From the archives: Maryland Afield and Out of Doors with Field & Stream were outdoor columns published in The Frederick News-Post in the 1950s to early 1960s and written by the late Lefty Kreh, world-renowned outdoorsman and fly fisher. Kreh, who was a Frederick native, began his outdoor columnist career at The News-Post. This Field & Stream column published Sept. 20, 1957. It has been edited for space.
Bob Staley, of Frederick, gets the jump on most of the local hunters. For a few nimrods the gunning season starts with doves, others wait until squirrels are legal game, and most of the hunters don’t start shooting until November when the upland game season comes in.
For Bob, and Beetle, his bird dog and companion, the gunning season starts when rail bird shooting becomes legal. Bob mentioned this to me last year, and I missed a lot of fun by not going. This year I took him up on his invitation to try it.
Rails are classified as shore birds. Most of them have long legs and several of the species possess extended bills like that of the woodcock. All birds use their tails as an aid in balance. The rails have practically no tail and always seem ready to topple over. The rails have one trait in common: all have a barred coloring on the rear of the belly.
The rail bird is thought of in Maryland as a resident at the saltwater marshes, and I was very much surprised to find Bob hunting them in Frederick County. They are a migratory species and pass through here on their southern flight at this time of the year. One may find plenty in a certain place, go back tomorrow and all will have disappeared.
The best location to find these birds is in the vicinity of a number of ponds. Goldfish ponds or swamps are hot spots. Ponds with a shallow edge where marsh grasses grow are the places to hunt. Here, the birds feed on the seeds of the plants.
Anyone who intends hunting rail birds and does not have a bird dog had best stay at home. These birds only fly when pressed to the limit. A dog will pursue them over the marshy ground, back and forth a number of times, and they will only take flight when the dog is extremely close. Many times the birds will run within sight of the hunter and refuse to fly. When one does take wing, the nimrod will have to shoot fast for the bird may drop back into the protective grass at any moment.
The real prize among the rails is the king rail, which has an overall length of 19 inches. The only other rails found in numbers worthwhile to hunt locally are the Virginia rail and the sora rail, which is the most numerous.
Not only is a dog necessary to raise the rails for the hunter, but when they are shot they often fall into the water where they are hard to retrieve. Here a good dog to get the downed bird is invaluable. Beetle, Bob’s pride, does a fine job on both counts.
Aside from Bob, the only serious hunter of rail birds I could find are Durwood Kettels and Ben Phebus, both former game wardens.
Anyone who owns a bird dog and enjoys seeing him hunt should investigate the possibilities of rail bird shooting locally. For those who would like to try it without a dog, hunting them is still possible but an uphill job.
Learn it now
At first reading, this may seem a little foolish, but experience has shown it to be a sound idea. Many hunters wish they knew how to call ducks or how to sneak boat or even how to set out decoys. Trouble is they try to learn under actual hunting conditions.
In the past few years I have instructed quite a few fishermen in the art of fly casting. In all cases where the fishermen learned before the season and not on the stream he became proficient. He learned so well because he was able to concentrate on the problem at hand and not be concerned with catching fish. The same thing holds true for duck hunting.
Go out now, without a gun of course, and set out the decoys in various ways. See which arrangement is the most effective. Try different types of blinds or tricks and see if they really work in this area. Try sneak boating now when the water is warm and learn without being bothered with the actual shooting. Calling now and making a mistake is a lot easier to take than when the season is open and a flight is coming in.
Add to this the fact no other hunters are around and the ducks are not nearly as wary as they will be later, and you have a lot of reasons for doing some early learning.
For 2020 regulations for hunting rails, woodcock and ducks, visit www.dnr.maryland.gov.
For more information on Lefty Kreh, visit www.facebook.com/allthebestforleftykreh.