DAYTON, Tenn. – “Kill your bird.” Those were the words of Guide Jackson Oster as the last sandhill crane our group could take floated into the decoys. Richard Davis made one shot and one kill bringing our bitter cold hunting day to an end.
“We’ve had a pretty good year,” said Oster. “We’ve limited every weekend except for opening weekend when it was 65 degrees.”
Along with his partner, Logan Fugate, Oster operates Always Somethin’ Outdoors (ASO), a new business created to guide hunters on sandhill crane hunts in Southeast Tennessee. Our day was no different, yielding limits for a large group of hunters.
HUNT VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS (Contains graphic hunting scenes that some viewers may find disturbing)
In cooperation with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency established a sandhill crane hunting season in 2013. This season, however, TWRA provided an expanded number of hunting permits – increasing the number of permits allowed from 1,200 to 2,300. Tennessee has wintered an average of over 23,000 cranes over the last five years, most of those are concentrated in Southeast Tennessee in the vicinity of TWRA Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge where no hunting is allowed.
Using handheld and computer lotteries, TWRA issued permits to 400 hunters allowing them 3 sandhills each in Southeast Tennessee only. Across the state hunters were issued a permit to take only one sandhill for the entire season. In past seasons overall hunters take less than one-fourth of the total number of permits that are issued.
The statewide hunting season for sandhills doesn’t close until Jan. 28, 2018. However in Southeast Tennessee the season shuts down from Jan. 12 until Jan. 15. There is no hunting allowed in the region during the annual Sandhill Crane Festival set for Jan. 13-14 at the Hiwassee Refuge and Birchwood Community Center.
The festival attracts thousands of wildlife enthusiasts who visit the refuge and observe the thousands of sandhill cranes and other wildlife species. Read more details about the festival here.
The following weekend Oster and Fugate will likely be back to work guiding more hunters who were lucky enough to draw sandhill crane hunting permits.
When sandhill hunting first began the majority of hunters were taking their birds by pass shooting them as they flew toward fields to feed. Pass shooting is more difficult and typically provides only long-range shots.
Oster and Fugate, however, have figured out how to decoy the extremely wary birds into easier and more efficient gun range. Like one other area guide service, Double HH Outfitters, they’re utilizing decoys made by Deception Decoys Company, one of the few manufacturers specializing in sandhill crane decoys.
It’s pretty tricky,” said Oster. “Last year we were using pillow sock-style decoys. That was a lot tougher we were having a lot longer shots. Switching to these Deceptions has just been a game-changer… puttin’ [cranes] in your face. It’s just been awesome.”
In spite of great decoys, hunters typically watch thousands of sandhill cranes fly over that ignore their decoy spreads or flare away if a hunter isn’t hidden well or makes an errant move at the wrong time.
Saturday it took six hours of hunting in bitter temperatures hovering in the teens to take all fifteen sandhills our party was allowed. That equals 30 breast filets that are often referred to as “ribeye in the sky.”
“I like to marinate mine for about two hours and then put them on the grill until they’re medium rare,” said Oster. “They taste just like steak.”
Many years ago when folks were debating on whether to have a sandhill crane hunting season, I wasn’t so sure about it. Nowadays I am very happy to eat my words, literally.