta, California, without a reservation or having to wait in line. Because Saturdays are usually crowded with duck hunters, we opt to hunt on Wednesdays and Sundays and plan to arrive at around 8:30 a.m., when waterfowlers are beginning to go home.

At Volta, a 3,000–acre public–use facility owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and managed by the California Department of Fish & Game, we have experienced outstanding hunting during the last several years. A word of caution is in order here, however. Due to land–management practices, a field that was good one year may not be good the next. You can speak with check–station attendant Debbie Cook or Wildlife Technician Nancy Overton upon arrival (Volta has no telephone) to discuss current conditions. Both of these ladies are well–versed on the best fields in which to hunt each year.

If you are planning to hunt the wildlife areas of Los Banos and Volta, you would be well advised to call ahead to the Los Banos Wildlife Area (209–826–0463) and speak with one of the Department of Fish & Game personnel to make certain the migrating birds have arrived from the North and check on days and hours of operation. The best time to snipe hunt at Los Banos or Volta is mid–November to late–January. We often go to sleep early on New Year’s Eve and spend New Year’s Day afield.

To hunt snipe only — not waterfowl — at Los Banos and Volta, you will need a California hunting license and California Upland Game Bird Stamp, as well as a current Harvest Information Program Stamp. There is a modest daily shooting fee (currently around $16.50 in exact change), which is paid at the check station. Contact the California Department of Fish & Game (916–227–2245 or 916–445–0411) for further information. Bring a day pack, lunch, drinks, raingear, etc.

A few words of advice. These fields can be difficult to negotiate due to the abundance of water. Because of this, we’ve come to prefer chest–high, lightweight, fly–fishing waders with wading shoes and belt instead of the heavy chest waders worn by duck hunters. In certain cases, hip boots will fill the bill nicely.

Be prepared to do a lot of walking to find pockets of birds. If you are not plenty tired at the end of the day, you have probably been hunting in the wrong place. Also, it is absolutely essential to carefully mark any fallen birds and not take your eyes off the exact spot marked, or you most surely will not recover many of your kills. Never look away to shoot at another bird, even for an instant, no matter how tempting the opportunity. Snipe blend in exceedingly well with the ground cover.

Hunting in the willows.

Hunting in the willows growing on exposed gravel bars in the Willamette River. When flushed from this type of cover, snipe spring upward like a woodcock before flying away. Sometimes the snipe flush directly from the gravel with no other cover around.

Remember, too, it is extremely important to keep your gun ready at all times. If you shoulder your gun, as many pheasant hunters do while walking across a grain field, you will never get off a shot in time to bag a fleeing snipe. Don’t forget eye protection, which is critical on public waterfowl–hunting areas. We also use electronic hearing protection, which allows us to get the jump on snipe by hearing the raspy sound they utter as they flush while simultaneously protecting our hearing from the report of the gun.

Another of our all–time favorite places to hunt snipe is along the Willamette River, which runs through the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Hunting there is done on exposed gravel bars accessed by boat during periods of receding water. The willow–covered bars often harbor good numbers of migratory snipe, offering woodcock–style hunting that is in marked contrast to the snipe hunting in marshes and bogs.

Despite the comparative lack of interest in snipe on the part of many Americans, snipe hunting is a time–honored and rich–in–lore sport in Europe. On our living room wall hangs a lovely framed print depicting two well–dressed gentlemen, replete with top hats, out in the English countryside on a snipe hunt. They are equipped with muzzleloading shotguns. We often gaze at that print, entitled “Snipe Shooting,” reveling in the wonderful mood it puts us in.

A point worth noting and a possible explanation for the indifference shown toward snipe in America is here most of these birds are taken incidental to some other type of hunt, usually waterfowl. Because of this, they are not appreciated to the same degree as those taken on a dedicated hunt. This is a shame, because waterfowl hunters often sit for hours staring from their blinds at an empty sky when a snipe–hunting experience is staring them right in the face.

Picture in your mind’s eye a duck hunter sitting in a blind on a slow day. A lone snipe flies overhead, and the bored hunter swings his 12–gauge 3½" magnum autoloader past the bird and fires. Boom! Boom! Plop! The bird falls in the pond and the hunter’s Labrador gets a chance for some exercise. “Ho–hum,” utters the hunter, “I wonder where all the ducks have gone?” The controlling words here are dedicated hunt. To enjoy snipe hunting to its fullest, one must set out for snipe — and snipe alone — and carry the appropriate smallbore gun.

On one instance in the Volta Wildlife Area we met a man and his young son who were leaving early after a hunt cut short due to the lack of ducks. The boy was not yet licensed as a hunter but was accompanying his dad afield. Their day was over and we could see the disappointment in the boy’s eyes. We asked if they had ever hunted snipe, and their response was although they had often seen snipe flying overhead, they had never considered hunting them. We offered to let them come along on our hunt, and they decided to stay a little longer and see what snipe hunting was all about.

We found birds in good numbers in a recently disked muddy field. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, and the father was successful in bagging his eight–bird limit. Needless to say, our newfound friends were hooked!

In most cases, pointing dogs are a distinct liability when hunting snipe. Since snipe will not normally hold for a pointing dog and often flush prematurely, using a dog other than a close–ranging retriever to recover downed birds is of little value. This fact most likely accounts for the lack of interest in snipe on the part of dog–loving upland hunters. On the other hand, the fact snipe hunting does not require a dog is a boon for those hunters who do not own one.

We have spent many wonderful days snipe hunting and have always had things pretty much to ourselves. In fact, we cannot recall a single instance in almost 30 years when we encountered another snipe hunter. It just doesn’t get any better than that! Wherever you live, we strongly urge you to give this highly underrated and mostly forgotten gamebird a try. There is a goldmine of challenging wingshooting out there for the taking. You may just find yourself asking the question posed in an old and once–popular song: “How long has this been going on?” Get out there and enjoy the fun!&