From the back of the skiff, on a homemade poling platform bolted to the johnboat hull, Walter “Joe Guide” Dinkins is taking no chances.
“Watch close, now,” the 59-year-old says. “Watch good. These rail birds will hide in no more grass than you can hold in your hand, and still you can’t see ’em.”
I watch—I think I watch pretty darn good—but in the salt marshes of North Carolina’s Cape Fear River, on a Super Moon tide with an early sun and not a ripple on the surface, watching the water is like looking into a mirror. I mark one clapper rail before it somehow vanishes in the reeds—even though there doesn’t seem to be enough cover in this clump of cordgrass to hide a clam. In the silver polish of the early-morning salt marsh, every stalk of grass appears tripled: There’s the reed above the water, its reflection on the surface, and its underwater stem bent at a confusing angle below. The rail has vanished in plain sight, until Dinkins pushes the skiff a few feet deeper into the marsh, and the hard shells of periwinkle snails scraping the aluminium hull sound like long rips of paper. Suddenly, not one but two clapper rails vault from the sparse fringe like they’ve leapt from some underwater cavern.
Actually, leapt is a stretch. These slender, gawky birds take off with all the grace of a pregnant coot. Cross a chicken with a snipe and put the result on a 30-day die