With the early Canada goose season in Minnesota less than a month away (September 3), now is the time to be scouting. I’ve had friends around the state seeing birds grouped up and feeding in cut hay and wheat fields. It seems like everything is ahead of schedule this year as family groups were seen flying much earlier than years past.
With this knowledge offering encouragement, I hopped in my pickup, let my lab Mika ride shotgun and headed out into the country. While I’ve seen small flocks of geese around the Mississippi River, trying to find them last night proved to be as tough as putting a bead on a speeding teal.
The central part of the state that I’m living in now just doesn’t seem to have as many geese as the western prairie that I moved from, but I figured I’d see at least a dozen feeding on small grain somewhere.
Nope. That doesn’t mean that the landscape was void of wildlife, because it was exactly the opposite. Whitetail deer, turkeys and-most surprisingly-sandhill cranes-were everywhere.
I knew Minnesota had a healthy population of cranes and that the numbers had been rising for years. You’ll see them in great numbers in the northwest corner of the state and then also stretched across the central part and into northwestern Wisconsin. My family’s cabin is located not far from Crex Meadows in Grantsburg and each year it seems like we see more and more cranes standing tall in open fields. It hasn’t always been that way of course, but clearly the conservation efforts have paid off.
There is a hunting season on them in the Dakotas and even in the far northwest corner of Minnesota ($3 license required). Rumors of opening the season statewide in Minnesota have persisted for a few years now, but no one is sure if it will happen. According to the DNR, there are two subspecies of sandhill cranes that make their way to the land of 10,000 lakes. The cranes that come up through the central plains and eventually northwestern Minnesota winter in Texas and are known as the mid-continent species. The eastern subspecies spend the cold months in Florida and then come back up to northwest Wisconsin and central Minnesota. Because it’s hard to differentiate the two species, (and possibly because of eastern population numbers) the hunting season focuses primarily on the mid-continent species and therefore is limited to the small part of the state.
Cranes fall into an interesting category because they’re an interesting bird. They don’t seem like the prototypical waterfowl target. They look like Great Blue Herons but act like geese. They’ve also been around for 2.5 million years. Pterodactyls I’ve heard them called. Their rolling shrill sounds are unmistakable. They’ll feed in small grain fields like waterfowl and they’ve been given the nickname, “ribeye of the sky.”
While some people will roll their eyes at that name, I’ve found the breast meat to be a cross between a ribeye and a Canada goose. And, yes, they are delicious. Like anything else, process it and prepare it correctly and you’ll have a meal people will fight over.
They’re a remarkable bird and I’ve been lucky enough to be up close to a few. We’ll get into the cranes during Goose Fest in Middle River again this fall, and each spring during the snow goose migration it’s inevitable that you’ll have a flock or two flying in the stratosphere above you. You might even get a few to drop into your decoy spread.
While I was surprised to see all those cranes last night, I shouldn’t have been. I knew they were here but the kid in me always gets that “Christmas Morning” excitement when I see wildlife like that. I was actually more surprised at all the does and fawns I spotted. And each field seemed to have its own resident turkeys pecking their way through it too.
I even saw a small flock of blue-winged teal rise up from a low spot in a hay field that had flooded from the rains the night before. The only geese I saw were in the form of three decoys in someone’s front yard. Not the most promising scouting trip for the September goose season, but the kind of trip a guy like me can appreciate.
It’s also the exact reason why you have to scout. If you want to have a successful hunting season, you have to go where the birds are. Plus driving through the country is a much better stress reliever than anything some doctor can prescribe.