Ungainly Aviators

By Phil Covington | October 2, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 1996

Plink! Clink! Cling! I awoke with a start. Something was interrupting the measured drone of my window fan.

Living in the Mississippi River hills of Pike County, I have become accustomed to sleeping through the hum of mosquitoes, the howling of coyotes and the drumming of ruffed grouse, but this metallic thud broke my morning slumber. I looked at the digital clock - it was 6 a.m. My friend Tom and his son, Dan, were flinging pebbles at my bedroom window fan to wake me to go rail hunting

After a light breakfast we set out for a 105-acre moist soil unit on the Ted Shanks Conservation Area along the Mississippi River, halfway between Hannibal and Louisiana, Missouri.

During the short drive, Tom and I filled Dan in on the natural history of sora rails - shy, diminutive seed-eating marsh birds that migrate through Missouri in mid-summer and provide a few avid hunters with something other than doves to hunt on September 1st.

The season on sora and Virginia rails typically opens Sept. 1 and runs through the first week of November with a combined limit of 25 birds. The sora rail is smaller than a bobwhite, longer legged and skinnier. The adult is a gray-brown bird with a yellow bill and sports a black face patch reminiscent of a raccoon's mask.

Rails are tasty morsels and can be substituted for doves in your favorite recipe. We often cook them together in the same dish. It takes about three rail breasts to equal the size of one dove breast. Rails spend a lot of time walking in matted marsh grass and along the shoreline in search of food. This results in thigh muscles which are relatively larger than a dove's so be sure to dress out the legs. I also save gizzards and hearts; every little bit helps when you are dealing in grams.

When we reached the marsh, the morning fog had lifted and it was obvious why this was a favored feeding spot for fall migrating ducks. Wild millet, rice cutgrass, sprangle top and beggarticks were all flooded to a depth of about 6 inches. Few puddle ducks could resist such a banquet.

But this was a hot, humid day in early September and the ducks were still up north. In fact, the marsh appeared to be devoid of all bird life. I told Dan to throw a rock far out into the water. Immediately the solitude was broken by the high pitched "keek" of several startled sora rails. Our quarry was present.

Rail hunting is a rather simple sport. You wade through the marsh, shooting the reluctant flyers on the wing as they flush in front of you. Ungainly flyers, their legs dangle as if they were anxious to once again stand on something. They seldom fly more than 30 yards, so quick reflexes are helpful if you hope to bag your Missouri daily limit of 25.

I favor an improved cylinder shotgun with number six or four steel shot. My hunting attire consists of a long-sleeved shirt liberally soaked in insect repellant, a pair of overalls over my britches to prevent skin slashes from the sharp-edged blades of rice cutgrass and a pair of army surplus jungle boots which are light weight and keep my feet cool.

I usually wear a bandanna around my head to keep sweat out of my eyes, and I tie a cord tightly around my overall cuffs to keep seeds and bugs from floating beneath my britches. With fowling piece in hand, I cut a striking figure. The main prerequisite to rail hunting is that you be willing to forego comfort for the duration of the hunt.

We began our hunt in a line with Dan in the middle. Dan was not shooting. His mission was to spot our downed birds and assist in their recovery, a rather boring task, unless you happen to be a Labrador retriever. But Dan was young and willing.

We immediately began flushing rails. Tom made some nice shots - two doubles. His lame excuse for no triples was that he was shooting a over and under and had only two shots.

In less than an hour, Tom was out of shells. His comment was "we've never killed more than half a dozen birds before, so I only brought 16 loads." He was shooting a 20-gauge and I was using a 12-gauge pump gun so I couldn't loan him any of my shells.

We decided to dash home, grab another 12-gauge and a couple more boxes of shells and then return. This was primarily my idea since I felt he needed an unfamiliar gun to slow him down - a handicap so to speak.

Our families were pleased to see us home so early with so many rails. We put 14 rails in the refrigerator, grabbed my other 12-gauge and two boxes of shells and left in a rush. "Yes, we'll be back in time for lunch!"

After several more hours of sloshing through the marsh, Dan decided that he would like to try shooting. By then Tom and I had nearly exhausted our ammunition, so we gallantly offered to take Dan back home and pick up my .410 for his use.

While prowling through my ammo closet, I came upon a forgotten box of 20-gauge shells. Great! Dan could use my daughter's 20-gauge shotgun. It should just fit. We put 23 rails in the refrigerator, grabbed the single shot and two boxes of shells and left in a rush. "Yes, we'll be back for supper. I know we missed lunch; we're on a roll!"

By the end of the day I had 25 rails, Tom had 24 and Dan had one. We had gone through five boxes of shells, used four different shotguns, spent nine hours in the marsh, missed lunch and dinner, and temporarily alienated the rest of our families. But, no matter, life was complete. It had been quite a day for three tired rail hunters.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer