Sandhill Crane hunting has long been on my bucket list. With all of the industry shows being cancelled due to COVID, I found myself with an empty dance card in January. What better way to spend a January weekend than hunting cranes near Lubbock! Of course, in true Pike style, it never is as easy as it should be.
The very day before our hunt was to begin, we learned our outfitter technically didn’t have any land to hunt cranes. Oh boy. There were seven hunters in our party and four of them were already en route. I can neither confirm nor deny that panic had set in. I set the hunt up for family and friends. Some were outfitters, some were retired NFL players. I literally began blind calling every crane outfitter in the region.
“Bless your heart, ma’am. We’ve been booked for a year.” This was the response I received from each and every outfitter. I finally got an outfitter who had also been booked for two years in advance but took pity on me and my pathetic story. He gave me names and numbers of outfitters that he would recommend but that openings were unlikely. Finally, I got a hold of Kennon Cabello from Landing Gear Outfitters. I got the perfunctory, “Oh ma’am, I’m so sorry this happened to you but I’m booked this weekend.” I thanked him and then he stopped me. He asked if he could call me back later in the afternoon and that he would try to rearrange a few things. I made another couple of calls, then Kennon called me back. He rearranged a group of hunters who had more flexibility and agreed to take our group out.
After 2 hours of phone calls, manic pacing and incoherent swearing… we were set. The weather looked to be nice and warm by Colorado standards. Everything was looking up!
We were wheels up at 0500 and drove about an hour north of Lubbock to meet our guide, Wyatt Dahl. It was cold, breezy and foggy. And definitely not the 60 degree weather promised by the weather app.
It became very clear that Wyatt had the patience of a saint as not a single one of us could sit still or be quiet. Not. One. I have to admit, it was TONS of fun to sit and listen to the birds, Wyatt’s calling and the anticipation of his first cries of, “Kill them out front!”. When every crane in the spread beat it on out to safety, all we could do was laugh. Everyone in the blind was an experienced bird hunter but it appeared we were all more interested in saving the cranes than killing them. Did I mention that Wyatt had the patience of a saint? And a sense of humor that was most necessary with our crew. We aren’t for the faint of heart. There was nothing but laughter and terrible jokes.
The next drop of birds resulted in our first kills. When that first bird the size of a pterodactyl hit the ground, every single human in the blind simply responded with, “Oh my God!”. The morning grew colder and breezier. We downed a number of birds but the fog made it tough. Wyatt called the hunt for the day and we agreed to meet up at the same time the following morning.
We awoke to 6 inches of fresh snow and ground blizzards. Again, I will point out that it was not the 60 degrees promised. We came too far not to go out that day. We connected with Wyatt, set up the decoys, climbed into a new blind and proceeded to get soaking wet and cold. Just a little life lesson…don’t ever believe the weather man and always pack way more than you need! I can neither confirm nor deny that I woefully under packed. My own fault and there could be no complaining in the crane blind. Well. Not too much anyway.
As the sky lightened up, the sound of the cranes on their nearby roost was deafening. Within an hour, the birds were flying. Wyatt called in group after group. The sound of those amazing birds over head was amazing and his cries of, “Kill them to the left!” or “Kill them out front!” never got old. We were getting birds on the ground. We were also very grateful that Wyatt was significantly younger than all of us because no one really wanted to chase after any of the runners. One or two of us tried, but it became clear this was a job left to the youthful.
We hit our limit before noon and wrapped it up for the day. Everyone was in a fantastic mood as we dropped the decoys and cleaned the spent shells. We caravanned back to Landing Gear’s shop to breast birds and partake in a celebratory beer. Wyatt and Kennon worked like crazy and we all had a fantastic time. I, for one, had not laughed that much in a very long time. We settled up and said our goodbyes but not before booking two more hunts for the next season. I cannot stress this enough, if you are looking for a quality, fun Sandhill Crane hunt, you HAVE to look up the crew at Landing Gear Outfitters. You will NOT be disappointed!
As with every hunt, I can always come back with a tick list of lessons learned! Here goes…
- The weather will not be as expected. If you’re driving and have room, throw in those pack boots and a couple extra jackets. Had I done that, I would have been much more comfortable. I realize this is a lesson I should have firmly embedded in my psyche since childhood, but for some reason my psyche tends to resist.
- Lead that bird. And lead it by A LOT. It took me some time to figure out the speed these birds actually have due to their huge wing span.
- The only thing that will stop your guide from giving your husband a chew when he was supposed to be quitting was to threaten to call his mom.
- I firmly believe that guides tell you to sit stone still simply to get you to shut up.
- Murphy’s Law…when any member of the party needs to get out of the blind to go to the bathroom, the birds come in. I suggest holding it lest you are willing to withstand a slew of insults.
- There is always that one guy in the group that brings the best snacks. Sit next to him.
- If you make your guide laugh while he’s calling…it sounds like a dying goose. Not a crane.
- It is perfectly acceptable to have a snowball fight with the neighborhood kids.
- Good things work out in the long run. Thankfully!
For this hunt, I used the 930 Pro Series Waterfowl 12 gauge with 3” steel. I found it to have the distance and knock down necessary for those big birds. The 930 is my go to for any larger migratory birds.