Thursday, February 21, 2008

Snipe Hunting on Merry Meeting Bay

Snipe Hunting
By Steve Vose

Ok, now what you need to do is stand here on this snipe path real still and quiet and hold this burlap sack real steady like and we will go back up in the woods and scare the snipe down the path toward you. When the little critters come running down the path and into the sack you close it and we should have a bunch of snipe for supper tonight. I can’t tell you the number of times that we played this prank on friends and family while growing up. Every time a new kid moved into the neighborhood or we found some unknowing guy or gal someone was always bamboozled and left holding the proverbial snipe “bag”. What the unsuspecting never truly anticipated was that instead of us herding snipe through the woods and into their sack we walked back to the campfire and proceeded to laugh our heads off and eating marshmallows until the newly initiated realized that they had been tricked and returned. Very few in our group had been spared the embarrassment of being left standing in the woods anxiously awaiting a group of snipe to come running down the trail and into the burlap sack. This youthful right of passage usually occurred at night during summer camping trips and was as closely linked to my fond childhood memories as ghost stories and flashlight tag.

So, as you can imagine the first time I seriously heard about hunting the common snipe (Gallinago gallinago), Virginia (Rallus limicola) and Sora (Porzana Carolina) rail I was more than a little bit skeptical. Mentioned to me originally by an old timer I met during a friendly game of cribbage at deer camp several years back. I originally figured that the old boy was trying to play a little prank on me. But truth be told he was being completely honest and I listened intently as he told stories of the days when he and others would pole the waters of the bay in cedar strip canoes and scull floats during the highest of the September tides with the hopes of shooting a few of these small species of marsh birds.

I was so enthralled with his stories that I decided that come that next September I would give it a try. Well, I have found that as I have grown older time has a way of moving faster and faster and before I even realized it another year had slipped by and the end of August had arrived. I had still yet to make any preparations for my anticipated hunt on the bay and realized that without any pre-scouting my chances were most likely going to be slim. I had remembered parts of the old timers advice and I pulled out the tide tables and noted that the highest tide was scheduled for September 10th at sometime around late afternoon. Unfortunately, I couldn’t convince any of my other friends that hunting small marsh birds was a worthy pursuit and my plan further began to unravel as I realized that managing to both pole a canoe and shoot at quick flying marsh birds without assistance would be something of a challenge. Never one to be easily discourage and let common sense stand in my way I headed out on the 10th with plans to arrive at Merry Meeting Bay with about two hours before high tide to find a suitable hunting spot. As I drove down I95 from Augusta it was raining quite heavily and I was really beginning to question my degree of sanity.

After driving about 45 minutes down I95 I finally reached the Merry Meeting Bay Wildlife Management Area and drove my four wheel drive vehicle to the end of the road and parked under a stand of large pine trees. By this time, the rain had tapered down to a drizzle and the sun even started to peak out of the cloud cover. Using my binoculars I carefully studied the water and reeds to the left of the parking area (toward Brick Island) and noted a few birds of differing species (none I was able to identify from the distance) flying over the rice grass landscape. Without two people to manage my 16 foot Grumman aluminum canoe I was left with few options of watercraft light enough for one person to launch from this spot and I quickly realized I was going to have to resort to plan B. Reaching into the back of the pick-up I pulled out my life vest and waders and began to contemplate how much energy I was about to expend wading across half a mile of waist deep water and ankle deep mud. I loaded my 12-gauge Ithaca model 37 with number 4 steel shot (which at the time was the smallest shot size I could find) and began the long and incredibly labor intensive process of wading across the small bay. Progress through the marsh was slow in the weeds and mud and I had several encounters with snapping turtles the size of manhole covers that made the theme from “Jaws” begin to play in the back of my head but all things considered I was making progress. As I moved forward, several small marsh birds flew up from the grass but I found identification extremely difficult and my fear of misidentifying and shooting the wrong species far outweighed my need to harvest one of the diminutive marsh birds.

Finally, after about an hour of wading I saw a small bird hiding in the grass approximately 5 feet off to my left and I could tell by the unmistakable bright yellow beak and black face that I was looking at a Sora. A few steps more and the small (woodcock size) bird flushed and flew a few dozen yards and settled back into the safety of the marsh grass and I found myself much to startled and amazed to even lift the shotgun. Now knowing my query, I slowly moved forward and the bird again flushed but this time I was ready and one shot easily brought the small bird down. Over my time in the marsh, I was able to take a total of 4 Sora Rails, which is well short of the liberal limit of 20 set by Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

I later realized that I had missed several early opportunities at shooting the Sora rails, while I heeded on the side of caution in my identification. In the end, I had an amazing time and was happy that I had a chance to “relive” some of the old stories I had heard about snipe hunting on “The Bay”. I look forward to the day when I can talk someone crazy enough to accompany me in canoe snipe hunting as my days of wading the Bay are done!

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