OKEECHOBEE -- Rick Wuest of Tampa had to Google “snipe” to see what the little game bird looked like before hunting for it a couple of weeks ago. His companions, Mike Heldt and Heldt’s son Ty, 13, didn’t know much about snipe either – except jokes from Mike’s Boy Scout days about wandering the woods at night with a flashlight and a paper bag and hoping for the bird to jump into it.
Now, after a half-day hunt with guide Bob Hayes at Little Lake Lodge near Okeechobee, all three hunters are hooked on snipe.
“A lot of fun,” Mike Heldt said. “That’s a quick little bird right there.”
Heldt’s assessment was hardly news to Chris Kellogg of Palm Beach. Kellogg, 67, has been hunting for the small, tan aerial acrobats since the 1950s. Even after shooting elephants, lions and buffalo on African safaris over the years, Kellogg keeps returning to Okeechobee with his 20-gauge shotgun to pursue his favorite wing shooting target throughout the season, which runs from Nov. 1 through Feb. 15.
“It’s so much harder than hunting for dove or quail,” Kellogg said. “I don’t want to sit in a turkey stand or a deer stand for two days. I like the exercise.”
Both hunting parties covered a lot of ground trying to flush snipe in back-to-back hunts a couple of weeks ago. Hayes drove them to the hunting grounds in his pickup, but they had to follow him on foot for close to 4 miles through wet prairies and sloughs fringed by cabbage palm and wax myrtle to get the birds to take flight.
Standing only a few inches tall and well-camouflaged in the tall, brown grass, the long-beaked birds feed on worms, crustaceans and other small prey in wet, muddy areas. When startled, they spring into the air like miniature fighter jets with an extremely erratic escape pattern.
“Within 25 feet of their flush, they’re probably going 35 miles per hour,” Hayes said. “They bank left and right. They corkscrew, making it hard to get a line on them.”
His advice to the newbies: “The less you think, the better you’ll shoot. You just want to get out in front of the bird and pull the trigger.”
That was easier said than done for the hunters – even Kellogg, who walked several hours and shot 79 shells in order to bag a limit of eight birds. Wuest and the Heldts mistook meadow larks for their quarry; several times, Hayes had to stop them from shooting the songbirds.
But after seeing numerous groups of snipe take wing and quickly disappear in front of them, the novice hunters got the hang of it. All three successfully bagged their own birds, as well as teaming up to shoot several “community birds,” as Hayes called them, for a total of 15.
Without a dog trained to retrieve snipe, recovering them can be difficult in tall grass and knee-deep sloughs. Hayes constantly surprised Wuest and the Heldts by finding downed birds that the three of them had walked right past.
“The ‘snipe whisperer,’ ” Mike Heldt said of Hayes.
The first-timers were sufficiently pleased with their bounty and the experience that they stayed for an afternoon dove shoot. Back at home in Tampa, the first order of business would be consulting a creditable wild game recipe book.