Real snipe hunting can be cruel to the psyche

Harrison Nance is shown with a snipe.
Harrison Nance is shown with a snipe.

Reruns of the classic 1980s sitcom "Cheers" were a staple of my childhood TV entertainment, and one episode stood out. If you can find it on Hulu or another streaming service, watch season 3’s “The Heart is a Lonely Snipehunter.” This was my earliest reference to the phantom known as a snipe.

In summary, a young Frasier Crane, hoping to bond with his new chums, is lured into the snowy woods for a “snipe hunt," the crude prank where an unsuspecting sap is ditched outdoors after dark. The episode is hysterical — especially Kelsey Grammer’s enthusiastic snipe call — yet accurately captures some of the male-bonding spirit and camaraderie of hunting buddies.

Now, if you think Frasier — or anyone who's fallen for this ruse — was simply a sucker with low self-esteem, consider that the actual sport of snipe hunting is nearly as cruel to the psyche. Yes, snipes are real birds, a fact all outdoor writers are forced to explain. Specifically, the Wilson's snipe is a winter visitor in Florida. These mottled, long-legged and billed birds resemble the sandpipers that scurry across the state's beaches. Smaller, though, they forgo the sand and surf for soggy habitats including marshes, wet pastures and flooded agricultural fields where they probe for earthworms and other invertebrates.

If they were to develop more of a nerve, snipes are so perfectly camouflaged that they could live their entire lives undetected if not for their habit of flushing wildly when disturbed, gasping a raspy "wheep!" upon their frenzied escape.

And this is what makes snipe hunting torturous. I've heard it said shooting one is akin to a batter facing a knuckleball, which is spot-on. Rather than the bird approaching you, however, it beats a frantic retreat, zig-zagging parallel to the ground before rocketing skyward with maneuvers that would make Maverick envious. Adding to this challenge, when and where they flush is always random — it might be 40 yards away or at your feet.

Ian Nance shows of snipe he bagged.
Ian Nance shows of snipe he bagged.

In truth, the shooting is the whole trick on an otherwise uncomplicated hunt. Requisite gear is a loaded shotgun and a pair of water-resistant footwear. Slowly work the edges of marshes and depression ponds where the grasses are ankle high. If the birds are there, they'll flush and the game is on. If and when you miss, hunker down and watch. Often, they'll circle and drop straight back down near where they flushed. Also, if you have a trusty retriever, your canine pal will come in handy. Snipes are tough to find when downed in taller vegetation.

For firearms, a 20- or 28-gauge is sufficient for these small birds. Still, I opt for a 12-gauge semi-auto, dumping as much 7 1/2 lead shot after them as possible. Being a migratory species, plugged shotguns are required, but yes, lead shot is legal so long as you're not running a snipe/waterfowl combo hunt.

The Florida season typically begins in early November and ends this year on Feb. 15d. The daily take is eight birds, a steep mountain I've yet to summit. Regardless, snipe hunting is one of hunting's simplest pleasures, and the birds are fantastic table fare if you scratch down enough for a meal.

Frankly, after I've slogged several miles and burned a box of shells for three birds, I'm ready for a cold one to commiserate, preferably at some place comforting, maybe even someplace where everybody knows my name.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Real snipe hunting can be cruel to the psyche