This story appeared in the Tabor-Loris Tribune on Oct. 2, 2002 and in the Wilmington Star News and received the second place 2003 SEOPA EIC award for Best Weekly Newspaper Column or Feature.
Patting a storm-battered dock float with the flat of my palm, I “upped” Santana out of the muck. The fabric jacketing the float was as black as the Lab and the underlying Styrofoam peeping out through small rips in the plastic weave was as white as the grizzled hair on his chin.
In spite of a tide watch that read “full moon” and “high tide,” the water had was not yet high enough to float the mats of dead, hollow reeds lining the edge of the island. To marsh hens, the reeds become rafts when a lunar tide fills the marsh to overflowing, providing them with places to rest until the tide recedes and lets them fly out to feed in the grass flats again.
Like the clapper rail that had skulked from the grass into a stand of giant reeds as I anchored the boat at the edge of our island, the tide sneaked silently in. Selecting the stub of a broken cordgrass stem to use as a tide gauge, I watched the water creep higher against the slanting rays of sunlight reflecting beneath the bill of a cap and forcing me to squint against the grass-dappled glare. Deciding that when the top of the stub was covered we would resume our hunt, I waited. Santana whined quietly, excitedly. We caught our breath until more favorable conditions arose with the incoming brine.
There is something mystical about sitting in a marsh while waiting out a rising tide. The timeless tide waits for no one and sets its own schedule. Sometimes it rises to such a height that is remarkable in human terms, covering roadways, boat ramps and piers. To hunters, such an astronomical event is known as a “marsh hen tide,” because it concentrates sora, Virginia and clapper rails, making them easy pickings for a hunter poling a boat through the marsh or walking the edge of an island.
Anyone who has never hunted marsh hens cannot appreciate the extraordinary sporting qualities they possess. They can run faster than any pheasant, hide better than a rabbit, swim and dive like a canvasback duck. If they could fly with the speed and maneuverability of a blue-winged teal, rails would be the gamiest bird in the marsh. Alas, or fortunately for many of us who are addicted to the pungent aromas of the tidelands, clappers are poorly equipped to fly. Their attempts at gaining the safety of open marsh or tall reeds when flushed are nearly comical and more are missed by gunners who over-lead, rather than shoot too far behind.
Once our makeshift tide gauge read “marsh hens,” Santana and I resumed our hunt. However, the tide never achieved its full potential and we walked a long distance before striking birds.
The Lab’s tail telegraphed scent as he trailed a marsh hen in the short grass near a point of land. At the flush and the shot, feathers drifted on the wind, indicating a downed bird as the big clapper hen sailed through the tall reeds.
Santana retrieved the bird then began trailing another up a high bank and into 12-foot tall cane. The rail flushed, landing well out into the marsh and out of range. On a lark, I whistled him out of the jungle. Handling him out into the water, I tested his mettle against the tidal rips and clinging grass. Working him into the wind with hand signals maneuvered him into the vicinity of the bird. Amazingly, he swam hard enough in pursuit to pressure the clapper into flushing instead of diving. She flew toward me and I added her to the game bag, our shopping basket for the makings of dinner on days spent out in the marsh.
On a good day, a limit of 15 clappers can come within a couple of hundred yards of walking. But on this day, the tide began to fall before it rafted the reeds. On a bad day, one hundred yards per marsh hen is the price you pay for dinner. This day was one of the worst of the worst, with paces slogged through grass beds, marsh muck and fording tidal streams measured in distances of miles.
Still, we achieved our goal. But it was not the half-dozen fine clappers that created a heavy lump at the small of my back. The glint of sunrise tinged with salt-scent and spiced with solitude are the solace of a hunter’s soul. There is nothing quite as soothing to the spirit of a coastal gunner as a morning spent on a marsh, waiting for the tide to rise.