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My first snipe hunting experience came when I was a newly married, newly southern-relocated-Yankee that had yet to plant my southern roots very deep. I still talked funny and said ‘cah’ instead of ‘car’, regularly used the word ‘wicked’ and hadn’t yet transitioned from ‘you guys’ to ‘y’all’.
Despite my language flaws, my husband’s friends and family were a lot of fun and seemed to readily accept me. In their eyes, if Richie liked me, I had to be an all-right sort of person. So when I was invited on a snipe hunt I went along, without question, excited to be a part of the group.
Apparently, a snipe is a tall, yet rare and elusive bird. It turns out that it is also a very shy bird. In fact, it is so shy that it will only come out during the wee hours of a moonless night.
The best way to capture a snipe is to blind it with a flashlight and then quickly scoop it up into a burlap bag. Usually you will work in pairs or small groups. One or two people man the flashlight and the other person is charged with catching the snipe with the bag.
When the night of the hunt came; it was cold, crisp and dark. No moon. The perfect night for a snipe hunt! We even had a sky full of clouds working in our favor. We gathered up our supplies: flashlights, burlap bags, and some bird seed to lure the birds from hiding.
We found a small clearing in the woods. Everyone began to sprinkle bird seed around on the ground to help attract the Snipes.
The whole group had been snipe hunting before except for me. As it turned out, I was also the only one who had never actually caught a snipe so it was determined that I would be the catcher.
I was a little nervous because I was a bit afraid of failing and I sure didn’t want to look like a fool in front of all of my soon-to-be-husband’s friends.
We got into position in the clearing. Everyone in the group had a flashlight except for me as I held the bag in which we were going to catch the snipes. Richie led the group in the snipe call. “Caaawwwww. Caaawwwww.” I joined in and soon someone was yelling, “There’s one!”
All the flashlights pointed toward a log and I ran toward it with my bag. “Where is it? I don’t see it.”
“It’s right there! Right in front of you!”
I twisted and turned, not sure I was seeing anything, until finally someone yelled that it had run away.
I began calling again and soon enough the group spotted another. Every time the flashlights would swing to a new spot, I would once again miss. The snipes seemed to disappear before I could even spot them.
I was getting frustrated. Everyone seemed to be spotting the birds left and right and I couldn’t see them. I was mad and the group seemed to think this was funny. Not only was I getting mad but I was starting to feel embarrassed. Of course, they were all going to laugh about how the Yankee couldn’t catch the snipe.
This went on for at least 20 minutes. Every time the group would spot the snipe, it was gone before I even turned around.
I knew it was time to ask for help. I begged the group to let someone else catch one first so I could watch how it was done.
My request was met with laughter. Lots and lots of laughter.
It started to become clear. I had been duped. As I thought about what we were actually doing, I had a stark realization.
There is no such thing as a snipe. Well, at least not the kind that can be caught in burlap bags in the dark of night.
The real snipe is a family of shore birds that have proven difficult to catch but they are typically hunted with guns – not burlap bags. The snipe can be found in Arkansas wetlands during the fall as they migrate south and are also commonly in flooded rice fields.
Real snipe hunting is actually very common in Europe and a few states around the U.S. have legitimate snipe hunting seasons. Here in Arkansas, snipe season typically runs from November through February. Hunters experiencing a slow duck hunting day have been known to pick up a few snipe to avoid going home empty-handed.
The term ‘sniper’ was derived from the advanced skill needed to shoot a snipe. When a snipe is spooked, it flies in a zigzag pattern making it difficult to shoot. The British began calling anyone who was able to shoot a snipe a sniper.
Some of the seemingly silly techniques used in a Snipe Hunt – like shining a flashlight in the snipe’s eyes to blind it – are actually legitimate techniques used by ornithologists, those who study birds. Using a spotlight during the dark of night is actually a great method for catching certain species of birds. The technique is commonly referred to as night-lighting.
A snipe hunt like I experienced is also known as a fool’s errand. It is a practical joke that is played on newcomers to a group and is most often some sort of impossible task. Essentially, a wild goose chase. Here in Arkansas the Snipe Hunt is often a hunting trip similar to that which I described above and is harmless initiation ritual or rite of passage for a newcomer.
If you are ever invited on a snipe hunt, I would suggest you evaluate the intentions of the asker. Are you being invited on a legitimate hunting trip or are you being tricked into a fool’s errand?
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