It's that time of year. Green leaves will soon turn, fading into brilliant yellows, bright reds, and crunchy browns. The mornings will become crisp, and the familiar aroma of autumn that permeates our camo and blaze orange will return. That scent soon followed by another - gun oil and leather boot treatments. As all of our preparations for the coming hunting season progress, long cardboard pieces begin receiving pepperings of lead and steel as we pattern our shotguns. Mental notes are taken regarding which choke and shell combinations are most effective. Some of us will render a few unsuspecting clay pigeons to dust and be satisfied, while others will pursue dove, producing field bags stuffed with boxes of 8 shot. However, there are a small number of hunters who will strap a canoe to the truck and chase after secretive rail birds.
Central Minnesota's primary species of rail is the Sora Rail. The season on these plump little birds begins on September 1st roughly two weeks before Minnesota's grouse opener and three weeks before waterfowl. You'll find them in large numbers within tall and thick wild rice patches. What is thick and tall you might ask? The answer is thick enough to slow down your canoe and tall enough to prevent you from being able to see over the top of the stalks. If you are having trouble finding birds we have found that they tend to congregate, and one identical rice bed to another can vary greatly in bird numbers. In some instances a sharp noise from a paddle against the canoe can cause the group of rail within a rice bed to sound off.
Rail hunting is a great way to introduce a new upland hunter to shooting live flying targets and for buffing the summer's rust off the more experienced shooters. Relatively slow flyers, rail will often flush very close to the canoe offering easy shots with plenty of more difficult crossing shot opportunities mixed in. We've found this type of hunting is best done with two people; one person in back keeping the canoe moving forward at a slow and steady pace, while the person in front sits or stands (if possible) shotgun in hand scanning the stalks of rice for any indication of nervous rail preparing to fly. The person in front doing the shooting should make sure to carefully mark where each bird they have shot falls. To aid in marking fallen birds, dont be afraid to use some bright colored bumpers to throw and mark. If you have two fallen birds marked in thick wild rice and a third flushes in front of you, it is best to let the third go so you can retrieve the previously shot birds. It is amazing how well the beautifully subtle colors of the rail blend with the water and rice, even when looking straight at them!
Despite their size, rail are actually very easy to clean and taste good. Three of us could easily clean 25-30 birds in 5-10 minutes. Use a sharp knife to cut the head and feet off, then with your fingers find the joint above the tail pinch above that joint and pull off the tail. Next use your hands to pull the skin apart at the breast and pull the skin and feathers off the body and legs. At this point you should still have feathers and skin still on the wings which is required for transporting and storing them by Minnesota law. Next turn the bird belly up, feeling below the ribs you should find the hard gizzard - grab pinch and pull. It should come out easily leaving a nice hole to pull out the entrails if they didn't come out with the gizzard. After removing all of the innards, you should have a small handful of rail ready to be rinsed and frozen.
We've enjoyed doing this for a few years now and have used it as a way to scout new duck hunting areas. We even named the latest pup addition to the grouse team "Sora."
by Adam Regier - Modern Wild