If you are unfamiliar with the Sandhill Crane, you would likely expect to see a dinosaur coming in for a landing upon hearing their call. You would not be far off either, as they look much like what a Pterodactyl might have, standing nearly 4 feet tall, with long, scaley legs and a sharp beak. Found in North America, Mexico, Cuba, and Russia, these highly migratory birds offer waterfowl hunters a unique and challenging opportunity to chase a highly intelligent and wild looking creature.
Several areas in the United States allow crane hunting, including Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. These states make up the majority of the Central Flyway, an area that receives the majority of the cranes that migrate south from their Canadian breeding grounds. However, they can also be hunted outside of the United States in northern areas like Manitoba and Saskatchewan, as well as in their wintering range in Mexico.
Sandhill cranes are hunted much like geese, as they typically roost in marshy, protected areas, and will leave daily to feed in agricultural fields. Here, hunters will set up in these fields and do their best to conceal themselves in layout blinds. This concealment is of utmost importance, as cranes have extremely good eyesight, and can pick off a hunter from way beyond shooting range. In addition to concealment, hunters will use a decoy spread that is typically made up of between 4 and 6 dozen full-body crane decoys. Again, the crane’s strong eyesight requires that decoys be extremely realistic, with some hunters going as far as to use taxidermied cranes in their spreads. Finally, hunters will use calls to add realism to their spread and help bring birds into range.
Cranes can be dangerous when wounded. Because of this, make sure birds are dead before sending out your dog or attempting to grab them in order to avoid any beak related injuries.
Despite the cranes large stature, their long necks make them vulnerable and easy to knock down. Because of this, shot sizes of #2 or BB are usually adequate. In addition, their keen eyesight can make decoying the birds difficult, so tighter choke patterns may help you take them from a greater distance, as well as key in on their head and neck.
Crane regulations are largely location specific. Texas, for example, has three zones, all of which have different start dates, bag limits varying from 2 to 3 birds, and one area that is completely closed to crane hunting. On the other hand, Oklahoma has one long season, running from October to January and a bag limit of 3 birds. As a rule, start dates typically coincide with the migration, with seasons beginning and ending earlier the farther north you go.
Some states, like Montana, have both over the counter permits as well as special draw permits for cranes, whereas other states allow all hunters to participate. Regardless, all hunters must purchase a base license, state migratory bird permit, and federal crane permit in addition to filling out a Harvest Information Program form before hitting the field.
Sandhill Crane, also known as the “ribeye in the sky” are highly coveted for the quality of their steak-like meat. Unlike most game birds, their large size provides a sizable amount of tasty red meat that is best enjoyed medium rare. Sandhill Cranes offer even the most experienced waterfowl hunters an opportunity to challenge themselves with a species that is almost prehistoric. Not even the largest geese compare to the size of these birds, a fact that will make even the most seasoned hunter shake with excitement when a group is coming into the spread.