Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rail Bird Hunting

Last Friday I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of going Rail-Bird hunting. My hunting buddy Ranney called and advised that the tide was high at 11:00 a.m. and we had to be down on the Maurice River at 10:30. I cleared my desk and told my Secretary I would not be in on Friday.
Friday morning I snatched my Beretta Silver Pigeon over/under from the gun safe, grabbed 3 boxes of # 7 steel shot( Special ordered from Cabela's) and hit the road. Port Elizabeth, New Jersey is about a 2 hour drive from Philadelphia. However, when you arrive and go rail bird hunting it is rather like you have driven 2 hours to go back in time 100 years. The Camp family has been guiding these shoots for over 100 years. The cedar boats with sasafrass ribs are peculiar to this region and this purpose and crafted and maintained by generation of Camps. The Patriarch, Walt, arranges the hunts though he no longer poles. Ranney has a standing reservation with Walt, a special arrangement only afforded to a select level of Sportsmen.
Hunters have been chasing rail birds for over 200 years and the Camps have been involved for at least half of that. Teddy Roosevelt hunted here as did President Benjamin Harrison. Piainter Thomas Eakins was enamoured of rail bird shooting and the painting above is one of 6 he dedicated to this event.
Rail birds are actually a Sora which migrate when the weather shifts and Fall is in the air. They stop in the wild rice marshes along the Maurice River for nourishment for a few weeks. One can only hunt them on high tide and for the brief legal season and time they are around.
After arriving in Port Elizabeth, we drive down a long dirt road to the edge of the river where the boats and pushers are waiting. The boats are flat bottomed and have a deck fore and aft. The pusher/poler stand on the back deck using a 15 foot cedar pole to propel the boat thru the rice marsh. The shooter stand in front just behind the fore deck and you must wedge your left foot under the deck to stay balanced and hold against the forward motion.
When the tide is at it's peak, we shove off. Once you cross the river and get into the rice,you stand up, get steady,and load up. 4 boats in a line with 4 shooters and 4 polers. You hear the click of double guns being loaded to your left and right and you get ready.
Rails are about the size of Starlings. They jump up fast, fly fast and dive back down in the marsh in a flash. It is hard enough to hit them due to the speed and it is complicated by the movement of the boat. When you hit one your pusher "marks" the bird and moves up for the retrieve. It is astounding how good these men are at seeing just where a small bird went down 25 yards ahead in a marsh. Some of these guys are so good( many have been doing it 30 years or more) they stick the pole into the water, flip the bird up in the air and catch it. The legal limit is 25 and I shot 16 that day. I had my first double and was particularly pleased with that shot. This particular day there were lots of birds and we had a fantatsic hunt.
In all of North America there are on 2 or 3 rice marshes where rails congregate and where they are hunted in this traditional and timeless fashion. Unfortunately, with the advance of more Salt water from the Delaware Bay, the wild rice is retreating and this wonderful tradition may be in jeopardy.
After an hour and a half the tide is receding and it would soon become too hard to pole the boats over the rice. We then head back to the shore where cold beer and a recap of the shooting, good and bad, awaits. We also pitch in to clean the day's bag and divide them up among the shooters. Rails feed almost exclusively on wild rice so their breast meat has a unique nutty flavor that is simply delicious. I saute them in white wine with a few shallots and serve over pilaf and it is an amazing meal of a character and flavor so wild and distinctive that it impossible to describe.


RulingPart said...

Never heard of it! Great post!

James said...

I believe I mentioned before I have taken Soras as a mixed bag with Snipe.I have used #8 steel jump shooting the smaller birds.I am very envious and glad you had a Red Letter Day!

Southern Man said...

Interesting story. As a young Southern kid in Alabama, I read many stories of hunting shorebirds like rails in old hunting books and have never heard of anyone actually doing it recently. I had an Uncle who took my brothers and I snipe hunting back in the 70s...(really,,not the summer camp night thing ! ) and I remember walking across mudfluts, wearing cheap rubber boots and the horrible, horrible sucking mud ! My Uncle was a smart man, he put his nephews to work getting the birds up and stood comfortably on dry ground and enjoyed some amazing pass shooting. We shot alot of snipe back in the day, so many in fact that I started reloading shells about that time.

I still see snipe sometimes on the duck marsh, but hardly have the desire I once did to pursue the little beasts. I have shot a few woodcock in my day down here as well, although they are much rarer birds in this part of the country.

Thanks for an interesting story.

Southern Man

Terry Scoville said...

What a great experience. I hunt Snipe here in Oregon and have seen Sora Rails. There is not a season on Rails here. Sounds like some good shooting too, a double, congrats!
Thanks for sharing a very unique and special hunt.

Summer is a Verb said...

Green with envy...XXOO

JMW said...

Very cool...I'm getting a hunting education between your posts and my hubby's new outdoor ventures. He'll be dove hunting with friends at some point this weekend. I'll be hunting for fall decorations. :)

J bird said...

I am going tomorrow and can' t wait to try my luck!

J bird said...

Thanks Ranney.

Joe said...

I've been hunting rails along the South and North Carolina saltmarsh since I was a little fellow with a single shot twenty ga.

Rail bird hunting is the sport of kings around the Carolina coast.

Enjoyed your report,

Joe Guide
Father&Son rail bird hunts in NC/SC a specialty.

Anonymous said...

Great article thank you for posting...

Main Line Sportsman said...

Anon...those are hand made cedar skiffs and each one is about 75 to 80 years old