I have been so lucky to hunt waterfowl all across Canada. From my back yard in southern Ontario to PEI, to Nunavut, to British Columbia and everywhere in between. Every waterfowl hunt is incredible, and every one offers its own unique adventure, landscape and challenges. But, my latest trip to the Prairie Pothole Region of Manitoba still has me picking my jaw up off the floor. For the first time in my life I was Sandhill crane hunting. These monstrous birds filled the prairie sky and created a waterfowl hunt for me and our crew like nothing I had experienced. Our hunt was with Birdtail Waterfowl, and Paul Conchatre and his truly professional seasoned guides ran a camp that was based around the best business model of spectacular service, accommodation, food and a great staff. Add arguably the world’s greatest bird flyway, and you get a world-class hunt to be remembered for life.
Sandhill Crane History
Sandhill crane hunting has been open in Manitoba since the late 1960’s when they were forced to open a season due to huge flocks of birds descending on an area and causing great damage to farmer’s crops. Seasons and strict management practices were put in place to help the farmers, and ensure safe growth rates and opportunities for the birds. Provincial and federal Canadian biologists work closely with American states and departments to join efforts in managing this incredible bird, and making sure the numbers remain sustainable and grow. As of right now, with years of effort the crane population has never been stronger. This year close to 500,000 sand hill cranes will fly through Canada on their annual migration south. Manitoba will harvest fewer than 2,000 cranes during their open season. Manitoba sees many of these birds and has the most liberal daily limit in all of North America at 5 per day.
Our First Sandhill Crane Hunt
With all that being said, anticipation was extremely high. Our hunt was in mid-September while temperatures were warm. To start our first hunt we set up along a wet spot in a harvested grain field, using the tall grass for cover and placing our crane decoys in the wheat stubble. With our backs to the decoys we faced west watching the stretch of fields leading to a large roosting pond the cranes frequent. As the morning darkness gave way to the rising sun the distant unmistakable sound of cranes calling filled the prairie air. With much adrenalin pumping we waited and soon started seeing the sky come alive in the distance with cranes lifting off the roost and heading for feed.
The first group was three birds that flew no more than 20 yards above the field and on a line right to our decoys, with 5-7 foot wing spans these giant birds cut through the sky like an airplane. It was nothing I had seen before; no goose, no duck could prepare you for this sight. As they approached, their long necks stretched out looking for a landing spot, as they cupped over us at 30 yards we gave up our position and lifted to shoot. With three massive birds folding midair and falling to the ground, we were off to an amazing start. We were all so excited to be holding and admiring these cranes. It was short lived as another flock of 6 approached, then a flock of 17, then 5, then 12. Flock after flock appeared and we harvested a beautiful 3-man limit of 15 sandhill cranes. All came on a line looking at our decoys and presented us with amazing wing shooting opportunities. We varied our loads between BB, 1 and 2 shot.
Ribeye of the Sky
The wing shooting was extraordinary, and also very deceiving. With their massive wingspan, it looks like they are on a slow flight when in reality they are actually moving quite fast. After a few flocks you find your lead and settle in. These birds are massive, weighing upwards of 15lbs. And the best part? They taste as fine as steak. Many call them the “Ribeye of the sky”, and I would have to agree. They were the finest tasting waterfowl I have eaten.
The Hunt of a Lifetime
We were all ecstatic with our limit and had a wonderful time in the field taking pictures and admiring these majestic birds. I was joined by Spyros Chrysochou of Stoeger Canada and Ken Bailey of Outdoor Canada, both seasoned waterfowlers. But all three of us knew it was a true privilege to take a limit of birds like this. Many people feel it an accomplishment to be lucky enough to just harvest a few.
The next morning saw us hunting 20 miles in another direction, this time on a fence line separating a pasture from harvested wheat. With the east sun rising in our face, the sky came alive once again. I didn’t think Sandhill crane hunting could get any better. But it did, and in 30 min we harvested another amazing limit. Cranes came on lines, some circling over us to land, some straight over our heads 20 yards above us. Watching the birds come in line after line and lighting the sky with their amazing cackle was incredible.
More Than Just Crane Hunting
After two spectacular mornings it was evident to me that we were treated to two world-class hunts. Thanks to great bird populations combined with hours of scouting, Paul and his guides at Birdtail Waterfowl had put us right on the X. Sandhill crane hunting was a true bucket list trip for me, and to make it even more amazing Paul put us on some loaded goose and duck fields in the evenings to round out amazing wingshooting days.
I honestly cannot say enough about this hunt. This location in Manitoba is second to none, and to the staff that treated us to a world-class shoot I say thank you.
If you love waterfowl hunting, or you want to try waterfowl hunting, you have to go to Manitoba and give it a shot. If you do, try the Prairie Pothole Region and give the boys at Birdtail Waterfowl a call. This was truly a world-class adventure that I will never forget and can’t wait to go back!
Thank you Manitoba!!
For more information on hunting Sandhill cranes, ducks and geese at Birdtail Waterfowl, visit the Birdtail Waterfowl website.
Check out our Waterfowl Hunting page for more information on hunting waterfowl in Manitoba.
Written By: Keith Beasley