This sandhill crane hunt in Delta Junction, Alaska, provided an exhilarating experience with successful harvests, despite challenging weather and wary birds. Guided by SEAK Outfitters, the two-day adventure included thrilling encounters, memorable teamwork, and a fulfilling realization of a bucket-list dream.

Sandhill crane hunt

Story by Andrew Mueller – All Photos by Carri Ann and Andy Mueller

“Kill Em!” shouted the guide. Our hearts were pounding as we could hear the cranes whistling just 35 or 40 yards away on their final approach. Our ground blind flew open and the barley straw concealing our location flew in every direction like leaves blown from a tree in a strong gust of wind. Carri Ann sat up, took aim, and her Beretta rang out as about a dozen sandhill cranes were 30 yards out over the decoy spread. Their feet dropped and wings were beating to slow their descent to touch down. A beautiful, mature crane crumbled and fell just a few feet away amongst the decoys. The excitement rang out:

“I Got One!”  Carri Ann had connected on her first sandhill crane.

Andrew’s Browning Maxus zeroed in on a crane. He had harvested a crane just to the right of the decoy spread, while two other cranes crumbled from the hunters on the left side of the spread.  Andrew had hit a second bird but was still in flight, gliding towards the black spruce trees and birch trees covered in yellow fall foliage lining the edge of the barley field. The crane’s wing was damaged, but it could glide.

Titan On Duty

Sandhill crane hunt

Titan retrieving birds.

Titan, a mature, seasoned black lab, shot out of the kennel covered in barley straw and began retrieving the downed birds.  Titan locked in on the gliding crane as he touched down near the edge of the field. He quickly caught up to the bird and retrieved it.

Each time, Tel would give Titan the retrieve command. Titan would lock in on the bird and scoop up the crane in his mouth. Each time, he proudly returned the crane to Tel after weaving through the maze of decoys. Titan would sit at Tel’s feet looking up, awaiting praise, and ready for the next command.

We harvested five cranes from the first flock. For a short time, we were warm and high-fiving each other. We were filled with excitement and big smiles. Each hunter provided a detail-by-detail account of the past few minutes.  A few photos taken and then more cranes were heard in the distance. Tel shouted, “Tuck In, we have cranes locked in on our decoys!”

This routine would go on throughout the day as flock after flock of cranes, snow geese, Canadian geese, and swans were migrating overhead.

A Dream Hunt Begins

This hunt started back in the previous spring as Carri Ann talked about a bucket-list sandhill crane hunt for her husband, Andrew, with Hugh Clark at the Alaska Waterfowl Association banquet. Hugh stopped everything he was doing at the banquet and shared Tel Brown’s contact information. “Reach Out to Tel, he will make it happen for you.” Tel is the co-owner of SEAK Outfitters.

Carri Ann and I are avid outdoors people. Carri Ann became engrossed in learning about cranes, their behaviors, and migration. We seek adventure and “make it happen” because we know that someday, the Alaskan hunting and fishing drive will come to an end. We do not want to look back and say, “I wish we would have gone on that adventure!”

Sandhill crane hunt

The hunting couple with big smiles after an exciting day of sandhill cranes coming into the decoys.

During the dinner and live auction, Carri Ann started texting with Tel. Before the night was over, we had potential dates. We just needed to confirm our calendar.

We would be hunting the fall season for sandhill cranes in Delta Junction, Alaska. The crane season corresponds with the regular waterfowl season. Cranes are harvested conservatively for subsistence and sport in some regions but are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. There are some important habitat areas protected in Alaska.

Understanding Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill cranes are among Alaska’s largest birds and often referred to as “Ribeye in the Sky.”  Cranes are wading birds with long black legs, long necks, and black chisel-shaped bills. Adults stand approximately three feet tall and have a six-foot wingspan or more.

According to ADF&G, “Mature birds are an ash-gray color with a bright-red forehead. Immature birds are quite mottled with coppery or rusty feathers and lack the red forehead of adults. Adult plumage is attained at two-and-a-half years. In the past, the sandhill cranes in Alaska were called “little brown” cranes and were thought to be a separate species based on their color.”

Sandhill crane hunt

Sandhill crane decoys along with an experienced caller, Tel Brown, bring the cranes from high above right into the decoy spread

Most outdoor enthusiasts identify sandhill cranes by their dance. Also according to ADF&G, “This display may be one of the strangest breeding displays on the tundra. Often called a mating dance, this ritual reaches a peak in late winter and early spring, but it has also been seen at other times of the year when two cranes meet. The ritual starts with a deep bow followed by great leaps, hops, skips, turns, and more bows. This dance can go on for many minutes.”

We would be hunting the more populous northern group of sandhill cranes that breeds on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, in the Interior, and along coastal areas throughout western and northern Alaska.

Journey to the Hunt

Our hunt would start with the seven-hour drive from Palmer to Glenn Allen, then north to Delta Junction. We would travel a well-known historical journey that so many had before us, prior to the Richardson highway being built from Valdez to Fairbanks. This drive was filled with Alaska’s beauty from the snowcapped mountains with yellow-and-red fall foliage. This was a true treasure and worth the drive.

Our accommodation for this hunt would be the Silver Fox Roadhouse. The Silver Fox Roadhouse is on the Alaskan Highway just outside of Delta Junction. We had a cozy log cabin with kitchenette and oil heater.

Roadhouses are a part of Alaskan history. These rugged outposts were typically simple log cabins built by trappers, goldminers, and other fortune seekers well before statehood. The outpost is where supplies and food could be replenished, and a warm bath and sleeping accommodations welcomed all for the night.

As we tucked in for the night, anticipation was building. It would be a sleepless night of endless thoughts of cranes landing in the decoys, the loud, rolling musical rattle of their voices, and the sight picture looking down the barrel. Cranes have very powerful, unmistakable voices.

Day of the Sandhill Crane Hunt

A view from the ground blind. Sandhill cranes sometimes respond well to decoys.

We would meet up with Tel and Jared at their cabin along with four other hunters the next morning. Tel and Jared were welcoming, knowledgeable, and addressed our questions. There was a confident vibe about them.

In the morning, we went through the typical greetings and introductions. Once the formalities were dispatched, we loaded up into the trucks with our gear and headed out to nearby barley fields.

The early morning hunt promised to be cold, wet, and windy. The skies were various shades of gray. As we walked from the truck, we could hear the cranes talking, almost tempting or teasing us. About three dozen decoys welcomed us to our ground blind. Within minutes, we were tucked in.

Ready and Waiting

Sandhill crane hunt

A cold and wet Carri Ann surveying the Sandhill Crane Decoys. The decoys are in a pattern to bring the cranes 30- to 40 yards from the ground blinds.

Tel and Jared made sure we were concealed in our blind completely covering us with loose barley straw. Cranes are very wary birds with incredible eyesight. Anything that looks out of place, or unexpected movement, will cause the cranes to flare out of range.

Within minutes, the cranes were in flight all around us. We were shivering as we laid in the darkness of the ground blind.  Rain was dripping through the soaked straw and onto our faces.

We had our shotguns strategically placed so that as the blind opened, we could quickly pull up on the cranes. We would be shooting from a sitting position. Tel recommended we use number 2 shot or BBs with a 1,500 feet/second velocity. Our shotguns had waterfowl steel full-chokes tubes.  Our shooting window was 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock from 20- to 40 yards. At 50 yards, the potential for clean kills is marginal with steel shot.

Our guides would sing sweet songs on their crane calls, trying to entice each flock of birds migrating overhead. We need just a few cranes from each flock to break off before continuing their migration. As the sound of the cranes approached, the excitement and anticipation built, allowing us to forget about being cold and wet. The shivering would stop for the moment, and we would lay quiet and motionless. We were soaked to the bone.

Cat-and-Mouse Game

The author and his wife, Carri Ann, with a pair of Sandhill Cranes taken while hunting with guide, Tel Brown.

We played cat-and-mouse with the cranes with each passing flock. Some flocks would just pass by without any interest in stopping. Other flocks would come just out of range to take a closer look at the decoys and be serenaded before flaring and continuing the migration. Our hearts would sink as we laid in the wet ground blind, and the cold would settle back in as we watched the flaring cranes move further and further out of range.

Often, the cranes would have a challenging wind to overcome. Some flocks would land just 100 yards or so from the decoys as they could not overcome the wind. Waterfowl frustration at its best!

Tel and Jared adjusted the crane and geese layout through the day, trying to lure the cranes high overhead to stop and feed. They worked hard to present us with as many opportunities as they could. Their efforts yielded several opportunities to harvest cranes and geese throughout the day.

The Migration Continues

Over the course of the two days, we saw thousands of cranes starting their pilgrimage south. Often, they would be accompanied by snow geese, speckle-belly geese and tundra swans. The mixed flocks were an indication that many cranes had already migrated down the flyway. The migration of the swans and snow geese were the last to head south and meant snow would be coming soon.

If Sandhill Crane hunting is on your bucket list, we recommend reaching out to Tel Brown at SEAK Outfitters and hunting the barley fields of Delta Junction, Alaska. Tel and Jared will make this adventure a reality.

SEAK Outfitters is a waterfowl-hunting and salmon-fishing guide service based out of Juneau Alaska. They specialize in salmon fishing with a fly rod in shallow waters as well as sea ducks in October through December. You can find them on Facebook or at


The author and his wife are avid Alaska hunters and their pursuit of “Ribeye in the Sky” Sandhill cranes on a cold wet September day in Delta Junction with SEAK Outfitters is just one of many of their hunting pursuits.

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