feature By: Stephen D. Carpenteri | January, 20
What is this thing, the rail? A hairy-feathered coastal shore bird about the size of a dishrag with comparable flying abilities, the rail is closely related to crakes, coots and gallinules. Sound familiar? Of course not! Most hunters have never seen a rail, let alone a crake or a gallinule, and the few who have, primarily saltwater marsh fishermen, utter the same refrain: “What the heck was that?” Good question.
Rails are also one of the most common — and underutilized — game birds worldwide. Rails are federally regulated game birds loosely managed as migratory waterfowl (even though their feet are not webbed). In Maine, for example, rails are considered to be migratory game birds but not migratory waterfowl, like the American woodcock. A migratory waterfowl stamp is not required to hunt them, but steel shot is required — which makes as much sense as anything else related to rails!
And, yes, you can eat rails. They’re all dark breast meat that’s delicious grilled or broiled.
These unusual ground birds thrive in the mucky coastal wetlands on both sides of North America, but most of the hunting activity takes place in the East. While it is possible to hunt them at low tide (not for the faint of heart), most experts wait until the full moon high tide to pursue them.
For all intents and purposes, rail hunting is a two-person sport. Most rail hunters use a canoe, kayak or traditional lightweight, wooden skiff paddled or poled through the flooded reeds by one man while the shooter sits in front. Some skiffs are sturdy, stable and designed to include a platform for a retriever to ride on, but these high-end units are favored only by thoroughly obsessed rail hunters who, surprisingly, do exist.
Basic rail hunting is simple: poke around the marsh probing the weeds along shallow, sunken channels and wait for a rail to pop out of the water and take wing. There is nothing to look for and nothing to do but wait — the only “cover” in a flooded marsh is the tips of reeds left exposed by the rising tide. There is no rhyme or reason to it, no strategies or tactics involved. You drift, you float, you pole and you shoot when a bird jumps up in front of you — or beside you or behind you.
The general rule in rail hunting is that the shooter’s job is to shoot while the paddler or poler moves the boat around and spots birds for the waiting gunner. Simple commands work best: “Left,” “Right,” “Straight ahead,” are all the shooter needs to hear to make his adjustments as he’s shouldering his shotgun.
Rails are peculiar birds in many ways but especially in their flight pattern. When flushed, they jump straight up out of the water as if pulled on a string, top out at about five yards and then fly in their patented, flailing, struggling, downward manner until, exhausted, bored or indifferent, they simply drop back into the water. Rails are slightly reminiscent of woodcock as far as flight paths go, but I give the latter more style points for their aerial gymnastics. Considering that the standard flush-to-shot time for the average grouse hunter is just under three seconds, the rail is practically a stationary target.
Here’s the thing: In over 50 years of off-and-on rail hunting, I have never missed a single bird, not even recently, having switched to a Fausti .410 double-barreled gun with improved cylinder and modified chokes. I even go the extra mile and shoot only custom-made 2 ¾-inch shells using no. 9 steel shot, which is equivalent to throwing sand at most game birds, but the fragile rails collapse and die in midair when struck by these light loads.
Coastal specialists who pursue rails on a routine basis load their own shells with no. 10 or even 11 steel shot in cylinder- or skeet-bored 20- or 28-gauge shotguns.
Go with whatever shotgun you prefer but opt for open chokes and the lightest shot you can find. Rails kill very easily. However, it is best to shoot wounded birds a second time to prevent them from submarining out of sight into the flooded reeds.
With no cover to contend with and someone else operating the boat, shots at rails should be easy, right?
The real challenge in rail shooting, I believe, is that most hunters are not prepared for targets that fly so low and slowly. It’s similar to a major league fastball hitter encountering a knuckleball. The dishrag analogy above is an accurate one — perhaps a wet towel or pillowcase would be more apt. However, don’t think the bird’s slow and clunky flight makes it easy to shoot.
For example, on a recent trip to the fabled Beaufort, South Carolina, marshes I went 25 for 25 with my trusty little Fausti, but my hunting partner — who’s death on quail, pheasants, doves and even teal — drew a blank after two full days of hunting the full moon high tide. He came back to the dock both days with two empty shell boxes and not a single rail to show for it. He told me he didn’t expect the birds to be so slow, and he shot in front of every single one. Fifty misses per day? For two days? How embarrassing!
As is the case in all upland hunting scenarios, there is a secret to rail shooting that comes easily to some and apparently never to others. Essentially, one must learn to point the shotgun slightly under the bird as it flies and then below it as it drops back into the marsh. It may well be that the rail is our only game bird that flies downward rather than upward along its flight path, but this makes sense because the bird is only interested in returning to the reeds. It is not trying to fly away from or even across the marsh; it’s looking to go up and then down as quickly as possible.
For the young and fleet of foot, it is possible to hunt rails at low tide in the muck and mire of the weed-choked marshes. Many coastal hunters start out just that way — and quit as soon as they can afford a suitable skiff. Walking in the silt-covered mud flats is a skill of its own, but water (deep water!) remains in myriad holes and channels even at low tide. The highest ground is little more than compacted mud barely held in place by the dense vegetation, and somewhere in all this mess are the rails that, like South Dakota pheasants, would rather run than fly. You’ll see them and hear their guttural calls, but getting them to flush is an exercise in frustration. Eventually you’ll come to the end of a channel or island where the birds have no other choice but to fly. Still, some will simply run across the gooey flats and leave you standing up to your armpits in clinging, soupy mud.
Shooting a rail skittering across the mud is not recommended because that means you’ll have to retrieve the bird. If swimming in cold, week-old pea soup sounds appealing, by all means dive in. A retriever can be a real asset during low tide rail hunts, but even the strongest Lab or Chessie will struggle in the thick muck, especially if you are a good shot and the dog has to make 25 retrieves. That’s a lot of fetching!
There was a time when I thought mucking it in waders was the man’s way to go for low tide rails, and I suppose it was considering that I had the Connecticut flats to myself and had already started my 50-year streak of no-miss rail shooting. However, I was never that good at calling the tides and, as one might expect, one day a buddy and I found ourselves not only stranded with a high tide coming in but our waders were stuck in muck above the waist. Thanks to a high degree of youthful panic, we managed to shed our boots and crawl through the mud to high ground, but the only reason we survived was that another group of skiff hunters happened to be in the area, saw our predicament and came to the rescue.
This was back in the early 1970s. There are two pairs of chest waders still flapping in the Connecticut River current near Essex in case anyone wants to go after them.
On the bright side, we did kill our limits of rails that day.
Legally, rails may be hunted out of any craft that is not underway via gasoline or electric motor. Of late, hunters have found a way to bend the rules by roaring through the tidal flats at full speed, killing the motor when birds start to flush and then shooting as many as they can as they follow their wake into the flats. This kind of behavior, although perhaps technically legal, is considered unsporting at least and gauche at best — the true traditionalist walks the flats or pushes a small craft through the flooded reeds and takes his birds in the most sporting, gentlemanly manner possible.
Although there are several species of rails, only four are legal game. These include the clapper, sora, Virginia and king rails. The sora and clapper are most abundant and may be found from Maine to Texas but also occur occasionally along the Pacific Coast where rail hunting is not allowed. The eastern and southern coastlines and their related flyways contain the most rails and provide the best hunting.
Many of the smaller species are sparrow-sized and are of little interest to hunters. These smaller birds flit in and out of the reeds near ground level, rarely showing themselves. Hunters should have no trouble discerning between them and the legal species.
For those who crave such things, it is possible to achieve a grand slam of rail hunting (all four species in one season) by pole boating the high tide roughly from Merrymeeting Bay in Maine to the Carolinas. Additionally, rails might also be encountered in the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas. Perhaps one could achieve an Atlantic Slam as well as a Gulf Slam; I’ll leave that up to those who pursue such heady accomplishments.
Although federal guidelines allow rail hunting from mid-September through November, the best hunting occurs only a few hours during a few days each month when tides are astronomically high, giving the birds little or no solid ground on which to run.
Poling through sparse reed cover at high tide for hairy little birds you cannot see that fly only as a last resort is definitely a singular experience any avid shotgunner should have on his bucket list.
Once you’ve mastered the fine art of rail shooting, perhaps I can interest you in a traditional New England snipe hunt!