Snipe may have fallen off the radar of most hunters, but the promise of a challenging and exciting day afield remains
ON THE HUNT
To successfully hunt snipe in the fall, you need to know where to find them and you must be able to correctly identify them. Misidentification is a common problem among would-be snipe hunters. When I was a summer student working for Alberta Fish and Wildlife many years ago, for example, one of my jobs was to identify birds confiscated from hunters claiming they’d been shooting snipe; I went through garbage bags full of dowitchers, yellowlegs, plovers, phalaropes and numerous other shorebirds. In a more recent example, a website recognizing “trophy” birds taken by hunters pictured five snipe, two of which were actually yellowlegs.
It’s really not that difficult to differentiate snipe from other shorebirds, particularly if you pay attention to their behaviour, and to the habitat where you find them. The most important rule of thumb is that you won’t find snipe in small flocks on open mudflats. If you see a group of small shorebirds foraging in the open like that, don’t shoot—they’re not snipe.
Instead, snipe nearly always forage for worms and other invertebrates within cover in flooded or damp sedge and grass flats, where you usually won’t see them until they flush. They’re also generally found as singles, and occasionally in pairs; you’ll almost never see what could be considered a flock. Snipe can also be identified by the “scaipe” sound they typically make when flushing; unlike other birds, they don’t make a peep, cheep or whistle sound.
Certainly, check out a bird identification book to learn what a snipe looks like, but also know that when you’re hunting them, they won’t stand around in the open allowing you to confirm their identity. Instead, you’ll most often have to identify them by their habitat and behaviour. And if you’re at all unsure, don’t shoot—you don’t want your mistake ending up in a garbage bag waiting for a wildlife student to correctly identify it in preparation for your court case.
Look for snipe by walking through shallow flood plains of sedges and grasses, and be prepared to cover a lot of ground. If you’re not finding birds in one area, move somewhere else. The exact mix of water depth, cover and food availability that attracts migrating snipe can be difficult to pinpoint—snipe are where you find them—and a spot that’s great one year may be vacant the next. But where you find one, you’ll usually find others. On good days, I expect to flush four or five birds an hour. As for hitting them? Well, that’s another issue altogether.
Snipe have the nerves of a cat burglar, and they’ll often sit tight, letting you walk past. If they do flush, you’ll generally hear that distinctive “scaipe” sound and see a brown blur twisting and turning low to the ground. Resist the urge to shoot quickly, as guessing whether they’ll zig or zag is a loser’s gambit. They’ll lift skyward after 10 or 20 metres, however, and that’s when you want to take them.
Be forewarned that snipe are faster than any other shorebird, so be prepared at all times to quickly mount and swing your gun. I recommend using a double-barrelled shotgun, which allows for a quick second shot if needed. Snipe most often flush as singles, so you don’t have to worry about multiple targets, as you would with ducks, partridge or grouse.
Since snipe are so fast, the killing distances are generally between 30 and 40 metres, so choose your choke accordingly. I typically shoot an improved cylinder, but modified is not out of place. These birds don’t require much energy to be brought down, so #7 or #8 shot is about right. And remember, snipe are migratory birds, so non-toxic loads are mandatory.
You don’t get much meat from a snipe. Traditionally, they’re plucked and roasted, often with the entrails still in place. I haven’t taken that step yet, but I have enjoyed many meals of roasted, grilled or sautéed snipe; search the internet and you’ll find plenty of time-tested recipes.
Snipe are an unusual game bird to be sure, but they’re challenging to hunt, and to shoot. They also add variety to your days afield, and harken back to a traditional time in Canada’s hunting annals. Best of all, there’s almost no chance you’ll find another hunter in your favourite snipe haunt—at least for now.