Images of giant, sharp-billed birds descending amid trumpet-like calls might seem more like a deleted scene from Jurassic Park instead of a waterfowl hunt.
Yet across many areas of the country, that scene plays out year after year, as a small but dedicated group of hunters pursues a unique bird: the sandhill crane.
Depending on where you live, you’ve probably seen sandhills; tall, long-legged, long-necked birds with red foreheads, gray-brown plumage and dark, pronounced bills. They’re common to abundant in many parts of North America, with a total population (six subspecies) of 400,000 to 600,000, and sometimes migrate in huge, swirling flocks, often mixing with geese or ducks to feed in fields. However, few people realize the extent of crane hunting opportunities in North America, and even fewer know how to pursue these trophy birds.
That’s where experts like Tony Vandemore come in. As co-owner of Habitat Flats and Habitat Flats-Central Prairie lodges, Vandemore started guiding for sandhills in Saskatchewan during Fall 2015, and he said the crane game offers a unique challenge.
“They are a huge bird and almost look prehistoric,” he said. “Watching them come in, they can maple-leaf just like a more-agile duck. They are really neat to watch decoy.”
Here’s how to get started with crane hunting.
Cranes typically roost in bogs, wet meadows, shall marshes or similar areas but love to feed in harvested agricultural fields. Therefore, hunting them is similar to dry-land hunts for other waterfowl.
“It’s a much like a duck or a goose,” Vandemore said. “It has to come off the roost to feed. Any bird moving about to feed is vulnerable to hunting.”
Of course, you can’t simply pick a field and expect to start shooting cranes. Finding preferred feeding areas is critical.
“As with ducks and geese, being in the right spot makes it a lot easier for successful hunts,” Vandemore said. “Scouting is the name of the game when hunting dry fields. Cranes tend to fly low and really string out in the same lines off the roost, so running traffic by getting in their path can (let you) be successful as well, but being on the X makes it a lot easier.”
That usually involves lots of windshield time, looking for birds in fields or the air. After you locate concentrations of cranes in a huntable area, you must form a game plan to take advantage. Again, that’s very similar to goose or duck hunting, but cranes require special attraction and concealment considerations.
“We use Deception Outdoors full-body crane decoys,” Vandemore said. “They’re extremely realistic. Most of our spreads were three- to six-dozen decoys.
“When hunting any waterfowl, going over and above to hide yourself is a necessity. Cranes have incredible eyesight, so going the extra mile to brush up the blinds every day with natural vegetation was a must. If you missed picking (a dead) one up that was on the back side of a wind row of grain, they would flare and quit coming in, because cranes aren’t lying on the ground in the field, they’re standing up while feeding. That goes to show how smart they are and how good their eyesight is.”