Rail and Snipe:
The Other Thanksgiving Birds

by Tom Seymour

A day spent poling through one of Maine’s marshes, shotgun in hand and the occasional rail popping up from the thick vegetation has much to recommend it. Despite the generous bag limits, hunting pressure only ranges from extremely limited to almost non-existent. Tom Seymour Photo

Hearkening back to the golden age of shorebird hunting, a scant few Maine hunters pursue rail and snipe in the yellow grass of inland and coastal marshes.

In the mid- to- late 19th century, most all waterfowl and shorebirds were fair game. Given that, sport hunters and even market hunters prowled freshwater and saltwater marshes up and down the east coast, killing winged game in such wholesale numbers that entire populations plummeted. In the end, reason won and saner heads enacted game laws, seasons and bag limits.

Today, sportsmen view the practices of the past with a jaundiced eye. All the same, the massive numbers of game birds available to our ancestors had to have been a marvelous sight to behold. Imagine a sky so filled with ducks that the sheer numbers of birds temporarily blocked out the sun. Then think of how proficient shotgunners must have become simply by virtue of having all that shooting.

Fortunately for all concerned, federal law now protects our shorebirds. No longer do game hogs with 10-gauge shotguns pepper plovers, sandpipers and dowitchers with mixed-sized shot. However, a certain few marsh birds and shorebirds remain in more-than sufficient numbers to warrant a hunting season. These are rail, both sora and Virginia and common snipe.

Woodcock Cousin

First, let’s consider common snipe, Gallinago gallinago, also known as Wilson’s snipe. These inland sandpipers are similar to American woodcock in shape and size. They lack a woodcock’s buff breast, however. And in flight, snipe are so swift and describe such a darting, sometimes corkscrew pattern, that an otherwise competent wingshot might expend an entire box of cartridges without hitting one, single snipe.

Snipe inhabit wet meadows, alder covers, damp pastureland and also, especially during migration, the short grass found in some saltmarshes. These elusive game birds’ breeding territory ranges from Maine up to the Canadian tundra. And while they exhibit every quality that people prize in a game bird, snipe were never very popular with hunters. Perhaps their swift, erratic flight, as mentioned above, has something to do with that.

In fall, migrating snipe descend upon Maine marshes, often in great numbers. A hunter fortunate enough to hit a “flight” of snipe can experience excellent shooting.

Since snipe often launch into flight within a scant few feet of an approaching human, modified or improved cylinder bores work best. Also, small shot, number 8 or 9, serves to fill the pattern better than larger sizes.

While field-load 12-gauge shotshells work fine, many rail and snipe fans prefer smaller-bore tubes such as 16, 20 and even .410. These diminutive birds don’t require lots of firepower in order to knock them dead in the air, only a well-placed string of small shot from a medium- or small-bore shotgun.

Open hunting season on common snipe, as dictated by the federal government, begins on September 1 and lasts through December 16, with a daily bag limit of 8 birds and a possession limit of 16.

Rails, chicken-like birds of freshwater and also tidal marshes, are probably better known to bird-watchers than to hunters. Virginia rails average about 9 -1/2 inches long and the slightly smaller sora measures around 9 inches. Tom Seymour Photo


Rails, chicken-like birds of freshwater and also tidal marshes, are probably better known to bird-watchers than to hunters. Secretive, elusive and not likely to elicit much attention except from those deliberately pursuing them, rails are a fine, game bird.

In Maine, the most common rails are Virginia, Rallus limicola, and Sora, Porzana carolina. Both breed in Maine and both are legal game during the hunting season, which currently runs from September 1 through November 9. The bag limit on rails (this can be either Virginia, sora or a combination of both) is 25 birds per day, which is also the possession limit.

Fortunately for the average hunter, rails do not fly as fast or as crazily as snipe. In fact, a rail when flushed may fly for 50 feet or so and immediately land. When flying, a rail’s legs hang down loosely, in a manner suggesting that they are broken.

Virginia rails average about 9.5-inches long and the slightly smaller sora measures around 9 inches. Also, Virginia rails have a long, pointed bill while soras have a much shorter, stubby bill.

Hunting Methods

In late fall, rails congregate in saltwater marshes and hunters in shallow-draught boats and even canoes can find them by poling through the marshes. During the golden age, this method was so popular that hunters usually wore high hats, not for style but to advertise their presence to other hunters.

A day spent poling through one of Maine’s marshes, shotgun in hand and the occasional rail popping up from the thick vegetation has much to recommend it. Despite the generous bag limits, hunting pressure only ranges from extremely limited to almost non-existent. Still, some hunters relish rail hunting and look forward to each, successive fall season.

One thing that sets rail hunting apart from hunting upland species such as grouse and pheasant is that a hunter can have a perfectly successful day without the benefit of a hunting dog. Here’s how.

In late autumn, when rails head to the hardpan soil and short grass of Maine’s tidal marshes, two hunters working together can easily flush rails well within shooting range. This requires walking in a grid pattern, no more than 30 feet apart. Rails, like woodcock, their upland counterparts, are nervous birds, easily spooked. While a hiding rail may allow a lone hunter to pass to one side without flushing, two hunters, one on either side, become too much for it.

Of course walking through such terrain comes with an element of danger. Often, narrow but deep channels cut through marshes. When obscured by grass or other perennial vegetation, such channels become dangerous pitfalls, no pun intended. For that reason, anyone walking through a saltmarsh must constantly scan the ground in front in order to avoid injury sustained from falling into one of these channels.

But for all that, hunting rail and snipe in these places has a charm all of its own. Picture a crisp, late-fall day, with cerulean skies, scarlet-robed maples in the distance and the smell of smokeless powder drifting in the air. For some, nothing beats it.

Finally, although two hunters work best for flushing close-holding rail and snipe, one person can enjoy similarly good results by hunting at a certain time of month. For this, we need to consult a tide calendar and determine when spring tide falls. This coincides with each full moon and the calendar simply helps to pinpoint exactly when high tide occurs.

During full high tide, particularly the extra-high (and conversely, extra-low) tide that that marks a spring tide, many sections of marsh that would normally remain high and dry become inundated. Consequently, ground-hugging birds seek whatever dry places remain. Usually, no matter how high the tide, a few hummocks here and there afford dry sanctuaries for game birds. A lone hunter, wearing knee-length boots, can easily compel the birds to flush from these obvious holding places.

Of course when the marsh becomes water-covered, those mean, little channels become even harder to spot. So keep one eye on the hummocks for flushing rails and the other just ahead, in order to circumvent an unexpected dip.

Some Recipes

Both rail and snipe have rich, dark flesh and both deserve the most careful attention in preparation. Most people simply peel the skin back and remove the breast meat. A small fillet knife works well for this purpose. Later, the breasts can be sautéed in a frying pan with olive oil, a dash of sherry and several sliced garlic cloves. Turn the breasts frequently and serve with salt and fresh-ground pepper.

Some people accord rail and snipe even more detailed attention and rather than skin them, these folks prefer to dry-pluck their birds. This isn’t as difficult as it might sound, since the feathers come off with only slight pressure. The most tedious part of this process involves pulling the wing feathers out, one or two at a time. Otherwise, back, side and breast feathers come off in relatively large, fingersfull.

A half-dozen rail or snipe so processed lend themselves to roasting. Place the birds, breast-up, in an oven pan and lay a pat of butter on each bird. Sprinkle with pepper, cover with foil and roast at no more than 325 degrees for between 30 and 40 minutes, checking frequently for doneness. Do not allow the birds to scorch.

Another method calls for wrapping each bird with a strip of bacon and baking for perhaps 10 minutes and then removing the foil for the last 20 minutes or so.

In the end, there really isn’t any wrong way to prepare these rich delicacies from Maine’s marshes and wetlands.

Hunting for rail and snipe will probably never catch on in a big way, which is just fine for those few who love nothing better than getting out on a brisk November day and enjoying a taste of what remains from the golden age of shorebird hunting.


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