Roast Snipe and Slow Days

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roast snipe in a fancy bowl
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Duck hunting in California can be challenging, not because of frigid weather or gale-force winds — although that can happen — but because we can be so damn sunny. No wind, bright sun, highs approaching 60°F = no damn ducks. Grrr…

One Sunday I got up late to hunt the afternoon in one such bluebird day. The check station at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge was a ghost town. Usually a passel of wader-clad hunters orbits the building, chatting amongst themselves and waiting for spaces to open up. Not today. The parking lot was deserted.

“Any room in free roam today?” I asked the officer at the station. He snorted. “Yeah, I think we got some.” As I drove out into the 5,800 acre marsh I texted Holly, who was out in the center of the swamp duck hunting with our friend Charlie. “Am heading up for snipe. Wish me luck.” She texted back: “Slow here. Am on a walkabout.” We’d meet up later.

I parked my truck and donned a pair of marsh boots, but I kept my jeans on. This drew some stares from the wader-clad group of guys parked nearby. Snipe hunting is not a popular activity in these parts. I ignored them, stuffed a handful of steel No. 6 shot into my pockets and took a walk. Screw the ducks today. I wanted to see if I could tag a snipe or two.

Snipe. Yes, I know the joke. But Gallinago gallinago is a real bird. The common snipe and the woodcock, which I hunted in Michigan this year, are two of the few remaining shorebirds we can hunt in America, the rails and sora being the others. Snipe are small, usually weighing less than a quarter-pound. They are typically solitary, or in smallish, loose groups poking their long beaks into the mud in search of yummy wormy things. You will almost never see them before they flush.

You hunt snipe by walking boggy areas, areas that are wet, more or less open, muddy, but not underwater. Holly had spotted an area that fit the bill on a previous walkabout in Delevan’s free roam area.

Hank Shaw holding snipe in the field

“You’ll know it when you see it,” she’d said. “There are sea beans around it everywhere.” Sea beans? Salicornia? Wow. pretty cool. These mostly live on the seashore, but can be found in alkali marshes. In fact, the last time I’d seen salicornia inland was while snipe hunting in the Delta Marsh in Manitoba. A good sign.

Most of my hunting time in winter is spent hunkered down among cattails and bulrushes in two feet of water, awaiting ducks and geese. Waterfowling is my passion, and I eat duck several times a week during our 100-day season.

But I am in love with the bogs that lie on the marshes’ edges. It is upland hunting in lowland places, and I have always been drawn to the water’s edge. Even if it smells like a bog. What’s more, shooting snipe can be so challenging that a “sniper” was originally someone skilled enough to shoot snipe.

I am one of those people, at least on a good day. I was marveling at the strange colors of the bog, the lurid spring green of new grass growing underneath a tiny forest of aged salicornia, which the cold had turned a translucent burgundy, when a bird flushed in front of me, shouting k-k-kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee, dee ,dee, dee… I relazed. Not a snipe, a killdeer. A no-shoot-’em.

This is one of the things that keeps the bogs open to crazy hunters like me: Snipe are legal game, but they have many, many cousins who are protected by law. Dowitchers, godwits, killdeer, stilts, plovers and endless clans of sandpipers. Shoot one of these and you can be fined, or worse. But careful observation makes spotting snipe easier. They almost always shout, scaipe! when they flush. It is distinctive enough to give them away.

Hunting snipe is merely a matter of ambling carefully through the bog with your head up and shotgun ready. The second you hear that scaipe! you need to find where the sound is coming from, locate the fleeing snipe and assess if you have a shot. This all happens in less than 2 seconds. If you can shoot the bird in those 2 seconds you are better off, because as soon as a snipe gets any altitude it begins to zig-zag.

This is a nearly impossible shot. Your only option after this starts happening is to let the snipe get higher, where it will often — not always, but often — level out and circle back to where you flushed it.

In the middle of this reverie I heard the noise I’d been waiting for: SCAIPE! A snipe flushed right at my feet! I was so flustered I could barely get my gun up, but I managed one shot, which was enough. The snipe fell dead. It was the only one I would see that day.

Back home, I had a decision. Freeze this little bird and wait until I had enough for a meal? Or roast it now as an appetizer? I went for the roast snipe appetizer. A rule in roasting is the smaller the bird, the hotter the oven. And not much that is legal to hunt is smaller than a snipe. So I set my oven at a roaring 500°F, and painted the bird with a little lard. A sprinkle of salt and it was ready for roasting.

A tip: Preheat your oven with lots of time to spare, as it can take 20 to 30 minutes for an oven to get to 500°F. If your oven gets hotter, get it hotter. An ideal temperature for snipe would be closer to 600°F — that way you will get crispy skin, too.

Also remember to rest the birds before serving. Even though they’re small, they still need to rest the same way a chicken or turkey does. Only don’t tent them with foil in this case, as it can lead to the snipe getting overcooked.

plucked snipe, ready for roasting
Photo by Hank Shaw

Ten minutes later it was done; snipe should be served medium-ish, not well done. I doused the bird with a little balsamic vinegar and black pepper and took a bite. Oh how I’d missed you, little snipe! It is a bird with a flavor all out of proportion to its size. As small as it is, one bird makes a great appetizer, and four a hearty meal. They taste like a combination of squab and duck, with something else. Maybe its the wormy things they eat?

The sun is shining as I write this. There is no rain in our forecast for a week or more. So I will be donning my boots again this weekend, in search of the mystical snipe.

roast snipe recipe
4.86 from 7 votes

Roast Snipe

While most of my recipes have some sort of domestic equivalent, this is not one of them. There is nothing you can buy that is even close to a snipe. Even a quail is significantly larger, and while squab is a close approximation in flavor, a squab is three times the size of a snipe. So non-hunters, you're out of luck. Hunters, try not to mess with your snipe too much, and by all means pluck them. Yes, it is persnickety, but this is more or less a ceremonial meal anyhow, so you might as well go the whole way.
Course: Appetizer
Cuisine: American
Servings: 2 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 2 to 8 snipe, whole and plucked
  • Lard or butter
  • Salt and black pepper
  • High-quality vinegar, sherry or balsamic or apple

Instructions 

  • Preheat oven as hot as it will go, hopefully 500°F or even hotter. Do this for a solid 30 minutes. Meanwhile, take the snipe out of the fridge and smear them all over with lard or butter. Sprinkle salt inside the cavity and all over the birds. Let rest while the oven heats up.
  • Arrange the snipe in an ovenproof pan -- cast iron is perfect -- with a few tablespoons of water in it. You want just a little water in the pan, not enough to cover the bottom. This helps keep the snipe moist. Roast in the oven for 5 minutes. Take the birds out and baste them with more butter, lard or olive oil. Roast for 3 to 7 minutes more, depending on how you like your snipe. I like mine medium, so I go for a total of 10 minutes in the oven.
  • Remove the snipe from the oven and set them on a cutting board. Let them rest uncovered for 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle some good vinegar and black pepper on the snipe right before serving. Eat with your fingers. 

Notes

Serve snipe as an appetizer. They are really pick-up-and-eat food, so a dipping sauce is one idea, but I prefer just a splash of really good vinegar.

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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27 Comments

  1. I heard a good thing is to hollow out abaking potato then tuck the snipes beak up where the sun doesnt shine and pop it into the potato. Cook in the oven until the potato is done and the snipe will have stayed moist all this time. Salt pepper and butter are the only flavours you need…

  2. My son and I just cooked up 4 snipe using this recipe. A friend had said they “taste like quail dipped in fish guts,” so I wasn’t expecting much. Very happy to find that they’re exactly as described by Hank. Good stuff, especially when paired with sage grouse and an arugula salad.
    (Should I try cooking a Virginia rail the same way?)

  3. Rails reopen Nov. and woodcock Dec 18. We have lots of both, plus a gues bedroom and outdoor kitchen. Grab Holly and come on!

  4. I note that you sprinkled salt into the cavity of your snipe before roasting it which indicates that you ‘drew’ the snipe. In the British Isles snipe are generally eaten entire.It is said that the birds have a clean intestinal tract because they ‘squit’ as they take off. Maybe the reason it is safe to eat entire is that roasting at a high speed kills any bacteria. A friend says that his favourite breakfast is cold roast snipe with a glass of champagne.
    p.s. I laughed at you recommending Andrew Pern’s ‘Loose Birds’ book as ‘High-end British cooking. Really’. Yes, it really exists. His restaurant, The Star in Harome, is my second favourite, second only to Le Gavroche in London

  5. Many thanks for this. I’m wondering if woodcock would work just as well. They’re fairly abundant right now in East Texas.

  6. I have been checking in on your website for years and have recommended it to many, So let me thank you on creating a great place for information that I can use. I am a hunter, fisher and forager(mainly mushrooms) in Colorado. I have hunted snipe here close to 20 years. It is a little different hunting them here, I use a Brittany and a Labrador. The birds have not been shot and hold well for a point and I’m not walking in the mud. It is great to check in and see what you have up new each time. Would love to hunt with you any day! I have an Antelope and an Elk as well as a variety of ducks, mainly mallards in the freezer to play with. I have made my first sausages this year with Elk and Antelope..Wow! Italian Sausage cut with some lightly smoked bacon when I ground the meat. I have been making a large amount of jerky with all of the meats too on my smoker. The mallard jerky turned out to be an awesome surprise, good flavor, great consistency. Amazed some hunting partners with the duck! This is the first time I have commented but I have been reading for a long time. Thanks Hank.

  7. Kyle: You might find snipe near Spenceville, but I’d go to Gray Lodge and check there. Yolo holds them, too, and it’s closer.

  8. Fascinating read Hank. I’ve never hunted snipe; where would you consider the best place near sac? I’m going scouting for bigger creatures up at Spenceville…guessing those ponds won’t provide the right habitat for snipe?

    Thanks.

  9. Thart: Funny, I’d thought about including something for scale, especially after we started joking about trying to make it look like a turkey in the shot. A snipe would make a large (think 20-pound) turkey for a Barbie family.

    For clearer context, though, the middle board in the top photo is 3 and 3/8 inches wide.

  10. For those whom this great article of Hank’s may be encouraged to go after snipe for the first time, I’d appreciate the opportunity of adding my $.02 worth. That is, when you down a bird, mark it well, for once dead a bird can melt into the vegetation like no other I have ever hunted. They can be so hard to find that I long ago gave up trying to shoot doubles if the opportunity arose. It was just too hard to mark both, and more than once I failed to find one or the other.

    As an example, I remember snipe hunting with a favorite uncle. At some distance from me he put down a bird, We both walked to where we thought it had fallen, and started searching. After three or four minutes of fruitless effort he dropped his hat about where he thought it might be, and then we started circling it. No snipe. Finally after about ten minutes of both of us looking and looking with no luck, in disgust Egbert went back to his hat , picked it up – and there, under the hat, was the snipe.

    Fortunately for the hunter, if the snipe is not dead when it falls it will almost invariably make its presence known by moving about, easy to see. This is in contrast to almost any other game bird, which usually stays still in hopes it won’t be seen.

    I look on snipe as just about my favorite game to hunt, but most probably I have shot my last, for it is difficult at my age to negotiate swampy bog areas any more. But what wonderful memories I have of going after that great bird. Hank, I think you are right a jumping snipe says exactly that: “Sca-i-i-p!” in that grating voice.

    And what great table fare, too!

  11. Thart and Mom Chef: You can get a sense of scale with the bird in my hand. It’s as small as a dove, maybe 3 ounces plucked…

  12. I had no idea that they were a real bird. Color me corrected. Congratulations on your tenacity and resulting appetizer. It’s gorgeous. I agree that it would be fun to be able to really feel the size of the bird.

    PS: Have I ever mentioned how much I hate captchas? Here’s try #2

  13. Holly’s photos are wonderful! BUT, could you add a little something for scale, especially with the snipe or other small birds? Fork? Napkin? A raw veggie that can be identified in the photo? Grain? Anything really.

    Thanks!