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The Hunting of the Snipe

Monday, June 29, 2015
Once, while riding in the backseat with a coupla’ Texas cousins, the conversation turned to the best hunting techniques for snipe. Back home, up north, I knew about snipe; they were brown-spotted, streaky-looking birds that ran along sandy shorelines on legs that looked too long and flimsy to hold them up, let alone run.

As I listened, it was clear that the Texas variety was a different animal altogether.

These elusive creatures seemed to have more in common with the armadillo tribe than any snipe I ever saw. Perhaps it was living in the vicinity of oil wells and pipelines—and the sort of men who worked in such places—but Texan snipe had an inexplicable fascination with the smell of burning sulfur, like when you lit up one of those old-fashioned strike-anywhere matches. They could also be lured close to a hidden hunter by softly calling “snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe…” into the darkness.

I’d never heard of a wild animal that was so egotistical as to know, let alone answer to, its name. This was Texas, after all—so, if any animal did have an inflated self-image, that would be the place it would live. On the other hand, I’d never heard of a bird that looked like an armadillo and liked the smell of burnt matches.

Still, their enthusiasm for the hunt led me to believe that these snipe must be very good eating, so I was more than willing to try my beginner’s hand at capturing a bagful of them.

We spent the rest of the afternoon gathering supplies and working out our hunting strategy. The supplies were easy: a large grocery sack and a box of kitchen matches for each of us. The strategizing fascinated this neophyte, and I paid careful attention to every word of my more-experienced cousins. It was clear that they knew a lot about the ins and outs of snipe hunting.

For one thing, it made no sense to try to track them or run them down; they were just too wily and quick for that. The most effective method was to sit quietly in a likely spot in snipe country, armed as described, calling softly and lighting matches just in front of the open grocery sack. I was warned to be careful not to hold the matches too close to the bag (that was obvious, even to me—if the sack got burned, what would I use to carry all the snipes I caught?).

I also learned how efficient my cousins were. In order to best cover the snipe terrain, we would spread out to learn where they were congregating. Whoever caught the first snipe would then call out to the other hunters—then everyone would form a circle of gradually-decreasing diameter, driving the snipe toward the waiting bag of the first successful hunter.

I so wanted to be that snipe hunter.

We waited anxiously for it to get dark, when we (or rather my sixteen-year-old cousin) could drive us out to the hunting grounds.

Now Callahan was, at the time, a dry county—and the only place a thirsty Texan could get a drink was in a private club. There was just such a place, a mile or two outside of Clyde. It was a signless and windowless cinderblock building surrounded by mesquites, only identifiable because it sat in front of a pile of empty Lone Star cans as tall as the building itself. This, I was surprised to learn, was prime snipe country. No doubt it had something to do with all the smokers (and the constant lighting of matches) among the club-members.

Since I was the honored guest on the hunt, I was given the best spot.

It was well away from the security light of the clubhouse, on flat sandy ground, surrounded by exactly the kind of brush that provided ideal cover for the secretive snipes. They got me set up, making sure I had everything I needed and understood the night’s strategy. Then they went off to find suitable spots to hunt. I felt bad for them, knowing that they were not as likely to be successful, since they had given me the choice location.

It was a moonless night, but the broad Texas sky was full of stars and their light was more than enough to make out the surrounding mesquites, slightly darker than the sky. I opened the bag slowly, being careful not to make too much noise with the stiff brown paper. I laid it on its side, placing a few small stones inside so that its bottom was flush with the ground. When the mad rush of a snipe happened, I wanted to be sure that it didn’t run under the bag.

I lit the first match.

Barely louder than a whisper, I began calling “snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe” into the darkness.

Another match, and slightly louder, “snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe…”

Nothing yet. I wondered if my cousins were having any better luck. Of course not—I would have heard them yell if they had.

Another match, and slightly louder, “snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe, snipe…”

The stars slowly wheeled around the sky, and my matches were running low, but still no sign of the first snipe.

Then I heard it.

A very faint moaning sound.

My cousins hadn’t mentioned the kind of noise that snipe made—or perhaps they did, but I hadn’t been paying close-enough attention? There it was again, a little louder. What if it wasn’t a snipe, but some other animal, possibly a territorial longhorn, or some other dangerous beast for which I was unprepared? The moaning faded away a bit, suggesting a change of direction. Maybe the creature had found some more interesting prey. No, it was getting louder again, heading straight for me.

That was no animal.

It was a pick-up truck.

It stopped not far from where I sat, matchless in the wilderness. My grandfather walked over to me, cursing softly in the darkness. “Damfool kids. What the hail would the sheriff say if he found him out here all by hisself?”


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