KNOX COUNTY -- An hour before daybreak one morning last week, 10 hunters methodically erected two A-frame hunting blinds near the corner of a rain-starved wheat field here, hoping to bag a few of the magnificent sandhill cranes that winter annually in the farm community's wheat, peanut and cotton fields.Forty-two sandhill cranes already were on the ground 25 to 35 yards in front of the blinds, some standing with beaks touching the sparse blades of green wheat plants, others preening the feathers on their backs and still others standing at attention or with their heads pointing to the skies as if pleading to those flying overhead to join them.The 42 sandhill cranes were imposters, taxidermist-stuffed real birds that had been converted into lifelike decoys. "They call them 'stuffers,' and they really look good," said Steve Barber of Arlington, who had helped the hunters set out the decoy spread for the hunt with Stanfield Outfitters of Knox City. "They have metal stakes and are easy to set up in a field, plus you don't need to use as many decoys for cranes as you do for geese."Indeed, there are many differences in hunting geese and sandhill cranes here in the spacious wheat, peanut and cotton fields that attract hundreds of thousands of the birds to the Panhandle region every year. They begin arriving in October and depart back to their northern breeding grounds of Canada in about March.When combined with large numbers that migrate further to the Southwest Texas brush country, South Texas rice fields and coastal prairies, they represent a migration of 500,000 sandhills, the largest concentration of cranes in the world.Most are lesser sandhill cranes weighing from seven to 10 pounds, but a few greater sandhills weighing 10 to 13 pounds also visit Texas annually. Their darkish meat is considered a delicacy, which has earned the sandhill the nickname of being the "Ribeye in the Sky."There is one similarity in preparing a hunt for sandhills and geese. Hunting outfitters like Stanfield Outfitters scout prospective hunting fields the evening before the next morning's hunt.When they find a field where large numbers of geese or sandhill cranes are feeding, they go to that field an hour or two before daybreak the next morning to set out decoys and position their blinds.Also, shot sizes from No. 2s and BBs to larger T-shot for 12-gauge shotguns are the norm, but lead shot is allowed for the cranes, whereas only nontoxic shot may be used by goose hunters. Texas has three zones where sandhill cranes may be hunted. The daily bag limits are three in Zones A and B in the west and two in Zone C to the south."We have a lot of sandhill cranes here this year, but the problem has been a lack of rain to provide roosts for them," said Ron Stanfield. "The water we have is a long way from many of the fields we hunt."Wheat farmers also have suffered from overall poor crops. Like geese, sandhill cranes flock to the Texas Panhandle region to feed on mainly peanuts and wheat but also on cotton seeds. When most of the peanuts missed by the harvesters have been eaten by geese, ducks and sandhills at this time of the year, the birds concentrate more heavily on wheat plants and sometimes cotton residue."Even though both birds like wheat, they have different feeding habits," Stanfield said. "Geese like to eat the tops of the wheat plants. They will eat the green leafs and quit, but sandhill cranes will pull the plant out of the ground and eat its roots, too."Sandhill cranes can be very elusive, often dodging their demise at the slightest sight of something not right in a decoy spread or upon hearing loud talking among hunters. The old saying "If you can hear them, they can hear you" certainly holds true for sandhill cranes, Stanfield said.The number of hunters who hunt sandhill cranes remains a mystery. Although a free federal sandhill crane permit is required to hunt the big bird, today's electronic world has thrown a wrench into the use of crane permits to determine the number of Texas hunters who hunt for them.Before the sales of hunting licenses and other permits, including sandhill crane permits, could be made through licenses vendors electronically in the 1990s, approximately 12,000 crane permits were issued annually in Texas. However, 125,000 sandhill crane permits were issued to Texas hunters last year, prompting wildlife officials to require hunters this season to acquire the permit only at a Texas Parks and Wildlife office or from its headquarters.It had become evident over the past several years that many stores that sold hunting licenses electronically were issuing sandhill crane permits whether or not the hunter actually asked for one, said Vernon Bevill of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.Nevertheless, sandhill crane hunting appears to be growing in popularity based on the increased number of hunts being booked by hunting outfitters, innovative "stuffers" like those used here and recent introductions of newly designed molded plastic and cardboard decoys, hunting blinds and mouth-blown calls by manufactures.Fossils of sandhill cranes found in Nebraska suggest the cranes were here 6 million years ago, which puts the sandhill as the oldest bird species still living today. And that's a lot of "Ribeyes in the Sky."