In Manitoba, we are incredibly fortunate to have spectacular sandhill crane hunting at our disposal. Known as the ‘ribeye of the sky’, sandhill cranes are extremely sought after for their top-tier table fare and unique hunting experience. Although new to me, they have quickly become my favourite waterfowl species to pursue. Crane hunting has been growing in popularity year after year, and in this article, I talk about the top sandhill crane hunting tips from some of the premier crane hunters in the province.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Birdtail Waterfowl in Manitoba’s Parkland Region. I’ve been to Birdtail before and experienced some of the best goose and duck hunting I have ever seen. But on this trip, I was able to experience crane hunting for the first time. We went on some incredible hunts including one dynamite morning where we shot our crane limit with ease. Owner Paul Conchatre and his crew of top-notch guides have spent years dialing in these cranes and perfecting their craft to provide guests with the best they can offer. On this latest trip, Paul spilled the beans on his 5 top sandhill crane hunting tips. You aren’t going to want to miss this.
Lists don’t always start with the most important point, but this one does. Talking to Paul, he couldn’t stress enough the importance of concealment. “If they see you, nothing else matters”, was how he worded it to some guests. He explained that the sandhill crane’s eyesight is just as good as a wild turkey. (and any turkey hunter knows, they have incredible vision). The reason why concealment is so critical is that it is the first way that a crane will identify your spread as a threat. If they spot something like a gun, blind bag, or a face, it’s game over.
The best advice he gave throughout the hunt regarding concealment were three main points.
- Find as much natural cover prior to the hunt as willow branches and cover all of you and your belongings.
- Get as low as possible. Staying low keeps your unnatural outline hidden within the cover allowing one less thing for the birds to pick out.
- Cover your face. Keeping your face down and shaded will eliminate the possibility of the birds picking out that extra shine on their final approach.
I love the passion and dedication Paul has for his hunts. Everything is taken seriously and his goal every day is to make sure his guests have the best hunt possible. If that means reminding me of every single flock to cover my face, then so be it. The hunts speak for themselves.
Shot placement may seem like an obvious tip for any waterfowl hunt, but it does render more significance to crane hunts than you may assume. Prior to our hunts, Paul told us how even experienced waterfowl hunters lose focus on their first crane hunts. Something about how different it is to see a giant pterodactyl-like bird flying right at you that makes hunters forget to aim… properly. From my experience, I think that due to how large a crane is in the air, you have a lot to shoot at in theory. However, that doesn’t mean you aim for the big body and cross your fingers. Pick a bird, find that beak and follow through. You still need to do all the things you do in any other waterfowl shoot.
On my first day at Birdtail, I was scouting with one of the most experienced crane guides and in one swift sentence, he told me, “Cranes are incredibly vocal. Calling is crucial. But don’t call too much, you need to know when to shut up.” And I thought, well I knew they were vocal but how on earth do you know when to stop calling? After picking his brain further as well as talking to Paul, they both agreed that once the birds in question are around that 60-70 yard mark and look committed, stop calling. It’s definitely something that requires some trial and error. You need to make mistakes in order to learn from them. These experienced crane hunters providing a tip like this can save a beginner crane hunter so much time and frustration.
For example, You might be struggling to get birds to commit at the last moment and think it’s the quality of your calling that is hurting you when all it could be is calling too late. Next time you’re out, once birds look interested, maybe limit and eventually quit calling.
Back Board and Ghillie Blanket
This tip is the only tip on the list that is gear-related but it is absolutely one of the most important pieces of gear on your crane hunt. For keeping a low profile, nothing beats a backboard and ghillie blanket. They’re warm, dry, comfy, and most importantly, low. The ghillie is easy to cover with natural hide and once you do, you’re invisible. Like I said previously, cranes have fantastic eyes. But, they are also extremely smart too. They remember things.
Cranes, like all migratory birds that are hunted, could see hundreds of hunters every year. Think about it this way, birds will often go to the same water holes and fields their entire life. They might migrate from Churchill to Florida, but when they stopover in your neck of the woods, they just might go to the same fields they remembered from their first migration. That being said, if they remember fields and water holes year after year, there is little doubt that they would remember what a layout blind looks like in a field. That’s why at Birdtail they focus so heavily on natural cover. Leaving nothing remotely unnatural within eyeshot of these wise birds.
I’ve been on a lot of field goose hunts with a lot of different people and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there are a lot of decoys spread configurations and options that can all produce successful hunts. The same cannot be said for cranes. There are a lot more things you need to consider with your crane decoy spread.
First off, you need to keep your eyes away from where all the hunters will be positioned. On my hunts at Birdtail, I think the closest a hunter shooting position to the nearest decoy was around twenty yards away.
Secondly, and this is an important one, cranes will often ‘slip’ into a spread. This is a very new concept to me, but even after a minimal amount of crane hunts, you’ll see exactly what I mean. I did after my first crane hunt. I’m paraphrasing, but Paul explained slipping to me something like this. Cranes will often approach a spread cupped-up, but then will slip or glide perpendicular to the wind.
This happened with a lot of the flocks that checked out our spread. Once they are cupped, this is the moment of truth for your spread. That’s where understanding the next part of slipping is important. When they are starting to drop into your spread. They need multiple runways or big long stretches that they can land in. So, if your spread doesn’t incorporate multiple runways for cranes to land in and slip into, you may struggle with last-moment commitment from the birds.
So, keep the eyes away from you and make multiple runways that allow for slipping and you’ll see more cranes commit to your decoy spread.
Sandhill Crane Hunting Tips
Finding hunting information on sandhill crance can be super difficult online. So it can be hard at times to learn how to have a successful hunt. It’s a relatively new type of hunting and Birdtail has it dialed in as good as anyone. I hope that these five tips from Paul and his crew of crane guides will be helpful to you on your next crane hunt.