Sandhill wizards


SOMEWHERE IN THE PANHANDLE, Texas -- Three trucks bounced across a green wheat field and stopped beside a patch of overgrown blond weeds that bordered an unfamiliar piece of equipment. Eight men in camouflage clothes poured out of the rigs, stumbling around in darkness while unloading sundry hunting paraphernalia.

Steve Helmberger, a sturdy man with black paint smeared on his face, started setting up decoys with help from his son, Anthony. Jeff Herschbach grabbed another bulky sack and joined the operation.



The remaining crew stood around the trucks, trying to figure out what sort of machine was encased in the weeds and wondering what to do next.

It wasn't that we didn't want to help with the decoys; it's just that we didn't know what the hell we were doing. This is the ESPN Outdoors Duck Trek. Who said anything about sandhill cranes?

"Turn on your truck lights," Helmberger yelled over the wind.

James Overstreet leaned into his silver Chevy and switched on the headlights. Setting the tone for an unconventional Duck Trek adventure, he then jacked up the volume on his truck's stereo and suffused the scene with AC/DC's "Thunderstruck."

By the time the guys finished setting up the decoys -- a combination of gray windsocks and full-body plastic sandhills -- another AC/DC selection emanated from Overstreet's stereo:

Shoot to thrill, play to kill
I got my gun at the ready, gonna fire at will
'Cause I shoot to thrill, and I'm ready to kill
I can't get enough, I can't get the thrill
I shoot to thrill, play to kill
Yeah, pull the trigger
Pull it, pull it, pull it, pull the trigger.

Shoot to thrill

We had to wait a few minutes to pull the trigger. Legal shooting time was still several minutes away when the guys who parked the trucks returned from the quarter-mile walk across the wheat field. Helmberger passed out ghillie suits to everyone while we waited.

His contribution was met with strange looks and skepticism. Helmberger, who has been smitten with sandhill crane hunting for more than a decade, explained the birds are extremely wary and assured us the bulky sniper camouflage was necessary. But with most of the crew qualifying as rank amateurs, we had more questions.

Our hiding spot consisted of a patch of tall weeds around some sort of contraption associated with natural gas production. There was a small tin shack, and more than one of the crew wondered aloud if it could be used as an outhouse. Two large pieces of corrugated tin clattered in the breeze.

"Won't all this stuff flare the birds?" Overstreet asked.

"They're used to it," Helmberger said. "If you drive around this area, you'll see that just about every field around here has some sort of gas well or something else in it. Not to mention all the irrigation sprinklers. When I came out here scouting yesterday afternoon, there were hundreds of cranes standing all around this spot."

Tucked in the weeds, we had a front row seat to the new day, looking eastward as dark lines of cranes streaked dawn's rosy canvas. Soon their distinctive, haunting calls rang in the distance, a peculiar noise like the trilled-r sound of some languages.

Helmberger waved a windsock as Herschbach purred into a crane call.

"Here they come, boys," Helmberger said.

A skein of giant, pterodactyl-looking fowl descended on our hide. They worked into the southwest wind on enormous wings, elongated necks leading and gangly legs trailing. Their immense size made it hard to judge the distance as they hung there in front of the crew. We clutched our guns like the anti-gun lobby was upon us.

Helmberger called the shot and a blistering volley went skyward. Cranes fell out of the sky everywhere, landing in the field with a "thwack." One spiraled down helicopter-style, taking several seconds to crash.

The bag grew incrementally for the next hour, with singles and pairs and small groups working close enough to the decoys to keep the action steady. One sandhill sailed back and forth over the spread for two minutes, agonizingly close to shooting range but just far enough to make us hold off.

Scott Bailey employed his "uh-oh" call, repeatedly whispering "uh-oh" every time a group of cranes seemed to be heading in our direction. We tried not to laugh too hard, and birds kept coming in spite of our joviality.

After some early action, the birds mostly stayed out of gun range, avoiding the outside edge of the decoys by at least 50 yards. One group landed about 200 yards in front of us, another touched down 150 yards to the north.

But a pattern was emerging. Most of the groups came in from the northeast and flew over the anchor end of a quarter-mile long center-pivot irrigation sprinkler about 125 yards in front of our hiding spot. There was a small patch of weeds at the base of the pivot, so we decided to take turns on the point, working in groups of three, ambushing cranes.

Herschbach and I took the first shift with Anthony Helmberger. A group of three birds came in low, just higher than the sprinkler. Only one made it past us. Another group came in so low we had to hold off or risk shooting the farmer's sprinkler. Herschbach finally squeezed off a desperation shot -- under the irrigation line -- but failed to connect. Less than an hour later, Herschbach and I tagged out with our limits of three cranes apiece, making room for the next shift, which also shot their birds in short order.

The highlight of the morning came about 10 a.m., when Overstreet and John "Foots" Schuh went three for three on a group, including a long overhead shot that was every bit of 60 yards high. Schuh went to retrieve the bird and found himself in a standoff when the crane reared up and kicked at him. Overstreet anchored it, capping the Duck Trek's first sandhill crane hunt with 19 massive gray birds.

Flying dinosaurs

The sandhill crane, Grus canadensis, evokes comparisons to the prehistoric pterodactyl, and it's an appropriate association. It is, in fact, a living relic of prehistoric times.

Sandhill cranes are the world's oldest extant bird species, with fossil records dating to 2.5 million years ago. A 10 million-year-old fossil found in Nebraska is identical in structure to the sandhill, although some scientists say it's a nearly identical relative and not an actual sandhill crane.

The gray-bodied, red-crested birds are massive, standing five feet tall, mostly legs and neck, with a wingspan of five to six feet. Their long pointed beaks and sharp claws are a bane to inattentive hunters and retrieving dogs.

There are five subspecies of sandhill cranes and nine distinct populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts the midcontinent population at roughly 500,000 birds, the world's most numerous crane population. Unlike the endangered whooping crane, the sandhill is the most numerous and wide ranging of the world's 15 crane species.

Most sandhill cranes breed and nest in the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska, although some birds nest as far away as eastern Siberia. They migrate through the western half of the United States to wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico. Scientists estimate that 80 percent of North America's sandhills stage for their spring migration on a 75-mile stretch of Nebraska's Platte River between March and April.

They're long-lived birds, with some individuals surpassing 20 years, which speaks to the need for absolute concealment (including ghillie suits) and realistic decoys. While windsocks and full-body plastic decoys may trick birds, many dedicated crane hunters employ "stuffers," or full-body crane taxidermy mounts.

The Central Flyway has allowed sandhill hunting since 1961, and today Nebraska is the only state in the flyway that doesn't have a sandhill season. According to the USFWS, an estimated 10,293 crane hunters participated in Central Flyway seasons in 2008, taking almost 24,000 birds in the U.S. portion of the Flyway, a 24 percent increase from the previous season.

Texas, which has a 90-day season in the western third of the state, is the leading state for Central Flyway sandhill hunting. In 2008, hunters in Texas comprised 61 percent of the flyway's total active crane hunters and accounted for 72 percent of the flyway's total harvest.

The playa lakes region plays host to tens of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes each fall. Birds pile into the area's agricultural fields to feed on waste grain and winter wheat. Because the birds can cause extensive damage to wheat crops, sandhills can be a scourge to area farmers, who gladly open their land to hunters in search of cranes.

"They can tear up a wheat field," Herschbach said. "They pull out the wheat from the root, and when you get several thousand of them in a field, they'll trample it all down."

With the help of a couple of local residents, Blayne Baker and Trent Goodheart, who scouted extensively during the Duck Trek's stay in the Panhandle, our crew had little trouble finding a place to hunt sandhill cranes.

Crane…it's what's for dinner

Sandhill cranes have been called the "ribeye of the sky."

"The best thing about hunting sandhill cranes is eating them," Herschbach said.

We put that appraisal to the test.

Eating is an important part of hunting, and the hunters assembled for the Duck Trek's Texas stop place a premium on the gastronomic delights.

You could tell by looking at the parking lot and sidewalk outside the block of motel rooms that housed the majority of our crew. A small piece of plywood straddled two sawhorses to form a countertop for food-prep and cooking activities. There were bags of chips, pots and pans, assorted produce, Ziploc bags, paper plates, plastic utensils and an assortment of condiments that would make Nathan's Famous blush.

The brick windowsills of each room held cans of spices, jars of olives and pickles, half-consumed cans of Budweiser and red plastic cups with celery stalks emerging from their rims.
There were various cooking devices -- fish cookers, an upright smoker, two charcoal grills. The ice chests were filled with drinks and game meat, some of which we cleaned on Bailey's tailgate in the parking lot.

Most items were put to use daily, but perhaps never as delectably as the night we ate sandhill cranes. After appetizers of duck gumbo and fried mushrooms, Herschbach sprinkled steak seasoning on breast halves and grilled them medium-rare over a charcoal fire. They didn't last long.

By the end of several days of hunting by day and cooking by night, the space outside our motel rooms resembled a disaster area. Imagine a tornado hitting the Bass Pro Shops cooking and hunting gear sections before striking a grocery store and dropping the conglomeration on the sidewalk outside our rooms.

It was a beautiful sight to us. Not so much for the cleaning crew.

Schuh summed it up best: "Blood on the sidewalk. Grease on the parking lot."

Sandhill wizards

At some point in the night, after much debate, we devised a name for our band of crane hunters. In a sarcastic nod to totally unjustified success, we became the "Sandhill Wizards."

It sounded like a semi- professional basketball team, or a bad 1970s rock 'n' roll band. But that suited our band of misfits, and with a newfound purpose of hunting and eating cranes, we went to another wheat field in search of sandhill glory.

The birds were roosted on a small playa lake to the west. Judging from the racket in the distance, there must've been thousands.

Much like the previous day's hunt, we were standing next to some sort of machinery associated with natural gas production. A tubular steel fence, designed to keep out grazing cattle, surrounded the area.

"Is it safe to be standing around this gas rig firing a bunch of shotguns?" Overstreet wondered.

It seemed like a joke until the machine abruptly rattled to life, shaking and rumbling and putting an end to scattered conversations.

"Did you touch something?" Overstreet asked Bailey. "Did you turn that valve?"

Overstreet walked around and opened a small door on the front of the apparatus. He peered into the darkness, as if he'd be able to do something even if he had the slightest idea what the thing was. It kept rattling and sputtering, and we kept getting nervous. Matt Mugavero, a geologist by trade, finally put us at ease.

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"It's a dehydrator," he said. "Natural gas has water in it, and that thing removes any residual water before it goes through that pipe and into the meter over there."

We went back to our crane vigil and watched for birds through a light fog. Although we could hear numerous birds in the distance, the morning flight was much slower than Day One. The few birds in the air were coming in from the west, sailing toward us over a half-mile long center pivot. The decoys drew their attention, but they showed no signs of working into the spread. We crouched in the weeds and hid next to the big, rusted steel box that was separating water from natural gas, and we picked off high-flyers as they sailed in over the hide.

In a divide-and-conquer strategy, Herschbach took a crew with him to a hiding spot next to a wellhead about 200 yards to the southwest. They knocked down several more cranes, a Richardson's Canada goose and a drake widgeon.

We finished with 18 cranes, two cacklers and the baldpate. And a newfound appreciation for flying dinosaurs.