Saturday, April 19, 2014 · 8:51 p.m.
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Larry Lewis with what may be the very first two sandhill cranes taken in Tennessee's modern-day history on opening day of the controversial hunting season. (Photo: Contributed)

Larry Lewis became part of Tennessee's hunting history last week.

Lewis and his partner each took a sandhill crane on Thanksgiving morning, perhaps the first sandhill cranes ever taken in Tennessee's modern-day history.

"We were hunting mainly for ducks, but we both had our three crane tags," Lewis said. "We chose our location because we knew shots at cranes would be a likely bonus."

The two were hunting in the Gillespie Bend area in Rhea County, not far from the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, which has become a stopover for tens of thousands of sandhill cranes migrating through the area.

The hunting season on sandhill cranes in Tennessee has been highly controversial. Wildlife regulators made several compromise concessions before the hunting season was approved by the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission in August after much contentious debate.

Hunters and TWRA biologists argued that the population of eastern sandhills could easily handle at least limited hunting. Wildlife biologists say the Tennessee population has averaged at least 23,000 migrating birds over the past five years. License fees and federal taxes on guns and ammunition are the primary funding sources for the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge. Hunters and biologists argued that hunters deserve to take advantage of what has become a plentiful resource, and 400 permits were issued. Each hunter is allowed a maximum of three sandhills.

Birdwatchers and others, however, argued that the sandhills are a far greater resource in attracting tourists to the area. They said the concentration of sandhills and associated wildlife observation benefits are far more valuable to the area than hunting. They feared even limited hunting would take a dramatic toll on the resource, literally or figuratively. They also argued that hunters might accidentally take endangered whooping cranes, which often migrate with the sandhills.

Hunters were required to take an identification course before their hunting permits were valid.

Lewis said Thanksgiving morning was one of the coldest opening days of duck season he could ever remember. The area they intended to duck hunt was frozen over.

"We broke ice on water we thought would remain open," he said. "But it was thicker than we expected and simply refroze. We had to move from our blind to just sitting in some sawgrass near deeper open water.

"We put out duck decoys, but after legal shooting time, we switched out ammunition to larger T-shot and BBs because we realized any ducks would be a pass shot, and the [sandhill] cranes greatly outnumbered the ducks," Lewis said. "We both had said we just wanted to get one crane after sitting and watching thousands of them fly over us over the last 18 duck seasons."

Lewis said the birds were not wary as they flew from the wildlife refuge to feed in surrounding fields of harvested soybeans and other grain. The big birds with a 6-foot wingspan are, however, wild and typically maintain a safe altitude until landing in what they are sure is the safety of a wide-open field.

Lewis said, however, "We knew it was really just a matter of time before one would mess up and fly perfectly over us a little lower than the other higher ones."

Indeed, it happened just as Lewis expected, and he and his partner made Tennessee hunting history.

"It felt special to be a part of the years of debate and controversy coming to a close, so to speak," said Lewis, a Hamilton County educator. "I think after the initial 'first [sandhill] hunt' most hunters will return to business as usual, and the cranes will just be a bonus option until they get their three before the season ends Jan. 1. We might try and fill our other tags later, but we really wanted to see if they are really the 'rib-eye of the sky' as rumored."

Lewis said his sandhill crane harvest is still in the freezer, awaiting a special occasion before he samples it.

Sandhill hunters are required to report their kills. As of this writing, TWRA spokesman Dan Hicks said there have been 10 sandhills taken they know of, although it's likely some more recent kills haven't been reported yet. When Kentucky opened a season on sandhill cranes three years ago, only about 50 birds were taken the first year.

Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports.

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