Last October I was fortunate enough to head up to the Northwest corner of Minnesota and spend some time hunting Sandhill Crane's. I have never hunted crane's before and really didn't have nay idea how I was going to hunting them. In years past I have deer hunted in this same area and over the year have seen some impressive flocks of thousands of crane's flying over. A few years back Minnesota opened open a crane season and ever since I have been wanting to hunt them. I figured the best way to hunt them would be to set up in an area they might be landing or taking off from and pass shoot one. The only problem was that when I got there the cranes weren't as abundant as they are later in the year and the flocks of birds flying around were much smaller than what I had seen in the past.
My first day there I drove around and tried to find an area that they were moving around. My old friend Scott Oberg, whose land I was hunting on had made some calls and got me permission to hunt some other land next to his. In one of those fields was a group of cranes hanging out eating cut corn. I watched them for some time and then figured I thought I would try to stalk up on them. Little did I know that cranes have incredible eyesight. I made it about 100 yards away before they flew out of the fields. My strategy was flawed at best and I needed to come up with a better method. I figured I would wait until the next morning and then try to get out in that cornfield early and be set up when the cranes came back in the morning, If they came back at all.
I spent the rest of the day hunting sharp-tailed grouse and would occasionally see where some cranes were flying over. The next morning I set up in the corn and waited for the sun to come up. There was no sign of the cranes and I waited for several hours before I had the first group of cranes fly over. They were the only cranes of the morning and they were a bit high but I took a shot anyway. I missed and my only chance of the morning was gone. At this point I was pretty sure that my chances of shooting a crane were gone. I had some luck shooting grouse the day before and was seeing a lot of grouse flying around so I gave up on the cranes and headed off to shot some more grouse.
My friend Scott decided to join me for some grouse shooting and we walked off into some red brush to shoot a few grouse. While we were walking I had walked into some willows and flushed a couple of woodcock. The willows were so thick that I had a hard time swinging my gun to get a shot but I did get a shot off. I missed the woodcock but my sot jumped a group of cranes out of the swamp and they flew directly over me. they were so close when they came over my 20 gauge with number 4 steel was more than enough to knock one down. It hit the ground with a loud crunch, I raced over to it and couldn't believe how big it was. It must have weighed 25 pounds. It isn't often that I get all amped up but that got me pumping, it was awesome.
I plucked the whole bird and then had to think about how I wanted to cook it. I have eaten crane a couple of times in the past but have never had a whole bird to work with. I have heard many people refer to them as the "ribeye of the sky" so the first thing I did was make the classic french dish Steak Au'poivre. I used the legs and thighs to make some steam buns. I saved one breast of the crane to make a sandhill crane Prosciutto. I have made prosciutto in the past out of goose and duck so I was reasonably certain that in would work great on the crane. I wasn't wrong, the crane made the best prosciutto of them all. For this prosciutto I used a recipe from Jamie Bissonette's The New Charcuterie Cookbook, I altered it slightly but for the most part its his recipe. I really like the cinnamon that is added to the cured mixture. Cinnamon really blends well with the natural flavors of the the crane. Cranes are amazing table fare and if you get a chance to hunt them you really should, you won't be disappointed.
Sandhill Crane Prosciutto
1 crane breast
3 cups kosher salt
1 1/2 cup maple sugar
2 tablespoons coriander
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
4 teaspoons mustard seeds
2 tablespoons black pepper corns
2 bay leaves crushed
2 sprigs of thyme
1. mix together the salt, sugar and spices then pour half the mixture into a glass or other non reactive dish. then place the breast in the salt mixture and cover with the rest of the cure mixture. let the breast sit in the salt for 2 days.
2. remove the breast from the salt cure mixture and rinse it clean, then pat it dry and wrap it in cheese cloth. then hang it in the back of your fridge for two weeks. Slice and enjoy.