If you were the homeowner you might say "Oh crap."
If you were a rail hunter you'd say, "Keep on risin'."
With a northeast wind blowing in off the Atlantic Ocean, the scheduled 6.8-foot tide was going to top out a lot higher, which was a good thing.
My hunting partner and I had launched a canoe at the public boat landing near Rockville in Charleston County, and we were paddling across Bohicket Creek to the salt marsh behind Seabrook Island. As long as the wind didn't carry us to Florida, we would arrive about an hour before high tide.
Once we made it to the other side, we were in the lee of the island, and the wind was more manageable. The breeze swayed the Spartina, and occasional sparrows and marsh wrens flitted ahead of us as we snaked our way up a twisting, no-name creek.
No one else was around, and the only discernable sound was the sporadic "yak, yak, yak, yak, yak, yak," with a descending cadence.
It was the call of our quarry, the clapper rail, also known as a marsh hen. It is one of the most distinctive and common calls heard in the salt marsh. It fits in like a red-winged blackbird's call in a freshwater marsh or a quail's call along a field's edge.
Along with its call, the other common characteristic of the bird is that it is seldom seen. If you are running a salt-marsh creek at low tide in a boat, you may come around a bend and surprise a bird foraging on a mud flat, quickly catching a glimpse of it before it darts into the grass.
You may spy one while fishing a grass edge. While scanning over the marsh, you might see the bird jump up, flutter a few feet, and then awkwardly plunk back down into the grass.
Otherwise, the best time to see them is during extreme high tides. Unless one poles for tailing redfish, most people wouldn't even know rails existed if not for their call.
Flood tides are the best time to hunt rails, and while my partner and I could hear the birds, the tide wasn't high enough to cause them to flush at our arrival. The rails simply slinked ahead through the grass undetected.
Knowing the tide wasn't perfect yet, we slowly paddled across the marsh. A few inches of water can really make a difference, so it wouldn't be long before things got right.
After 20 minutes, we started flushing some birds. A push up a small creek would yield nothing until it petered out. At the end, a rail would be swimming ahead out of the grass across a flooded flat.
Believe me when I say they don't want to fly. They'd rather walk or swim.
As we pushed through the very last stitch of cover, a rail would flush, sometimes seemingly right from under the canoe. At the shot, another would sometimes flush.
Since you rely on the tide and have a limited window to hunt, there's no time to savor the hunt until afterwards. My partner shot a few birds, and then we switched positions in the canoe. You usually have about 90 minutes, sometimes more, if the wind is blowing from the right direction and it is a big tide.
As if the clogged kitchen sink had been unplugged, the tide started ebbing, and we were soon confined just to the creeks. The magical time had passed, but 20 birds were in the shrimp basket in the canoe.
Rail hunting in the Lowcountry is about as common as seeing the bird itself. This is despite a healthy population of birds, plenty of hunting territory and liberal bag limits. Clapper rails are the Rodney Dangerfield of the wingshooting world - they get no respect.
Four species of rails can legally be hunted in South Carolina: King, Virginia, sora and clapper. King rails are the largest, nearly the size of a chicken (15 to 19 inches long), and they feature very rusty underparts. Virginia rails are much smaller, only 9 to 11 inches long, reddish as well, but with gray cheeks. Both King and Virginia rails have long bills. Sora rails, on the other hand, are primarily seedeaters and, thus, have stubbier, yellow bills. They are also a small, sparrow-sized bird.
King, Virginia and sora rails are most common in fresh or slightly brackish marshes, but they will stray into salt marshes, especially during migration or on wintering grounds.
Clapper rails are nearly as large as King rails, but they are a more grayish bird and lack the rusty underparts. They are only found in salt marshes, and they range along the Atlantic Coast from New Hampshire to Florida and around to Texas.
To get a good idea of what each species looks like before going afield, invest some time in reading a good bird identification book.
"Because of their secret nature, rails are very hard to census," said Billy Dukes, small-game project supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). "Clapper rails are very common, however, along the coast."
Equally as elusive are the estimates of the number of hunters and how many birds they harvest. The methods used by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are not robust for activities in which very few people participate. Nonetheless, the estimates do provide a glimpse of rail hunting and participation.
"South Carolina routinely has the most rail hunters," Dukes said. "It's no surprise, either, that we are one of the top harvest states as well."
The USFWS estimates there are approximately 3,500 rail hunters in South Carolina. The state's annual rail harvest averages between 3,000 and 9,000 birds. New Jersey, Virginia and Florida are big harvest states as well, which is not surprising given the amount of coastal wetlands.
What makes South Carolina such a great place for clapper rail hunting is the amount of salt marsh found along the coast. The state has about 500,000 acres of coastal wetlands, of which about 350,000 acres are classified as tidal salt marsh. This means there are a lot of places to go rail hunting.
Unlike some other wetland types on the coast, such as managed impoundments, tidal salt marshes are open to the public for recreation. There are some exceptions, such as marsh found within the boundaries of national wildlife refuges. However, in many instances, to go rail hunting, you don't have to own land, obtain a lease or pay a daily fee. You are only encumbered by the rules, regulating method of take, season and bag limit.
Most of the tidal salt marsh acreage is found in Charleston and Beaufort counties, and to a lesser extent, Georgetown and Jasper counties. For instance, there is very little tidal salt marsh along the Grand Strand.
Good clapper rail marshes occur close to the immediate coast. The birds are found farther up river systems, but the vegetation changes, and the tide rarely floods high enough to force the birds from the thicker vegetation types.
For instance, my very first rail hunt in South Carolina occurred where Hwy. 17 cuts across the Combahee River in Colleton County. There is a great expanse of tidal marsh and an abundance of clapper rails here, but we were able to flush only one bird during the whole hunt despite hearing many, many more calling from the grass.
Some of the better marshes to hunt are at North Inlet in Georgetown County, marshes within the boundaries of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in northern Charleston County, marshes behind Isle of Palms and Sullivans Island and the acreage of marsh in lower Charleston County, such as along the Kiawah and North Edisto rivers.
If you decide to rail hunt within the boundaries of Cape Romain NWR, non-toxic shot and a permit is required. You can obtain the permit from the Refuge office (843-928-3264) or download it off of the Internet (www.fws.gov/caperomain). State seasons apply on the refuge but there is no hunting on Sundays.
There is also an abundance of opportunity along the lower coast.
"The marshes behind Otter Island are a great place to hunt for marsh hens," said Dean Harrigal, ACE Basin Project leader for SCDNR. "Another good spot is around Ashe Island."
Both islands are located in lower Colleton County. Otter Island fronts on the Atlantic Ocean on the east side of St. Helena Sound, and Ashe Island is in the north-northwest corner of the Sound.
"The salt marsh behind Hunting, Fripp and Pritchards islands in Beaufort County would also be great places to go," Harrigal said.
You will need a boat to reach most of these places; however, paddling a canoe or kayak is not out of the question. The best thing to do is obtain a map of local boat ramps near the suggested areas. Some spots have landings within paddling distance, such as near Rockville.
Look for locations where roads cross tidal salt marshes as well. There might not be a landing, but you may be able to launch a car-topper boat from the shoulder of the road with little problem.
Besides a boat of some sort, the rest of the equipment for rail hunting is basic. You don't need much firepower. Sometimes, I think clapper rails just die at the sound of the gun.
A 20-gauge or .410 shotgun is all you need. If all you have is a 12-gauge, it will more than suffice, but pick light loads since the shooting is in close. Shot sizes should be No. 7 1/2s or 8s. Think dove loads.
Because most shots are less than 25 yards, an improved cylinder or modified choke is sufficient. To make it sporting, I routinely use a single-shot .410 with a full choke. I routinely am able to get a limit of birds on a tide despite being limited by one shot.
Another reason I use this gun is it can take abuse. The salt marsh is hard on a gun. If you hunt in the morning and you haven't oiled your gun by supper, it will be rusted. Plus, a shotgun will get banged around some in the bottom of a canoe. My point is, don't go out there with the double-barrel shotgun you inherited from your grandfather. He might roll over in his grave by the time your hunt is over.
The best tides to hunt are around the new and full moons. A scheduled tide above a 6.5 is adequate, especially if an easterly wind is forecast (If you are on the lower coast, add 2 feet to that tide height.). Any time you hear the words "shallow coastal flooding expected at the time of high tide" think rail hunting, assuming the season is open.
As the tide rises, clapper rails will move towards the thickest cover, which is usually located along the margins of tidal creeks. It is best to pole or paddle up smaller and smaller creeks, being certain to push past the ends of any little gut. The birds will often move to the end of the vegetation lining the gut before flushing.
It is best to only knock down one bird at a time. Rails aren't hard to kill - just hard to find. When they fall, they seem to disappear in the grass. Searching for a downed rail makes finding a dove in a weedy cornfield seem like hunting for Easter eggs on a mowed lawn.
Because rails can be so difficult to find, I don't take long shots, especially if they are on the other side of a creek, and I don't attempt to take a second bird unless the first downed bird is plainly visible. You don't have to get greedy, as there will be ample opportunity to get additional birds.
Given the fact that the gunning offers multiple opportunities to take birds, rail hunting is a great way to expose a young pup to gun shots and feathers. If you have a trained retriever, rails offers a great tune-up to knock the rust off before duck season arrives - without the heat of a dove field.
There are two things that you need to be mindful of. First, many birds can resemble clapper rails on a flush. Least bitterns are the first that come to mind. So know your target before you squeeze the trigger. Second, it is not legal to use a motor to go across a flooded salt marsh to flush birds. Any boat must be under human power only.
Once you get a mess of marsh hens, they work well in any recipe calling for doves, woodcock or quail. I prefer to make gumbo and serve over hot rice with cornbread.
When the tides of fall begin rising you may say, "Oh crap," but it won't be because your kitchen sink is clogged. It will be because you just missed a puff shot on a clapper rail riding a northeast tailwind.