Two-shot Crane Hunt

By Dr. Jim and Mary Clary

Each fall, the sandhill cranes arrive in New Mexico to over-winter until spring. The state has a drawing for permits to hunt them in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. In 2013, they allocated a total of 210 permits for adults and 24 for youth, to be divided among four two day hunts for adults and a single day hunt for youths. The season limit for 2013 was two birds, down from the 3/day of previous years.

Everyone in the family put in for the hunts, but only Mary drew out. Her hunt was scheduled for November 16th-17th. Their normal flight path takes them over our property each morning, as they fly from the river to the grain fields north of us and then back in the evening to the river. Jim got up before dawn for three weeks and timed their flights, determining that the morning flight lasted from 0630 to 0645 and the evening flight lasted from 1715 to 1730, with a few stragglers flying until dark.

They say that the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go astray. That was the case here. Mary planned to bust a few clays the week before the season with her new Remington Premier O/U, but rain and high winds for the entire week squashed that plan. Therefore, she was forced to use a new, unfired, shotgun on her first ever crane hunt.

The only thing that was well thought out before the hunt was the loads she would be using. We rang up Carlos Piro, one of the best waterfowl and bird hunters in the state, and asked for his opinion. Carlos spends so much time on the Rio Grande River and its surrounding marshes that the boys from Duck Dynasty would envy him. When he ventures out with his chocolate lab, he has no less than a dozen calls hanging around his neck and you can be sure that if the ducks and geese are flying, dinner will be on the table. Carlos only hunts with Environ's Hevi-Shot.

There has been a lot of unleaded ink spilled concerning the various manufacturers' non-toxic shot and their advertising claims. One thing that we have noticed over the years is that every writer seems to have a brand that they love and a brand they hate. These writers almost always back up their views with their own expert opinions and "facts". The bottom line of the entire argument is, which shot loads work for you in your gun.

With ten years experience, and hundreds upon hundreds of ducks, we believe that Carlos' recommendations are credible, whether it comes to duck calls, decoys or shotgun loads. That is why we asked him what load to use on the crane hunt. Without hesitation, Carlos told Mary, 3" Hevi-Shot #2, because "Hevi-Shot slams them as though they had been hit with a sledge hammer". Before anyone asks, Carlos is not on the Environ payroll or their prostaff (although he should be). He buys all of his own ammunition, be it rifle or shotgun, and will not settle for second best. Therefore, we bought some Hevi-Shot #2s and prepared for the cranes.

It drizzled rain all night prior to opening day. By morning, the fog was thick enough to cut with a knife; things were not looking good for our crane hunt. However, we climbed into my truck at 0615 and drove over to the trees on the eastern side of our place and waited. We stayed in the truck and left the motor running, as it was near freezing. While I sipped coffee, Mary waited patiently. At 0630, right on schedule, we could hear the cranes flying overhead, above the fog. Then, when we were about to give up, three came in low heading directly at our truck. My bride stepped out, threw up her gun and fired a single shot and the lead crane folded like a lawn chair. It was DOA on the ground. As I turned to congratulate my girl, she was holding her shoulder. In the excitement, she had neglected to hold the gun tight to her shoulder and the recoil left her badly bruised.

Before anyone gets on her case, Mary rarely shoots shotguns and without having the time to practice before the hunt, it was not totally unexpected. I am also certain that the same thing has happened, at least once, to anyone who has ever fired a 12 gauge shotgun. With one bird in hand, we returned to the house.

Mary's Remington Premier O/U and greater sandhill crane.
Mary's Remington Premier O/U and greater sandhill crane.

My poor bride's arm was black, blue and green by noon and really sore. As such, we decided to wait until the next day to fill our limit. However, when our alarm clocks failed to go off at the appointed time, a morning hunt was out of the question. If we were to fill-out, it would have to be in the evening of the last day. Once again, we jumped into my truck and drove to the trees. The sky was clear, the temperature was in the 50s and we could hear the crane in the grain fields north of us. We dropped the tailgate of the truck, sat down and waited. Right on schedule, several scattered flocks passed overhead, well out of range. Then, a small flock headed right for us about 40 yards high and they were the greater sandhills, which average 15-18 pounds. My bride informed me that her shoulder would probably only handle one shot. However, I had faith, as she rarely misses.

She threw the Remington up, held on the head of the lead bird and fired. That sucker looked like he had hit a brick wall. His head dropped, wings folded and he landed in among the donkeys in our back field with a thud. We jumped into the truck and headed back, hoping to get to the bird before the donkeys decided it was a play toy.

No problem, since they had never seen a crane on the ground, they simply sniffed it and stared. Two shots and two birds, our 2013 season limit for sandhill cranes. As my wife put it, they were the hardest 10-minute hunts of her life. Next year, maybe I will draw and if I do, I will be using Mary's Remington and #2 Hevi-Shot.

Before we forget, sandhill cranes are nicknamed "ribeyes in the sky." They taste like steak, which is why we hunt them.

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Copyright 2014, 2016 by Dr. Jim Clary and/or All rights reserved.