RAIL SHOOTING

Success in this delightful sport depends as much upon the proper
accessories, together with experience in minor matters, as in the great
art of properly handling the gun. The best shot, badly equipped, will be
surpassed by an inferior marksman accustomed to the business, and
thoroughly fitted out for it. The shooting is done among high reeds, and
from small, light, and unstable skiffs, which are poled over muddy
shallows with an unsteady motion that puts an end to skill which is not
founded on long practice. The sport lasts only during the few hours of
high water, when the entire day’s bag must be made, and requires, after
the bird has been killed, a sharp eye to retrieve him amid the weeds and
floating grass.

The number bagged, however, is sometimes prodigious; and although we
rarely now hear of hundreds killed “in a tide,” as was formerly not
unusual, the shots are still frequently rapid, and the result
satisfactory. The bird rises heavily, its long legs hanging down behind;
flying slowly, it presents an easy mark to any one upon _terra firma_,
and if not shot at, will alight after proceeding thirty or forty yards.

It comes on from the north during the early part of September, and
disappears so instantaneously with the first heavy frost, that our
superstitious baymen imagine it retires into the mud. It can, however,
fly strongly, as I have occasionally had unpleasant evidence under
peculiar circumstances, and in wild, windy weather. During low water,
when it can run upon the muddy bottom among the thick stalks, which it
does rapidly, it can hardly be flushed by any but the strongest and
toughest dog, and is not frequently pursued; although many persons enjoy
the hard walking and exposure of this plan, preferring to tramp over the
quaking surface of our broad salt meadows, and flushing the rail from
amid some tuft of reeds, kill him with the aid of their loved
fellow-playmate, a high-strung setter or untiring water spaniel.

As the tide rises, however, and covers the bottom with a few inches of
water, the rail, caught feeding among its favorite wild oats, or on the
grains of the high reeds, and alarmed at the advancing boat, is forced
to take wing and present an easy mark to its destroyer. But if missed,
although marked down to an inch, it rarely rises a second time, having
probably escaped by swimming–a thorough knowledge of which is among its
numerous accomplishments. The rail has a long, thin, and soft body,
which it appears to have the faculty of compressing; as it can glide
amid the thick stems of reeds and grass with wonderful rapidity; and if
wounded, it will dive and swim under water, leaving its bill only
projecting, so as to bid defiance to pursuit.

The first necessity of equipment for this sport is a breech-loading gun,
which not only enables the sportsman to kill double the number of birds,
but will occasionally give him the benefit, by a rapid change in the
charge, of a favorable presentation of a chance flock of ducks. But as
many persons, out of a want of knowledge or of funds, still cling to the
old muzzle-loader, it may be well briefly to mention the articles that
tend to modify its inferiority.

Of course, as the shooting occupies but a few hours, and in good days
the birds are perpetually on the wing, it is essential to load rapidly;
and to do this the sportsman places on a thwart before him a tin box
divided into compartments for powder, shot, caps, and wads, or, as I
prefer, two boxes, one filled with powder and the other with the other
materials. For many reasons there should be a lid over the powder–to
prevent its being ignited by a chance spark or blown away by a strong
wind–and the ordinary flask is frequently used in spite of the
consequent delay. A double scoop, made of tin or brass, and regulated to
the precise load, is placed among the powder and the shot, and a solid
loading-stick lies near at hand.

By these means the rapidity of loading is more than doubled; the powder
is dropped into both barrels at once by means of the double scoop, wads
are driven home by a single blow of the rod, both barrels are charged
with shot at once in the same manner, the caps are within easy reach,
and the gun is loaded in less than half the time consumed in the
ordinary process. The shot may be made into cartridges of paper with a
wad at the upper end, and thus a few additional of the precious seconds
saved. Both barrels are discharged before either is reloaded, and the
birds are retrieved immediately.

The sportsman stands erect, without any support to modify the
unsteadiness consequent upon the irregular motion of the boat, and
requires practice, not merely to enable him to take aim, but even to
retain his footing. Where the water is low and the reeds strong, this
difficulty is augmented, as the boat entirely loses its way after every
push, and advances by jerks that utterly confound a novice. Experience,
however, being acquired in loading rapidly and in retaining his balance,
the sportsman’s labors are easy; but the punter requires many different
qualities, and upon his excellence mainly depends the final result.

He must possess judgment to select the best ground, strength to urge on
the boat unflaggingly, and an inordinate development of the bump of
locality to mark the dead birds. The bird once killed and the sportsman
part ended, then the punter displays his ability; and if thoroughly
versed in his craft will push the boat through tall reeds, and matted
weeds, and fallen oat-stalks, and drifted grass, with wonderful accuracy
to the very spot, and peering down amid the roots, will distinguish the
brown feathers almost covered with water and hidden by the vegetable
growth.

In order to retrieve quickly, a wide-meshed scapnet is a great
convenience; but to mark well, a man must be endowed by nature with that
peculiar gift. Among the vast mass of undistinguishable marine plants
that spring from the muddy bottom and rise a few inches or many feet
above the surface, it would seem impossible to determine, within an
approach to accuracy, where some bird, visible only for a moment and cut
down when just topping the reeds, has fallen; and when another bird
rises to meet the same fate, and perhaps a dozen are down before the
first is retrieved, successful marking becomes a miracle. With some
punters on the Delaware, where their names are famous, so wonderful is
the precision that every bird, if killed outright, will be recovered,
and even a poor marksman will make a respectable return; but when the
gentleman shoots badly and the man marks worse, rail-shooting is
unprofitable.

For this sport, thus followed, it will be seen that a punter is
indispensable, and it is made the business of a large class of men along
the salt marshes where the rail most do congregate; and wherever a
punter cannot be obtained, as in the wilder portions of our country,
rail-shooting cannot be had.

From the necessity for rapid firing, the immense advantage of a
breech-loader must be apparent; the tide rarely serves for over two or
three hours, and to kill more than a hundred birds in that time with a
muzzle-loader is a remarkable feat, as it requires almost the entire
time for the mere loading and firing of the gun; but the breech-loader
may be charged in an instant, and enables the sportsman to improve the
lucky chance of coming upon a goodly collection of birds, and make the
most of the scanty time permitted to him.

None of those vexatious mistakes that occasionally happen to the best
sportsmen can befall him; the shot cannot get into the wrong barrel, nor
the cap be forgotten; the powder is not exposed to ashes from a careless
man’s cigar; and there being no hurry, there is more probability of
steady nerves and a true aim.

The charge should be light–three-quarters of an ounce of shot and two
drachms of powder being abundant to kill the soft and gentle rail–and
pellets at least as fine as No. 9 are preferable to coarser sizes. Old
cartridges, that have been split and mended by gumming a piece of paper
over the crack, may be used in the breech-loader, provided the sportsman
desires to indulge in praiseworthy economy, or is deficient in a supply.

The sport is extremely exciting: the boat is forced along with
considerable rustling and breaking of stems and stalks; the bright sun
streams down upon the yellow reeds and lights up the variegated foliage
of the distant shore; the waves of the bay or river, rising apparently
to a level with the eye, sparkle in the gentle breeze that bends the
sedge grass in successive waves; neighboring boats come and go, approach
and recede; the rapid reports are heard in all directions, like
fireworks on the Fourth of July; the sportsman stands erect, and eager
with delirious excitement, near the bow; the punter balances himself,
and wields his long pole dexterously on a small platform at the stern.

Silently a bird, rising close to the boat, wings its way, with pendent
legs and feeble strokes, towards some one of its numerous hiding-places;
instantly the punter plants his pole firmly in the bottom, holding the
skiff stationary, the sportsman brings up his piece, and, with
deliberate aim, sends the charge straight after the doomed rail, which
pitches headlong out of sight. The punter has marked him by that single
wild rice-stalk with the broken top, and heads the boat at once towards
the place; but ere he has advanced a dozen feet, another bird starts and
offers to the expectant sportsman, who has his gun still “at a ready,”
another favorable chance, and, meeting the same fate, falls into that
low bunch of matted wild oats. The breech-loader opens, the charges are
extracted and others inserted, just in time to make sure of two rail
that rise simultaneously, still ere the first has been reached, and
which are both tumbled over and marked down–one, however, wing-tipped,
and never to be seen by mortal eye again.

Thus have I experienced it on the Delaware, at Hackensack, and, in
former days, among the tributaries of Jamaica Bay, and at many other
places where more or less success has attended me. Although never having
enjoyed great luck, never having advanced beyond the first hundred, and
claiming to be no such marksman as several of my friends, I have had
wondrous sport. Of a good day, when the tide is favorable and the game
plenty, the excitement is continuous, and increased by a sense of
competition.

Other sportsmen are on the same ground, stopping probably at the same
hotel and shooting in close proximity–occasionally too close, if they
are thoughtless or careless. Not only will a charge of mustard seed
sometimes rattle against the boat, but is apt, now and then, to pierce
the clothes and penetrate the skin, followed by an irritation of mind
and body; but when the tide has fallen, and the sport is over, a
comparison of the bag made by each sportsman is inevitable, and no
general assertions of round numbers will answer, but the birds must be
produced. It is vain to claim what cannot be exhibited, and more than
useless to talk of the immense quantities that were killed but not
retrieved; such excuses are answered by ridicule, and if the poor shot
would avoid being a butt, he must be modest and submissive.

There is danger too, at times, although an upset in the weeds can result
in nothing worse than a wetting of oneself and one’s ammunition, and the
ruin of the day’s enjoyment; but I was once on the Delaware, opposite
Chester, when a fierce north-wester was blowing, which had driven much
of the water out of the bay and river. The tide, of course, was poor,
having difficulty to rise at all against the gale, which kept on
increasing every moment, and the birds were scarce and difficult to
flush. The work of poling was laborious; the boats stopped after every
push, and the heavy swell from the broad river, rolling in a long
distance among the reeds, added a new motion to their natural
unsteadiness.

Of course the sport was not encouraging, and the accidents were
numerous; several sportsmen fell overboard, one upset his boat, and my
man came so near it–his pole slipping at the moment he was exerting his
utmost strength upon it–that his efforts to recover his balance
reminded me of dancing the hornpipe in a state of frenzy. He kicked up
more capers, and indulged in more contortions on the little platform,
scarcely a foot square, which he occupied, than I supposed possible
without dislocation of a limb; but he managed, however, to regain his
equilibrium, and neither fell overboard nor upset the skiff.

These little incidents, and the shooting, such as it was, kept the
party, which was numerous, interested until the time came for recrossing
the river to our hotel. There was no stopping-place on our present side
of the river, which presented one apparently endless view of waving
reeds; and the alternative was simply to cross the open river, or pass
the night in our boats. The swell had increased into high waves capped
with snowy foam, and threatened destruction to our low-sided, short, and
narrow boats. Many were the consultations between the various punters,
and grave were the doubts expressed of a safe crossing; but as there was
no help for it, the trial had to be made.

Selections were chosen of favorable starting-points, and most of the
party put out at about the same time–the sportsman lying on the bottom
at full length in the stern, and the oarsman timing his strokes to the
violence of the sea. The waves broke over us continually; it was
necessary to bail every few minutes, and several had to put back when
they met with some more than usually heavy wave, and take a fresh start,
after emptying the superfluous water. Of course we were drenched to the
skin, but found a species of consolation in knowing that no one had the
advantage of another. Had any of our boats upset, although we might have
clung to them and drifted back among the reeds, we could have effected a
landing nowhere, and would probably have terminated our career then and
there; had this happened to a certain little skiff that held two men and
very few rail, this account would probably never have been written.
However, fate ordained otherwise, and we reached our destination in
safety.

The best locality for rail-shooting is along the marshy shores of the
Delaware River, above and below Philadelphia; many birds are also killed
on the Hackensack and the Connecticut; they are abundant on the James
River, and doubtless further south, but are not shot there; and they are
found scattered over the fresh as well as the salt marshes throughout
the entire country. I have killed them in the corn-fields of Illinois
while in pursuit of the prairie chicken, and have bagged several and
heard many among the wild rice of the drowned shores of Lake Erie. They
are a migratory bird, and pass to the southward in the early fall rather
in advance of the English snipe, and alight at any damp spots for a
temporary rest wherever the growth of plants promises nutriment.

They are often flushed by the snipe-shooter, together with the larger
fresh-water rail, _rallus elegans_, and their curious cry resounds along
the reedy marshes where the wild-fowler pursues the early ducks.
Nevertheless, they are difficult to flush and kill where there is no
tide to drive them from their muddy retreats, and where the ground is
too heavy for a dog; and, comparatively speaking, on fresh water, unless
the wind shall have caused a temporary rise, they are safe from injury.

Their voices reply with the guttural “krek-krek-krek” to the noise of
the boat, and tauntingly boast of their abundance and their security.
Moreover, in a new country, where larger game is still plentiful, the
excellences of the tender but diminutive rail are lost sight of by
comparison with his more profitable compeers; and except along the
Atlantic coast, he is known as a game-bird neither to the sportsman nor
the cook.

From the fact that he is rarely seen in the spring, and does not at that
season give his enemies a chance to prevent his reaching his
nesting-places at the far north–but only visits us during a few short
weeks in the fall, and then is not much exposed, except in certain
localities–his race will be preserved in undiminished numbers for many
generations; the light skiffs will carry the eager city sportsman along
the shores of the Delaware, the Hackensack, and the cove on the
Connecticut, and the rapid reports will continue to reverberate over the
reedy marshes.

There are two varieties, the short-billed or sora-rail, _rallus
Carolinus_; and the long-billed, or Virginia rail, _rallus Virginianus_,
which are easily distinguished by this peculiarity, and differ, also,
slightly in plumage. The sora-rail are by far the most numerous,
especially along the sea-coast, and are usually referred to as “the
rail,” but both are shot and eaten indiscriminately. Their habits, mode
of flight, and gastronomic qualities, appear to be identical, but I
think the Virginia rail are proportionally more numerous at the West,
having a slight preference, perhaps, for the fresh water. Their food
must be, however, essentially different; for while the sora, on account
of its short bill, must be confined to the seeds of its favorite reed,
zimosa, or the grains of the wild oats, the Virginia rail, with its
longer bill, also draws much of its nourishment from snails and aquatic
insects, and is considered by some less delicate in flavor than the
former variety.

About the fifth of September, before the English snipe are numerous,
although their taunting “scaip” may be occasionally heard on their
broad, open feeding-grounds; ere the ducks have marshalled their legions
in retreat from the chilly blasts of the north, after the bay-birds,
with the exception of the “short-neck,” shall have mainly passed to the
southward, and before the quail are large enough to kill–the sportsman
arms himself with his breech-loader, and driving to Hackensack or taking
steamboat from Philadelphia, embarks in the slight skiff usually called
a “rail-boat,” and practises his hand–possibly out of exercise since
the woodcock days of early July–upon the tame and languid rail.

His cartridges are prepared for the occasion; as he does not intend to
devote more than a day or two to the amusement, he takes with him a
light suit, appropriate to the boat and the weather, gaiter shoes,
flannel pants and shirt, and his waterproof, to meet a temporary shower,
and he lays in sufficient liquid for himself and his man, knowing that
salt air produces thirst and country inns bad liquor. Thus armed and
equipped, if he is fortunate enough to have high tides, he is almost
sure to enjoy fine sport, and bring home a bag of game that will furnish
forth his table right handsomely to a goodly company, or go far and
spread much satisfaction among his friends who may be the fortunate
recipients. The heats of the summer solstice are over, the birds will
keep several days with care, and the sportsman has not to dread either
the burning sun of August or the freezing blasts of winter.

Many double shots present themselves in rail-shooting; and upon the
manner in which these are turned to account, and the brilliancy with
which a bird that rises while the sportsman is in the act of loading, is
covered with the hastily charged barrel and cut down, depends the
superiority of one marksman over another. In the days of the
muzzle-loader, I have killed many a bird with one barrel while the
ramrod was still in the other, and have shot several with the barrels
resting on my arm, when they had slipped from my hand in bringing the
gun up hurriedly to my shoulder. Every single rise should be secured as
matter-of-course, and most of the double ones, care being taken in the
latter to obey that great rule, of always killing the more difficult
shot first; if you shoot right-handed, as the majority of persons do,
and one bird flies to the right and the other to the left, shoot first
at the former, and you will have less difficulty in bringing back the
gun towards the latter.

Never relax your vigilance, as the birds rise silently, without the
warning whistle of the woodcock or whirr of the quail, at the least
expected moment; and if the punter attempts to direct your attention,
the chances are ten to one that you look in the wrong quarter.

The rail, while being a pleasant bird to shoot, is also a pleasant bird
to eat. There is no variety of our wild game, large or small, that is
more delicious; its flavor is excellent, and its tenderness beyond
comparison; it may not have the rich full flavor of that noblest of them
all, the big-eyed woodcock, nor the savory raciness of the full-breasted
quail, nor the strong game taste of the stylish ruffed grouse, nor the
unequalled richness of the kingly canvas-back–but in tender, melting
delicacy it is hardly surpassed. If cooked in perfection, it drops to
pieces in the mouth, leaving only a delightful residuum of enjoyment. It
should be floated in rosy wine, and washed down with the ruby claret,
and accompanied by fried potatoes, thin and crisp as a new bank note.
It may be preceded by the _pièce de resistance_, and should be followed
only by salad, which may in fact be eaten with it, if dressed with
sufficient purity.

Kill your rail handsomely in the field, missing not more than one in
twenty, present him properly and with due appreciation on the table, and
eat him with the gratitude that he deserves.

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