February 12, 2016
Hunched over in the narrow ground blind, I clutched the matte black semi auto between my hands. The steel was cold to the touch. But not too cold. It was early September in Saskatchewan, too soon for the inevitable winter front to make its way to the northern province.
The sun peeked over the horizon, throwing a ray of light across our decoys. Mind you, these weren't your average decoys. The hard-plastic replicas were formed in the shape of tall, skinny-legged sandhill cranes — a sight many American bird hunters have never seen.
I stared upwards at the pink sky through the fluttering grassy blades lining the blind. A westerly wind was blowing gently. A perfect morning.
A nervous tension drifted down the blind among the six other hunters and two guides. Even Cam, the yellow lab retriever, whimpered with excitement. "You ready for this, eh?" Our guide, Max Cochran, co-owner of Habitat Flats Central Prairie Lodges whispered.
Before I knew it, "You betcha!" left my mouth, breaking the tension with a gentle Canadian mockery.
Saskatchewan in early September is when waterfowl hunting starts to heat up and things get good. We came for the ducks, but our first morning would find us hunting birds three times that size. Crane was on the menu, and all eyes were to the sky.
Canada, Oh Canada
I was awakened by the voice of the captain on the surprisingly packed flight to Regina International Airport. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are making our initial descent into Saskatchewan. The sun is shining, and the temperature is a cool 60 degrees."
Shifting in my seat, I opened the window shade, unleashing a blinding ray of light. Eyes adjusted, the expanse of Canada opened before me, and the sun was illuminating miles upon miles of harvested wheat and barley fields, interspersed with water ranging from small ponds to acres of lakes. A waterfowler's dream was 30,000 feet below me.
The plane was filled with fellow camo-clad individuals, all heading to Canada, the land of "ehs" and the mecca for waterfowl hunting. A destination for wingshooters to shoot more flocks of birds than they could hope for in three seasons in the United States.
Eastern Saskatchewan sits at the center of the flight path of birds coming from the Arctic Boreal Forest and has long been considered the "Prairie Pothole," the nesting grounds for geese, diving and puddle ducks, and sandhill cranes. The expansive farming lands and grain fields found in the province allow migrating birds to breed, feed, and build body fat before heading south.
The density and large number of birds flying through Saskatchewan combined with a lack of hunting pressure generated by its residents has Canadian farmers almost begging hunters to help cut back the duck and crane numbers. Although early in the season, I was there to assist in making sure some of those birds made it back home to my dinner table.
Crane Meets Super Black Eagle
We came for the ducks and — hearing tales of their succulent taste — the cranes. We were pleasantly surprised when Max told us cranes would be first in our sights on day one.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, the first calls of the morning could be heard in the distance. Birds were moving, no doubt about that. But would they listen to our calls and fall for our decoys? That was the question.
Actions began clanking shut, and the sounds of shells being loaded drifted down the blind. We'd be throwing shells from Benelli's flagship gun on its 25th anniversary — the Super Black Eagle. Known for its reliability in the field thanks to its Inertia Driven system, the original 3½-inch semiauto was about to be put to the test.
Black dots peppered the sky. Flocks of ducks and cranes began circling. "Here they come," Max whispered between hurried breaths and placed his call back into his mouth.
I raised my eyes to see the action happening above, careful not to lift my bright-white face for all the winged creatures to see. A flock of at least 12 cranes were answering Max's calls. Pass one, pass two€¦they were coming in. The squawking of the cranes grew louder with every flyby.
I moved my gun into position, ready to spring into action when the call was given. Circling a final time, the cranes cupped their wings and prepared for landing. The size of these creatures amazed me, as if feathered 747s were about to make a smooth landing in front of me.
"Take 'em!" Max yelled.
The blind exploded into action, each hunter jumping at the release. Raising my Super Black Eagle, I focused on one bird and pulled the trigger. Cranes rained from the sky, and their massive bodies hit the ground with such force that dust clouded around them.
Cam jumped into action, springing from his place into a storm of feathers. The toned muscles beneath his fur flexed as he dive-bombed each crane, all four paws sliding through the dirt at a perfectly timed pounce.
It wasn't until Cam had the bird in his mouth that I was able to fully realize the sheer mass of these creatures. Trotting towards the blind, Cam was invisible behind the crane; its long skinny neck and needle-like beak dragging across the ground.
"Sometimes we don't use the dogs to fetch the cranes," Max explained as he took the bird from Cam and sent him back for another retrieve. "See their beaks and these talons?" He held the leg of the crane up for all of us to see. Long, sharp claws shaped the bottom of their webbed feet. "They'll use these and their beaks to attack you when you get close. I've seen them really hurt dogs."
We would see a Sandhill put its beak to work on the next go-round — a guide its unlucky victim.
Ribeye of the Sky?
We saw no shortage of cranes for the rest of the hunt. All morning the trumpet-like call of the birds sounded overhead. They flew into our decoys even in the midst of shooting. A tangle of red heads and skinny legs overwhelmed the blind — a feast before our eyes.
Known for their dark, red meat, cranes provoke arguments on whether they are actually good eating. In fact, the host of the lodge swore up and down that cranes were some of the worst-tasting birds he had ever tried, leaving some of us to question the "ribeye of the sky" title.
Breasting the cranes, we placed the meat in a slow-cooker with French onion soup mix, leaving the duo to become tender and delicious. A few hours later, the sweet aroma of cooked meat filled the lodge, and hungry hunters filled the kitchen.
Ribeye of the sky, indeed. The meat looked like a beef roast and tasted just as delicious after a long day afield. Canada, count me in for round two.