Ribeye-In-The-Sky

Tonight we will finally get the chance to taste the deliciousness of a sandhill crane. We will put the old saying of ribeye-in-the-sky or ribeye-of-the-sky to the test as we barbeque them up after a ½ day of brining. Whether or not they are as good as a true ribeye steak doesn’t really matter, we bagged a couple of the giant birds and can’t wait for dinner!

 barbequing sandhill ribeye-in-the-sky steaks 

                    Steaks and heart about done, liver is already off the grill!  

Here in Utah, sandhill cranes aren’t as plentiful as they are in other states. In fact, it took my sons and me three years to finally each draw a limited entry sandhill crane tag. And after completing our preseason scouting ventures and a single weekend of hunting, I wish the season lasted longer than nine days. I feel very lucky to have filled two of our three tags and worry that my youngest may not get a chance at a bird for himself. But come next weekend, we’ll definitely give it our best shot.

This preseason we put in quite a bit of time scouting and talking to private landowners and farmers in order to better understand the local habits of the sandhill cranes, e.g. feeding areas, roosting locations, flight paths, etc. But what we did not find were very many cranes within our hunt boundary. We scouted miles and miles of corn, wheat, barely and hay fields and just could not locate more than a dozen birds in total. Every single landowner/farmer that we talked to said that during each spring they have 60 to 100 or more cranes in their fields, with a similar number of cranes visiting each fall. They all suggested that we come back in a month or more since the cranes will undoubtedly migrate into the area.

 sandhill crane decoy spread 

               Decoys are set, now we just need the cranes to fly 

Unfortunately for us, the extremely short season was upon us and we had failed to find any flight paths and found very few fields where we had seen cranes. So with limited options, we chose to setup our decoys in a field where we had seen two cranes the weekend before. By the way, getting permission to hunt private property was surprisingly easy…each farmer we talked to expressed their disdain for the cranes due to the crop damage they inflict; some said significantly more destruction than geese.

Saturday morning just before dawn, we had settled into our layout blinds with our decoys placed just so about 30 yards away. In the distance we could hear the distinctive staccato rattling calls of a sandhill crane calling from behind us, likely from its roost down in the marsh near the river. We responded to the crane with calls of our own. Within seconds the inquisitive crane answered; followed by the calls of a few hunters who lay hunkered in their blinds some 300 yards to the south. Periodic calls continued as time slowly passed until the mercury had risen to the point where the cool morning air had vanished. At this point the nearby hunters had given up 15 minutes prior, as it was nearing 10:00 a.m. and becoming uncomfortably warm. Then from the corner of my eye, I noticed movement. Off in the distance the slow deliberate wing beat of three cranes heading toward some distant destination had caught my attention. Dallas was quick to sound his call. That’s all it took, the cranes changed direction and zeroed in on our location.

 sandhill cranes flying  sandhill cranes flying after missed shot

           A couple of cranes coming into view                              Could not knock them down, away they go...

Excitedly we slumped deep into our blinds waiting for the arrival of the approaching birds. Turned out that we had the attention of the cranes, however they weren’t going to commit to our decoys but instead skirt our spread. It was now or never. We popped up and blasted away. But a 50 yard shot proved to be too far for these tough birds which never appeared to flinch. All we were left to do was to sit and watch our missed opportunity drift out across the horizon until disappearing from sight. We did sit for a couple more uneventful hours until the unbearable 94 degree heat got the best of us. It wasn’t until late afternoon that we returned to our blinds, but those last few hours before sunset were too void of cranes. Still perplexed by the earlier missed shot incident, we decided to head into town to get some Hevi-X Tungsten shotshells. We finally came to the realization that we likely needed the extra knock down power/penetration advantage that tungsten offers over the BB steel shot we were using.

 sandhill cranes flying  sandhill cranes just got pounded

                       First crane going down...                                    Number two helicoptering to the ground...

The next morning we set up our blinds and decoys in the same place as before. Our hunting neighbors to the south were also back. At day break we again heard the distinctive crane calls echoing across the expanse ahead. Again Dallas called back, but this time the reaction was different. Within a minute, two cranes appeared on the northern horizon and were sailing straight toward us! We readied for their approach, hoping they would commit and land within our spread. As they neared, it was clear they were going to glide right on by so Dallas again called the 50 yard shot. In an instant all three 12 gauges roared to life. This time the outcome was much different as the #2 shot tungsten pounded both birds, sending each directly to the ground!

 Labrador retrieving sandhill crane  with our sandhill cranes

        Our black lab, Porter, was eager to retrieve                               First two sandhill cranes

Our Labrador was on top of them without hesitation and wasted no time retrieving the giants. We made quick work of our bounty and promptly had them on ice. However, it was while cleaning the birds that we discovered just how tough their skin was. Unlike ducks and geese, it was impossible to tear their skin, which explains why our steel shot had failed to penetrate at the shot distance. With a long drive ahead of us we packed up and headed home with the hopes of bagging our final bird come next weekend.

 sandhill crane flying 

                              Got 'em into our field...but it's not going to get too far now 

Update: 9/13/2020 – On the second weekend we were able to get 3 sandhill cranes to land in our field a little further out than we wanted. But Carson jumped up and dumped the biggest of the cranes at 55 yards with one shot! Again the tungsten did the trick! We are hooked -- hunting these enormous birds is thrilling!

 sandhill crane Utah 

                   These birds are giant, Carson is all smiles 

And as a side note, we all agreed that without exaggeration, sandhill crane meat is the best tasting fowl of all! And for sure rivals a true beef ribeye steak! 

 sandhill crane  ribeye-in-the-sky steak 

      Sandhill crane ribeye-in-the-sky steaks hot off the grill!