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DNR may ask for season in NW MN

A pair of sandhill cranes walk through a field near Toad Lake last fall. (Brian Basham/Record)

I doubt that few Minnesota waterfowl hunters are eagerly awaiting an announcement, but there may be a decree so in, from the state DNR. Sandhill cranes aren't an important part of our hunting seasons. The DNR would ask the Flyway Council for permission to allow hunting in the extreme northwestern corner of the state. This would be the Counties of Marshall, Roseau, and Kittson, with the town of Lake Bronson about the middle of it. It isn't known just how many breeding pairs we have, but it is estimated to be about 10,000.

The sandhill crane is a waterfowl that stands on stilt legs, a height of just over four feet, weighing about 15 pounds. They do not decoy particularly well, have keen hearing and eyesight, so they require you have good concealment.

Cranes like very shallow water, wading around in it, rooting up water plants seeds, and roots. They like the tall weeds adjacent to open water. The bird has a six or seven foot wingspan.

There are some cranes in northwestern North Dakota, and that's where Dr. John Arouni and I first encountered them. They will not permit you to get close, taking flight from a marsh if you approach. Doc and I had no luck in taking any birds when we set up for them near Minot, but we did harvest two near Stoughton, Saskatchewan, when we were hunting mallards. We eviscerated and plucked one of these, took it to a Chinese restaurant at Estevan and had a great dinner for a number of guests.

Cranes breed in far northern Canada, migrate early along the east slopes of the Rockies and fan out from there. Hunting in Montana and the Dakotas can be quite good, and they've been seen in good numbers in the area of Minnesota that the DNR has chosen as a hunting area. Some breed in Minnesota. The season would begin around Labor Day and run for about three weeks. Limit is probably two as it is in North Dakota. In Saskatchewan it is three, daily.

It is hard to say just how much interest there is in hunting sandhills, but a few hundred guys might do it. There are Minnesota waterfowlers who do go to Canada in quest of this bird, but it is usually mixed in with goose and duck hunting. Our DNR says that there is an opportunity to harvest some of what we have, and it is good to take advantage of it.

Cranes wise up pretty quickly to hunting pressure. Last August's roadside surveys indicated large numbers in the extreme northwestern part of the state.

These very tall, slim birds are something else to see clustered together in a marsh. They watch your approach, become fidgety and take off. Hunting them will be a challenge.

The eagles around us

For the past month, it has been fun to watch the many Canada geese now in the area. An added bonus is the regularity that observers will see the bald eagle. They're not with the geese of course, but are watching harvested grain fields for mice, voles, cottontails or grouse wherever they can find them.

The bald eagle, our national symbol, was once rare in the lower forty-eight. Now they're a fairly common sight, if you're out looking for them.

Less than 50 years ago there were only about 400 mated pairs. Due primarily to the passage of the endangered species act and banning pesticides like DDT eagle populations continued to build. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that there are now about 9,880 pairs across the U.S.A. Minnesota has the most with 1,312 pairs. The state of Alaska, of course, has lots more and they're not always in the very remote areas. The figures don't count the young, unattached young eagles and some of those that we see winging their way across the Becker-Mahnomen prairies. The eagle rebound has been so spectacular that they're no longer endangered or threatened.

A good place to see a nesting pair up close is to drive Ottertail County Road 4 south from Frazee toward Vergas. Right on the County line, atop a steel tower, a pair has crafted a big nest, and the birds can be seen perched near it. If you stop, park, and stay a bit, it is sure that they'll fly away for a distance. Best to leave them undisturbed.

The sweet sixteen

Like Rodney Dangerfield, nobody respects the 16 gauge! That's not always been the case. When GIs returned from WWII, it was on a par close to the ubiquitous 12 gauge. It once was Europe's most popular size. What came to cause the 16s downfall? Western Cartridge bought bankrupt Winchester and went on to create the 3 inch magnums in both 12 and 20 gauge. Both became immensely popular. The 12 gauge reached down and provided a load equal to the 16. The 20 gauge reached up and equaled the 16 gauge. Ammunition for the 16 gauge was not "modernized" as were the others and sales waned. Popularity fell from 34 percent of the total, to 2.4 percent, according to Linda Powell, sales chief for Remington Arms. Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, there has been a resurgence of the mid-gauge. Browning introduced its sweet sixteen Citori over-under. Spanish and Turkish models in 16 gauge appeared at sensible prices. Many men realized what an ideal upland gun it was, and very suitable for waterfowl at moderate ranges. If built on a 16 gauge frame, not 12 gauge size with a 16 gauge barrel, it is a light gun, comfortable to carry all day afield. Best values today are probably the vintage American doubles, made by L.C. Smith, Ithaca, and Lefebvre. But these cost money.

The imports can be bought at better prices. Anyone who has hunted the Hungarian partridge can tell you just how important a lightweight shotgun really is. The new 16s are just that, and they're finding their way back into favor here. The 16 probably will not make it as a trap or skeet gun, but for upland hunting it can be a joy. It can serve quite well for ducks at moderate, shooting over decoys.

Just ask the man who owns one. He'll tell you of its effectiveness. Can't you just see yourself in South Dakota, after ringnecks, with a 16 gauge over-under, cradled in your arms?