Sandhill Cranes on the Prairies

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The hunt of a lifetime!
When Hooked writer John Toone and I got asked to go on a sandhill crane hunt by Paul Conchatre of Birdtail Waterfowl, we had no idea what to expect. I had grown up hunting geese and ducks in southwestern Manitoba but sandhills hadn’t been an option. Since the early 60’s, the population of these prehistoric birds has risen steadily in this part of the world to the point now there is an open fall season.

Sandhills didn’t survive millions of years by being dumb, so hunting them is an exhilarating challenge. Luckily, over the course of the next two days, I was able to get a crash course from two of the best in the business, Paul and his father Mike Conchatre. Paul founded Birdtail Waterfowl seventeen years ago, Now this operation, with Paul in charge, has become one of the premier waterfowl outfitters in Canada. Mike has been guiding for his son for fourteen years, in the process fine tuning the art of hunting for these wary birds.

Upon arrival at their lodge our first order of business was to go scouting for the hunt the next morning. John and I headed out with Mike and we covered miles and miles of pothole country on the southwestern edge of Manitoba. It took a while, but we finally found a field littered with these wary birds. Mike had his binoculars along and we checked out the field from long range. No use to spook them he stated. With his laptop beside him and cell phone in hand, in no time we had the landowner on the phone and permission granted. Later that evening final plans were laid out for the hunt the next day.


Keys to the Hunt
Sandhill’s have very keen eyesight, look huge in the air and are tough to knockdown. They are also difficult to decoy and will not come into a field if there is anything unusual going on. That means retrieving your birds after they are down. Also make sure they are dead before you send a dog to retrieve them, with deadly sharp beaks and claws for feet that can inflict serious damage.

Mike was in charge of setup so first thing out were the decoys, full bodied ones, about three dozen in total. This was the first hunt of the season so more were not needed. Later on, that number of decoys will go up.

Laydown blinds were set up along a small island of grass and rock in the middle of the field. Mike made sure to check everyone’s cover, an important point considering the excellent eyesight these birds possess. With a couple of guides set up the other side of the grass island to make sure no birds snuck in from behind, we were almost set to go. Two of the other guides were designated callers and we were ready to go! Sandhill crane family units are usually three, so you will get multiples of this number. Since they don’t all arrive at the same time, you can do quite well not spooking the whole group.

We used decoys and field hunted during this trip but some hunters will pass shoot. Since sandhills roost on big sloughs overnight, they like to go out to fields close by. In interviewing Mike Conchatre that evening, he was dead set against hunting the sloughs on which these birds roost. He says if you do, you risk losing these birds from the area for up to six years. They are also tough to track down in the marsh grass and water, which also provides an extreme danger to your dogs.

For years people have been saying sandhill cranes are no good to eat. Don’t believe that for a second. Those in the know, love to eat these birds. Marinade them in something bubbly like 7UP for 12 hours then cook them medium rare. Enjoy.

If you want to experience this extremely rare hunt, contact Paul at www.birdtailwaterfowl.com
Manitoba is one of the few jurisdictions in North America were you can hunt them.

HOOKED MAGAZINE INTERVIEW WITH PAUL CONCHATRE

Hooked: When did you first start hunting and who was your biggest mentor?
Paul: My mentor was my father for sure (Mike Conchâtre), he was a grass roots hunter who brought my family to Manitoba from Quebec in 1981 to work for Ducks Unlimited (retired in 2011). I was too young to hunt with my Dad when we lived in Quebec but when we moved to Manitoba I was his side kick on every hunt. My first-time hunting with my Dad was when I was 6, we hunted some big water but most of our hunts were on small DU projects in southwest Manitoba. My Dad was a minimalist with gear, he felt that you did not need a lot to have a great hunt and a great hunt was not defined by a limit. I know my Dad was the best mentor for me, he taught me resect and to pay attentions to what’s going around you, be engaged. Don’t blunder into the environment you want to be a part of. To me this is one of the most enjoyable facets of hunting. I was very fortunate to be given strong foundation, especially for what was down the road me.

Where did you start guiding?
My Dad and I went coyote hunting one January out in the SW corner of Manitoba in one of those -35 deep freeze periods. I dropped him off at a spot and I drove to another finding out that it was way too cold to sit. I drove back two hours later to where I dropped him off and found him wrapped around a barbed wire fence. He had slipped a disc in his back and was in rough shape – border line heart attack. The trip ended up with my Dad hooked up to a morphine drip in the town hospital and me having hilarious conversations with him. We ended up talking about my future—he suggested I should write my guide exam. I wasn’t sure if it was the morphine talking or it was the best damn idea I’ve ever heard.

After writing my exam for the guide’s license I went to the Travel Manitoba Lodge’s and Outfitters Guide and mailed resumes to every listing and called each one. Every person I talked to said I needed guiding experience or just didn’t like my age. It was a humbling experience until I talked to Daryl Stanley of Stanley’s Goose camp. He was the only person that took the time to have a conversation plus I got an interview. Now to amplify the situation he is a really big man that played in the NHL that most wouldn’t mess with. Story goes that I landed my first guiding job and the one that was meant for me, waterfowl.

Tell us about Birdtail, whendid you get it started and how has it grown?
During the winter of 1999 Daryl Stanley asked me how many more years will I be guiding waterfowl—I can remember my response like it was yesterday, “forever” and I was serious. Daryl knew I wasn’t joking, and asked if I had plans of starting my own outfitting business. My answer was yes, which was tough to say because I loved working for him so much. Daryl suggested we go into business together and work through the growing pains in a partnership.
We ended up having a 5-year partnership contract drawn up and Birdtail Waterfowl Service was born. After five years Birdtail had grown to its capacity of 60 plus guests per year and a solid repeat clientele.

Is it a tough business?
Yes it is, you are everything plus some. I am always asked “what do you do in the off season”, my response is “work longer days”. My average work week is over 70 hours throughout the year and is incredibly diverse. There is a reason why there is only a handful of waterfowl lodges in North America that have the volume of waterfowl guests as we do, and from my understanding there isn’t another operator that does it without being in a partnership.
The volume is challenging. Outfitting is a business that’s definitely not understood well by the average person because the complexity involved. The biggest challenge would be finding the balance of between business and family. There is a big difference using outfitting as your main source of income to some who use it as second job. Relying on the resource based tourism as your primary source of income is high risk and all business decisions must be based on suitability.

What are some of the challenges you face as an operator?
The first thing that comes to mind again would be the balance of family life. Outfitting is a risky business and in my opinion to do it right it takes a lot time and time away from your family. Often my days run 30 hours straight just to get as much done while away from home. Work till you drop, literally. It’s far from normal or healthy but in my case I have nine months to complete my off season work which should take 12 months. Once we are in season it’s not bad because we’re playing in a well-oiled machine of success.

What motivates you to be involved as President of the MLOA and on the Board of Directors of Travel Manitoba?
Passion for the industry motivates me to be involved in the MLOA. The MOLA is an amazing group of business owners who are like minded and live the same passion as I do. We at the MLOA have come a long way from the “fist pounding” era by having amazing Executive Directors like Ryan Suffron to our current ED Paul Turenne, they are the ones who have really made the MLOA who we are today.
So, what motivates me to be the President of the MLOA? Working with others to better the resource tourism industry.
Travel Manitoba is a group of people that we all should be very proud of as Manitoban’s. They are one of the top Destination Marketing Organizations in Canada with one of the smallest budgets in Canada. How do you pull that off? The right people making good decisions.

What does the future hold?
To be able to retire doing what I love in a place that’s close to my heart.

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About Author

Don Lamont

Don Lamont - The Complete Angler Don Lamont has been a full time professional angler for 34 years, hosting and producing the award winning “The Complete Angler” television series for fifteen of those. Don has received several awards for his commitment to public education and the future of recreational fishing in Canada. Those include a 2000 Canadian Recreational Fisheries Award for his work with Manitoba’s Urban Angling Partnership. In 2003 he received a Manitoba Tourism Award for his promotion of Manitoba and western Canada. In 2004 he was a finalist at the Tourism Industry Association of Canada National Award for Tourism Excellence, presented by The Globe and Mail. Don has been a regular fishing columnist in the Winnipeg Free Press since 1992 and is currently editor of Hooked Magazine.

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