feature By: Michael Salomone, text and photos | October, 21
Our hunting vests were weighed down by the extra 20-gauge shells in their pockets. Snipe are a bird that will empty your shell belt.
The first of September brings the opening for Wilson’s snipe season here. Some birds spend the summer in the Rocky Mountain high country, but when the migration begins, birds pile into the most ideal habitat they can find along their journeys.
A little brook cut through the grassy meadow immediately below the truck. The muddy edge of the stream had chalking marks, white splashes of scat. A good sign.
Suddenly, the repeated shriek of our targeted quarry filled our ears. Both of us spun around to see an erratically flying Wilson’s snipe rocket out of gun range while screaming its telltale call. The bird settled back to the ground behind us, and we continued on down the valley. Our hopes had been confirmed. The birds were here.
Wilson’s snipe favor the freshly flooded vegetation caused by beaver dams pushing water into new areas. Soft ground allows the birds to feed easily. We aimed for the newly flooded greenbelt in the middle of the long valley.
At this time of year, heavy frost forms at night and the soft, muddy ground freezes but warms throughout the day. In October, the skim ice starts to cover the ponds and bird numbers drop. However, with some waterfowl seasons overlapping the snipe season, hunters have opportunity for a wonderful mixed bag of birds. Teal, mallards and snipe can be taken in the same hunt.
Wilson’s snipe, common snipe, marshdoodle, beccasine, Gallinago, shad spirit, mud missile, jack snipe, storm bird, mud quail, weather maker, rain bringer – the list of nicknames for this cartoonish-looking bird continues to grow. Shad spirit comes from the timing of their mating in the spring coinciding with the seasonal run of shad in the rivers along the East Coast. Marshdoodle is a nod to their game bird cousin the American woodcock, which sports a similar moniker, timberdoodle.
This southern Ohio boy’s relocation to Colorado in the early 1990s fueled a desire to explore the mountains and rivers with rod and gun in hand. An avid outdoorsman since a child, I yearned for hunting and fishing locations in my newfound home. The problem I faced, however, was how would I ever find such places to play?
To anyone who would talk hunting and fishing, I asked where to go. An old man named Armando who lived in Leadville, Colorado, gave me directions to a special place – a high-altitude valley near the Continental Divide with a meandering stream choked into deep pools by beavers and stacked willows. There were fish by the hundreds in the beaver ponds; grouse and waterfowl claimed the area as home; and deer, elk and bear drank nightly from the cool waters.
At the time, I didn’t recognize the gift he had given me, but I do now. Over the years it has become hallowed ground where the ashes of hunting dogs and family members alike rest in a hidden niche.
During that first summer I spent in Colorado, I explored the valley repeatedly with a fly rod. And in the fall, when days shortened and high-elevation air spurred along the changing leaves, I returned with a shotgun. Fishing taught me the lay of the valley. And during those fishing outings my excitement grew with every bird that burst into the sky from underfoot. Small birds zigged and zagged through the air when flushed. Their long beaks reminded me of the woodcock my father pursues in Ohio. Educated from the outdoor magazines I devoured as a kid, I would never have fallen for the “traditional snipe hunt” prank. I knew what snipe were, and I had found them!
The type of fen I was enthralled with was a slope fen where a stream winds through the middle of the valley and creates a constant flow. The addition of a healthy population of beavers further slows the water flow and increases the inundation and saturation in the valley floor, which creates the ideal habitat for migrating snipe. These high-elevation marshes attract snipe into newly flooded areas. Shallow flooded grasses, muddy bank streams, willows in standing water and my favorite, beaver ponds, all provide the habitat snipe seek out during their southern migration.
The structure of a single beaver pond creates multiple areas for snipe to feed. Along the mud-covered dam side of the beaver pond, snipe will sit on the dam. The trickle of water flowing out of the dam or over it forms prime spots for feeding snipe, too. However, it is the side opposite the dam that creates the most ideal area for snipe. The dam creates a surplus of water that pushes back into the grasses on the shallow side. Heavy water swells into soft corners at each end of the dam and creates another attractive area for feeding snipe. Migrating snipe work the edges of water everywhere.
The more I understood what type of habitat the little birds desired, the easier it was to look for the same conditions in other locations. I began to find the sporting birds everywhere in high-altitude marshes. Flat Tops, an area in northwestern Colorado, covers a tremendous amount of country at or near 10,000 feet. This immense expanse extends over more than four counties and offers some of the best big game hunting, alpine fishing and snipe hunting at altitude that you can find.
Dogs are an asset for hunting snipe in the thin mountain air. They cover more ground and detect birds no hunter would ever imagine existed. The advantage of a bird dog with a trusted nose can ensure the highest percentage of found birds possible. Pointing breeds provide a nontypical approach to snipe hunting in the U.S. Most snipe hunters have never had the opportunity to hunt snipe over pointers. Then again, not many hunters have trained their dogs for these birds.
Pointers can cover the big country necessary to encounter high numbers of birds. And they create controlled gunning because it is an anticipated flush. The hunter expects the bird and has the gun at the ready.
Flushing breeds work close to the hunter and produce quick shots at unexpected birds. Flushers are also good retrievers, providing the hunter with a valuable asset in locating downed birds. However, there is some truth to the fact that dogs do not like to retrieve snipe. These little birds will shed small, soft feathers that create an annoying coating on a dog’s tongue.
Lightweight, small gauge shotguns are the weapons of choice for high-altitude snipe hunting. Lugging around a heavy iron can take a toll on a hunter by the end of the day. Lightweight shotguns swing quickly, an asset in the snipe field, when birds reach top speed within a few wingbeats of the flush. Dr. John Rieger, author and professor, states that with snipe you have to let them “straighten out,” meaning their initial flight is erratic, and they bounce left and right before smoothing out into a straight flight path and then banking and circling.
Light loads help hunters improve their shooting. Without the negative effects of heavy recoil, hunters can concentrate on “pure gunning,” making quick shots on swift game. Nontoxic shot is not a necessity, especially in September; in Colorado, snipe can be legally pursued with lead. However, once October comes around, snipe and waterfowl can be taken during the same hunt, so hunters will probably want to have some steel in their possession. Since 1995, I have used steel exclusively for my snipe hunts and have never felt under-gunned. Steel shells in no. 6 and no. 7 sizes are readily available, cheap and environmentally friendly. My best advice when choosing appropriate steel shells is that “speed kills.” Snipe are fast in flight and steel shells with a high feet-per-second (fps) level the playing field.
Hunters looking to travel with their own pup and chase snipe DIY-style in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado have hundreds of square miles available to roam in. RVers, tent campers or hunters choosing to stay at motels across the mountains can all find quality habitat with no pressure or competition by following the thin blue line. Consulting traditional maps or doing some online scouting prior to your adventure can lead to your finding numerous marsh areas in the 9,000 to 12,000-foot zone. Not to say you won’t find snipe at other elevations, but hunting them at altitude is a special experience.
Most wing shooters new to snipe hunting find the birds humbling. The heavy vest pockets hunters start off with will quickly lighten with each flush. Repeatedly, hunters scramble for good footing, swing on the quickly escaping birds and empty their guns. The key to close-in shooting is to swing that gun like you are dancing with your wife.
We slogged back towards the truck. Beneath my game vest, sweat trickled down my back. Pockets, laden earlier in the day with many shells, floated with ease, the weight of their earlier burden replaced by that of birds in the game bag. The thin air and rough miles fatigued us, leaving us as worn out as our bird dogs.
Hunters looking for the most challenging shotgunning in any field will find snipe above 10,000 feet, literally the highest form of our sport.
For license and season information: Colorado Parks and Wildlife cpw.state.co.us.