I was hunkered down in a hedgerow, camera in hand, as the night very slowly turned into a gray day. I soon realized that sandhill cranes are not like ducks that routinely fly out to feeding areas long before sunrise. Sandhill cranes apparently like to sleep in. That means it was about 30 minutes after daylight before we heard the first trilling calls approaching from the northwest.
I was 150 yards away from a well-built blind in the center of the Meigs County field. Five men hid inside – Tennessee Wildlife Commissioner Bill Swan, his son, Bill Swan III and grandson, Parker Swan, along with two Double HH Outfitters guides, Jason Jackson and Scott Shelby.
The trilling calls grew louder as several flocks of sandhills approached the field. Outside the blind rested two dozen high-quality sandhill crane decoys. Jackson talked to the birds using a modified goose call, trilling and honking a tune that sounded good to one small flock.
The birds have keen eyes and circled the field high overhead. I sat frozen, video rolling until the birds finally decided all was well and began to settle into the decoys. They backpedaled hard however as the roof of the blind swung open and three gun barrels emerged. Shots rang out and three cranes from that group did not leave the field.
As always, I had my thermos of hot coffee at my side. I soon realized, however, that in the right spot, there isn’t a lot of coffee-drinking time. Once they start trading, sandhills were flying over or near the area almost non-stop. Their trilling calls could be heard from virtually every direction.
This is the fourth year for a sandhill crane hunting season in southeast Tennessee. The Swan family has hunted cranes every year, however, like most sandhill hunters, they had been pass shooting birds that just happened to fly overhead as they traded from one field to the next.
“Hunting over decoys was something new we hadn’t done before,” said Swan III. “It was more of a duck hunting style environment. You’d get all excited as the birds circled. It made for a whole different hunt.”
Parker added, “I liked it whole lot more than just sitting there, shooting up in the air trying to hit one flying by. When they came in [over the decoys] it was a little easier and whole lot more fun.”
A BUSINESS IS BORN
Those kinds of reactions are exactly what inspired Double HH Outfitters.
“I love watching people get excited and love watching the birds decoy in,” said Jackson. “When the birds cup up and commit and hit the ground, it’s a rush.”
Double HH is in its infancy. They hope to hit the ground running for the 2017-2018 sandhill crane season. Jackson and Shelby admit they have been through a long learning curve.
“We pass shot [the sandhills] for a year or two and tried another type of decoy that wouldn’t work,” said Jackson. “From there we just got curious, did some research online and called some people out west that guide for sandhills. We found out that you’ve got to have good decoys.”
Good quality decoys do not come cheap.
“By the time you get them shipped here they’re at least $100 apiece,” said Shelby.
That means Double HH has $2,400 invested in decoys alone. But Jackson said it didn’t take long to realize they work.
“The first time we tried them was after hunting season was over,” said Jackson. “We just went out playing with them to see if we could get some close. We were just hiding in a tree line and we had the first bunch of sandhills come in so close you could almost grab their feet. It was like, ‘Holy cow! This is going to work.”
Since then they have designed and built a unique sturdy, but portable blind they can move and quickly set up. Many farmers are anxious to keep the voracious sandhill cranes out of their crops and Shelby said they have access to at least a half-dozen sections of private land in Rhea and Meigs County.
MY TURN TO SHOOT
For the first time since crane hunting began, I attended the October handheld drawing for a precious sandhill hunting permit, one of only 400 issued. A permit in the southeast Tennessee zone allows a hunter to take only three sandhill cranes for the entire season.
After some pictures were in hand and the Swans limited out, it was my turn in the blind. From watching I already knew that not every crane will be fooled by the decoys. In fact, just like duck hunting, the majority of them were not.
“Some can be real stupid and just fall right in,” said Jackson. “Some want to circle and circle and some are just going to go on somewhere else no matter what.”
However with patience, hunting in the right area, it is usually just a matter of time. Also unlike ducks, sandhills are more likely to trade all day long. It wasn’t long before I had my chance (see video).
“It might die off for an hour but if you’re patient and wait they’ll start back up flying around again,” said Shelby.
While the Double HH crane hunting scenario is very similar to duck hunting, sandhills are much slower flying birds than ducks. That means the action as birds are circling the field and working overhead almost seems to occur in slow motion. That requires a lot more patience on the hunters’ part, and remaining perfectly still, even hidden behind perfect camouflage . Many tense minutes can pass waiting for the birds to finally decide to commit and offer a shot.
While pass shooting high birds can be a challenge, shooting a decoying sandhill crane isn’t nearly as difficult. It still requires a well-placed shot and some knockdown power however. Most hunters opt for BB-sized shot.
Biologists estimate that at least 30,000 migratory sandhill cranes spend the winter in southeast Tennessee. Many of those birds are concentrated on the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County and on the Yuchi Wildlife Refuge in Rhea County. However the big birds fan out to feed across several counties and even the Sequatchie Valley.
So far the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission has allowed only 400 permits to be issued, meaning hunters could take a maximum of 1,200 sandhills. However the actual harvest in previous seasons has typically between 200 and 300 birds. The current season is open until Jan. 29 (for permit holders only).
That means Double HH has a fairly limited audience, but the audience is likely to grow next season. In addition to the 1,200 tags to be issued by handheld drawing for the southeast zone, TWRA has proposed expending the sandhill crane season statewide and issuing an additional 1,119 tags by a computer-drawing. Wildlife commissioners will vote on that proposal at their meeting Feb. 17 in Nashville.
Commissioner Swan is pleased to see Double HH Outfitters hang their shingle. He says it’s just another new business to complement the annual Sandhill Crane Festival, a wildlife viewing and educational weekend at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, that has attracted thousands of tourists to the region in its 27 years.
“Anytime you can assign economic value to a natural or wildlife resource, it’s going to make it easier to protect, and a whole lot more important to protect,” he said.
Of course sandhill crane hunting has many opponents who argue against hunting the majestic birds. TWRA managers say the sandhills are a bona fide game species that have prospered largely due to hunters’ license dollars and there is every reason to provide limited hunting opportunity. Hunters add that sandhills are extremely good table fare, often referred to as “ribeye in the sky.” You can find a wide variety of recipes on the web.
Jackson admits they are unsure how well their new business will be received when they go full bore next year.
The Swans, however, think it’s a sure bet.