The controversy over hunting sandhill cranes in Tennessee has been a top-of-mind subject among hunters and birdwatchers for months. A limited hunting season was approved, and several area hunters have described their experiences hunting and eating Tennessee's newest game bird since the season opened Nov. 28.
However, the subject will soon be in the national spotlight as one of TV's most famous chefs samples the bird known by some as "rib-eye in the sky."
Andrew Zimmern, co-creator, host, and consulting producer of the Travel Channel series "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern," visited the area to take part in a sandhill crane hunt Monday and to cook up some crane for his TV show.
One of his guides for the hunt, Chris Nischan, said, "I've been involved in a lot of major outdoor television productions, but I've never seen a production like this. We had three GoPro cameras and three full-size HD cameras pointed at us every second. They even put a camera-equipped drone up in the air to get shots of us shooting as the drone flew overhead."
Nischan was joined guiding by Maj. C.J. Jaynes, a law enforcement supervisor with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Both men have hunted sandhills in other states. Outfitted with four dozen wind sock-style sandhill crane decoys, the trio was hunting in Meigs County on a private farm adjacent to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, home base for as many as 10,000 or more sandhills that migrate through the area every year.
Zimmern is an avid waterfowl hunter, according to Nischan.
"He was a genuine kind of guy," Jaynes said. "What you see on that show is what you get. And he's a hunter, no doubt about it."
The guides said, however, that trying to hide a field full of cameras, along with six camera operators, producers and soundmen—as well as three hunters—from the wary birds was a serious challenge.
"The crane's eyesight is just incredible. If anything out of the ordinary moves, they'll see it," Jaynes said. "His TV crew was fantastic. They were great to work with. It was probably one of the better experiences I've ever had with that kind of [TV] stuff. But it was a challenging hunt."
Nischan added: "We probably could have moved to another area and pass shot more birds. But for TV, we wanted to hunt over the decoys and stay in the blind. So we stuck it out there."
It took a while, but Nischan said, finally, "Andrew made a good shot on a crane passing overhead."
Zimmern posted photos of the hunt on his Instagram page. As has been the case throughout the sandhill crane controversy, he got some positive comments and some negative.
Sabalochick wrote, "I can't believe you hunt sandhill cranes—so not good :(."
However, thesmokingswine said, "It's far more honorable to the animal to hunt, kill, dress and eat it than to simply turn a blind eye to the process. As a hunter, you appreciate the animals more and are less likely to support industrial slaughterhouses."
Many viewers don't know that the world-famous, award-winning chef was once a homeless, alcoholic drug addict, stealing purses to support his habit. Zimmern told a "Nightline" reporter, "I was the guy you crossed the street to avoid if you walked by me in New York."
Zimmern said friends finally forced him into rehab, but his dark days live on and have actually helped him.
"I have a life based on completely different principles now, and I try to stick with those," Zimmern said. "I think it has been the secret to my success."
If you run a Google search for "sandhill crane recipes," you will find page after page of various cooking methods. Nischan said, however, that the celebrity chef wanted to sample the true taste of sandhill crane, without "dressing it up."
"I've eaten [sandhill crane] before, marinated, soaked, etc. But he simply wanted to do it straight—roll it in a little oil, salt and pepper—and then we grilled it rare."
Most hunters know that wild game is very lean and best cooked rare so it doesn't dry out and toughen up. Nischan said after the crane came off the grill, they "rested it" 15 minutes, so it kept cooking to medium rare.
"As much as I love hunting, I will admit that I am not a huge fan of most wild game. But that was the finest piece of waterfowl or game I've ever put in my mouth," Nischan said. "It had great texture, marbling ... It was just amazing. You don't have to dress it up like you do other game."
He said Zimmern was pleasantly surprised, as well. Of course, this was not Zimmern's first visit to Chattanooga. He visited 212 Market in September 2011. It was his last stop on his "Appetite for Life" travel Web series road trip, which featured various Southern areas that were suffering damage from recent storms at the time.
Nischan said the "Bizarre Foods" sandhill crane hunt is expected to air sometime in April.
Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports.
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