Crane Hunting Season Is Upon Us

January 20, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

Feeding sandhill crane

Feeding sandhill crane

By this time every fall, most hunters can recite opening dates for deer, pheasant and waterfowl seasons. People need to know these things to schedule vacations and coordinate plans with the crew. Some will forget their significant other’s birthday before they forget the date pheasant season opens.

But I’d venture to guess that not nearly so many hunters are tuned in to opening day of sandhill crane season, which started Sept. 18.

I’ve hunted an array of birds, from ruffed grouse to turkeys to blue-winged teal, and sandhill cranes occupy their own niche. Those who haven’t hunted cranes assume they’re an easy target, with their long outstretched bodies and seemingly lackadaisical flight, but that is far from the truth.

In my view, few birds of such size are so difficult to hunt when you try to lure them in to a traditional decoy set-up. With only my personal field studies to draw upon, I’d say the visual ability of crane would rival turkey. A gum wrapper, mis-placed decoy or stray glove can easily turn a field of dreams into a morning of frustration, as flock after flock flare well out of range.

Cranes are famous for their skittish behavior. I’ve been outwitted by groups of these birds that have changed their roosting lakes in the dark of night, and decided a meal of grasshoppers in a pasture would be better breakfast than waste grain from the field in which I had spent an early-morning-hour placing my decoys.

I’ve scouted crane for days and thought I had their daily routine down pat, only to end up with a field of decoys and not a crane to be seen anywhere within view of my binoculars.

Sandhill cranes typically begin migrating into North Dakota in late August or early September, but big numbers don’t begin showing up until late September or early October. North Dakota is a major staging area for these lanky birds as they migrate from nesting areas in Canada to wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico and other areas.

Cranes located in Central ND

Cranes located in Central ND

Cranes roost at night in the shallow water of central and northern North Dakota’s large wetlands, and fly out to feed daily in surrounding crop stubble fields and pastures.

The Mid-Continent Sandhill Crane Population that migrates through North Dakota has been relatively stable since the early 1980s, but these birds have extended their fall range over a large portion of the state. Because of this, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department initiated an experimental sandhill crane season in 2001 east of U.S. Highway 281 (Zone 2), which included a reduced bag limit and a reduced season length.

Blake Hermel sporting a harvested crane

Blake Hermel sporting a harvested crane

The crane hunting season in Zone 2 was well received by hunters and is now part of the regular crane season. Zone 2 has a 37-day season and a bag limit of two birds daily, while a 58-day season and a three-bird bag is available in Zone 1, or the remainder of the state.

It’s too early to predict what to expect for a fall flight of sandhill cranes through North Dakota. It’s likely the state’s several thousand crane hunters will see bird numbers similar to last year.

Suffice it to say, as crane hunters take the field success will vary, but that’s what hunting is all about.


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