You don’t need a dog to hunt for snipe, but it can be nice to have a companion in the field. Staff file photo

 

Snipe season opens on Sept. 1 in Maine, and most everywhere else, for that matter. Some folks might be surprised to learn there really is such a thing.

Snipe hunts are – or at least were – a popular activity at summer camps, where naive youths tromped around the woods at night with flashlights and burlap sacs trying to catch a mythical nocturnal bird. They’ve become such a part of popular culture that the term “snipe hunt” is used to describe a fool’s errand or practical joke. However, there really is such a creature and while popularity has waned, some folks still take snipe hunting quite seriously.

Before hunters started the modern conservation movement, most any winged creature was considered fair game. Market gunners plied their trade year-round but the most popular times to harvest birds were during spring and fall migrations when birds, especially waterfowl and shorebirds, congregated in great flocks. There were no seasons, bag limits or restrictions and the objective was to bring as many birds to market as possible.

While waterfowl still remain popular prey for modern hunters, most shorebirds – including plovers, sandpipers, dowitchers, curlews and stilts, to name a few – have been removed from the list of legal game birds. While many share similar life history characteristics only two, the snipe and woodcock, can still be legally hunted in the United States.

It’s sort of understandable how the woodcock remained on the list. This wayward shorebird abandoned the coastal environs more popular with its cousins eons ago, opting for alder swales, fallow fields and bottomland forests that are also popular with ruffed grouse. Snipe, too, moved inland off the sandy beaches, mud flats and salt pannes but stopped short of the forest edge, favoring wet meadows and soggy pastures during migration periods. Though their preferred habitat is quite similar to their fairly close cousin, the long-billed dowitcher, the latter was left off the list of gamebirds.

While they’re still on the list, snipe don’t get nearly as much attention as the other migratory gamebirds like waterfowl, mourning doves and woodcock, at least in the northeast. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the total 2017 harvest was 42,400 snipe, compared to over 200,000 woodcock. Maine’s harvest varies from zero to less than 100 in any given year.

Some of that lack of popularity may be simply a lack of awareness. Mention “snipe hunting” to anyone, even a hunter, and most simply chuckle as they recall childhood memories of late-night frantic forays. There’s also a relatively narrow window of opportunity to intercept these birds on their southern migration and it occurs while most upland gunners are still training their dogs or enjoying some late summer flyfishing before switching over to hunting. A few birds may linger into the start of upland bird season, but as they’re not found in the same habitat they’re largely overlooked.

Snipe hunting doesn’t require much in the way of specialized equipment or tactics. A light gauge woodcock gun and loads are all you need for weaponry, along with a pair of knee-high waterproof boots and whatever clothing suits the weather. The technique consists of little more than tromping through wet meadows and pastures, particularly ditch lines or swales where the grass tends to grow a little taller. Dogs can be helpful but a dog-less hunter can do nearly as well, if the birds are present.

It may take a little practice adjusting to their erratic, low-level flights but flushed birds often travel short distances before settling down again, offering a potential follow-up opportunity. Whether you’re looking for an early start to fall bird season or curious to try something new and different, consider the snipe, and don’t be offended if someone snickers at you when you tell them what you’re up to.


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