As the canoe pushed through some reeds in this coastal river marsh, birds exploded in all directions.
“Shoot!” I yelled. “There’s another one. Fire! One stayed in the reeds. Here he comes. Shoot again.”
In seconds, my son Steven pumped out three rounds from his Remington Model 870 20 gauge. More birds flushed from the dense cover as others raced into the canes to escape on foot.
“Look, there go some more birds,” I said. “They are all over the place. Get that one running across the water!” Hastily dropping one shell into the chamber, Steven nailed another slate-gray bird struggling to get airborne.
Fortunately, surviving birds that flushed didn’t travel far. We watched where most headed, picked up our kills and took a brief break. Minutes later, reloaded and recomposed from the initial adrenaline rush, we found them again and began another paddling stalk. We repeated this for about two hours until we both bagged our generous daily limits.
Sound impossible for anything short of a safari into the heart of the Africa or the legendary dove fields of Argentina? Well, Georgia hunters can often pursue abundant game with little competition close to home by targeting species largely ignored by others.
Two gallinule species plus several rail varieties populate most of the eastern United States, including Georgia. The state offers long seasons and liberal limits, but most people simple ignore them. Some people just shoot them as targets of opportunity while hunting waterfowl or other game, but few intentionally venture into the wetlands specifically to bag these magnificent game birds.
“King, clapper, Virginia and sora rails are all legal to hunt in Georgia,” said Greg Balkcom, a WRD biologist. “However, only clapper rails are hunted at any significant level. Both common gallinules and purple gallinules are legal to hunt, but neither are hunted at any significant level. Common gallinules are usually not hunted but taken as an opportunistic harvest by a duck hunter. Harvest Information Program data indicates that about 50 gallinule hunters harvested about 200 gallinules, and about 100 rail hunters harvested about 3,400 rails in 2016-17 hunting season.”
Georgia sportsmen can hunt gallinules from Nov. 18-26 and again from Dec. 9, 2017 to Jan. 28, 2018 with a limit of 15 total gallinules per day. The season for king, clapper, sora and Virginia rails runs from Sept. 15 to Nov. 5 and again from Nov. 23 to Dec. 10. People can kill up to 15 king and clappers per day and 25 sora and Virginia rails per day.
The most abundant and widespread of the two North American gallinules, common gallinules, or moorhens, range across the eastern United States from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. A common gallinule closely resembles an American coot with a greenish-gray body, charcoal top and white trimmings. Its most striking feature, a bright orange chicken-like bill tipped in yellow distinguishes it from coots and ducks. A red patch on its forehead makes another excellent field mark. Boisterous birds, common gallinules make unmistakable sounds that somewhat resemble children laughing or hens clucking.
One of the most striking North American game birds, purple gallinules exhibit blue and green body feathers, purple heads, long yellow legs, white rumps and red bills with yellow tips. Bright blue forehead patches distinguish purple gallinules from their red-patched and more drab cousins. Also called moorhens, blue peters or swamp hens, purple gallinules thrive in freshwater marshes, lakes and swamps. Like their cousins, purple gallinules use their long toes to deftly walk across floating grass, lily pads or other vegetation while nibbling plant stems and seeds or hunting insects, crustaceans, frogs and other tidbits.
“Common gallinules, or moorhens, are common across the lower half of the state,” Balkcom said. “Purple gallinules are relatively uncommon, especially during the fall and winter. Common gallinules are statewide during the spring and summer, and concentrate in the lower half of the state and along the coast during winter. Purple gallinules are relatively uncommon, even though they can be found across the state during the spring and summer. During the winter, most purple gallinules migrate to Florida, with a few staying in extreme southern Georgia.”
Like gallinules, king rails prefer freshwater marshes, swamps and reedy lake shorelines. A bit larger than clappers, kings resemble clappers with long, slightly curved bills, but with more rusty or rich chestnut and cinnamon coloring on their faces, necks and breasts than their grayer, buff-colored cousins. In some areas with a mix of fresh and salt water, the ranges of kings and clappers overlap.
Georgia duck hunters might encounter two other smaller rails legal to hunt. Virginia rails somewhat resemble half-scale kings with dark brown heads and backs, orange legs and long, curved bills. Patches of gray splashing on their cheeks distinguish these smaller rails from their regal cousins. Also called sora crakes or cane crakes, sora rails look more like quail with short bills. Very common and widespread, most sora rails winter along the Gulf or Atlantic coasts, where they prefer freshwater systems with tall reeds and canes.
“King, Virginia and sora rails can be found across the state but are relatively uncommon,” Balkcom said. “They are more abundant along the coast. King, Virginia and sora rails are highly secretive and live in thick, emergent, marsh areas that can be difficult to access and hunt.”
Alone among the rails, clappers love salt. They prefer coastal salt marshes to sweet systems. Also called marsh hens, clapper rails make loud clacking calls that reverberate across the marsh grass. Chicken-sized birds with grayish-brown under parts, chestnut backs and grayish-white bars under their rumps, clappers migrate, but seldom fly when spooked. When they flush, they typically don’t fly more than a few yards.
“Clapper rails are almost exclusively along the coast and very common in that area,” Balkcom said. “They can be found anywhere along the entire coastline. The best bets for hunters are to keep a safe distance from homes and other developed areas and use common sense when shooting. The coastal marsh is public anywhere below the high tide line.”
Legally, hunters must be 300 feet (100 yards) from any dock, boat ramp, camp, house or recreational area before shooting their scatterguns.
Whether in fresh or salty marshes, all rails and gallinules love their thick grasses and reeds. They prefer large marshes but also inhabit grassy lake shorelines, sluggish sloughs, river backwaters, bogs and other wetlands where high vegetation grows next to the waterline. All species stay close to the thick cover where they can disappear from predators easily and often prefer to run rather than fly.
Gallinules can fly and swim better than rails, but also prefer to duck into high weeds to escape from danger. To become airborne, they must run across the water like coots. When they do take flight, these chicken-like fowl seldom fly more than a few yards, quickly dropping into clumps of dense canes to hide. Nevertheless, gallinules do expose themselves more than illusive rails. They frequently walk shorelines. With their long toes, gallinules nimbly walk over floating lily pads, water hyacinths or other matted vegetation. Unlike loner rails, gallinules sometimes congregate in flocks while swimming in shallow coves or walking across matted aquatic grass.
Neither rails nor gallinules respond to decoys, so sportsmen must go looking for them. Fortunately, that doesn’t usually take long in a good area. Some sportsmen walk the marshes and bogs in line abreast formation about 50 yards apart to flush birds from their vegetated lairs. When birds do flush, mark the spot where they land, because they often present second and third shots.
A close-ranging flushing dog helps, but don’t expect to sit and wait as a dog points a covey. Rails can easily outrun the quickest dog through the thickest cover. When walking in coastal areas, begin hunting as the tide starts to rise. Rising water inundates runways, forcing rails that cannot run into the air where they make easy targets.
Slogging through nearly impenetrable, flooded marshes or boggy lake shorelines takes considerable effort for anything not “skinny as a rail.” Therefore, small boats provide the fastest, easiest and best way to stalk gallinules and rails. Federal law prohibits anyone from shooting at migratory birds, including rails and gallinules, from boats under power until the motor shuts off and all forward momentum ceases. This includes sails and electric motors. However, unless state or local laws prohibit it, people can paddle, drift or pole through shallows and legally shoot from human-powered boats.
An old east coast tradition, poling for rails became a popular sport in the 19th century. Back in the old days, the coastal gentry of the era would wear their best clothes and tall top hats when hunting so people could see them in the thick reeds. Not many people still wear their Sunday best clothes and top hats to hunt rails anymore, but the technique still works when high tides pushes clappers from their hiding places. Modern sportsmen can pole a skiff or jonboat through flooded grasses to flush rails.
“Clapper rails are hunted by boat in coastal marsh on the highest tides that occur during the hunting season, Balkcom said. “High tides (like full moon tides) inundate much of the coastal marsh and force clapper rails to one, either seek cover in the highest spots in the marsh that are still dry, or two, float on large pieces of ‘marsh rack,’ the local name for floating clumps of dead marsh grass (typically Spartina alterniflora). Clumps of dead marsh grass float on the big tides, and clapper rails use these floating platforms as sanctuary when the rest of the marsh is under water during the high tides. Hunters can float their boat and use paddles or push poles to maneuver through the marsh and look for clapper rails that are riding the marsh rack.”
Today, most who hunt these birds probably paddle a canoe or kayak, although a small flat boat or skiff still makes an excellent hunting craft for rails. Some people hunt alone and some in teams. When hunting alone, paddlers can stretch shotguns across their laps or put them in other safe, convenient places for easy access as targets appear. When hunting in pairs, only keep one gun loaded at a time for safety reasons. Position the shooter in the bow seat with the rear person serving as primary paddler and spotter.
Double-teaming rails and gallinules in a canoe makes an excellent way to introduce youngsters or novice sportsmen to hunting. In the bow seat, the youth can sit in relative comfort and usually expect action. Young shooters won’t grow bored sitting still and quiet for long hours without seeing game. On a good day, sportsmen might see dozens of birds and fire quite a few times. In addition, hunters can carry food and refreshments in the boat to take occasional breaks. Just a few hours in a good location can usually provide numerous shots at birds.
Canoes and kayaks can get into areas where larger boats cannot venture, but they can only cover limited ground. Some people tow or haul canoes with larger motorboats to prime hunting territory and then start paddling. With a small motorboat, such as an aluminum jonboat, sportsmen can run the marshes to locate bird concentrations. Once they locate a flock, swing wide to avoid disturbing the birds and head upwind if possible. About 100 yards away, shut the engine and start polling, paddling or drifting within range. Sportsmen can also float down streams with modest current hunting along the way.
Whether alone or in pairs, paddle or pole through sloughs and small channels with matted aquatic vegetation and abundant tall reeds that provide significant shoreline cover. As silently as possible, dip paddles into the water and listen for the distinctive cackling or feet pattering over the surface. In very shallow, hard-bottomed areas, use paddles almost like push poles, sculling along without lifting them from the water. Water dripping from a paddle can alert birds because sound travels long distances over water, especially on still mornings.
Hug the shorelines or keep islands, tall canes or other available cover between the boat and the birds whenever possible. Take the inside curve on any bends. When rounding bends or emerging from behind tiny islands, sportsmen may surprise birds only a few yards away.
Scrutinize any tall canes. Rails and gallinules often freeze rather than flush. Sometimes, a boat might pass within a few feet of them without anyone seeing them. In tidal areas, scan exposed mudbanks and grassy edges for movement during low tide. Clapper rails in particular love to walk the mudflats at low tide. They use their long, slightly downward curved bills to catch aquatic insects, crustaceans and small fish.
Since rails and gallinules seldom experience much hunting pressure, sportsmen can often paddle or pole fairly close to birds wading along grassy shorelines without spooking them. More gregarious than rails, gallinules often gather in larger flocks than their loner cousins. Gallinules swimming in open water or walking across matted vegetation typically spook more easily. When hunting a large flock, shooters can often bag two or three gallinules before the others disappear and perhaps one or two more stragglers running across the water to get airborne if they react quickly enough.
If spooked, rails and gallinules usually run into the thick grass. Often, someone can back the boat off to extreme range and wait for the bird to re-emerge. Often, they come back to the shorelines after a few minutes. If they don’t reappear, whistle. Sometimes, curious birds peek out to see what made the noise. If not, remember that spot and return to it later.
Even after flushing, gallinules typically won’t travel very far. Hunters can usually relocate them rather quickly. After busting a flock, wait a few minutes for the birds to settle down and then proceed in the direction where the majority headed and begin stalking again. However, don’t hunt the same location too often. Fortunately, in good habitat, sportsmen don’t need to travel very far to find more birds and seldom encounter any other gallinule hunters.
A short-barreled, 20- or 28-gauge shotgun makes an excellent rail or gallinule buster. Even a .410 scattergun can easily take these birds down without destroying too much meat. Most shots occur at less than 40 yards. Moreover, with abundant unpressured birds available, avoid blasting away at extreme range and pick only good shots.
When hunting seasons overlap, waterfowlers could bag some bonus rails or gallinules. They throw the decoys out to hunt ducks at first light. As they head back to the camp or vehicle, they could bag any rails or gallinules they see. On many days when ducks don’t fly, shooting a limit of rails or gallinules could turn a humdrum morning into an exciting adventure, especially for a young child or novice hunter.
Just about any good marshy or reedy duck hunting spot could offer great rail and gallinule hunting. In Georgia, the best rail and gallinule action obviously occurs along the coast. However, some inland lakes and rivers with weedy, marshy shorelines throughout the state can provide good rail and gallinule hunting.
One of the better public areas in the state, Altamaha WMA covers about 27,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods, cypress-tupelo swamps, fresh to brackish tidal marshes and impoundments along the Altamaha River near Darien. Another good spot, Grand Bay WMA, covers 8,500 acres of uplands, hardwood forests and wetlands near Valdosta. Before hunting anywhere, check the regulations to say out of trouble.
After the hunt, sportsmen might enjoy eating what they bagged. People can prepare rails and gallinules in several ways. Many people quarter them or just cut out the breasts and legs to deep-fry them. Others put the quarters in stews, gumbos or similar dishes much like they would with rabbits or squirrels. With larger birds, some people fillet off the breasts to make boneless nuggets, great for frying or to put in other saucy dishes.