Hunting guides are at the mercy of weather and wildlife.
Any guide can put a client on incredible hunting when conditions are correct and wildlife plentiful. The best guides produce when weather patterns change the game.
Lonnie Carter and Brad VonFeldt, both of Great Bend, have a successful hunting operation, Great Flyway Adventures, for geese and Sandhill cranes. Past clients that enjoyed the best waterfowl hunts of their lives return annually — the true sign of a successful guiding operation.
Both Carter and VonFeldt are experienced hunters who know how to change tactics when unexpected factors ruin hunting conditions.
I was fortunate to watch this team during a Sandhill crane hunt when Mother Nature provided extreme weather changes. To be more specific, last Saturday had a high temperature of 76 degrees with 40 mph winds.
That night, heavy thunderstorms moved. It was worst lightening display I have ever seen and on Sunday, we sat out decoys before daylight in 19-degree temperatures with 20 mph winds. That is a 57-degree temperature change with heavy winds — not favorable for cranes.
“Cranes don't like this type of weather,” VonFeldt said. “They will sit and occasionally jump up to stretch their wings on a warm day, hunker down in a severe storm and then move when cold weather hits, especially with heavy winds. They could move out of here overnight and then we would have migrates to hunt from up north. But that would depend on when they arrived. We generally pattern cranes after they are here a few days, so this could be tough.”
This was not good news for Jim Henry of Moline, Ill., who hunts with VonFieldt and Carter every season. He was there to shoot his first Sandhill crane. Both guides realized his desire and started scouting.
The arrival of cold weather meant cranes leaving south. Finally a field several miles south was discovered that had previously attracted cranes and geese.
“Picking a productive field for cranes is easy enough,” Carter said. “They prefer strips of winter wheat or grass between corn and other row crops. They are comfortable landing in the shorter crops and step into the higher row crops to feed. This high cover is good for hunters too. Sandhill cranes have extremely acute eyesight and are more wary than most geese. The higher covers are better for hiding layout blinds.”
The weatherman was correct on Sunday morning and we all piled on layers of insulated hunting clothes. The 19-degree temperatures were bad, but the winds made conditions worse.
We set out nine full bodied crane decoys, 50 wind socks made to resemble cranes from a distance and 26 crane silhouettes. A dozen Big-Foot Canada goose decoys were added for good measure. Cranes and geese will share the same fields, but never mix, so the goose and crane decoys were separated.
Henry, Carter, VonFeldt and I soon settled in our layout blinds and waited. Dawn broke 45 minutes later and with it came huge numbers of high-flying geese and swans. Legal shooting time soon arrived in time for a big flock of cranes to drop and break towards our set.
I peeked out in amazement at the grace and ease the big birds maneuvered through the sky. Sadly something spooked the flock and they soon disappeared over the distant horizon.
“Really they remind me of a flying dinosaur with their six-foot wing span and long pointed bill,” Carter said. “They are incredible birds that fly fast and then glide long distances. They have a deep wing beat like a greater Canada goose or a Tundra swan.”
The long bill is used for feeding and protection. Knowledgeable hunters never take retrieving dogs on Sandhill crane hunts. The end of their beak is razor sharp and defensive cranes will peck a dog's eyes out or cut a hunter's skin open to require stitches. This is why wounded cranes are shot again-the only safe way to harvest this tough bird. Besides, an adult bird is about four-feet-tall with very menacing looks.
Sandhill cranes are survivors with the longest fossil found of any bird still living. Recently a 2.5 million year old Sandhill crane fossil was discovered.
The morning progressed while Carter and VonFeldt used specially made Blitz Krieg Game Call Company crane calls to make the high-pitched rolling “r” sound that is common for cranes. A big flock flew over high and suddenly a single rolled out and started a downward glide, twisting and turning to look over the field below.
He made wide sweeps and big gliding turns on his way down where Henry took a deep breath and waited. I peeked out and was amazed to see how big the bird looked at 70 yards out — a reason why inexperienced hunters shoot before this big bird is in killing range.
Big wings glided the crane while his neck crooked while searching for danger.
Finally, the crane was close enough and Carter gave the vocal signal to shoot. Henry sat up in his blind, took careful aim and rolled his first Sandhill crane with a fine shot. Before day’s end he would shoot a second bird, likely two more than anyone else in the region that day because of the tough conditions.
Before hunting Sandhill cranes in state where legal, make sure you know the difference between a Sandhill and whooping crane — a federally protected species. Kansas requires you take a written test that is available of their web site.
Hunting Sandhill cranes is an exciting experience that every waterfowler should experience. For more information about hunting Sandhill cranes with Great Adventure Flyways in Great Bend, call 620-793-5410.