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Arizona sandhill crane hunt just awesome!
Drawing an Arizona sandhill crane permit is not all that difficult, as there are total of 510 permits issued for this late-season hunt. While cranes migrate south to spend the winter in the Wilcox Playa area, they are not of a waterfowl species and lead shot can be used to harvest these sharp-eyed prehistoric monsters of the sky.

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ARIZONA SANDHILL CRANE CHECK STATION — Wildlife biologist Johnathan O’Dell weighs a greater sandhill crane while Arizona wildlife intern Brandon Milbrandt takes notes of the bird. Information gained through this check station is used to establish limits and regulations for next year’s sandhill crane season. WON PHOTO BY JIM NIEMIEC


Western Outdoor News was turned on hunting sandhill cranes by Randy Babb, a biologist for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish. Babb has been hunting cranes in this playa region for nearly a quarter of a century and he can offer up some good tips when it comes to decoying these birds in fields of stubble corn stalks or alfalfa.


“These big birds have great 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 excellent cover, some realistic looking decoys, a little bit of calling (not much) and coming up from a layout blind in a shooting position. While lead shot is not allowed for waterfowl hunting (and in California for any large upland game bird) it is legal here in Arizona for sandhill cranes. I strongly suggest that hunters find some 3-inch #2 lead shot when hunting cranes. The most important aspect of hunting sandhill cranes is scouting the hunt area and then either making sure it’s state property or get permission from the local rancher to hunt his field. Cranes will lift off roosts just after first light and then wing across Wilcox Playa looking for a field to feed in. Watching these flocks of black wings settle down into field is going to be about the only chance of having a successful hunt. Some hunters set up to pass shoot cranes, but shooting sandhills as they drop into a decoy spread is totally awesome,” says Babb.


With permit in hand for the second shooting period of the fall season (Nov. 21-23), this hunting editor had a conflict with doing any scouting due to a commitment for California Valley Quail hunt in Baja Norte with Rancho El Coyote Meling, which would not allow me to arrive in Tucson before late afternoon of the day prior to hunting. Thankfully, Babb and fellow Arizona wildlife biologist Kirby Bristow were able to scout the area and come up with a field holding cranes.


“It’s not going to be an easy hunt as the cranes are feeding in a cut alfalfa field that has a wheeled irrigation system. There isn’t any place to hide in the field, so I have set us up in some straw bales about 50 yards outside the alfalfa. Hopefully some birds will see our decoys and swing wide for a killable shot. I don’t have a crane call but will attempt to use my diaphragm call to get off some sharp calls. I don’t plan on calling much, just to get the attention of a flock of cranes, and then back off hoping that the decoys will do their job,” was the plan laid out by Bristow.


Cranes started to move early the next morning but they were reluctant to fly over the bales of straw and were not giving the decoys a very hard look. One flock of a dozen cranes looked shootable as they winged just outside the decoy spread but this hunter misjudged the distance, due to the length of the nearly 6-foot wingspan of sandhill cranes. The shot just seemed to bounce off the fully feathered bird. Just before the morning flight ended, a small flock set up on the decoys and came into range. This shooter was forced to shoot three times at a single bird in order to bring it finally down in the middle of the alfalfa field. As the morning flight ended, it was then time to head over to the check station and have my sandhill checked out, measured and have the sex determined by a team of Arizona Game and Fish Department biologists that were headed up by Johnathan O’Dell, Small Game Biologist of the Arizona Game Branch.


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DOUBLED UP ON SANDHILL CRANES — WON hunting editor Jim Niemiec holds up his double on sandhill cranes that he shot while setting up in an alfalfa field to the south of rural town of Wilcox, Ariz. These cranes topped off a 3-bird limit and were shot with Federal Premium Black Cloud FS Steel BB ammo. PHOTO COURTESY ARIZONA GAME AND FISH DEPARTMENT


The life history of the sandhill crane is interesting. A portion of three distinct populations of sandhill crane winter in Arizona. Cranes in the western U.S. nest in high-elevation shallow marshes and wet meadows. Sandhills do not nest until they are four or five years old and typically have very poor success the first couple of years. Cranes lay two eggs, but unfortunately only about one-third of the successful nesters are able to raise two young cranes. In dry years, varmints take their toll on young sandhill cranes. Wintering areas selected by sandhills 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, and corn is preferred.


Sandhill crane migrations begin in mid-September, after flocks have congregated in local agricultural areas. This migration takes place on long, high-altitude flights with established stopover areas located along the migration route. This season a check station was set up at the Wilcox Playa, with all successful hunters being required to check in their cranes.


Kirby, my good hunting buddy, had to leave Wilcox on business right after the first morning’s hunt. This left me alone to figure out how and where to hunt the following morning. A return to the alfalfa field and a stop off at the check station to get a few loaned decoys from O’Dell later that afternoon had everything set for the morning. My plan was to set out six decoys and lay in a wheel line ditch with minimal cover. It was a cold morning with the temp holding at 33 degrees and no wind.


The cranes lifted off roost early and were looking to start feeding right away. One flock looked over the decoy spread and drifted off to the south. The second flock of a dozen cranes waffled out of the sky as they locked in on just those six Compensator crane decoys. I lay 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 standing high between this shooter any the decoys. I came up with the Benelli shotgun shouldered and dropped the first bird as it lifted off and then swung on a second bird. Both birds fell out of the sky and were dead before they hit the ground to finish off my 3-bird limit of sandhill cranes. The shotgun ammo that proved to be a success on this double was Federal Premium Black Cloud FS Steel BBs with a muzzle velocity of 1600 fps. That hunt, all by myself, had to be one of the most rewarding hunts this hunting editor can remember in well over a half century of bird hunting.


For additional information on Arizona sandhill crane hunting log on to the departments web site at azgameandfish.com. This hunt is just totally awesome and one that any wing shooter would enjoy.


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