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The Truth About Snipe

Though mostly known as a mythical animal featured in teenage pranks, snipes do exist — really.

By Russell A. Graves

I’m not too sure of the universal protocol, but the Northeast Texas version I learned goes something like this:

First, get a few friends together. The hunt seems to go better if you and the friends are in your teens. The hunt, of course, works swell if one of the friends has no idea of the nature of the impending “hunt.”

Sacks are important. Most purists prefer burlap sacks while weekend snipe hunters will settle for paper or plastic. The key is finding a sack that will hold an unruly snipe when the action heats up.

Scouting is also important. You can actually go scout during the day to find a snipe hotspot or you can say you scouted. Either way it really doesn’t matter in the end.

Location, location, location. I would always ask myself, “Can a snipe live here?” If the area is remote and dark, the answer is a resounding yes.

Pick a good night. Early summer evenings work well. Personally, I like a moonless night. Snipes seem to thrive in the darkness so the darker the better.

The set-up is crucial. I like picking a trail far from the truck. Remember the guy who had never heard of snipe hunting? He’s the one who gets placed on the best trail which just happens to be farthest from the truck.

Once the inexperienced guy is in place, it is very important that you tell him that you are going to go up trail and scare some snipes back his way. Therefore, he must keep his senses alert and his sack open and held to the ground.

As a distraction, some suggest having the hunter make a call that the snipe supposedly makes. The call can be any sound as long as it is silly and repeated often.

Once the new guy is in place, disappear back to the truck for a while with the others in the party. Many snipe hunters disagree as to the length of time the inexperienced hunter should be left alone. Me? I say it depends on the inexperience of the new hunter. The length of time could be just a few minutes up to hours. The key is to make the new hunter feel as uncomfortable and abandoned as possible.

When you think the new hunter is sufficiently uncomfortable, retrieve him immediately and then spend the rest of the night teasing the new hunter with your other friends.

When I was taken on my first snipe hunt, I had no idea what we were doing. I learned the game early on when I was still young enough that my kin were gentle on me. When I was about seven, I was left out in the pasture within sight of my parent’s house. I stayed out for a while but figured that something was wrong when I could see the silhouettes of my older cousins playing in the yard back at the house.

Country boys learn quickly. So luckily, once I reached my teens, I was never again abandoned by friends in a foreboding place. Over time I led a few snipe-hunting parties of my own, and even played along while some of my high school students schemed to take one of their friends out into the field in search of unruly snipe.

Snipe hunting is a rite of passage over most all of Texas for particularly teenage boys. Although variations of the activity abound, the end game is essentially the same: abandon a “hunter” alone with his snipe sack while the rest of the hunting party laughs at his expense from another location. This good-natured prank is passed down each time it is played and continues to entertain as new members of the snipe fraternity are brought into the fold.

Try as I may, I cannot find the origins of the mythical snipe hunt although I do know that it is played all over the nation and even parts of Europe. The ritual has even found its way into popular culture as at least one network program, King of the Hill, featured a snipe hunt with Hank Hill and his son. Instead of snipes, the two ended up catching a whooping crane.

Believe it or not, real snipes do exist, and are found in plentiful enough numbers to warrant a hunting season. In fact, real snipe hunters can pursue the bird (which is classified as a migratory game bird) from November through mid-February each year. A hunting license with state and federal migratory bird stamps are all that’s required to hunt. The limit in 2006 was eight snipes per day and 16 in possession.

Although most of the legitimate snipe hunting is along the freshwater marshes of the coast and lower East Texas, snipes also exist over much of the state as they spend their winters in Texas. The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count reveals that the highest number of wintering snipes are found along the coast as well as the northern blackland prairie region, which stretches roughly from Waco north to the Red River in a swath about 100 miles wide.

The snipe’s breeding range is mainly in the northern United States and southern Canada. Courtship and nesting takes place in the spring. Nests are built of dry grasses on the ground at the edge of swampy areas and measure about six inches across. Typically, the female lays four blotched eggs. Then, after an incubation of 18-20 days (shared by both parents), the eggs hatch. Like other ground-nesting birds, the young leave the nest almost immediately after hatching and are able to follow the mother in search of food. Within a couple of months, the young can fly well enough to fend for themselves.

The common snipe measures about 10 1/2 inches long and weighs about 4 1/2 ounces. It is most comfortable in shallow, freshwater marshy areas. The snipe’s brown, black and white feathering makes for superb camouflage in brambles and low-growing grasses.

The snipe is a wading bird and eats a variety of insects, earthworms, small mollusks and some vegetable matter. Its bill is long and flexible and is capable of finding food by feel alone. Although I never knew what they were, when I was a kid, I saw snipe on a regular basis while slogging around flooded bottomlands. When startled, the birds would fly away in a zigzag pattern while emitting a high-pitched call. The thick brush they inhabit and their erratic flight makes snipe a challenging wingshooting target.

Because of the rank vegetation they inhabit, hunting them with dogs is recommended but, at the same time, hunting snipe can be hard on dogs. Because of the physical demands of slogging through thick and wet cover, the snipe could be the most demanding of all game birds to hunt. As such, not many choose to pursue them.

The bird’s reclusive nature adds to its mystery and undoubtedly helps fuel the legend that surrounds the mythical snipe hunt. Because they are so secretive and so well camouflaged, snipes are rarely seen. So much so, many people doubt they exist and may not appreciate their relative abundance in Texas today.

During the 19th century, the snipe was particularly abundant over the southern United States. Hunter James Pringle in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds (published in 1927) describes the abundance and challenge of the game bird.

“The birds being such great migrants, and only in the country for a short time, I had no mercy on them and killed all I could, for a snipe once missed might be never seen again.

I shot with only one gun at a time; had no loader, but loaded my gun myself; had I shot with two guns and had a loader I would, of course, have killed a great many more birds, but in those days and in those parts it was impossible to get a man that could be trusted to load.”

Even without a loader, Pringle was an efficient hunter, taking nearly 70,000 birds over a span of 20 years from 1867 to 1887 — most of them in Louisiana. That’s an average of 9 1/2 birds a day.

Nine-and-a-half birds a day — that’s quite a record. Undoubtedly there are high school boys across Texas who still swear that the fields hold enough snipe to yield that many birds and perhaps more in a night’s outing. Most importantly, there are those who, in the spirit of adventure, are willing to trust their friends and wait in the grass with a sack.

Fortunately, for ornery teenagers everywhere, there are those who are gullible enough to give snipe hunting a try. As long as the mystery of the snipe pervades rural Texas, the legend will live on in perpetuity.

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