Once in my life, I aspired to be to be a hunting and fishing guide. I was already a river rat, at least this is what people called the outdoorsmen who tried to make a living from the Tennessee River. My friend, Larry, and I certainly looked the part.

Long bushy beards, ala’ the band ZZ Top, and skin tanned the color of hickory nuts, from time spent on the water under the summer sun, marked us as members of the loose association of commercial gillnet fishermen, trot-liners, fur trappers, duck and goose hunting guides, driftwood collectors and mussel divers who plied the river in flat-bottom boats from Saltillo to Guntersville Dam.

Larry and I even seined live bait—shad and crawfish—and fiddled up worms for tackle shops. We gathered wild muscadine grapes in the river bottoms and wholesaled them to local produce markets, hunted morel mushrooms, cut and sold firewood. . . whatever it took (legally) to make a buck while attending college classes and working second- and third-shift jobs.

As a team, we’d tackle any task that involved being on the water. Once we became the darlings of tropical fish stores by supplying them with cute gar fingerlings, which they sold after renaming them “needlefish.” Needless to say, this didn’t end well when the inch-long predators grew and ate their neighbors.

We’d grown up along the river and were familiar with the tributary creeks, sloughs, bayous and bays. Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in particular was a favorite haunt. In those days, Wheeler was home to one of the largest concentrations of wintering Canada geese in the Deep South. Vees of birds flying across the river and refuge were constant in fall and winter. Honking echoed from corn fields planted for the birds, where they congregated in large numbers.

Of course, the thousands of ducks and geese didn’t stay on the protected confines of the refuge. Lucky was the man who had to permission to excavate pits or build blinds on private property adjoining Wheeler. It seemed to me, when in high school and later as I struggled to support a new wife and pay for college, that the arrival of wild geese from Hudson Bay to the Tennessee River backwaters was a touchstone of life.

For better or worse, things change. I did not become an outdoor guide. Instead, I graduated from college and went to work as a writer, editor and publisher. Larry joined the TVA as a nuclear plant operator. And the winter populations of Canada geese began a precipitous decline in the 1990s.

I witnessed the beginning of the downward spiral before moving to pursue career opportunities in the newspaper business. From historic peaks of 30,000-60,000 honkers on the refuge, the number of wintering geese dropped to hundreds in 2013.

But nature has a way of filling niches. Today, another large migratory bird species has moved into the habitat. This winter, more than 18,000 sandhill cranes wintered at Wheeler.

I’d been told that the gathering of cranes was magnificent, well worth the drive from Middle Tennessee to observe the birds wading in shallow water, flocking on mud flats and feeding in grain fields. My wife and I made Decatur, Ala., our destination in early January to spend parts of two days at the refuge. We were not disappointed.

Although the government shutdown had closed the refuge observation building and interpretive center, it was easy to view the cranes in their new habitat. Flights cast back and forth overhead, the birds making their distinctive “CRANK” call, followed by a loud percussive ululation like sounds from a wooden xylophone. At least, this was the best description on which Karen and I could agree. 

We saw thousands of sandhills in the air, at rest on the flats, gleaning the fields and squabbling in protective flocks. The birds don’t try to hide, and it be would difficult for the cranes to conceal themselves. Adults are easily three feet tall, long-legged, graceful and sport reddish forehead caps.

They didn’t have much fear of us. We didn’t try to get too close, but the cranes seemed to be everywhere, especially in the air. Squadrons banked, zoomed low over treetops, glided in for somewhat clumsy landings.

In addition to sandhills, we observed whooping cranes, eagles, ducks, shore birds, gulls, snow geese and some Canada geese. It was a great bird-watching experience, and we plan to go back. I thought I knew everything about the refuge, but the sandhill cranes were a pleasant surprise for someone who remembers the heyday of southern geese migration back in the late 20th Century.

If you’re interested, Google the online site for Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge or Decatur Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to get more information. Tennessee has its own sandhill viewing at the Hiwassee Refuge in Birchwood, where up to 23,000 birds have wintered in the past. Check the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) website for details.

Both refuges host crane festivals in January.