By Fred Collins
In last month’s column, I talked about the joke played on people who were told to go snipe hunting. In reality, snipe are real and provided a way to earn a living long ago. Today, supermarkets are filled with an almost infinite diversity of foods from around the world to provide variety for our palates. That was not the case 100 years ago, but seasonal wild game like snipe provided additional food to people’s diet. Market hunting led to the decimation of most waterfowl and deer as well as the extinction of the Eskimo Curlew and the Passenger Pigeon. Wilson’s Snipe felt the hunting pressure as well but fortunately recovered from the early abuse.
Snipe do not form tight flocks, and each bird required a singular blast from a well-aimed shotgun. Forest McNeir, who was born in 1875 and grew up in Chambers County east of Galveston Bay, wrote a biography for his children. In the mid-1890s, he was a market hunter who shot snipe in season and received the handsome price of $1 per dozen. His shotgun shells cost him seven cents to load, so he could not afford to miss. Most people who have hunted snipe soon learned they are unique flyers — when they flush from an open marsh, they make a characteristic squawk and numerous twists and turns before breaking right or left and being long gone. McNeir wrote, “…the secret of successful jacksnipe shooting is to be able to turn the bird over in the air just one and a half times.” I know few hunters today that have even managed to hit just one. To give you some idea of the skill McNeir developed trying to make a living shooting snipe, he was on the 1920 U.S. Olympic trap shooting team.
Snipe are still legal game birds, and hunting is regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I worked my way through college trapping snipe for a federally funded research project at Teas A&M University. Each weekend from September through April, we set up 30 sixty-meter long mist nets and then flushed the birds into them at dawn and dusk, which meant we had to set the nets up and take them down in the middle of marshes at night. Our most successful hunting was at Old and Lost River among cattle grassing the marsh, which, it turns out, was also McNeir’s best spot 80 years earlier. Most banded ducks and geese have a 10 percent recovery rate, primarily birds shot by hunters. In six years, we banded more than 5,000 snipe and had only a single hunter recovery. In spite of that, I learned a great deal about snipe and also learned to smell water moccasins, which is handy when you walk around marshes at night with a bunch of Aggies!
To learn more about Texas or Cypress history, visit Commissioner Steve Radack’s Cypress Top Historic Park at 26026 Old Hempstead Hwy., open daily from dawn to 7 p.m. The Cypress Historical Society website, cypresshistoricalsociety.com, has more information on the museum buildings, special tours, and on available genealogy and history information. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call the society at 281-758-0083.
Historical facts courtesy of Cypress Top Historic Park Collection & Cypress Historical Society: Preserving Cypress History for Posterity.