Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The last day of the season, thoughts on respect and wonder and SCAIP!... dang, missed 'im!

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Last Sunday, I hunted the last day of California's seasons for waterfowl, snipe, quail, squirrels, and rabbits. My cousin met me at my parents' house down in the Delta, and we hit a friend's property looking, first, for geese. When that didn't pan out, we lit out for snipe.

Gallinago gallinago, the common snipe, is the only shorebird still legal to hunt in California, and it provides an experience unlike any other. A small, beautiful, wily bird, snipe make for a tough, but exciting hunt. Their environs - flat, open bogs, peat marsh, flooded harvested fields - prove deceptively difficult to traverse, and the open expanse of their habitat makes long shots the norm. Their mottled feathers provide perfect camouflage, and without their tell-tale scaip! sound upon flushing, they can be difficult to identify among other shorebirds.

However, it is snipe's ability to fly that makes this bird one of the most challenging prey in hunting.

Snipe can fly. Imagine hunting quail that flush at 30 yards, immediately flying as fast as an already-shot-at dove. Snipe lift off of the ground with a jump, zigzag down an invisible snowboard half-pipe about two to five feet off the ground, and then, suddenly, hit the afterburners and push straight up, like an F-15 on a short runway. Once into the sky, they circle for a few minutes, then attempt to alight as far from you as possible, but often still in the same field or bog.

Typically, snipe flush in singles - if more than one jumps at the same time, it is usually a coincidence. If the field has more than a few snipe, once they are airborne, they tend to group up into small flocks or pairs, circle a while, swing down at just less than the speed of sound, and drop into a landing at such a velocity, that one half-expects to see a small flock of snipe legs sticking out of the ground, their beaks buried into the mud.

Add to their aerobatics the fact that snipe are native to my home and are effectively a marginal prey species - most people don't believe they exist, much less actually try to identify and hunt them - snipe are just about my favorite game.

Two weekends back, after frightening a good number of geese with my impersonation of a speck with whooping cough, I decided to wonder over where I'd heard a snipe flush earlier that morning. As I stepped out into the field, I saw two shorebird species take off in two large flocks. One flock was killdeer, an easily recognizable plover. The other looked like a brownish bird, and I knew a couple of snipe were in there with them; I'd heard 'em call out. I watched that flock, trying to pick out the snipe, but they all looked so similar... they banked in, low and fast, and passed me at about 25 yards... they actually all looked like snipe... but in a flock of perhaps 60 birds?

I watched them land in the far end of the field. As I started towards them, they kicked up, and you could have knocked me over with a feather. They were all snipe! I hunted that field for about 45 minutes, trying to figure out how to hunt so many birds. I took two before heading home for a baby shower (that's right).

So Sunday looked like we'd at least get some shooting in this field. As we walked out, we were met by dozens and dozens of birds. In this 10-acre check, maybe 200 snipe flushed, and the shooting quickly started. Most of the birds were passing by Kevin, but I took a couple of shots, and got one bird.

When you shoot a snipe, you have to completely block out all other snipe flying, look straight at the spot it landed, and get there fast. Their camouflage is near-perfect, their boggy habitats are only illusions of flatness, and the muck and water can swallow up a small bird. Once in hand, I looked up, and here came a big flock, passing left-to-right. Kevin had shot at these birds, and so they were really ripping, but I raised, and with a lucky shot, got my first Scotch double (two birds in one shot). My heart jumped from elation to despair, ack! Which bird do I follow?!? I screwed up big-time, and split the difference.

I found one bird, but the second was lost forever.

While looking for it, I noticed a man walking up with a yellow lab. This being private property, and a friend's, I immediately walked over to him. He called out, "Do you have permission to hunt on here?" I said yes, named the owner, and mentioned that I'd hunted here my whole life.

He asked what all the shooting was about, and I said snipe. He repeated it to himself, with an "ah", and then told me he'd gotten permission to hunt, and he had a goose setup a few hundred yards away. I told him I was sorry to have been so close (it was foggy), and that we'd bug out in a couple of minutes.

I felt bad; I'd always had permission to hunt this property, but this guy set up a big rig of decoys, and it was the last day. Kevin walked up to me, and I explained the situation. My cousin was disappointed, and understandably so: He is a refuge hunter, where you need to elbow your way in, and he saw no reason to leave when we were clearly 300 yards away. I told him that folks out here, hunting on friends' lands, have an expectation that it won't be like a refuge hunt.

So we hit another spot, found a few snipe, but the big news about this spot was a beautiful, fat greenwing teal drake that refused to leave a patch of water on the flooded field. Kevin flushed it to me, and I (of course) missed, and it headed back around to Kevin, who dispatched it with a great shot. So all was not lost. In all, we brought home three snipe and that teal, and made for a great morning to the season's close.

That afternoon, I drove back out to the fellow's goose spread, and when I saw him picking up his decoys for the day, I headed out to him, introduced myself and apologized again. He was gracious, and said it hadn't been a good late-season hunt anywhere this year, anyway. We talked for awhile, and he invited me out to goose hunt next year, on property across on another island. From this gaffe, I now have another friend and hunter.

There is a gentlemanly graciousness that goes into hunting, a romanticized ideal that attracted me to the endeavor almost as much as the stalking and shooting and being outside, and I love to play that role whenever I get a chance. Sometimes, it even gets me another hunt.

If you ever find yourself out in a flooded field or bog next year, and you jump a snipe, give it a try. Grab some steel 6's, and walk straight out right where that bird jumped, and you'll probably get a couple of shots. Folks tend to ignore them, but snipe make for a fine hunt, arguably better than sitting in a blind on a blue-bird, windless day.


NorCal Cazadora said...

I must say, I was surprised that I loved hunting snipe this year. I was expecting not to enjoy it because I'm not a good snap shot, but I ended up liking it because it forced me to think faster.

Sounds like an amazing snipe field you found!

Josh said...

Thanks for dropping by, Holly! It was an incredible snipe year. Hopefully, next year will be just as good, and we can get you out there with us.

What I lack in doves, I make up for in snipe (actually, we saw maybe 50 doves out there, too).