Vast agriculture lands of the state’s northern-most region are a mecca for wing-shooters
The Texas Panhandle is incredibly vast. This statement seems even more true during the winter, when the terrain is covered with waterfowl and sandhill cranes. Miles of grain fields concentrate these migratory birds, providing them with winter food and habitat. It’s a waterfowl hunting mecca and a wing-shooter’s paradise.
I spent three days in December chasing geese and sandhills outside Lubbock with Panhandle outfitter Nathan Zuniga. Zuniga owns and operates Full Throttle Outdoors, and specializes in putting waterfowl hunters and wing shooters on some of the best in-your-face decoying action they could ever dream of.
The Panhandle’s reputation for producing memorable hunts has always resonated well among the network of outdoor industry professionals I run with, but I had never had an opportunity to experience it firsthand. So, when my friend Chris McKinley asked me to come along as the photographer on a three-day hunt with his family to celebrate his grandfather’s birthday, I obliged. The opportunities to shoot photos of decoying birds that followed were impressive.
We spent two mornings chasing geese in harvested grain fields, as well as an afternoon and a morning hunt pursuing sandhill cranes. Zuniga and his crew went above and beyond to do everything in their power to ensure our group would experience success. From using high-quality, full-body decoys, to extremely concealed blinds, our setup was always primo.
It also was very clear that a significant amount of scouting had gone into planning each hunt. Zuniga had either spent the afternoon before each hunt on the road, checking out properties to determine where our best options were, or he had another guide out putting eyes on the birds.
We hunted from A-Frame-style blinds that allowed our group to get away with some movement, while still enjoying easy shot opportunities. Surrounding stubble and vegetation were used to break up the outlines of these blinds on the flat, open ground, and in natural West Texas fashion, tumbleweeds were gathered to provide us with significant cover.
If you’ve never seen swarms of lesser Canada geese pile into a decoy spread, you haven’t lived. That, in and of itself, is enough reason to travel to the Panhandle for a hunt this winter. In the fields we were hunting, you could see them approaching from a long way off.
The geese were in pretty large flights, and as they got closer, Zuniga would instruct everyone to hunker down in the blind. Then, you would see the flock home in on our decoys, and Zuniga and his guides would start in with their calls. It was pretty clear they spoke fluent goose, because the birds instantly cupped their wings and dropped their landing gear to glide smoothly into the decoy spread. It didn’t take long to harvest limits of Canadas.
Our sandhill crane hunts with Zuniga were just as exciting. The best one took place in a wheat field during a windy morning. We were set up at the corner of the field and had constant traffic from sandhills, seemingly from all directions, the entire time.
When sandhill cranes set their wings to land, the scene is absolutely majestic. You don’t realize how big a bird it really is until you jump up to take your shot. Just watching these birds float into the decoys so low to the ground is breathtaking.
Perhaps the most thrilling part about the sandhill hunts was watching the gun dogs work. Cranes have sharp beaks and claws, and sending a retriever after one can be dangerous. Zuniga and his guides had their dogs fitted with goggles to protect their eyes when they went after downed cranes. Seeing these retrievers square up with the large birds was an experience I’ll never forget.
Limits of cranes came quickly, and the birds continued to land among our decoys until we packed up. Red hot shotgun barrels, smiles galore and lots of laughs ensued.
I’ve hunted waterfowl in many different locales across the United States and Canada over the years, and the Texas Panhandle has definitely become one of my favorite destinations, especially for pursing geese and sandhill cranes. The number of birds wintering in the region is simply astounding.