Cranes worth the strain

STAFFORD COUNTY — It was one shot and one downed bird, a combination avid hunter Roger Marshall experiences more than 100 times a year.

But when the sandhill crane headed toward the ground, he thrust both arms skyward and let out a whoop that rolled across the cornfield.

It's a big deal anytime a Kansas hunter scores one of the most unpredictable gamebirds in the nation.

"Some days they're easier than geese and some days they're so much tougher than geese," said Tim Keenan, Marshall's hunting partner and veteran of more than 15 years of sandhill crane hunting.

"I do think hiding, though, is even more important than with geese. Their ability to see you is amazing."

And on the morning's hunt south of their Great Bend homes Keenan, Marshall and three friends faced no shortage of challenges.

The field was well-scouted — and well-used by several thousand sandhills coming from the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

Well before daylight, a trailer and two pick-up trucks had been emptied of more than 300 decoys, including three stuffed sandhill cranes. Lay-out blinds were covered with corn stalks and slid into shoveled depressions.

With the sun came wide flocks of cranes that showed little wariness as they flew only a few yards above the camouflaged hunters. Some even landed within easy shotgun range.

But no shots were fired for another 20 minutes.

Current regulations say sandhills can only be hunted a half hour after sunrise. Ducks and geese can be hunted a half hour before.

The conservative regulation is to make sure hunters don't mistake sandhills for endangered whooping cranes.

Marshall and others counted down the minutes until shooting time like the launch of a space craft.

Minutes into legal shooting time, Gerald Lauber and Chris Tymeson teamed up to drop a pair of cranes hovering over the decoys.

Within 20 minutes, Marshall made the celebrated long shot on a flock that was leaving after the others dropped several more.

Soon, the group of five totalled a quick eight sandhills.

And then success stopped, even though thousands of cranes came toward the field.

Some circled the field five or more times before they headed to feed somewhere else. None got within 100 yards of the hiding hunters.

"I think they had to be seeing something," Keenan said. "Something sure didn't seem right to them."

He said the northwest wind was a problem, meaning the hunters had to lay facing the southeast to have the wind at their backs.

"That put the sun in our eyes and made it easy for the cranes to see," Keenan said. "We like a south or southeast wind. We do better when the sun's in their eyes."

The wind's fast speed was as problematic as its direction. Windsock decoys that moved slightly at sunrise were a blur of movement by mid-morning.

Still, no complaints came as the hunters gathered their gear and headed for a lunch at Marshall's nearby cabin.

Averaging better than a bird per hunter is pretty solid when hunting sharp-eyed sandhills.

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