A sandhill crane hunt can be so rewarding during the outing and the bird oh-so tasty after, according to an outdoors “field expert” who expanded his field of expertise.
Armond Schwing has been sandhill crane hunting twice in his life. He hunted the big, beautiful, majestic migratory game birds this past week for the second time in as many years and came away with an even greater appreciation for the sport.
The Sunday and Monday hunts he took were doubly satisfying because he went with family and friends. Joining the 54-year-old New Iberian on the sandhill crane hunt near Lubbock, Texas, were his son, St. George “Saint” Schwing, and Conlan Quebedeaux of Broussard, the boyfriend of his daughter, Sydney, who graduates from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in May.
“Oh, yeah, it is good to have a crew to do those things with together,” Schwing said Tuesday, several hours before Father Time ushered in 2020. “They had a blast. They were extremely fired up. They had never done it before.”
Schwing, chairman and CEO of Schwing Insurance Agency, is widely known for his work with Ducks Unlimited as a dedicated past state chairman who was recognized in 2018 as a Grand Slam Life Sponsor with DU. He’s also a “field expert” for Drake Waterfowl Systems.
Mostly, though, he is an all-around outdoorsman and a very passionate duck hunter who has spread his wings, so to speak, to hunt sandhill cranes the past two years.
The Schwings and Quebedeaux hunted sandhill cranes with Schwing’s good friends and fellow “field experts” Clifford Colton Collen III of Lubbock, owner of Red-Eye Outfitters, and hunting guide Wyatt Willis of San Antonio, Texas. Others in the hunting party were three “field experts” and one of their dads.
They were hunting the sandhill cranes in Zone A, where the current Texas sandhill crane season is from Oct. 26, 2019, through Jan. 26.
Sandhill cranes may be legally hunted in Alaska, Arizona and Utah, as well as in nine of the 10 states in the Central Flyway, a migration route that runs from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. The most popular states for hunting sandhill cranes include Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
“There’s no season on sandhill cranes in Louisiana. If you want to hunt them you have to go to the Central Flyway. You hunt them in Texas. Lubbock, Texas, is a huge wintering stop for sandhill cranes,” Schwing said. “There’s so much expanse of cropland, a tremendous food source, they’re not pressured because there’s so much land. You ride for miles and miles and see cropland.”
The Red-Eye Outfitters’ bright red-and-white barn-shaped “expansive” hunting lodge (can sleep 30), which serves as a lodge and retreat for quilters in the offseason.
“We left Friday and got up Friday evening. We didn’t hunt Saturday because we didn’t want to be on the road while LSU was on,” Schwing said about the 10-hour drive and the desire to watch the LSU Tigers play Oklahoma in the semifinals of the CFP Playoff. LSU won, 63-28.
“I did a (sandhill crane) hunt for Drake Waterfowl field experts last year. I wanted to go back to enjoy it.”
Sunday morning and again Monday morning, he enjoyed it immensely with Saint, the former Catholic High School strongside linebacker who is in his third year with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and attending Louisiana Delta Community College in Ruston, and Conlan.
They settled into the hunting spot around sunrise in a dry field and set up an A-Frame blind with panels that form a wall in front and behind the hunters with a lid on top. They brushed it “with as much local cover as you can get” after riding around collecting tumbleweeds to do the task.
The sandhill crane decoy spread was large, he said, approximately four to five dozen.
“I’ll tell you what is interesting, the bird, due to its size and makeup, doesn’t have a bill like a duck. They have a long, pointy beak. They kind of look like a pterodactyl. Amazing,” Schwing said, adding dogs (retrievers) wear goggles because if one of the 4-foot tall adult birds is wounded, it tries to poke the eyes out.
“Those things are huge birds. They stand up about 4 feet tall and have got about a 6-foot wingspan. They’re very acrobatic when they’re coming in,” he said. “Those big giant birds hit the ground with a thud.”
They come in, usually, in groups of two up to 12 to 14, he said. Often, the hunters would let some land to act as natural decoys for following sandhill cranes.
Schwing got a good chuckle when he realized the hunting guide was calling in the sandhill cranes with a Haydel Goose Call. He ribbed the caller and told him they have to use a call from Louisiana to call in a bird in Texas.
Seriously, he said. “They just kind of chirp into it, kind of roll their tongue to make a drrrr-rrrrr-rrrrr.
There are specialty calls made for sandhill cranes, he noted.
Schwing, Saint and Conlan wielded Benelli Super Black Eagle 12-gauge shotguns and shot 3 ½-inch, No. 2 steel shot. He said lead shot can be used while hunting sandhill cranes but they chose the steel shot.
The birds were a sight to see when they decoyed. The shooting commenced when the lid lifted and nine hunters stood up to fire their shotguns.
It wasn’t easy to bring the sandhill cranes down, however. The key was getting them in as close as possible, which put an emphasis on brushing the blind as much as possible.
“They’re not hard to hit but I’m telling you what surprises you is they can take a hit. If you miss, they can get away fast. You may have one shot at them,” he said, explaining that they turn into the wind and are out of there in a few wingbeats, like a big kite.
“We were very pleased with our shooting success. We shot very well. We didn’t have any missed opportunities,” Schwing said, noting all nine hunters limited out each morning. The Texas bag limit is three per day per hunter.
“The way I would shoot them — the way I suggested to the two young men (Saint and Conlan) — was to disregard the entire bird and focus on the head. Like a dove, they’re tough (to knock down)…,” he said.
Sandhill cranes are known as the Ribeye in the Sky. Their breast meat is like a cut of choice beef, lean and so delicious. Schwing’s wife, Jennifer, always cooks them to mouth-watering perfection, he said.
“They’re good to eat. That’s where the real story comes in. They are delicious. I’m telling you, it’s like eating the finest cuts of beef you can acquire,” Schwing said. “There’s no game taste at all. It tastes like beef, a really, really good cut of beef, too. We brought back a lot of it, too. They filet the meat right off the breastplate.
“It really doesn’t taste like a duck. It tastes like a really, really tender cut of beef but it’s lean, so tender, it just tastes so good.”
The camp scene, the camaraderie in the blind, shooting the bull with family and friends before being interrupted by the quiet time whenever sandhill cranes near, then wing shooting at its best, those were the best moments of Dec. 29-30, Schwing said.
“It’s a blessing. I’m very lucky, very thankful for all of these experiences in my life,” he said.