Ross & the Crane

Ross St. John, who has been hunting waterfowl in north Alabama for 52 years, got his first-ever sandhill crane the other day. Sandhills have only been legal game in Alabama for 2 seasons and the season is highly controlled. 

Ross St. John of Georgia Mountain has hunted waterfowl on Guntersville Lake and around north Alabama for 52 years. So there aren’t a lot of “firsts” for him at this stage of the game.

Yet he got another first just the other day. He killed a sandhill crane in Jackson County. The cranes are said to taste like beef and hunters often refer to them as “ribeye of the sky.”

Ross is planning to cook his soon to see if it’s true.

The State of Alabama is only in its second year of holding highly regulated hunts for sandhills. Hunters wishing to pursue the birds must put in for a lottery-type drawing. If selected, they get tags to take 3 cranes.

“I actually drew the same tags last year,” Ross said. “But I didn’t know anywhere to go. I thought I would see some in the back end of Browns Creek, but I never saw any back there. I did see one back there this year, but it was after legal shooting time.”

He ended up getting his crane in Jackson County.

“My cousin Michael Rainwater lives in Stevenson and he’d been watching this flock build,” Ross said. “It started out with about 10 and had built to more than 50.”

Ross went on the crane hunt with Michael and with Austin LeCroy, the Jackson County Waterfowl biologist. Michael and Austin had already killed 2 cranes apiece at the time of the hunt. They were on a slough off the main river with hardly any water in it at all.

“The wind was wrong for where we were set up and they couldn’t really get in there,” Ross said. “We must have saw a couple hundred. I really, really enjoyed it.”

A single sandhill crane worked the decoys “like a mallard” and Ross dropped it. He was shooting 12-gauge 3-1/2 inch No. 2’s.

“We had 4 more come in and we should’ve shot,” Ross said. “They were locked up like mallards and we thought they were going to circle back. They were in reasonable range when they went over.”

Ross “dissected” the bird later and found it had 3 pellets in its neck and 3 in its breast.

Getting the sandhill crane, he said, was the high point of what so far has been a season to forget.

“It has been 2020,” he said.

Ross killed his first duck on Guntersville Lake when he was 7 years old in 1968. He said this is the worst year for waterfowl numbers he has ever seen.

“We don’t have a lot of ducks and what’s here have been chased and shot at,” he said. “They’re not going to decoy.”

There are only a handful of mallards around and a few divers, nothing like we usually have.

“Here’s a telltale sign,” Ross said. “Last Monday, I left Guntersville and drove to Scottsboro. You cross the water 5 or 6 times between here and Scottsboro. I did not see a single duck. We saw a few coots and a few grebes.”

He thinks there are a few factors at work in the duck hunting decline on Guntersville Lake.

“The majority of it is we just haven’t had the cold weather up north to send the birds down,” Ross said. “Also, so many people have developed duck hunting property near the refuges and they only shoot them twice a week. What few ducks we have are holding on private property.”

Ross also believes the flyway has shifted and Guntersville just doesn’t get the ducks it used to.

“We have killed fewer ducks than we ever have out of my blind,’ Ross said. “We have taken fewer than 20 ducks this season out of the blind and we used to take 100 a season out of it. Now all we do is sit in the blind and talk about the old days.”

Part of our waterfowl problems are in the kinds of ducks that Guntersville Lake attracts. Gadwalls and scaup were the bread and butter ducks for Guntersville waterfowlers for years.

“Gadwall numbers are down 30 to 35 percent across North America, according to the biologists,” Ross said. “Scaup numbers are down that much too.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, under the old “points system,” scaup were a 10 point duck, meaning you could kill a limit of 10 in a day. The limit is 2 a day in 2020-21.

But we are not alone in our waterfowl woes. Ross said he’s talking to hunters in Arkansas, Illinois and Missouri who have experienced the same thing.

A Bright Spot

Ross fishes as well as hunts and he enjoyed a bright spot in his fishing adventures the other day. He took his goddaughter Vanessa Saint Kennamer fishing and she caught her first sauger ever. Sauger – better known locally as “jack salmon,” – had all but disappeared from the river for several years, Ross said. But they're back now.

“We caught 3 and all 3 were 15-inches,” Ross said. 15 inches is the legal limit to keep a sauger.

He said they just used the same kind of jigs they would use for crappie and reeled in real slow to catch the sauger.

Cherished Decoy

Ross inherited a cherished decoy awhile back when his former hunting buddy Lowell Gene Kennamer, noted decoy carver, passed.

“Lowell Gene made a goldeneye decoy out of an old Herter’s decoy,” Ross said. “I can’t tell you how many goldeneyes we killed over that single decoy.”

There aren’t many goldeneyes on the lake right now.

Back in the day, the modus operandi for hunting them was to flush them, throw out a decoy or 2 or 3 and get hid. By the time you get all that done, the goldeneyes would be filtering back.

“All we ever used was that one decoy,” Ross said. “They would come back and go straight to it.”

Ross inherited a lot of Lowell Gene’s old hunting gear. He is planning to try his hand at carving decoys next summer in honor of his old hunting buddy. Cary Sadler of Huntsville has agreed to show Ross some of the tricks of the art.

1st Crane Hunt

Ross’s first crane hunt back in December ended before it ever got started.

“I got up at 3 a.m. in the morning to head to Jackson County, pulling my boat, 3 days before Christmas,” he said. Just past Waterfront Grocery, a giant buck deer barreled off a hill and ran straight into Ross’s truck, then into his boat.

“It caused me to fish tail,” he said. “I almost wrecked but I didn’t. It was a big buck. I got a good look from 3 feet away.”

It did $5,000 worth of damage to the truck.

Ross and some buddies went back to look for the buck but never found it.

“He had a nice rack,” he said. “You could see where it went down the side of my truck. I have never hit a deer, but I’ve had 2 of them hit me.”

Rest of the Season

For the rest of the season, Ross’s plan is simple: He is going to hunt geese.

“There are a lot of geese around, if you can pull them away from the feed mills and the walking parks,” he said. “If ducks fly over, we will shoot them, but we are going to hunt geese.”

He said his wife Robin has come up with a crock pot goose recipe that is the best way he’s ever eaten the birds.

“It’s just like a Sunday roast,” he said. “I’ve got 3 geese in the freezer, but I’d like to put up a few more.”

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