sora rail
Shy Bird: Many hunters have heard soras but never seen one.. Donald M. Jones

If you’re a duck hunter who frequents the cattail marsh, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a sora rail. You might not have seen one, as soras seem to be tremendously shy little birds. But you’ve likely been privy to the sora’s odd, yet clear, rising series of peeps and whistles coming from the depths of the greenery.

Found across the U.S. from coast to coast, the sora is our most common and widely distributed rail bird, leading the similarly sized Virginia rail and the larger clapper and king rails. Soras are small birds, about the size of an English sparrow and weighing roughly the same. The bird sports a slate-gray chest and belly, brown-white-black speckled wings and back, and a black bib and facemask accentuated by a bright yellow bill. The long legs are greenish gray and dangle awkwardly when the rail takes wing. Flight is neither strong nor lengthy, appearing almost labored. Preferred habitats include cattail marshes and moist soil environments, where the rail can feast on seeds, insects, and aquatic invertebrates.

Why the Rail?

Rail hunting offers a great chance to get in good (or at least better) physical condition prior to the onset of the traditional hunting seasons, for you and your retriever. Given a stiff wind, the tiny marsh birds can provide surprisingly challenging shooting. And while there’s little more than a taste per bird, rail, when dressed and prepared correctly, is considered by many to be a delicacy.

Guns and Gear

Light is the word when it comes to shotguns and ammunition for rails. A 6-pound 20-gauge over/under or side-by-side is all that’s necessary. A 12-gauge is a bit on the heavy side for these small, close-flushing marsh birds. Similarly welterweight charges are on tap here, too. A 1-ounce load of No. 7 steel is more than adequate and will cover the bases on those days when rails, teal, and doves are all on the docket. As for clothing, many, myself included, opt to wade wet: canvas Dickies britches, a white T-shirt, and Chuck Taylor high-top sneakers. Not your traditional waterfowling garb, but comfortable in September’s heat.

Retrievers and Rails

The toughest part about rail hunting is finding downed birds. A retriever that will work rails is a godsend. Lacking one, however, it’s best to choose shots where birds are likely to fall in an open-water area, and you should plan on getting to a fallen rail quickly without taking your eye off the spot. If you don’t find the bird immediately, toss your blaze orange cap in the general vicinity and circle around, looking for anything out of place.

Sora Strategies

Walk and walk, and then walk some more. Listen for the birds’ alarm calls (find out what they sound like here: as you approach potential hunting areas. Like rooster pheasants, soras would rather run than fly. Wise sora hunters will work wetland cover from thick to nonexistent, such as open pools or ditches, and force the birds to flush. High-wind days provide the best hunting, as rails are more likely to flush and show a tendency to fly farther.

The Sora App

Appetizer, that is. Sora breast fillets, or nuggets, are small but excellent eating. Remove all skin and fat from the nuggets, wash, season with salt and pepper, bread them (I’m partial to Pride of the West mix) and deep-fry for 30 seconds in smoking lard.