Sandhill Cranes – Ribeye of the Sky

sandhill crane in flight

This wing shooter was first turned on to hunting sandhill cranes while on a Canada hunt with Saskatoon Waterfowl Outfitters. Grain fields around Saskatoon offer up ideal staging grounds for cranes as they begin their southerly migration across the Midwest, down into the playas of southeastern Arizona with some finally ending up spending the winter on vast Mennonite ranches in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Seeing these huge birds waffle down out of a blue sky as they decoy into a spread is truly a wonderful sight offered to any hunter. While that first Canadian hunt only produced a handful of cranes for our group of five shooters, it did set the stage for more crane hunting opportunities the following year when all shooters bagged limits while laid out in Final Approach blinds in a stubble grain field that was holding upward of a thousand cranes.

It was on a Mearns’ quail hunt back in the winter of 2012 with Arizona Game and Fish wildlife biologists Randy Babb and Kirby Bristow when conversation turned to hunting sandhill cranes in Arizona. Babb talked about the many great crane hunts he has enjoyed on a playa near the rural Arizona town of Wilcox about a two-hour drive east of Tucson just off Interstate 10. Seems that Babb has enjoyed some fantastic crane hunts over the past quarter of a century and talked highly of the great hunts these prehistoric looking birds offered up.

Research on sandhill cranes leads to the following information put together by the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.

A portion of three distinct populations of sandhill cranes winter in Arizona. The mid-Continent (M-C) populations winter in the Sulphur Springs and Gila River valleys of Arizona. This population migrates through the central plains, staging on the Platt River both in the spring and fall and head to wintering grounds in Arizona and other southern states including Mexico.

According to the report, wintering flocks of sandhills select areas that feature shallow water roosting areas with low or no vegetation; playa lakes and sandbars along shallow/braided rivers are preferred. Cranes winter in close proximity to harvested grain fields of which corn is preferred.

Cranes leave roosting areas in early morning, usually by sunrise, to fly to feeding areas where they spend three to four hours. During midday, cranes return to the roost or go to nearby loafing areas, which can be grasslands or wetlands. In the late afternoon, cranes sometimes make short visits back to feeding areas before returning to the night roost.

hunter in shooting position

Kirby Bristow of Tucson comes up with his shotgun shouldered as a flock of cranes work over a decoy spread.

Migration for sandhill cranes, following pre-migration staging areas, begins in late August. Migration to wintering areas begins in September and these birds migrate in a few long, high altitude flights, stopping at traditional stopover areas along the flight and arriving at wintering areas in late September.

Babb suggested that Bristow and I put in an application to draw a sandhill crane permit for the fall hunting season. Fortunately, both Kirby and I drew permits for the last hunt period of the season, but Babb was unlucky and did not draw a permit to hunt with us.

Babb is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to wildlife and especially the game of Arizona and has recently published a book titled Hunting Arizona’s Small Game. It was extremely unselfish of Babb when he offered to tag along on our hunt and offer assistance in the way of using his custom-made sandhill crane decoys, partake of his years of experience in hunting cranes around Wilcox and most importantly, his blind setup tips and expert calling.

After an evening of scouting that was followed up by a second morning of more scouting, we finally located a corn field that was holding some 500 cranes, along with a small group of javelina, Gambel’s quail and dove. The corn had just been harvested and there were plenty of ears on the ground offering up an excellent food source for wildlife.

The hunt the following morning was truly amazing as flight after flight of cranes winged over the 500-acre corn field but opted not to decoy into our spread and instead head to a nearby recently harvested alfalfa field. It was still early with more cranes headed our way. Babb was very insistent that we stay well hidden in Realtree camo under the corn stalks and not move, as cranes have excellent eyesight. One small flock locked up on our decoy spread.  Huge wings some six feet wide cupped and the birds’ long legs extending during the cranes’ final approach. Both Kirby and I missed our first shots but connected as the sandhills departed with loud screeching calls. Kirby’s crane was a lesser species, while I harvested a greater sandhill.

It didn’t take long for more flocks to fill the sky and lock onto our decoy spread enticed by Babb’s expert calling. The next flock fully committed to the decoys and Bristow filled his two-bird limit. My position in the field did not offer up a good shot. Needing only a single crane to finish off my two-bird limit, a lone sandhill circled the decoys a couple of times before getting down within shotgun range and load of No. 2 Federal Black Cloud ammo smoked out of my Benelli M2.  A broken wing grounded the crane into the field. After years of hunting cranes, Babb anticipated the results of a broken wing shot by jumping up and running that crane down.

After a photo session and some biological information gathered from the three species of sandhill crane we had just harvested, it was time to drive over to the ranch owner’s home to offer a filleted sandhill crane breast to him.

The rancher was thrilled with the offering adding, “Thanks so very much for giving me this ‘ribeye in the sky.’  My family really enjoys this meat and we cannot wait to have it for dinner. If you guys ever want to come back and hunt cranes, javelina or Gambel’s quail give me a call. I also have a big alfalfa ranch on the south end of the valley you are welcome to hunt anytime.”

setting out decoys

Wildlife Biologist Randy Babb puts out his custom sandhill crane decoys in a harvested corn field.

That first Arizona sandhill crane hunt was such a good experience that we planned another hunt for the 2017 season. I invited Bristow as my hunting partner, but Babb had committed to hunting sandhills with his daughter and likely would not be available to join us.

Drawing a sandhill crane permit for Arizona is not all that difficult as there are traditionally more than 500 permits issued for the late-season hunt. While cranes migrate south to spend the winter in the Wilcox Playa area, they are not considered a waterfowl species and you can use lead shot to harvest these sharp-eyed prehistoric monsters of the sky.

The following information on hunting sandhill cranes was passed on by Babb: “These big birds have excellent eyesight and they can spot movement from long distances. The key to getting a flock to drop into a set of crane decoys calls for very good cover, some realistic looking decoys, a little bit of calling (not much) and coming up from a layout blind in shooting position. While lead shot is not allowed for waterfowl hunting, it is legal here in Arizona for sandhill cranes. I strongly suggest that hunters find some 3-inch No. 2 lead shot when hunting cranes. The most important aspect of hunting sandhills is scouting the hunt area and then either making sure it’s state property or getting permission from a local rancher to hunt his field.”

It was a successful draw for Kirby and me, as it also was for Babb and his daughter. They drew the same hunt period; thus, Babb would not be joining us. With permits and three sandhill crane tags in hand for the second shooting period of the fall season, we laid plans for the hunt.

Due to a conflict in timing and a fall California Valley quail hunt with Rancho El Coyote-Meling in Baja Norte, I was not able to do any scouting. I planned to arrive in Wilcox late in the afternoon the day prior to the hunt, leaving Kirby and Babb to do the scouting chore.

Sandhill crane double

The author dropped a double on cranes hunting by himself in a harvested alfalfa field just to the south of the Wilcox Playa.

Upon arrival at our hotel in Wilcox I met up with Kirby who offered up the following, “It’s not going to be an easy hunt in the morning as the cranes are feeding in a cut alfalfa afield that has a wheeled irrigation system. There isn’t any place to hide in that field, so I have set us up in some straw bales about 50 yards from the alfalfa. Hopefully some birds will see our decoys and swing wide for a killable shot.”

Cranes started filling the sky just about sunrise the following morning, but they were very reluctant to fly over the stacked straw bales. After allowing flock after flock to wing off, I finally took a shot at a small group of cranes but didn’t connect. Another flock winged in closer to our blind this time, and the first sandhill crane hit the alfalfa field some 100 yards out. Unfortunately, the cranes stopped flying and Kirby had to get back to his job in Tucson, leaving me alone with two more days to hunt and still hopefully fill out my limit of three sandhill cranes.

Babb had not called to check in, so I left to plan the next hunt. A drive out to the morning’s alfalfa field offered up some hope of getting into the green field. The wheel line left tracks in that field just wide enough to lie in and stay hidden. A stop at the sandhill crane check station allowed me to meet up with biologist Jonathan O’Dell, Arizona Small Game Biologist Game Branch, and a devoted sandhill crane hunter. O’Dell permitted me to borrow six crane decoys for the next morning’s hunt.

The next morning at first light, cranes lifted off early looking to start feeding right away. One flock looked over my little decoy spread but winged off. Another flock of two dozen cranes headed for the alfalfa field and began waffling out of the sky as they locked up on just those six Compensator decoys. I laid motionless as the cranes dropped in. Shrill calls were loud and when I heard wings flapping, I knew it was time to get up and start shooting.

Four cranes were already on the ground in the decoys. Coming up with a Benelli M2 already shouldered, cranes jumped high into the sky as I folded the first bird. Swinging on a second crane it fell out of the sky, finishing off my three-bird limit. This hunt, all by myself on day two, had to be one of the most rewarding hunts I can remember in more than a half century of bird hunting.

For those thinking about a crane hunt soon, according to this past season’s total sandhill crane count for wintering birds, which was compiled by biologist O’Dell, there were more than 32,000 cranes wintering in Sulphur Springs Valley. In order to draw a sandhill crane permit ($15 permit tag fee) a person has to hold or apply for an annual hunting license. Applications for a sandhill crane permit need to be mailed. For additional information on Arizona sandhill crane hunting, log on to the department’s web site at–Jim Niemiec, SCI Orange County Chapter 

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