Kayakety Yak – Maneuvering, Fishing, Funning & Rigging, (Part 2 of 2)

  • Certain optional kayak gear is handy and necessary.
  • Customize your fishing kayak for comfort and function.
Randy Boeller drove all the way from Houston, Texas, to land this chunky smallmouth on the upper Maries River. Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low

With a new Kayak, there are quite a few features to look for, understand and think about.  Here are some of the features that are important to me:

ADJUSTABLE SEATS & FOOT BRACES

Before writing a check, take time to sit in several kayaks to see if you can stand to sit in it for hours.  Try to find a dealer that will allow you to test “drive” kayak before purchase.  Ideally, a seat should have an adjustable, padded back rest.  The seat should also be padded with a material that allows water to drain away from your kiester.

Equally important are adjustable foot rests.  Pushing on these anchors you in your seat, providing a solid paddling platform.  They should be adjustable, not only for different leg lengths, but to allow you to change your leg position to avoid stiffness.  The surfaces of these pedal-like accessories should have a non-slip surface.

ROD HOLDERS

Sometimes these are built into the kayak’s hull and hold rods upright.  This works fine, as long as you don’t encounter any overhead obstructions.  Much better are rod holders with swiveling mounts that fold parallel with the deck.  Having multiple rod holders allow you to switch baits without re-rigging.

TACKLE COMPARTMENTS

Most kayaks have fore and aft cargo compartments, but these are hard to reach on the water.  Small compartments within reach of the seat are more practical.

ANCHOR TROLLEYS

You don’t need much of an anchor for kayak fishing, but they do come in handy when you want to hold your position against current or wind.  Anchors need ropes, and having loose rope around your feet is inconvenient, not to mention dangerous.  Anchor trolleys keep your anchor rope organized with cleats and allow you to instantly tie off anchor rope at the desired length and release it just as quickly.  A small, foldable anchor will fit easily under or beside your seat, out of the way but available when needed.

CUP HOLDERS

You laugh, but nothing is worse than cracking open a drink only to have it tip over in your lap moments later.  Well, okay, lots of things are worse, but a spilled drink is bad enough.  When not holding drinks, cup holders are useful for holding snacks, phones, lures, pliers and a dozen other things.

ACCESSORY MOUNTING SYSTEMS

These really are the mothers of all accessories.  Factory-installed accessory mounting systems permit you to customize your kayak in ways limited only by your imagination.  They accept universal mounting plates can be drilled to accept anything you want.  This is an easy way to keep cell phones, tablets, GPS units and other electronic devices handy.  Naturally, if you are short on imagination, manufacturers have lots of ideas, including tackle bins, live wells, rod holders, fish finders and, yes, cup holders.

RUDDERS

Paddling into the wind can be a challenge when fishing on lakes or large streams.  A rudder or tracking skeg keeps you on track without constant correction.  This is especially handy for trolling.

PROPULSION SYSTEMS

Speaking of trolling, trolling motors made specifically for canoes and kayaks are available.  Hobie offers kayaks equipped with their patented MirageDrive, the original kayak peddle-drive system.  These items aren’t cheap…unless you compare their prices to the cost of a bass boat.

One often-neglected accessory is a top-quality paddle.  A cheap paddle will wear you out if it doesn’t wear out first.  Don’t balk at spending a couple hundred dollars on an ergonomically friendly paddle that keep you, your wrists and shoulders out of the orthopedic surgeon’s office for years.

Fishing kayaks have become so popular that organizations dedicated to them are springing up around the country.  Missouri has two that I know of: Missouri Kayak Fishing Association and the Show Me Kayak Fishing.  You might consider hooking up with these folks for help learning the ropes of kayak angling.  Once you go ‘yak, you’ll never look back!

-end-

Kayakety Yak – Maneuvering, Fishing, Funning & Rigging, (Part 1 of 2)

  • These craft are made to order for fishing small and remote waters.
  • You will never go back to aluminum canoes once you’ve fished from a kayak.
  • You can customize a fishing kayak for anything.
The author brought this scrappy largemouth to hand on the upper Gasconade River.

By Jim Low

Ask anyone who has fished an Ozark stream (or anywhere) in a kayak, and you are likely to hear a paean on the many advantages of these craft.  My “aha moment” came within five minutes of climbing into a 10-foot Old Towne model. 

A slightly overlong cast landed my Rebel Craw in a wad of flotsam and I swore like a sailor, knowing I’d have to paddle like a demon against a stiff current to retrieve the $6 crankbait.  Resting my rod in the notches provided for that purpose, I grabbed the double paddle and instantly became aware of the advantages of kayak fishing.  Instead of the heavy labor needed to propel a bulky aluminum canoe upstream, a few strokes had me within reach of my lure.  Then, instead of struggling to turn a 16-foot behemoth around in tight quarters, I executed a neat 180-degree turn and was fishing again.

In the South, when food is so good you can’t believe it, they say it will make you want to slap your mama.  At that moment on Bryant Creek, I wanted to slap my Grumman.  Don’t get me wrong, canoes have their place. 

There’s no beating the cargo capacity and stability of an 18-foot touring canoe on a camping trip.  Lightweight Kevlar models in a variety of sizes and styles make canoes much more versatile than they were 30 years ago.  But for fishing skinny water or remote spots, nothing beats a kayak.  You can throw three or four of them in the bed of a pickup truck and carry them in to places other anglers can only dream of reaching.

I had no idea how important portability was until I found myself near the end of a day-long float on the upper Maries River a few years ago. 

My fishing buddy has bad hips and knees and could barely get in and out of his borrowed kayak with assistance.  We were tired and ready for a hot meal with adult beverages, when the river unexpectedly ended.  A flood had deposited several thousand cubic yards of gravel and hundreds of trees in what once was the main channel.  What was left was a quarter mile of small rivulets separated by gravel bars and choked with willow thickets. 

Randy got himself and our fishing rods to the end of the blockage, but it fell to me to drag our kayaks through the hellish mess.  I don’t know what we would have done if we had been in a canoe.

Greg Stoner of Camdenton landed two nice walleyes while fishing from his tricked-out Hobie kayak on the Niangua River.

Many kayaks are not particularly well-suited to fishing.  Dagger-like racing models are not stable enough, and too long to be maneuverable.  Short, inexpensive kayaks are similarly tippy, and there’s no place to put your fishing rod and other gear.  To enjoy kayak fishing fully, you need one fitted out specifically for that purpose.  Prices for fishing kayaks range from a few hundred dollars for models with basic features and to thousands of dollars for boats that practically paddle themselves.  There are quite a few features to look for, understand and think about. 

Check the many features out in Part 2 of 2, coming up next week. 

Stalking Cypress Trout

  • There may by has no harder-fighting fish, even in Missouri!
  • This one’s not for the fish fry.
  • The “Grinnell’s” ancestors swam with dinosaurs.
Greg Stoner, Camdenton, hauled in this monster bowfin in late fall.

By Jim Low

Ask a dozen Missouri anglers what the Show-Me State’s hardest-fighting fish is, and you probably will hear the smallmouth bass mentioned.  Stripers and hybrid striped bass will certainly come up, along with the mighty blue catfish and the fearsome muskellunge.  Even the lowly goggle-eye and bluegill have their loyal followings.  But take the survey down in the Bootheel Region, some sagacious minnow-dunkers will tell you that pound for pound, nothing strikes harder or fights more tenaciously than a bowfin.

Also known as grinnel, cypress trout, dogfish and mudfish, the bowfin (Amia calva) is not granted the dignity of being classified as a sport fish in Missouri.  But if that title was based on mangled crankbaits and broken lines, the bowfin would top the sporting list.  It has a pugilist’s build, stout and heavily muscled.  And if you think muskies are torpedo-shaped, you haven’t handled a bowfin.  Their bodies are as close to cylindrical as possible, while still possessing a head and tail.

The bowfin has had to earn its street creds over a period that spans geological ages.  It and the gars are survivors of a family that swam with plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs 180 million years ago and an ancestor of most extant fish species.

Its native distribution encompasses the coastal plains of the southeastern and eastern United States, the Mississippi and Ohio valleys and southern Great Lakes, all the way to southern Ontario and Quebec.  Beyond that, it has been introduced to parts of nearly every state east of Kansas.

Like gars, bowfins have swim bladders that double as lungs, sucking in air to obtain oxygen when their gills can’t glean enough from water.  This permits them to survive conditions that would spell doom for most fish.  In Louisiana, farmers occasionally turn up live bowfins when plowing crop fields in low-lying areas.  Presumably, some of these fish would survive until the next time neighboring streams flooded, if not for levees that keep cropland dry throughout the summer.

Bowfins can reach impressive sizes.  The pole-and-line record is 19 pounds for Missouri, not that much short of the International Game Fish Association’s all-tackle record of 21.5 pounds.  Most caught in Missouri weigh around 5 pounds.  That raises the question of how you catch one.  The answer is “very carefully.”

Bowfins lack the bony spines that make handing catfish, bass and bluegills tricky, but their mouths make up for this disadvantage.  Hundreds of small, razor-sharp teeth line their capacious mouths, and they know how to use them.  It’s not unusual for a bowfin to thrash about wildly while being unhooked, grabbing a finger, hand or any other available portion of an unlucky angler’s anatomy.  Those teeth also come into play before bowfins reach the boat.  Abrasion-resistant monofilament or high-tech braided line made of Kevlar-like material are a must when angling for bowfins.

In fact, most hooked cypress trout never make it to land, boat or net.  They have a variety of escape strategies other than sawing through line with their formidable dentition.  The most common is brute strength.  Drag settings that are sensible for bass can result in parted line when one of these brawlers makes a power run.  Better to err on the light side at first.  On the other hand, failure to cinch down the drag enough can be costly too.  Strategy No. 2 is making for the nearest submerged log or root wad and executing a quick 180-degree turn that negates the flex of your fishing rod.  Given a solid anchor point to pull against, a bowfin will find a weak spot in your line every time.

Bowfins have bony mouths, so sharp, stout hooks and low-stretch lines are helpful in making positive hook sets.  Once your drag stops screaming like a cat with its tail in a blender, don’t attempt to muscle a bowfin in.  Trying to land or net one before wearing it down is a sure way to lose it.  Even a seemingly worn-out bowfin can rally for a few more runs.  When you do get it within reach, use pliers – not bare hands – to work the hook loose.

Medium to stiff-action bass rods and quality baitcasting reels are best for this critter.  For terminal tackle, anything that would work for largemouth bass or flathead catfish is a good bet.  Crankbaits, spinnerbaits, noisy top-water plugs, jig and pork frog, buzz-baits and dark plastic worms all are proven bowfin baits.  So are live minnows, cut shad and crayfish.

Aaron Horrell, outdoor columnist for the Southeast Missourian in Cape Girardeau, uses cut bait like this sunfish head to catch bowfins.

Bowfins are most active between dusk and dawn, when they prowl the shallows.  Unlike most other fish, bowfins perfer tepid water, and they will bite all day long right through the hottest months.  Daytime fishing is most productive in deeper water.

Muskies have nothing on bowfins when it comes to vicious strikes.  Not for nothing, does an Arkansas friend of mine call the bowfin “Dr.  Death.” Also like muskies, bowfins sometimes follow bait all the way to boat or land before striking.

Bowfins are virtually absent from the Missouri River, probably because 99 percent of suitable habitat there disappeared decades ago under the tender ministrations of the U.S.  Army Corps of Engineers (CoE).  In the Mississippi River, they are more common above St.  Louis, ironically again thanks to the CoE, which has created a series of impoundments.  But if you really want to catch cypress mudfish, Swamp East Missouri is the place for you.  Several Conservation Areas (CAs) in the region offer good bowfin fishing, but the gold standard is the wetland complex comprised by Duck Creek CA and Mingo National Wildlife Refuge.  With a combined area of more than 27,000 acres, these two areas offer a lifetime of exploring.  Much of Mingo is trackless swamp, best accessed by canoe or kayak.  Duck Creek is much more accessible and produced, both, the current pole-and-line record (19 pounds, 1963) and alternative-methods record (13 pounds, 6 ounces, 2013).

By all accounts, the bowfin is far from first-rate table fare.  If not filleted and iced immediately, their flesh becomes mushy, and even then, it has a strong fishy taste.  This critter is the poster child for catch-and-release fishing.

To the east, the lower Current, Black, Little Black and St.  Francis Rivers, and their associated sloughs and backwaters, all have significant bowfin populations.  I sometimes wonder how the Asian snakehead will fare if it ever faces head-to-head competition with Missouri’s official bayou badass.  I wouldn’t bet on the invader.

-end-

Sandbar Hunting – Discovery, Ancestors, Archaeology

  • A great way to spend a post-flood summer.
  • The Missouri River is a conveyor belt for fossils and artifacts.
  • Finding bits of the past is like stepping onto a time machine.
The author’s son found this Bison antiquus vertebra on a sandbar across the river from Jefferson City.

By Jim Low

A wetter-than-average spring has the Missouri River bank-full today, but it’s only a matter of time until it falls to summer levels, exposing hundreds of sandbars or, as I like to think of them, time machines.

During spring floods, the Missouri River and its thousands of tributaries carve away at geological deposits between the Rocky Mountains and St. Louis.

Missouri River sandbars seem featureless at first. Look for areas where receding flood water has deposited larger articles. Eroding banks and the upstream side of wing dikes are productive spots, too.

It digs out bones of long-extinct animals, collects artifacts from Indian camps and unearths shark teeth that fell to the bottom of the inland sea that once divided our continent in two.  Along the way, it also plucks trade goods from the rotting hulls of wrecked steam ships and objects whose origins and functions are mysteries.

Discovering an arrowhead or a huge leg bone triggers a welter of questions and speculation.

Intact arrowheads are more common than complete fossils.

Was the animal killed by a hunter or a saber-toothed tiger?

Who made the arrowhead? How did he or she lose it?

Was it carried to this spot in the vitals of a deer… or perhaps a mastodon??

The result is a pleasant sort of temporal vertigo.

One moment you have both feet planted firmly in the present.  Then, in an instant, the currents of time are tugging you back to the Pleistocene period and beyond.

This year’s natural exhibit of historical artifacts is being arranged right now beneath the mocha-colored waters of the Big Muddy.  When it opens, admission will be free to anyone with a kayak, canoe or motor boat.

The Missouri Department of Conservation maintains dozens of river accesses at convenient intervals, making it easy to plan an expedition.  The exhibit changes every time the river overtops sandbars and islands, and the first explorers get their pick of newly deposited prizes.

Sandbar archaeology has a small but dedicated following in Missouri.

The holy grail of this group is a skull of a Bison antiquus.  These huge grazers were 25 percent larger than modern bison and had horns a yard across.

Every few years, a photo of a proud beachcomber displaying such a treasure appears in a river town’s newspaper.  My own personal best find was the topmost 1/3 of an elk antler.

University of Missouri-Columbia Archaeology Professor Dr. Lee Lyman examines an Indian artifact. He estimated the age of the elk antler in front of him at 7,000 to 8,000 years.

I nearly walked past it, because only one eroded tine poked a few inches above the level surface of the sandbar.  At first, I thought it was a stick of wood.  Then I noticed that it had a hollow core and looked as if it had been gnawed by a rodent, which made me think of antlers.  Imagine my awe when I pulled on it and a massive, 2-foot end portion of an enormous antler emerged from the sand.  The whole antler likely would have had 7 points.

Investigate anything that protrudes above the sand. It could be the find of a lifetime.

Lee Lyman, then a professor of archaeology at the University of Missouri, identified my antler fragment as coming from an elk.

North American elk are descended from Eurasian red deer that crossed the Bering Land Bridge into North America during the last ice age.  The pattern of forking and slightly webbed junctions are intermediate between the typical antler shape of ancient red deer and modern-day elk.

Based on the degree of divergence from red deer, he estimated that my specimen was 7,000 to 8,000 years old.

Aside from Bison antiquus skulls – which are, let’s face it, unbeatable – the coolest thing I ever saw rescued from a sandbar was an intricately carved piece of personal ornamentation.

Lyman identified it as a robe fastener.

It was made from half of a turkey wing bone split lengthwise.  It was jet black with age.  The carving was exquisite in its detail and symmetry.  What I wouldn’t give to know the story of this piece of art!

Professor Lyman speculated that this exquisitely carved turkey wing bone might have been a robe fastener.

Pillaging artifacts and fossils from archaeological sites would be both unethical and illegal.  However, once the river washes objects away from their original locations, they lose their geologic and geographic contexts, greatly reducing their usefulness in unraveling the history they represent.

What are these? Darned if we know, but they were cool enough to come home in a pocket.

For this reason, items found on sandbars are fair game for collectors.

If no one picks them up, they will only be washed downstream – and probably reburied forever – by the next flood.  The exception is human remains, which must be reported to law-enforcement officials, even if they appear to be very old.

Artifacts found on the river are not entirely without scientific value and professional archaeologists take a lively interest in amateur finds.

If you make an interesting discovery, contact the archaeology faculty at the nearest university or the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ State Historic Preservation Office.  They can provide fascinating insights about its identity and origins.  Then you can legitimately say you have added to the body of archaeological knowledge.

Looking for artifacts and relaxing on Missouri River sandbars is a wonderful way to spend a summer day.

-end-

Black Powder Bushytails

  • Made to order method for early-season squirrel hunting.
  • Muzzleloaders lend new excitement to the old game of squirrel hunting.
  • Where to go, What to do, How to call, Packing your game sack.

By Jim Low

There’s no need to wait until fall to enjoy the thrill of hunting squirrels with a rifle.

With turkey season in the rearview mirror and Memorial Day just around the corner, Missouri hunters’ thoughts naturally turn to squirrels.  Squirrel season opens on May 27.  Hunting is mostly done with shotguns during the early months of the season, because lush foliage makes bushytails hard to spot.  When you do spy one, it’s usually just a fleeting glimpse.  However, there is a way to hunt summer squirrels with a rifle that is, paradoxically, both easier and more challenging.  I’m talking about hunting with traditional black-powder rifles with iron sights.

Daniel Boone might have been able to shoot the eyes out of squirrels at 80 paces with old Tick-Licker, but most modern-day hunters find it much harder to head-shoot squirrels with iron sights.  For consistent success, we need to get within 25 yards of our quarry.  This puts a premium on woodsmanship that can pay dividends during later, big-game seasons.

Choice of muzzleloader is mostly a matter of personal preference.  Hard-core traditionalists will opt for flintlocks, but there’s no shame in opting for the more certain ignition offered by percussion models. Since you are aiming for squirrels’ heads, it makes little difference whether your smoke pole is spitting .32-cal pellets or .54-cal marbles.  Larger projectiles do provide a slight advantage, simply because their greater diameter increases the chances that some part of the ball will make contact with the target.  They also offer the possibility of “barking” squirrels – aiming at tree trunks or limbs adjacent to the squirrel’s head so death results from concussion.  A .535-cal round ball weighing 230 grains packs a serious wallop that a .31-cal ball, weighing a mere 45 grains, can’t match.

Do not, however, let anyone tell you that small-caliber muzzleloaders won’t kill squirrels outright.  The first squirrel I shot with my .32 CVA Varmint caplock was a full-grown gray squirrel.  I had 20 grains of FFFG black powder under the .31-cal ball.  When I went to pick up the deceased rodent, all that was left of the head were flaps of skin from the lower jaw and pate.  I have since decreased my squirrel load to 15 grains of FFFG.  The heavier load simply is unnecessary.

If you don’t already own a muzzleloader, look for one with a set trigger.  This second trigger – typically located behind the main trigger – is pulled just before taking a shot.  It “sets” the main trigger, dramatically reducing the amount of pressure needed to release the hammer.  This lessens the tendency to pull the rifle to one side as you squeeze the trigger.  Traditional muzzleloaders’ lock time – the time elapsed between the moment you release the trigger and when the projectile leaves the barrel – is much longer for smoke poles than it is for modern firearms.  So, the time during which you can drift off-target is much greater.  Reducing trigger-release pressure helps offset this inherent disadvantage.

Hunting with a muzzleloader is an excellent fit for summer squirrels.  The same factors that limit hunters’ vision apply to squirrels, so they are much less likely to notice your approach.  And because last year’s leaf fall has had seven months to weather, you can slip through the woods with greater stealth.

Summer squirrels are not concentrated around nut trees, as they are in the fall.  That doesn’t mean they are randomly distributed, however.  Early in the spring, I have seen as many as a dozen squirrels in a single elm tree, harvesting the fresh, green seeds.  Later, they consume the succulent flower and leaf buds of a succession of trees.  Later still, they focus on mulberries and other fruit, such as hackberries and wild cherries.  You don’t need to know which trees provide food each week throughout the summer.  It’s enough to know that where you find one squirrel, you are likely to find more.

Sound is more important than sight for finding summer squirrels.  Take a seat or lean against a tree when you enter the woods and spend five minutes listening for the telltale rustle of squirrels foraging in the treetops.  If you hear nothing, move 50 yards and listen again.  When you hear feeding activity, gradually move toward it until you make visual contact.  Then pay attention to the squirrel’s feeding cycle.  Typically, they will spend a few minutes gathering food from one branchlet, then move on to another.  Often, they pause to rest for a few moments between forays.  Move into shooting position during the active feeding phase, freezing when your quarry moves between branches.

The Mr. Squirrel distress call, sold by Haydel’s Game Calls, is an effective tool for harvesting summer squirrels.

Another advantage to hunting squirrels in the summer is the fact that they are more susceptible to calling than at any other time of year.  Male and female squirrels respond dramatically to young squirrels’ distress calls.  You can use this habit in two ways.  One is to blind call, which will cause any squirrels in earshot to reveal their location.  A better approach is to find actively feeding squirrels, sneak in and take a position in their midst, and hit a few licks on the distress call.  Thrash the ground violently with a small, leafy sapling while calling to mimic the sound of a baby squirrel caught by a predator.  Not only will squirrels leave the treetops to investigate, some will run toward you and perch on branches, barking and offering a shot.

My squirrel distress call is sold by Haydel’s Game Calls under the name Mr. Squirrel.  Flambeau offers a different version of the same thing, called Mr. B’s Distress Squirrel Whistle.  You also can make your own out of a plastic jug.

Because most of the activity occurs high in the tree tops, most of your shots will be at steep angles.  This makes a shooting stick invaluable.  You can use a store-bought rifle rest, but I prefer an actual stick – an ironwood sapling that I cut nearly 40 years ago.  I grasp the stick with my left hand and rest the barrel of my rifle on top of my hand.  This arrangement works for any elevation.

One problem unique to summer squirrel hunting is meat spoilage.  I carry a couple of frozen water bottles in my game pouch.  Gutting squirrels as soon as you shoot them hastens cooling, and keeping them inside the pouch avoids attracting flies.

You can do all the above with a modern rifle, too.  That’s the best bet if you are dead set on bringing home a limit of bushytails.   But if you are looking for a way to make squirrel hunting more challenging and interesting, nothing beats a muzzleloader.

God Save the King!

  • King Monarch Butterflies Weigh 1/20th as Much as Hummingbirds, but Migrate Just As Far.
  • How You Can Help Ensure the Future of the Monarch Butterfly
  • Milkweed Plants Are The Essential Key

By Jim Low

King Monarch butterfly conservation can be as simple as mowing around milkweed plants in your yard.

“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how.  To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a good shovel.”

I thought of this quote from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac recently, when I received a press release from Missourians for Monarchs, a public/private partnership to conserve North America’s best-known butterfly species.

The release noted that the early arrival of spring-like weather had caused monarch butterflies to begin their northward migration unusually early.  It went on to say that the fragile migrants were carrying unusually large numbers of eggs this year.  That sounded like great news at first blush, but the release went on to say that naturalists were worried that the advanced timing of migration could cause a reproductive failure.  Monarch larvae can only survive on milkweed plants.  Butterfly experts feared that milkweeds (Missouri has nine species), might not be growing when monarchs arrived, ready to lay their eggs.

“To support the caterpillars, we’re going to need every stem of milkweed out there,” said Missourians for Monarchs Coordinator Jason Jenkins, “So we’re encouraging landowners to hold off on any springtime mowing to help this first generation of monarchs thrive.”

That’s when I thought of Aldo Leopold’s quote.  It just so happens that I have a nice little patch of milkweed growing in my front yard.  The press release was well-timed, because I had not mowed the lawn yet, and milkweed plants already were poking their heads up.  I went ahead and mowed the lawn, but I detoured around each of the two dozen milkweed plants.  I know it looks odd to human visitors, but it’s the orange-and-black, six-legged visitors I’m most concerned about.

If you own some acreage, Grow Native! can help you plant milkweed there, creating a monarch factory.

The life history of the monarch butterfly, which took decades to unravel, is so complex and improbable, it seems made up.  Monarchs make a late-summer and autumn migration to Florida, southern California or Mexico, where they spend the winter.  The following spring, they begin a northward migration that takes several years – and multiple generations – to complete.  Along the way, they harvest nectar from flowers to sustain themselves.  Only their larvae require milkweed for food.

Northward migrating, they mate and lay eggs along their way.  The larvae begin feeding on milkweed leaves immediately, chewing in a circular pattern that prevents entrapment in the plant’s sticky sap.  The leaves and sap contain cardenolides, toxic substances that the larvae concentrate, making them poisonous to most birds and other potential vertebrate predators.

Those foolish enough to consume a monarch larva or adult don’t survive to pass their genes on to the next generation.  Only those that have no interest in eating monarchs survive, vastly reducing the threat to this species.  The viceroy butterfly, which is not toxic, has evolved to mimic the monarch’s color pattern, and thus enjoys an indirect Darwinian advantage.  Black-backed orioles and black-headed grosbeaks are not susceptible to cardenolide poisoning, and account for more than half the mortality of monarchs that winter in central Mexico.

Monarch larvae pass through five stages, known as instars.  The first instar is tiny – 2 to 6 mm long.  At this stage, they are a pale translucent green.  Like other insects, monarchs must shed their skins to grow, passing into the next instar with each molt.  Along the way, they develop a striking white, yellow and black transverse bands, grow long tentacles fore and aft and develop body segments that increasingly resemble their adult form.  By the time they complete the fifth instar, they have increased their mass by a factor of 2,000 and are nearly 2 inches long.  Then they are ready to pupate.

The monarch’s chrysalis is a work of art not unlike the wrapping of gifts for Chinese emperors.  The delicate mint-green exterior is adorned with golden – not yellow, mind you, shimmering gold – spangles.  One to two weeks after pupation, the chrysalis becomes clear, and the adult butterfly emerges.  It hangs upside down while it pumps body fluids into its furled wings to expand them.  The transition from egg to adult takes anywhere from 25 days to seven weeks during the warm months.  They are sexually mature less than a week later.  Female monarchs are polyandrous and produce more eggs the more partners they have.

Monarchs migrate from their wintering grounds to breeding areas and back in one year, but not in one generation.  Generation Number 1 is the one that migrates south in the fall.  In January or February, they mate and head back north, reaching Texas or Oklahoma, where they (hopefully) find milkweed plants, lay eggs and die after a long – for monarchs – life of eight or nine months.  Generation No.  2 hatches, matures, flies farther north, mates, lays eggs and dies.  This repeats another time or two, until the northernmost breeding ground is reached.  There, another two or three generations are born.  The last one might be Generation Number 5 or 6 of that year, but they are destined to become Generation Number 1 the following year, after migrating south and spending the winter.

In this way, monarchs avoid the hot, dry summers that would make their wintering grounds unlivable, and the cold winters that would make it impossible to survive on their breeding grounds.  They also avoid sticking around any one place long enough for predators, diseases and parasites to build up and take advantage of the nutritional resource that monarchs represent.

Getting back to Aldo Leopold, you too, can wield god-like powers, if not of creation, then at least of conservation.

Habitat loss and fragmentation, along with changes in weather have led to a steep decline in monarch numbers over the past 20 years.  Butterfly conservation groups say individuals can make a difference.  Make room for monarchs on your property, whether it is a quarter-acre residential lot or a 5,000-acre farm.

Spare the milkweed plants that grow naturally by delaying mowing as long as possible or mowing around patches of milkweed.  You also can plant native milkweeds, which are available from wildflower nurseries listed at Grow Native!  These will reward your efforts with beautiful flowers that are well adapted to Missouri’s climate and require little or no maintenance.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has a monarch habitat web page about creating monarch habitat too, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has monarch conservation strategies for individual and communities.  And take time to look at the Missourians for Monarchs blog, which has fascinating facts and beautiful photos.

You have the power.

Citizen action is what makes conservation work in Missouri and everywhere else too,

Missourians for Monarchs’ blog is an excellent place to start learning about monarch conservation.

 

Bobbing Tails & Black Scales

  • How two very different species found homes in our homes
  • This tale of two species has a happy ending
  • We are all part of Aldo Leupold’s “Land Mechanism” at work

By Jim Low

The small cup of a phoebe nest gets crowded by the time five or six chicks near fledging size.

You step out your front door to walk the dog before bedtime, and are startled by a flutter of departing wings.  The next morning, you find white splashes of bird droppings outside the door, and a little gray bird is perched on the shepherd’s hook above your bird feeder.  Instead of dropping down to grab sunflower seeds, it periodically flies out into the air above your lawn, pumping its tail impatiently in between forays. 

Outdoor light fixtures are a favorite nesting spot for Eastern phoebes, but any horizontal surface out of the weather will do.

On your way back indoors, you spy a clump of moss and mud atop your porch light.  Inside, you open the closet in your foyer and find a 4-foot snake skin inside.

What do these two things have in common? They are evidence that your home and its environs are part of a healthy ecosystem.

If you live in Missouri, the pert little gray bird that startled you was an Eastern phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family.  It isn’t particularly showy, but you can always recognize it by its nervous habit of pumping its tail up and down.  Nervous or not, phoebes aren’t sensitive to human disturbance.  Quite the opposite, they seem to seek out human habitations for their nesting sites.  Their favorite nesting spots in our neighborhood are the horizontal surfaces provided by outdoor light fixtures.

Eastern phoebe are often viewed on a neighborhood fence, farm fence or garden fence.

You might wonder where phoebes nested before humans began erecting houses, barns, sheds and other structures with nice dry spaces beneath roof eaves.  They did – and still do – what swallows do, and built their nests on rock ledges beside streams.  That works out nicely for them, since the insects that comprise most of their diet thrive around running water.  Apparently houses with water features, sprinklers and bird baths work for them, too.

Snakes, like this common rat snake, can reach places you might not believe if you didn’t see it with your own eyes.

Getting back to that scaly surprise in the closet, if you make your yard a haven for birds, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels and other small creatures, you also make it attractive to the rest of the food chain.  This means foxes, coyotes, bobcats, hawks, owls and snakes. 

This 21-inch black rat snake was just inches away from his goal – a nest full of phoebe chicks.

The impressive skin my wife found in our closet a few years ago came from a particularly prosperous black rat snake.  Its contribution to our residential ecosystem was keeping rodent numbers in check. 

Unfortunately for the phoebes and those of us who love them, rat snakes aren’t exclusively rat eaters (ratatarians?).  We initially blamed blue jays, such easy targets for slander, for the disappearance of five phoebe chicks from the nest beside our front door.  But the truth came out the following year, when I found a reptilian ratter neatly wedged in the grooves of our brickwork.  It was at the top of the wall, and within inches of raiding the new phoebe nest.

I spared the snake, pulling him down and escorting him to the far edge of the yard, but he ultimately paid for his crime when he had the bad fortune to inhabit a patch of tall grass when I mowed it (What’s green and black and red and flies through the air with a sickening THRRRRUPPPPP?).

Anyway, assuming that the late Mr./Ms. No Shoulders had a family, I decided that the phoebes needed a more secure spot for their nest.  Toward that end, I assembled a modest wooden box with an overhanging roof and placed it 8 feet up the slick exterior wall of my tool shed.  There, the phoebes have nested unmolested ever since, and the rat snake family has returned to its rodent-control duties.

This modest box 8 feet up a smooth wall, provides safety from snakes.

Photos on trail cameras prove that foxes, coyotes and bobcats patrol the surrounding woods, but they steer clear of our house. 

Sharp-shinned hawks exact their tribute at our bird feeders, and barred owls stake out our lawn, sparing my vegetable garden from all but a few very cautious cotton-tailed marauders.  Shrews do their part to keep the local field mice honest, and moles thin out the grubs and other underground pests, which I consider a good trade for humps of loosened soil.

These are all reminders that mankind doesn’t exist in a vacuum. 

Our species is one cog – admittedly a very influential one – in what Aldo Leopold called “the land mechanism.”  It’s nice to see the other parts working, and a reminder that we should do our part to sustain balance that all of creation needs to survive.

Turkey Flocks Weather the Missouri Rainstorm

  • Last weekend’s deluge won’t cut too deeply into this year’s production.
  • Expect normal breeding behavior for the rest of the season.
Difficult hunting conditions during the 2017 spring turkey season should allow more birds to hunt this fall and in 2018. Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low

Like everyone else, I was astonished at how much rain fell on southern Missouri over the past weekend, and I was riveted by news of the flooding it caused.  At one point, more than 350 roads were closed in Missouri alone. Flood crest records fell like dominoes, taking dozens of bridges with them.  People lost their homes, their livelihoods and their lives.  But, being a turkey hunter, my thoughts naturally turned to how the unprecedented deluge would affect the state’s wild turkey flock, not to mention my prospects for tagging a gobbler.  The news from Resource Scientist, Jason Isabelle, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) turkey biologist, was surprisingly positive.

Isabelle had a good idea of how wild turkey mating and nesting were progressing, thanks to a multi-year study MDC is conducting in northern Missouri.  The work involves radio-tracking wild turkeys to learn about their habitat preferences and population dynamics.  It also allows researchers to determine when hens begin laying eggs.  Isabelle said that by the middle of last week – a couple of days before the big rain – only five of the 45 or 50 radio-tagged hens had begun laying.  The progress of nesting might have been slightly more advanced in southern Missouri, but even there, nesting wasn’t in full swing yet.

Last weekend’s toad-floating deluge isn’t good news for turkeys by any stretch of the imagination.  It surely flooded out some nests in low-lying areas, and 48 hours of continuous soaking undoubtedly caused some hens to abandon eggs that they could not protect from cold and wet.  The good news is that the impact would have been much more serious if the flood had come a week or two later.  Most hens won’t be affected at all, and those that lost nests will try again.

The last four days of the 2017 spring turkey season should have good conditions for tagging a gobbler.  Jim Low Photo

You might wonder, as I did, if the big rain, followed by relatively chilly weather, might disrupt Missouri turkeys’ breeding behavior.  This morning I staked out a pasture that usually attracts a mixed flock of hens, jakes and gobblers.  I got there around 5:15 and was disappointed not to hear a single gobble from any direction in the first hour and a half.  The sky was clear, and only a slight breeze rustled the treetops, conditions I associate with active gobbling, especially after several days of bad weather.  But there wasn’t a peep out of any gobbler within earshot.  By 6:30, about 50 minutes into legal shooting hours, I was ready to pull my decoy and go home for breakfast.

Taking one last look around before standing up, I spied a hen at the far side of the field.  I propped my shotgun on my knee and settled in, hoping for more.  Sure enough, another three hens soon appeared and worked their way methodically across the field in front of me, scratching up cow patties and gossiping back and forth.  The idea that four hens could wander around without at least one gobbler attending them never occurred to me. While watching the hens, I constantly cast glances at their back trail, expecting to see a fan or hear an explosive gobble at any moment.  It never happened.  The hens exited the pasture, leaving only scattered cow pies in their wake.

I assumed this aberration was the result of recent weather and sought Isabelle’s confirmation of my theory that every flock of hens should have a gobbler escort. I asked if this morning’s scenario seemed unusual to him.  It didn’t, or at least it didn’t seem any more unusual to him than wild turkeys’ normal, contrarian behavior.  He said turkey flocks shuffle and reshuffle daily.  The flock of four hens I watched today could be bigger tomorrow, or not.  It could have jakes and gobblers with them the day after tomorrow.  Or not.  That’s just turkeys.  With normal weather predicted for the first week of May, Isabelle said he expects turkeys to be doing the same things they do every year around this time.

Isabelle said more of the radio-tagged hens in his study have started going to nests in the past few days.  That means that gobblers will be getting lonely and increasingly receptive to hunters’ calls.  Even with a good final week, however, Missouri’s 2017 spring turkey harvest isn’t likely to regain lost ground.  The harvest during the first 10 days of the season ran 7 percent behind the same period in 2016, possibly due to rainy weather in southern Missouri.  The harvest during the second weekend of this year’s season was 62 percent below the 2016 figure.  This brought the deficit for the first two weeks to 15 percent.

Every cloud has a silver lining.  If this year’s spring harvest is down, there will be more birds to hunt in the fall, and more jakes will mature into lusty-gobbling 2-year-olds by the 2018 spring turkey season.  Don’t let that hold you back, though.  You still have four days to tag a longbeard.

Just because they don’t gobble doesn’t mean all the mature toms have left town. Jim Low Photo

-end-

Scrumptious Wild Turkey Cookery

  • Wild Turkey is as Versatile as Domestic Poultry
  • Don’t Hesitate to Try Something New
  • This Turkey Parmesan Recipe is Easy for Hunters
Bon appetite! Served with hearty bread and left-over wine, wild turkey is simple to make and is delicious beyond measure, especially with a young bird.

By Jim Low

Rain and wind made hunting conditions less than ideal for the first week of this year’s spring turkey season in Missouri.  As a result, I wasn’t feeling choosy when a sassy jake made amorous advances to my hen decoy at 6:30 Sunday morning. 

Slice breast meat across the grain before flattening each cutlet.

Bragging rights don’t come with shooting jakes, but the upside is that they are fine eating. 

 I put the legs in the pressure cooker for half an hour and boned out the meat, then ran it through the meat grinder for use in turkey salad sandwiches.  I don’t use seasonings, because wild turkey leg meat has its own rich flavor, as if it had been cooked with a mix of herbs.

I planned to brine the breast halves and smoke them over charcoal and sassafras wood, but before I got started, I sat down to spend a little time with my long-suffering wife.  She was watching a cooking show, where the celebrity chef was making chicken parmesan.  It looked so good, I decided to try it with some of my jake’s breast meat.  It was amazing.  I didn’t measure anything, but here’s how to do it.

Slice about a pound of breast meat across the grain half an inch thick and flatten the resulting cutlets with a tenderizing mallet.  Coat both sides with equal parts of grated parmesan cheese and Italian-flavored bread crumbs.  Fry the cutlets in a big, deep skillet or Dutch oven with olive oil until they are golden brown. Transfer them to a plate and set aside.

Coat cutlets with bread crumbs and fry in olive oil.

Add olive oil to the skillet and sauté three medium-sized, diced yellow onions and three large cloves of minced garlic until the onions begin to brown. 

Add an 8-ounce bottle of sun-dried tomatoes – including the oil they were packed in – and cook another five minutes.  Remove the onion mixture to a bowl and set aside.

Add 1½ cups of dry white wine to the skillet and scrape the bottom to dislodge the delicious remains of frying.  Simmer this liquid until it is reduced by half.  Add 8 ounces of tomato sauce and season with fennel, oregano, rosemary and/or basil. 

Sauté onions, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes until the onions caramelize.

Return the onion mixture to the skillet and stir in an undrained, 8-ounce can of mushroom pieces.   

Place the turkey cutlets on top, cover and cook for 30 minutes.

Serve with toasted and buttered slices of hearty, herbed bread.  I happened to have a loaf of “herb de Provence” bread that I bought for half-price from the mark-down rack at a local supermarket. It was perfect for the occasion.  Crusty French bread would be good, too.

Add a dollop of sour cream on the side if you aren’t afraid of the calories.  

Garnish with fresh chopped scallions and shaved parmesan cheese, and congratulate yourself for doing justice to a magnificent game bird.

Add white wine, tomato sauce, mushrooms, seasonings and meat.

 

Conservation Goes to the Capitol

  • Annual Event Reminds Lawmakers that Constituents Care About Nature.
  • Hunters, Anglers, Bird-Watchers, Hikers, Campers
  • Missouri Hunters for Fair Chase
Steve Jones, left, represented Missouri Hunters for Fair Chase at this year’s Conservation Day at the Capitol.

By Jim Low

We often hear that politicians in Washington, D.C., live in a “bubble,” where only lobbyists and other power brokers matter.  The same is true in Jefferson City, Missouri, where state lawmakers sometimes forget who sent them there. 

Two years ago, the Conservation Federation of Missouri (CFM) organized the first Conservation Day at the Capitol to remind Show-Me State politicians that their constituents care passionately about conserving their natural legacy and hold them accountable for taking care of them.  The event’s popularity as grown, as evidenced by the hundreds of hunters, anglers, trappers, paddlers, hikers, birdwatchers and conservationists of every stripe that crowded the third floor of the capitol building’s rotunda for the third celebration of the event this year.

Visitors to Conservation Day at the Capitol got to have their pictures taken with a bald eagle and a barn owl from the World Bird Sanctuary.

Besides renewing old friendships, those in attendance lobby their senators and representatives, and forge new partnerships.  The intermingling of lawmakers, lobbyists, conservation officials and citizen advocates makes Conservation Day at the Capitol an amazing networking opportunity.  Attendees also join in honoring legislators who support conservation causes.  This year’s recipient of CFM’s Legislator of the Year Award was House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff).  His conservation score card is far from perfect, but key actions last year earned him a day in the spotlight.  A bald eagle from the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, Mo., looked over Richardson’s shoulder as he accepted the award.  It was a fitting metaphor for the many outdoors-loving Missourians who keep an eagle eye on the Legislature’s activities.

Representatives of several groups, along with CFM Executive Director, Brandon Butler, excused themselves from the rotunda for part of the morning to go down to the House gallery and watch debate on a bill affecting water quality regulations.  This is the kind of oversight that CFM engages in every year, as they beat back perennial attempts to inject politics into our model conservation program. 

Groups represented at this year’s event included the Missouri Trappers Association, the Sierra Club, Grow Native!, the Ozark Fly Fishers, Quail Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Missouri State Parks, the Native Plant Society, the Missouri Outdoor Communicators and the Missouri Natural Areas Program.  If you belong to an outdoors or conservation-related organization, but don’t participate in Conservation Day at the Capitol, you are missing a prime chance to boost your group’s influence and public profile.  If your group isn’t a CFM affiliate, you are missing out on the opportunity to multiply your clout several thousand times.

CFM is the oldest, largest, broadest-based outdoor recreation and conservation advocacy group in Missouri.  This is the group that amended the Missouri State Constitution in 1936 to set up the Missouri Department of Conservation and has served as the agency’s watchdog and defender ever since.  It was instrumental in getting Missouri voters’ approval for dedicated sales taxes for state parks and for fish, wildlife, forest, soil and water conservation programs.  CFM’s policy statements – crafted by affiliates and individual members – carry real weight in Jefferson City, whether you are dealing with lawmakers, statewide elected officials or agencies like the departments of Conservation, Natural Resources or Agriculture. 

Even federal agencies, like the U.S.  Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service and USDA Forest Service, sit up and take notice when CFM speaks.

Take a minute to visit CFM’s website and see what they are all about.  If you care about Missouri’s outdoor resources and want to have a say in how they are administered, this is a must-join group.

Groups attending the third annual Conservation Day at the Capitol cover the spectrum from hunters and anglers to birdwatchers. All are there to remind elected officials of the high value Missourians place on outdoor resources and recreation.

 

 

Aging Turkeys, by the Numbers

  • Older gobblers aren’t always bigger, but their spurs are.
  • Keep an outdoor journal, like building a time machine.

By Jim Low

Spurs tell more about a turkey’s age than its weight or beard. Jim Low Photo

Math has never been my strong suit, but a recent trip down memory lane sent me reaching for pencil, paper and a calculator.  As I often do when a hunting season approaches, I pulled my outdoor journals off the shelf to refresh my memory about past turkey hunts.  Reading the vital statistics of gobblers that have fallen to me and friends got me wondering how old those birds were, and how their ages related to their weight, beard length and spur size.

Turkey biologists learned long ago that the most reliable indicator of a gobbler’s age is spur length.  A bird with spurs measuring less than half an inch are sure to be jakes.  Nine times out of 10, if a bird’s spurs are ½ to 7/8 inches long and straight, with relatively blunt ends, it is 2 years old.  Spur growth slows down after that, making it difficult to separate 2- and 3-year-olds.  Birds with slightly pointier, curved spurs measuring 1 to 1½ inches long can be either 2 or 3 years old.  If you bag a gobbler with needle-sharp, scimitar-shaped spurs longer than 1½ inches, you’ve got a bird that has survived at least four summers and winters.

Curious how my birds stacked up, I made a table listing these characteristics for the 21 gobblers that I took the trouble to record in detail.  Nine had spurs long enough (averaging 1¼ inches) to fall into the 2- to 3-year-old cohort.  Seven were 2 years old, with spurs averaging eight-tenths of an inch.  The remaining four, and four were jakes, with mere nubs for spurs.

The older gobblers’ beards averaged 10.1 inches, compared to 10 inches for 2-year-olds.  This is leaving out one gobbler that had 1-3/16-inch spurs and no beard at all, only a patch of thick, dark skin where a beard should have been.  Also, I only counted the longest of three beards sported by a 2-year-old killed last year.  If you include the two shorter ones, the 2-year-old birds average beard length climbs to an impressive 11.9 inches.

The longest spurs among the older toms measured 1-3/8 inches.  They had pronounced curves and were sharp enough to be dangerous, but their length leaves little doubt that I have never killed a truly old bird.  The heaviest gobbler in my records was a 2-year-old that had 7/8-inch spurs and tipped the scales at 26.5 pounds.  Overall, the two 3-year-olds were heavier than the deuces, but only by 14 ounces.  The four jakes (yearling males) averaged 14.75 pounds.  The honors for longest single beard – 11.5 inches – also went to a 2 to 3-year-old gobbler.  But on average, the older gobblers’ beards were virtually identical length.  All this proves the rule that weight and beard length are not reliable measures of age.

Seeing how gobblers bulk up between one and three years of age, you might expect older birds to outweigh 2-year-olds by a bigger margin.  The fact that they don’t is probably because the older, more dominant gobblers have less time to eat while they are busy kicking 2-year-old toms’ butts and chasing hens.  Those same gobblers likely weigh more in the fall, after they have time to bulk up on acorns.

Delving into journal entries reminded me how written records bring memories to life like nothing else, including pictures.  Details that make days afield special quickly slip away unless captured while they are still fresh in our minds.  This hollows out our recollections.  If you don’t keep a journal, consider starting.  It doesn’t have to be time consuming.  I use 6- by 8-inch books with blank, lined pages.  They are available in most book stores or online for next to nothing.  One lasts me two to four years, depending on how much time I spend outdoors.  I keep the current one on my bedside table and make entries before going to sleep.  Once you establish the routine, it’s automatic.

Most of what I record is factual – when and where I went, who was with me, what we caught, killed and saw, weather and habitat conditions and animal behavior.  But I also include thoughts, feelings and anecdotes, like when someone’s dog made a spectacular retrieve or knocked his new Citori into 10 feet of water.

The accumulated knowledge has practical uses, but I expect the real payoff to come years from now, when I no longer can do the things I love most.  Then, I will be able to sit by the fire, reliving my outdoor life.  If I’m lucky, there will be some tykes to regale with tales from my storied past.

Early Smallmouths – Tricks, Lessons, Lore and Fun

  • Learning where and how to catch early-season smallmouth bass on the middle Gasconade River
  • We shoulda’ been there tomorrow!
All we caught the day we fished were smallish bronzebacks and bucketmouths like this one held by Will Rollins.

By Jim Low

April is, indeed, the cruelest month for those of us who live to wade-fish for smallmouth bass in skinny water.  Small streams that teem with bronzebacks in July are strangely empty this time of year.  That’s because smallmouths migrate downstream in the winter.  If they didn’t, they would be trapped in dwindling pools that freeze from top to bottom in the depths of winter.  They start returning when spring freshets pump warm water into the veins of Missouri’s headwater streams.  But wade-fishing is largely futile until late April and doesn’t fully measure up until the middle of May.

Most hard-core wade fishers grew up without access to boats.  The upside to this is that we learned to catch smallies in places where boat-bound anglers can’t go.  The downside is that we never learned how to catch smallmouths in larger streams.  So, I was genuinely excited when fellow smallmouth addict and Share the Outdoors reader, Dan Reiter, invited me on a guided smallmouth trip on the middle Gasconade last week.  I have paddled this water a few times but haven’t spent enough time there to figure out seasonal fishing patterns.  Will Rollins, who guides fishing trips out of Vienna, Mo., had called Dan and said conditions should be perfect for smallmouths to begin running.

That was enough to induce Dan to make the trip from his home in Afton, and he said I was welcome to tag along.  Our rendezvous was at mid-morning, March 24, at Moreland’s Catfish Patch and Steak House, where there is a private access just upstream from the Highway 63 bridge.  From there, we headed downstream to a series of creek mouths where Will said fat bronzebacks would be gathering for the next stage of their spring migration up into spawning areas.

Dan Reiter scanned the river from his “catbird seat” as we motored between widely separated smallmouth hot spots.

The sky was overcast and the temperature was in the low 50s, which was pleasant enough if you had a fleece jacket and a wind-proof shell.  There were a few sprinkles of rain early, but not enough to dampen our spirits.  The river was up five or six feet as a result of recent rain.  The water level was falling, which Will said was perfect, allowing the relatively clear water of feeder streams to mingle with muddy river water at creek mouths.  That interface, said Will, was where we would find the fish.

Action was slow at the first creek.  We threw scarlet-colored pot-bellied crankbaits and white, twin-tailed grubs all around the mouth of the creek, catching only a few small largemouth bass.  Thinking the fish might have moved on upstream, we pushed up into the creek as far as fallen timber would permit.  We found only more small largemouths hanging in pockets of cover, waiting to ambush passing prey.  Time passed quickly, though, with good-natured banter and the getting-acquainted conversation that naturally accompanies a fishing trip with new friends.

Will was perplexed.  Everything looked right to him, other than the apparent absence of fish.  We eventually caught one small bronzeback, but nothing like what Will had predicted.  He began to second-guess himself, wondering if we might be a day early.  We moved downstream a few miles to another creek that he knew was a proven producer, but the situation there was the same.  It was time to pull out all the stops.  We motored even farther downstream, practically to the Conservation Department’s Paydown Access.  Here another creek created a broad, shallow slough with a network of willow-lined channels.  The upstream edge between the slough and the Gasconade’s main channel featured a long, sloping gravel bank where fish could lie in clear creek water, just out of the river’s muddy current.  If we didn’t catch fish here, said Will, we wouldn’t catch them anywhere.

We didn’t.

We hit one more creek mouth on the 17-mile run back to where we put in, but the news there was the same.  By then Will was fully convinced that we had arrived 24 hours too soon.  The river needed to fall another foot or two before fish really moved into creeks.  He had another client the next day, and he planned for them to fish the same places we had fished.  He was sure the story would be very different.  “I’ll send you pictures,” he promised.

Did he ever.  Throughout the next day, I got texts from Will, each accompanied by a photo of progressively larger smallmouths, proudly displayed in the same spots Dan and I had fished.  It was a clear case of “You shoulda been here tomorrow.”

Will was correct in his prediction that fishing would improve the day after we fished. This is one of three fat bronzebacks he boated and sent me pictures of the next day (March 25).

What I got from the day actually was better than catching fish.  I got to see where and how Will catches late-winter smallies and learned his insights about where, when and how to fish for them.  “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day.  Show him how to fish, and he will go back and catch them on his own.”

I also got to visit Will’s base of operations, Vienna Marine.  It’s on the east side of Highway 63 right in the middle of town.  The place is absolutely jammed, not only with fishing gear, but archery and other hunting equipment, too.  Next time I want to catch smallmouth or goggle-eye on the middle Gasconade River, this is where I will to stop for the latest fishing information and stock up on whatever the fish are biting on.  I might even book a guided trip for another lesson in seasonal smallmouth tips.

-end-

Morel Tales to Tell a Spring Story

  • Mushroom season is almost here.
  • It’s likely to be earlier than usual.
  • But if you are still seeing these flowers, it’s probably not here yet.
Prospects for finding morels aren’t great, while Dutchman’s Breeches remain dewy fresh.  Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low

Mushroom season is almost here, and as usual, I got the itch to hunt for them weeks ahead of their appearance.  My rational side told me that the last week of March is ridiculously early to hope to find the big yellow morels that haunt my vernal dreams.  But, as usual, Excitable Me overruled Rational Me.

In defense of Excitable Me, this year has provided extra reasons for jumping the gun.  For one thing, we had weeks of April weather in February and early March.  On top of that, I heard some credible reports of people finding morels a few weeks ago.  I got seriously itchy feet when the mercury topped 85 degrees on several days.  All it took to push me over the edge was the 2 inches of rain that fell Friday and Saturday.  I was out the door early Sunday morning to beat others to my favorite “shrooming” grounds in the Missouri River bottoms.

The temperature hovered around 50 degrees, and low, dense clouds held the promise of more rain.  Those conditions were nearly identical to the day last spring when I found a small bonanza of plump, succulent yellow morels and a scattering of little grays.  Heading out the door, I could practically smell them sizzling in the skillet.  I was sure this was my lucky day.

This unopened Trillium flower was trying to tell me something, it’s too early.  Jim Low Photo

The only footprints I found in “my” morel hot spot on public land belonged to white-tailed deer.  Great!  My early start had put me ahead of the competition.  Many of my would-be rivals no doubt still sat in uncomfortable church pews, while I strolled through a cathedral of towering oaks and maples.  But as I scanned leaf-littered bottoms, I recognized some not-so-encouraging signs.

Adam-and-Eve Orchid is the only plant that I have absolutely come to associate with morel patches.  Jim Low Photo

First was the fact that Dutchman’s Breeches and Toothwort were everywhere.  These delicate plants generally follow close on the heels of Hepatica, the earliest of Missouri’s spring blossoms.  They generally are on their way out by the time I find morels.  My optimism mushroomed temporarily when I began noticing Trillium and May Apple.  These two wildflowers have been associated with past morel finds, but as I continued walking I realized that these were the first of their kind to sprout.  None of the Trillium blossoms were open and the May Apples weren’t even showing flower buds.  By the time I find morels, these plants are in full bloom and stand 12 to 18 inches tall.  These had only poked their heads three or four inches above the leaf litter.

These May Apples hadn’t even unfolded their umbrellas on Sunday.  Jim Low Photo

Sweet William is another wildflower I associate with morel season.  This wild version of garden phlox grows in luxuriant stands when I’m finding morels, but on Sunday morning, I saw only one.  It was still shorter than a big morel and all but a couple of its blossoms were wrapped tight as cigars against the morning chill. 

With flagging confidence, I headed for the spot that produced last year’s bounty and that has been a reliable morel producer year in and year out.  The distinctive, striated leaves of Adam-and-Eve orchids greeted me, proving that the creek bottom’s loamy soil was healthy as ever.  My most productive morel patches all support this plant, also known as putty root.  But today, Adam and Eve had no delectable company.  I finally had to admit that I’d jumped the gun again, but I continued to hold out hope for finding a handful of small but delicious early gray morels.

Most of the blossoms on this Sweet William plant were shut tight against the early-morning chill.  Jim Low Photo

I’m sure that someone somewhere in Missouri found mushrooms that morning.  Sadly, that person was not me and as I trudged homeward, I began to dread the hopeful query that would greet my return: “Did you find any!?” To redeem myself, I stopped at Central Dairy, a Jefferson City institution, and bought ice cream.  That and a brisk hike with a sound track provided by cardinals and titmice, is reward enough for the time being.  I will watch the wildflowers around the house in the coming weeks.  When the Sweet William brushes my knees, I’ll pull on my hiking boots and stuff my pockets with plastic grocery bags, sure as ever that this is my day.

I’d advise you to do the same.  It’s spring!

Fire!

It’s not a four-letter word if you are trying to maintain high-quality habitat.

It’s a prescription for healthy wildlife

A drip torch is an indispensable tool for setting fires quickly and efficiently, allowing land owners to conduct controlled burns with fire. The Burn allows Nutrient Cycling, Invasive Plant Displacement and Healthy New Growth, and is a Prescription for the Health of Fish, Flora, Fauna and Wildlife. Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low

They probably didn’t understand the role of fire in nutrient cycling, but they knew that fire renewed landscapes.  They might not have known that periodic removal of dead vegetation from ground level makes it easier for quail to move and find food beneath the protective canopy of new growth, but you can bet they knew that bobwhite cocks called more often on land that had been blackened by fire the previous spring.

Modern-day land managers have new reasons for using fire.  Introduced plants like fescue grass, bush honeysuckle and sericea lespedeza can displace native flora, turning once-productive fields and forests into wildlife deserts.  When applied at the right time of year, fire is a powerful tool for controlling these pests and improving hunting.  In marshes, fire releases nutrients and sets back cattails and other native plants that can blanket wetlands, making them useless to mallards, Canada geese and shorebirds.  Invasion by woody plants is a problem faced by prairie and wetland managers alike, and here again, fire is a highly effective process treatment.  Fire also is less expensive than mowing, disking or other mechanical methods of creating the patchwork of exposed water and vegetation of different heights that spells “H-O-M-E” to migrating wildfowl.

Despite the brisk morning air, my back was starting to sweat as I stepped lively along the edge of 20 acres of tinder-dry foxtail, cordgrass, ragweed and fescue grass.  Moments later, the breeze picked up and heat blazed on the exposed back of my neck.  A growing roar told me I needed to pick up the pace, and soon I was almost trotting as I trailed a drip torch behind me.  Another 200 yards and I closed a circle of flame around the field.  I traded the torch for a gas-powered leaf blower to snuff out errant fires kindled by embers carried aloft on the wind.

One key to controlling a prescribed fire is starting with a backfire on the downwind side and then encircling the area with flame, so it burns itself out somewhere in the middle.  Jim Low Photo

Such spot-over fires were few, thanks to careful planning.  With time to enjoy the results of our work, my partners and I pulled out cell phones for photos and video of the spectacle.  Flames leapt 50 feet in the air, creating a true fire storm.  The plume of smoke from our little field soared thousands of feet into the cloudless sky.  Eleven-year-old Emmett Wright was too awed by the power of the blaze to do much besides repeatedly exclaiming, “Whoa!”

Within minutes, the field that had been clogged with dead vegetation was a study in black and gray.  A casual observer might think torching a field was easy or irresponsible.  This fire was neither.  The wide swaths of bare ground surrounding the field were the result of year-round work, mowing and re-mowing to create fuel-free zones capable of stopping a fire after its work was done.  Our burn boss, Emmett’s grandpa, Brad Wright, pored over weather forecasts for weeks, watching for a combination of wind speed and direction and relative humidity that would allow us to burn several sections of our 200-acre duck and upland game hunting club without endangering neighboring property.

There were false starts.  We set a burn date two weeks earlier, only to have our plans ruined by a sleet storm that blew up at the last minute.  We were ready to burn again the following week, and again, the forecast seemed perfect.  But two days beforehand, the U.S.  Weather Service revised the forecast to include strong, gusty wind and dangerously low humidity.  Officials in neighboring counties issued burn bans.  Starting a fire under those conditions would have been reckless and could ruined the reputation we have been re-building with the Chariton County Fire Department since an unfortunate incident a few years ago, which we no longer mention – except to razz Brad.

But last Saturday was finally right.  We would have preferred a southerly wind, which would have allowed us to burn all our upland acres and most of the marsh.  As it was, we got about half the upland and a third of the marsh burned.

You might wonder why we would give up a Saturday to burn a bunch of grass and cattails.  In a word, “habitat.” We want our 200 acres to be as attractive and productive as possible for ducks, geese, quail, rabbits, deer, turkey, beavers, muskrats, otters, herons, snipe, bass, catfish, and the whole array of wild things that inhabit healthy land and water.  One of the surest ways to achieve this is with carefully planned burning.

The human inhabitants of North America have used fire in this way from time immemorial.  The first Americans knew that burning let the sun warm the ground earlier, and that deer, turkey, elk and bison would quickly arrive to take advantage of the resulting flush of succulent new growth.  They probably didn’t understand the role of fire in nutrient cycling, but they knew that fire renewed landscapes.  They might not have known that periodic removal of dead vegetation from ground level makes it easier for quail to move and find food beneath the protective canopy of new growth, but you can bet they knew that bobwhite cocks called more often on land that had been blackened by fire the previous spring.

Even a relatively small fire seems impressive close-up, or when you see the plume of smoke from a distance. Always notify fire officials ahead of time, or you might be billed for an unnecessary visit when neighbors call 911.  Jim Low Photo

Modern-day land managers have new reasons for using fire.  Introduced plants like fescue grass, bush honeysuckle and sericea lespedeza can displace native flora, turning once-productive fields and forests into wildlife deserts.  When applied at the right time of year, fire is a powerful tool for controlling these pests and improving hunting.  In marshes, fire releases nutrients and sets back cattails and other native plants that can blanket wetlands, making them useless to mallards, Canada geese and shorebirds.  Invasion by woody plants is a problem faced by prairie and wetland managers alike, and here again, fire is a highly effective process treatment.  Fire also is less expensive than mowing, disking or other mechanical methods of creating the patchwork of exposed water and vegetation of different heights that spells “H-O-M-E” to migrating wildfowl.

Fire is an important part of management plans that the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service helped us develop for our marsh, prairie and woodland acres.  Because it’s part of a formal plan, such use of burning is usually called “prescribed” fire.  Learning to burn safely and effectively isn’t simple.  That is why MDC offers prescribed fire workshops throughout the state each year.  With the knowledge gained in these workshops, and with management plans prepared in cooperation with wildlife professionals, you can make your little bit of hunting heaven the best it can be.  To learn more about the possibilities, visit MDC’s web page for private landowners.

What looks like utter devastation rapidly turns into a verdant field that draws wildlife like a magnet. Jim Low Photo

 

 

Meeting the Next Challenge: Chronic Wasting Disease

• Once again, it’s time for Missourians to stand up for wild resources
• White-tail Deer Herd in Trouble
• Missouri Constitution Change Required, Needs Voter Help

By Jim Low

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The growing menace posed by chronic wasting disease (CWD), if left unchecked, will ultimately destroy Missouri’s wild deer resource.  If you have any doubt about this, read up on either of these two links:

Unlike blue tongue and other familiar deer diseases, CWD’s spread is inexorable.  CWD is 100 percent fatal.  There is no cure or vaccine.  It is slow, but after it is well-established, it is only a matter of time until deer numbers decline drastically.

The only hope of preventing this awful scenario is quick action to limit the spread of CWD.  So far, all of Missouri’s CWD outbreaks have occurred near captive-deer operations where deer are shipped in and out – a practice made to order for spreading CWD.  The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has done its best to regulate such facilities to prevent the spread of the disease, but its efforts have been stopped cold.  Political pressure has eroded MDC’s regulatory authority over deer, which it now shares with the Mo. Dept. of Agriculture.  Agriculture officials are not governed by an independent citizen commission, and they are not obligated to protect wildlife.  And the Missouri Legislature holds the Agriculture Department’s purse strings, so state agriculture officials are inclined to do what legislators want.

A bit about history.  In 1935, Missourians realized that politicians couldn’t or wouldn’t protect the state’s wildlife.  To fix the problem, they amended the state’s constitution, giving authority for managing the state’s wild resources to a non-partisan, citizen commission that we know today as the Missouri Conservation Commission.  It was the first time in history that a state or nation had replaced politics with science as the basis for resource management.  Over the following 80 years, however, we have grown complacent, forgetting another famous adage: The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

Political influence is like water.  Eventually, it finds its way into everything.

Eight decades after the creation of the MDC, politics once again has seeped into the water-tight system Missouri’s conservation pioneers tried to create.  If it isn’t stopped, the results will be catastrophic.  That is why, at its annual meeting last weekend, the Conservation Federation of Missouri (CFM) passed a resolution that could mark another watershed in conservation history.

The resolution came out of the Conservation Federation of Missouri (CFM) Deer, Turkey and Furbearer Committee.  It puts CFM – representing more than 80 affiliated groups and more than 100,000 individual members – on record in support of a new effort to amend the Missouri State Constitution.  The goal this time is to stop political incursions that threaten the future of Missouri’s white-tail deer herd.

The resolution and the initiative petition drive it supports have deep historical resonance.  CFM was the organization that spearheaded the 1936 initiative petition drive that established the Conservation Commission.  Forty years later, CFM lead another initiative petition drive to provide stable, permanent funding for conservation.  And now, another 40 years down the road, Missourians again are rising up to tell politicians to keep their hands off our precious wild resources.  There seems to be a 40-year cycle for conservation action in the Show-Me State.

What authority MDC has left was cancelled out last year by a court order in a lawsuit brought by captive-deer breeders who don’t like MDC regulations. 

Meanwhile the Missouri Legislature currently is busy with legislation that would take regulation of captive deer and elk operations out of MDC’s hands entirely.  The result would be shipping deer willy-nilly around the state with the predictable consequence of accelerating the spread of CWD.

MDC might prevail in the lawsuit, but even if it does, effective action to stem the tide of CWD could come too late.  And even if the lawsuit was resolved in MDC’s favor tomorrow, the Missouri Legislature undoubtedly will continue chipping away at MDC’s ability to respond.  And there’s no guarantee that the captive-deer industry won’t continue to stymie regulatory efforts with lawsuit after lawsuit.

As in 1936, the only sure-cure solution to save the Missouri white-tail deer herd for future generations is to express the will of the people in the Missouri Constitution.

That’s what the initiative petition drive that just won the support of the CFM aims to do.  If the petition garners enough signatures, Missourians will get to vote on the issue in 2018.

Two different approaches are being weighed:

  • One would be to stop the spread of CWD by prohibiting the transportation of captive deer between breeding facilities and shooting pens.
  • The other would achieve the same end by making it illegal to charge clients to shoot deer inside high-fence enclosures. Such “canned hunts” are repulsive to ethical hunters, who believe that real hunting involves fair chase.

If the effort to revise the Missouri Constitution is to succeed, it must have citizen support.  Later this year, volunteers will be needed to gather signatures on petitions, but what is needed most now is financial support to get the word out.  If you are willing to help, visit fairchasemissouri.com and click on the “donate” link.  You also can follow the effort on Facebook.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  Today, bringing what we have learned (knowledge) to create a chance for white-tail deer herd survival will require our courage and effort.  Let’s not repeat the history of the early 20th century, when white-tailed deer nearly went extinct.

-end-

Missouri Hunters Share the Bounty

• Feeding the hungry is a public-private partnership everyone can get behind.

By Jim Low

It started out small.  In 1991, the Columbia Area Archers (CAA) organized an effort to share Missouri’s growing white-tailed deer bounty with indigent families.  Archers who took part in the Charitable Deer Meat Donation Program that year donated venison from their kills to the Ann Carlson Emergency Food Pantry.

Donations that first year totaled a mere 37 pounds, but the amount grew each year.  The program soon attracted the attention of powerful partners.  The Conservation Federation of Missouri saw it as an opportunity for hunters to polish their public image.  The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) – looking ahead to the time when deer might become so numerous that hunting alone couldn’t keep their numbers in check – saw the program as a way to encourage hunters to shoot more deer.  Bass Pro Shops saw a way of boosting sales of hunting gear, and Shelter Insurance decided it made more sense to harvest deer with guns than with minivans.

The social and economic clout of these partners unleashed a juggernaut that none could have imagined.  CFM took on the job of coordinating STH efforts statewide.  Conservation agents recruited civic clubs, churches, Scout troops and other grassroots organizations to organize local venison donation programs across the state.  These citizen groups worked with food pantries, Salvation Army posts and other charitable organizations to identify needy recipients.  Meat processors were able to employ more workers grinding donated deer into burger in facilities inspected by state health officials.

To encourage hunters to donate whole deer, CFM, MDC, Bass Pro Shops, Shelter Insurance, the National Wild Turkey Federation and other partners ponied up cash to cover the cost of processing.  Archers and firearms hunters, who loved being in the woods but could only eat so much venison, embraced this new, high-minded motive to extend their hunting season.  With all this help and a new, catchier name, Share the Harvest (STH) soon was channeling more than a quarter of a million pounds of meat annually to people who needed it most.  By the time STH turned 20, it had given needy Missourians more than 2 million pounds of lean, organic, free-range meat.  Going into its 25th year, STH has passed the 3 million-pound mark.  That’s 8 million servings.

“It’s a real pleasure for us to see how our little program has grown,” says Denny Ballard, former president of the Columbia Area Archers and one of STH’s founders.  “From that little seed came something that has helped thousands of people in need and will continue doing so for many years.”

STH was a godsend to food banks through the relatively prosperous 1990s and 2000s.  When the Great Recession bottomed out early in the current decade, STH became an indispensable part of keeping food on Missourians’ tables, especially in hard-hit rural areas.  Unfortunately, the increased need for venison coincided with a dip in deer numbers statewide.  Severe heat and drought in 2012 and 2013 triggered locally devastating outbreaks of blue tongue and the closely related epizootic hemorrhagic disease.  As a result, STH donations have declined, falling below 200,000 pounds for the 2016-17 hunting season.  STH sponsors expect that figure to rebound as deer numbers recover in the areas hardest hit by hemorrhagic diseases.  But this isn’t automatic.  Hunters get into the habit of passing up chances to shoot second or third deer, hoping to aid recovering deer numbers.  So STH donations could lag behind the actual recovery.

As an act of faith, I donated the first deer I shot last year – a fine, fat yearling doe – to STH.  My karmic investment paid off later in the season, when I shot a big-bodied spike buck for my freezer and, later, an even bigger doe, which I gave to friends who let me hunt on their land.  As the alfalfa pasture behind my house greens up, I’m seeing lots of deer, which promises another productive deer season ahead.

If you hunt deer, keep STH next fall.  Details about how to donate a deer are contained in the annual Fall Deer and Turkey Hunting Regulations and Information booklet, or on this link at MDC’s STH page.

Border Collies vs. Tiger Poop

Deer are well-nourished in many American yards, but a herding dog, such as a border collie,
could be the solution if deer are damaging your landscape. Photo courtesy of MDC

• Deer Problem: Deer Love Shrubs and Seedlings
• Dogs Love to Chase Deer
• Secret Fence and Dog Collar = Solution

By Jim Low
The remarkable success of Missouri’s deer restoration program has been a godsend for hunters and a huge boost to the state’s economy. Deer hunting alone is a billion-dollar industry in the Show-Me State, and that doesn’t take into account the value of more than 10 million pounds of venison that goes into residential freezers and community food banks each fall. Assigning a conservative price of $5 a pound to this lean, organic, free-range, locally-sourced fat-free meat, puts the total value up around $50 million.
Every story has more than one side, however. If you operate a tree nursery or a fruit orchard, your view of Missouri’s burgeoning deer population is apt to be less rosy. Losses to deer browsing can top 80 percent of tender young saplings, making deer Public Enemy No. 1 for these businesses. Suburban homeowners have a dog in the fight too, as deer find hostas, daffodils and shrubs too tempting to pass up. After replacing your third quince or dogwood seedling, you begin to have more sympathy for nurserymen and less for deer. All this goes a long way toward tarnishing the whitetail’s image as an economic boon.

The last thing the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) wants is for people to regard wildlife as a nuisance. So, several years ago, the agency devoted some of its research budget to developing practical means of protecting commercial and residential plantings from deer. They quickly dismissed various repellents as ineffective or prohibitively expensive. Nurserymen told MDC that herbal extracts, capsaicin – even tiger feces – weren’t just expensive, the deer quickly learned to ignore them. They were ineffective.

MDC Research Biologist Jeff Beringer instead, focused on a more vivid and lasting reminder of one of deer’s natural predators, canines. He put domestic dogs in a plantation of white pine, which for deer, is the equivalent of candy. To keep the dogs inside the plantation, he used an invisible fence. This consists of two parts. One is a circle of wire laid in or on the ground. This “fence” emits a radio signal. The other half of the system is an electronic collar that picks up the radio signal from the ground wire. When the collar senses a weak signal from the wire, it emits a warning tone. As the dog gets closer to the wire, it switches from the warning tone to a mild electric shock.

With patient training, Beringer conditioned the dogs to associate the warning tone with the perimeter wire and an unpleasant shock, keeping the dogs inside the pine plantation. Then it was simply a matter of the dogs doing what dogs do – chasing things. For this purpose, Beringer found that herding breeds, such as border collies, were the best suited to the job. Deer that ventured into the plantation quickly found themselves the objects of barking, nipping attention.
Over the three-year course of the study, pine seedlings sustained an average loss of 13 percent browsing. This compared favorably with a 37-percent loss in plots with no dogs, in which seedlings were sprayed with a commercial deer repellent. The loss in unprotected plots was 56 percent. Beringer also included a pine plantation treated with commercial deer repellent. In that plot, deer ate 37 percent of the seedlings. He found that seedlings in the dog-protected plot sustained less damage and recovered sooner than those in the other two plots. So, apparently deer that were bold and lucky enough to get a few nibbles in the plot protected by Beringer’s trained dogs often had their meals interrupted.

If you own a tree nursery or an orchard, you probably already have found a solution to any challenges posed by deer. On the other hand, if you are like me, and merely own a home surrounded by deer habitat, you might take Beringer’s findings to heart. If you don’t already own a dog, getting one might have benefits not ordinarily associated with canine pets. I have lived in my present home for 22 years. I have hunted deer in my back yard for the entire time, but for the first five years, I didn’t own a dog. Then I bought a retriever and I have had one ever since. When we first moved into our little house in the woods, we occasionally had deer wander through the yard. In contrast, during 17 years of dog ownership, I have seen deer only once. They were three – two fawns and a doe. The fawns were nibbling around the edge of the back yard, while the doe stood, twitching with nerves, a few yards back in the woods. When she refused to follow their lead, the fawns followed her back away from the house – and the scent of a predator.

It’s also worth noting that we have dozens of hostas and shrubs in our yard, along with a vegetable garden, and none have been touched by deer in 17 years. I’m not sure if it’s cheaper to pay for dog food and veterinary bills, or import bales of tiger poop every year, but I do know dogs also are more fun to have around.
Nurserymen looking for a way to protect tree seedlings from voracious deer now turn to man’s best friend.

Doing the Right Thing

  • It’s seldom the easiest, but always the best course 
  • Hunting Teal in the Morning Fog 
  • When No One is Watching, There is Friendship, Kinship, Honesty

By Jim Low

Foggy conditions are common during Missouri’s early teal season, complicating waterfowl identification.

My blood ran cold.  Moments earlier, Scott and I had been elated at doubling on a pair of dive-bombing teal.  Now, as my retriever returned with the first bird, my worst fear came true.  In her mouth was a juvenile wood duck.

The combination of shirtsleeve weather and lightning-fast gunning makes Missouri’s early teal season one of my favorites.  Inherent in this season, however, is the risk of shooting a wood duck.  It’s easy to mistake a woodie for a blue-wing in the heat of action.  The potential for mistakes is multiplied by dim, often foggy conditions.  That’s why shooting hours for the early teal season begin at sunrise, not 30 minutes before, as they do for regular duck season.

Scott and I had been talking in hushed tones as we squatted among willows in Pool 11 at the south end of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area that September morning.  Our attention snapped back to hunting when two birds hurtled into view from the right.  I shouldered my gun instinctively and Scott followed my lead.  Imagine our astonished delight when both birds fell.  But our jubilation was short-lived.  With predatory autopilot disengaged, the thinking part of my brain recalled hearing the faint “weep-weep-weep!” cry of a wood duck just before the birds appeared.  I realized that I hadn’t had (or hadn’t taken) time to actually look at the birds before firing.  The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach became a bottomless gulf when Guinness delivered the second bird, another juvenile wood duck.

Sick-hearted and ashamed, we gathered our gear and left the marsh, leaving the two illegally killed ducks behind.  We had a tough decision to make.  We had committed a serious violation of Missouri’s Wildlife Code.  The road to recovery for North America’s wood duck population has been long and arduous.  The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) underscores the importance of protecting woodies by imposing stiffer penalties on those who shoot the beautiful perching ducks out of season.  Much more important to me than paying a fine was the fact that I was employed by MDC.  Wildlife Code violations are potential firing offenses for conservation workers.

Worrysome as these things were, a larger concern gnawed at me as we trudged back to the parking lot.  I had known Scott, who was then in his late 20s, for more than 10 years.  No one in his family hunted or fished, and I had become an outdoor mentor to him.  He was as fine a young man as I had ever known, and the idea of setting an example of breaking the law and then covering it up troubled me more than all the rest.  After a few days of reflection and continued conversations with Scott, I called Boone County Conservation Agent Robyn Raisch and laid our cards on the table.

Raisch thanked me for coming forward, but said that, because I was an MDC employee, he had to send the case up the supervisory chain to the Director’s Office for disposition.  Suddenly, the pit was back in my stomach.  Who would hire a middle-aged writer who got fired from his last job? At that point, I could only trust Director John Hoskins’ to put my good intentions and my 17-year record as an employee in the balance when weighing my fate.

I never heard anything from Hoskins, but at a meeting of the Conservation Commission a few months later, Assistant Director John Smith pulled me aside.  The pit returned to my stomach, but my faith had not been misplaced.  Alone in a courtyard, Smith told me that he admired my handling of a bad situation, and wished that everyone who committed Wildlife Code violations acted with equal integrity.  That meant more to me than he probably knew.

My experience is not unique.  A guy I know once mistakenly shot a buck with fewer than four points on one side.  Since Brad was hunting in a county where the antler-point restriction was in effect, he called the local conservation agent and reported himself.  The agent came and inspected the deer and, recognizing that Brad had made an honest mistake and done the right thing, cautioned him to be more careful in the future and left it at that.  Brad got to keep the deer, and he didn’t have to keep looking over his shoulder, wondering if someone had noticed his transgression.

Another guy I know accidentally killed a second turkey when he shot a gobbler.  He turned himself in and also got a warning.  I don’t know how often scenarios like this occur.  But those I do know about carry two lessons.  One is that doing the right thing, while seldom easy, is always the best course.  The other is that mentorship benefits mentors as much or more than it does mentees.  If I had been hunting alone at Eagle Bluffs that day, I probably would have taken the easy way out and never told anyone what happened.  I would have saved myself a $229 fine and a good deal of worry, but what I had done and what it told Scott about us would have haunted me for the rest of my life.  Being Scott’s mentor forced me to be a better man.

Individual ethics determine behavior in traditional outdoor sports, where the hunter is the only witness.

I’m not suggesting that we call a conservation agent every time we kill two doves on the last shot when filling a limit or when we forget to take all the lead shot shells out of a parka pocket before hunting ducks.  The measure of hunting ethics is how you conduct yourself when no one is watching, not whether you commit an occasional blunder.  If you know in your heart of hearts that you could and should have done better, when your conscience whispers that you have crossed a line that is important to you, don’t shy away from a voluntary mea cupla.  You might or might not earn a ticket, but you certainly will earn respect from the conservation agent, not to mention yourself.

Winter Trout – Another Kind of Madness!

  • Trophy Trout, Trophy Memories
  • Trophy Science and Management 
  • Lilley’s Landing is Popular Spot for Annual Trout Trek
Rainbow trout tend to be fat and feisty at Lake Taneycomo.

By Jim Low

In most of the United States, “March Madness” refers to basketball.  In Missouri, the term has a whole different meaning for trout anglers.  March 1 marks the opening of the regular fishing season at Missouri’s four trout parks.  On that day, depending on weather and what day of the week March 1 falls on, between 8,000 and 10,000 cabin-fevered trout devotees jam the banks of spring branches around the state.  At Bennett Spring State Park (SP) near Lebanon, Montauk SP near Licking, Roaring River SP near Cassville and Maramec Spring Park near St. James, most will be giddy about escaping the confines of home and office.  Anglers for the most part, cheerfully untangle crossed lines and enjoy a bonhomie that transcends petty differences of religion and politics.

While I am not immune to the party atmosphere of opening day at trout parks, I generally prefer a slightly less frenetic experience.  I also enjoy catching and releasing lots of trout during an outing and if there’s a chance of boating a world-record brown trout, well, that’s not a bad thing either.

A boat ramp just below Table Rock Dam allows boater access to Taneycomo’s trout.

Taneycomo is a hybrid lake of sorts.  While it’s called a lake and there is a dam at its lower end, Taneycomo always has at least a little current.  And when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing water through Table Rock Dam, which marks Taneycomo’s upper limit, it’s a regular river of water cold enough to have come from an Ozark spring.

Besides a continuous supply of cold water, Taneycomo has an abundance of fresh-water shrimp, more accurately called “scuds.” These, along with hatches of midges, mayflies, gnats, and other insects, are the foundation of a food pyramid that produces an astonishing growth of trout stocked by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).  The food is so abundant, it supports monthly stockings of 35,000 to 80,000 rainbow trout, according to seasonal variations in angler numbers.  In addition, Taneycomo gets approximately 10,000 brown trout each winter.

While Taneycomo is largely a put-and-take fishery for rainbow trout, MDC takes advantage of its plentiful natural food base with regulations designed to produce trophy trout.  All brown trout measuring less than 20 inches must be released immediately and you can only keep one brown trout daily.  Rainbow trout between 12 and 20 inches must be released in the portion of the lake from the no-boating or fishing zone below Table Rock Dam downstream to the mouth of Fall Creek.  Also in this stretch, only flies and artificial lures are permitted.  Scented, soft-plastic and natural baits are prohibited.

Missouri’s pole-and-line record brown trout, a 28-pound, 12-ounce behemoth, came from Taneycomo in November of 2009.  In 2013, Mark Clemishire of Skiatook, Oklahoma, landed a monster rainbow trout just below Table Rock Dam.  After measuring and photographing the fish, he did what any serious trout enthusiast would do.  He released it to fight another day.  A formula yielded a probable weight of 20.5 pounds, based on its 31-inch length and 23-inch girth.  That would have bested the state record by 2 pounds, 7 ounces.  Taneycomo also produced a 15-pound, 6-ounce rainbow trout that currently occupies the top slot for alternative fishing methods, in this case, a throwline.  That record has stood since 1971.

The water outlet just below Table Rock Dam is a favorite hot spot for trout anglers. The parking lot is close enough to the water for launching kayaks and canoes.

Knowing all this, it’s no surprise that I look forward to what has become an annual pilgrimage to Lilley’s Landing Resort and Marina on the north bank of Lake Taneycomo and the southern fringe of Brawling Branson, Mo.  I began going to the resort, operated by Phil Lilley and his family, thanks to the Conservation Federation of Missouri, which sponsors an annual gathering of outdoor media there each winter.  In between visiting with old friends and presentations from conservation officials and outdoor manufacturers, we sample Taneycomo’s world-class fishing.

I am not an accomplished fly-fisher, but under the tutelage of Lilley’s guide Duane Doty, I managed to boat more rainbows than I could count.  The hatch was dominated by midges, so we mostly floated #16 primrose-and-pearl colored midge imitations beneath strike indicators.  My last fish of the trip was a battle-scared 16 ¾-inch rainbow.  Since I’ve already admitted to not being the world’s greatest fly-fisher, I’ll go ahead and confess to the unforgiveable sin of killing that big rainbow.  I had promised my wife I would bring home meat and I knew that particular fish, having lived for years on a wild diet, would have meat as pink and delicious as a wild-caught salmon.

I take some comfort in the knowledge that hundreds or thousands of larger trout haunt the depths of Taneycomo.  It’s entirely possible that one is a world record.  And even if you don’t boat a big one, you are pretty sure to land lots of others.  There is a Corps of Engineers boat ramp just below Table Rock Dam.  The immediate area below the dam also has superb wade-fishing.  The water outlet on the north side of the river near the upper parking lot is a favorite hot spot for wader-clad anglers.

Lilley’s Landing Guide Duane Doty, left, and fishing writer John Neporadny show off a nice brown trout that Neporadny landed during CFM’s 2017 Media Event.

Many of the nicely furnished, immaculate rooms at Lilley’s Landing have decks overlooking the lake.  The expert guides and friendly, family atmosphere haven’t given me any reason to look elsewhere when I fish Taneycomo.  I’m sure that other resorts in the area do fine jobs for their clients, too.  You can find them and a bunch of other resorts online.  If you see Phil Lilley, tell him I said hello.  If you have time, visit MDC’s Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery below Table Rock dam and see where the trout you caught were born.

Shed the Winter Blahs

  …by hunting antlers (Jim Low)

Finding a shed antler is a thrill on par with being dealt a royal flush.  Jim Low Photo
Finding a shed antler is a thrill on par with being dealt a royal flush. Jim Low Photo

I needed to get out of the house yesterday, so I took a brisk, 3-mile walk on trails at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City.  At one point, I spied half a dozen deer.  The three bucks were easy to pick out, because they were still rocking their autumn headgear.  I was a little surprised that all three males still sported antlers.  Missouri whitetails typically begin shedding their antlers around Jan.  1.  That’s one reason why MDC moved the antlerless deer season from early January to early December several years ago.  With the original timing, hunters were legally shooting quite a few bucks that had already dropped their antlers.

Anyway, it got me thinking about hunting for shed antlers.  It’s easy to slip into a cabin-fever rut this time of year, when most hunting seasons are closed.  Shed hunting can be done any time of day.  You can do it on your favorite deer-hunting land or anywhere deer live, which is pretty much anywhere in the state, including suburban parks, wildlife refuges and other areas that aren’t open to hunting.  You don’t need a gun or a permit.  You don’t even have to be a hunter.

The benefits of shed hunting go far beyond gathering dust-catchers for your mantle.  For one thing, it’s a much more pleasant way of getting exercise than grinding out miles on a treadmill in a gym that smells of moldy sneakers.  The off season – when you aren’t spending every spare hour in a tree stand – is a great time to scout new hunting areas.  And shed hunting can turn up useful clues about the size and habits of bucks that survived the past hunting season.

The most basic principle of successful shed hunting is to focus your efforts in areas where deer spend the most time.  Having just undergone the rigors of the rut, bucks are hungry at this time of year, so they are actively feeding.  If you can find standing corn, that is an excellent place to check.  So are grain bins and other places where grain gets spilled on the ground.  Clover and alfalfa pastures are favorite feeding areas, too.  If you planted turnips or other food plots to attract deer, be sure to include those on your rounds.  Orchards and tree plantations are deer magnets as well.  Be sure to thoroughly comb through sumac thickets and other brushy cover adjacent to food sources.  That’s where loosening antlers are most likely to get snagged and pop off.

Next, check travel lanes between food sources, watering spots and bedding areas.  Logging roads, fencerows, utility rights-of-way and streams – even dry washes – tend to funnel deer movement into predictable routes.  Game trails along these landscape features often are as obvious as superhighways, and are worth checking thoroughly.

Cedar thickets are favorite spots for deer to hunker down during severe weather.  Bushwhacking through them can be a challenge if you are standing up, but they are surprisingly open at ground level.  Pick your way through these, pausing every 50 feet or so to get down on your hands and knees and scan the surrounding ground for sheds.

Deer also spend lots of time resting on south- and west-facing slopes at this time of year. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether these slopes are wooded, brushy or covered in prairie grass.  Hillsides with this orientation receive direct sunlight, which helps deer stay warm.  Their elevation allows deer to see approaching danger while they chew their cud and digest food consumed the previous night.  When checking these areas for sheds, start on one side and methodically walk parallel lines until you have scanned the whole area, watching for matted leaves or grass that indicate day beds.

February and March are the best months for shed hunting.  Once antlers hit the ground, they quickly attract mice, squirrels and other rodents that gnaw on them to take advantage of the calcium and other nutrients they contain.  Even deer go after shed antlers, which is an interesting example of recycling.  Nothing goes to waste in nature, and if you want intact sheds, you have to get there first.

Searching for shed antlers is similar to other types of hunting in that the more you do it, the better you become.  Long-time shed hunters sometimes bring home dozens of trophies in a year.  Neophytes aren’t likely to do that well, but be patient and don’t get discouraged if your initial efforts fail to pay big dividends.  Half the fun of shed hunting is having an excuse to get outdoors and seeing things you would never see if you were sitting in front of the television.  On my recent walk, I got to watch a flock of turkeys feeding.  A pair of Cooper’s hawks entertained me with their aerial courtship, and a juvenile barred owl eyed me curiously, but without apparent fear, as I walked beneath its perch.  Those things seem different with a breeze in your face than equivalent views on The Nature Channel.

I didn’t find any sheds on that walk.  But I’ll be back next week, hoping to glimpse a one-antlered buck and turn his loss into my conversation-piece

Mountain Lions in Missouri

  • Female Cat Noted in Shannon County
  • Increasing Number of Reported Sightings 
  •   Ozarks May be Perfect Wilderness Nesting Area
The discovery of a female mountain lion in Shannon County last month is a recent development in a 20-year saga. Mountain lions undoubtedly will continue to filter into Missouri from western states. The question is whether Missouri will find ways to live with this native species. (Missouri Department of Conservation photo)
The discovery of a female mountain lion in Shannon County last month is a recent development in a 20-year saga. Mountain lions undoubtedly will continue to filter into Missouri from western states. The question is whether Missouri will find ways to live with this native species. (Missouri Department of Conservation photo)

By Jim Low

A famous author once said, “If you build it…”, you know the rest.

Some of the brightest and darkest moments in conservation history have been the result of “unintended consequences.” The attempt to eradicate predators from the Kaibab National Forest in the 1920s was intended to boost deer numbers, but without predators to keep their population in check, deer numbers soared and then crashed, due to disease and starvation.  That’s a classic example of negative unintended consequences of human actions.  However, recent events prove that things can work the other way as well.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Missourians realized that letting the state legislature set hunting and fishing regulations had turned wildlife into a political football.  The results were disastrous.  Deer once had been so common that their hides were a standard unit of monetary value – the “buck.”  But by the 1930s, only a few hundred remained in the state.  Wild turkeys, fish, forests and other wild resources were all in similarly dismal condition.

Outrage over lawmakers’ squandering of the state’s natural legacy prompted citizens to take wildlife management out of politicians’ hands and vest it in an independent conservation agency, what we now call the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).  Within a few decades, deer once again were numerous enough to support carefully regulated hunting, not to mention today’s $1 billion deer-related recreation and tourism industry.  The story has been much the same for fish, forests and non-game wildlife.  Given a chance to heal, Missouri’s wild places have returned the favor by bouncing back.  In at least one instance, they have done so in a way that no one foresaw.

More than 60 years after the last known mountain lion was killed in Missouri in 1927, MDC reported a series of verified mountain lion sightings.  It started as a trickle.  In 1994, there was a tantalizing case where raccoon hunters killed a mountain lion.  They had a video showing the cat, but they got rid of the carcass before conservation agents apprehended them. In 1996 and 1997, two Missourians captured mountain lions on video.  In 1999 MDC’s Mountain Lion Response Team found tracks where rabbit hunters had reported seeing a cougar.

In the early 2000s, the trickle of verified reports grew to a steady stream, with video, photos and two road-killed mountain lions in four consecutive years.  In 2011, the stream swelled to a flood.  That year, MDC verified 14 mountain lion sightings.  This startling upswing probably was partly due to hunters increasing their use of game cameras, which accounted for half of the sightings.  2012 saw 11 more verified sightings, followed by eight in 2013.  The pace slackened a bit in subsequent years, possibly because the novelty of sightings wore off and people stopped reporting every new one.  Others might have kept sightings to themselves to protect the animals.

What accounts for the return of this top-level predator?  Mountain lions are simply taking advantage of Missouri’s success in restoring their No. 1 food item, white-tailed deer.  Young male mountain lions typically leave their birth areas to escape being killed by dominant adult males and establish their own territories elsewhere.  They can travel hundreds of miles while looking for unoccupied land with sufficient food and female mountain lions to mate with. Female mountain lions are more likely to stay where they were born.  Almost without exception, the mountain lions seen in Missouri have been young males.  This leads MDC to believe that the mountain lions seen here are transients, rather than part of an established, reproducing population.

Young male mountain lions find plenty of deer to eat in Missouri.  Finding mates has been a different matter.  Male cougars that don’t find females tend to keep moving, which accounts for the sporadic nature of documented sightings in Missouri.  Fourteen one year, fewer than half that number two years later.  Sightings scattered around the state. These facts, together with the absence of sightings of mountain lion cubs, was strong evidence that Missouri didn’t have a breeding population…yet.

Things took a new and exciting turn last month, when DNA testing revealed that an elk had been killed by a female mountain lion in Shannon County.  This was only the second confirmed female in Missouri.  The first was an animal whose pelt and head were recovered from a trash dump in Texas County in 1998.  Circumstantial evidence indicated that it might have escaped or been released from captivity.  It might not even have come from Missouri. So, the female cougar documented in Shannon County this year might reasonably be considered Missouri’s first truly free-ranging female mountain lion in 90 years.

This means Missouri could soon have a breeding mountain lion population.  If that happens, it would raise questions about MDC’s policy regarding mountain lions.  In 2006, the Missouri Conservation Commission responded to interest – and concerns – about continuing mountain lion sightings by doing two things.  One was to remove the mountain lion from the state’s endangered species list.  The Commission justified this action by saying that, since there was no evidence of a breeding population in Missouri, the species should more properly be considered extirpated.  This lumped mountain lions in with other species, such as moose and elk, which occasionally wandered into Missouri from other states, but were no longer endemic here.

The Commission’s other action was to issue a policy statement that “it is not desirable to allow the re-establishment of a mountain lion population in Missouri.”  The underlying assumption was that a breeding population of mountain lions was incompatible with Missouri’s level of human settlement.  In other words, Missouri simply didn’t have room enough for humans and their domestic animals to coexist with mountain lions.

I wonder about this.  Nebraska has had female mountain lions since at least 1991.  Breeding has been documented there and a female mountain lion was found in southeastern Nebraska last year.  Granted, Nebraska’s population density is roughly one-third that of Missouri, but the Cornhusker State isn’t exactly wilderness.  And in addition to its human population, Nebraska has 50 percent more cattle than Missouri, according to CattleNetwork.com.  And while wilderness is a scarce commodity in Missouri, it isn’t entirely absent.  The Mark Twain National Forest has seven designated wilderness areas in the Ozarks, encompassing more than 71,000 acres.  It probably is no coincidence that most Missouri’s mountain lion sightings have come from the Ozarks.

If Nebraskans can get along with mountain lions, maybe Missourians can too.  Nebraska held an experimental hunting season in 2015 and hunters harvested five mountain lions.  The hunt drew predictable opposition and the Nebraska Parks and Wildlife Commission is gathering more information about the state’s cougar population before offering another hunting season.  Carefully regulated hunting based on good science is the preferred method of managing wildlife populations in North America, which has a rich tradition of fair-chase hunting.  Missouri already has learned to live with black bears, some of which migrated into the state from Arkansas.  MDC deals with problem bears when necessary and the agency is currently laying the foundation for a science-based hunting season.  It will be prepared when bear numbers reach the point where hunting is sustainable and necessary to prevent unacceptable levels of bear-human conflict, just as it does with white-tailed deer

I understand the concern some Missourians have about allowing the development of a breeding population of mountain lions.  North America’s biggest cat is a formidable predator and you can’t blame parents and ranchers for being concerned.  But it is worth noting that Missouri has never had a documented mountain lion attack on humans.  Even in states with well-established mountain lion populations, attacks are extremely rare. And the Missouri Wildlife Code allows people to kill mountain lions that attack or kill humans, livestock or other domestic animals.

Personally, I’m thrilled to think that I might get to see a mountain lion in the wild here in Missouri.  And it goes against my grain to discourage a native species that is making a natural, unaided comeback as a result of our own work restoring the conditions in which it once thrived. Traffic fatalities resulting from deer-automobile collisions are a much bigger threat to human safety than mountain lion attacks, yet no one seriously suggests getting rid of deer.

I hope Shannon County’s female mountain lion finds a mate and raises a litter of cubs that live long, happy lives.  Imagine watching one of them slip through the woods as you sit in your deer stand.  For me, adding that dimension of wildness to Missouri’s outdoors is worth the minimal risks involved.

Duck Ship of Fools

  • Fog, Friends, Food, Fun – All About Duck Hunting
  • Farms Ponds Frozen, Search Reservoirs for Quacker’s
  •   Using Google Maps and Digital Reckoning
The fog might not have contributed to hunting success, but it did create some memorable moments.
The fog might not have contributed to hunting success, but it did create some memorable moments.

By Jim Low

Like a faithless lover, duck hunting is hard to give up on.  I, along with many other Missouri waterfowlers, wrote off the 2016-2017 duck season as a bad job weeks ago.  But when hunting buddy and long-time friend Bill Powell asked me to join him on one last hunt at Pomme de Terre Lake, the siren’s song was irresistible.  Here was a chance to redeem an otherwise disappointing season with a mixed bag of divers and puddle ducks.  Who knew?  Maybe a brace of canvasbacks awaited us.

For STO 01252017, TRENDING NOW-MO, Picture 1of3
Despite difficulties with equipment and fog, we arrived in plenty of time to set up a convincing decoy spread.

A large part of Bill’s motivation lay in testing the blind he was building for his new duck boat.  I might have seen the handwriting on the wall when, the night before our departure, he admitted that work on the blind had not progressed as hoped.  Instead of hunting from the comfort of his boat, we would motor to our chosen spot and hunker down in brush at the water’s edge.

My misgivings vanished when I woke to dress at 2 a.m. and peered out the bedroom window.  The fog was thick enough to stir with a spoon.  Duck weather!  By the time we got to Wheatland Park on Pomme de Terre’s northwestern shore, the air was so thick I had to ground-guide Bill as he backed the trailer down the boat ramp.  Launching the boat turned out to be the least of our problems.  The new 25HP Mercury motor stubbornly refused to catch, despite repeated mental review of the starting checklist.  Tank full?  Check.  Fuel Line connected?  Check.  Vent open?  Check.  Primer bulb pumped and firm?  Check.  But still no ignition.  Ten minutes and several expletives later, Bill discovered the missing item on his list.  Kill switch?  On!  Switch to off position…Varoom!

With motor purring like a contented tiger, Bill turned the bow into…an impenetrable fog bank.  The boat ramp was still visible, so Bill knew which direction was north.  All we had to do was motor three-quarters of a mile due south.  But even in our sleep-deprived condition we were sharp enough to know we would lose our bearings the moment the shoreline disappeared, and Bill’s boat had no compass or GPS unit to guide us.  With the boundless and equally unjustified confidence inspired by technology, I whipped out my smart phone and launched Google Maps.  In seconds, I was looking at a dot (us) moving slowly across the screen headed – due north?

“Turn around!” I shouted over the motor’s roar, fearing we might crash into the shore we had just left.  Bill dutifully turned what he judged to be 180 degrees and soon had us headed – due east.  “Turn right!” I shouted over the motor’s roar.

This went on for five or 10 minutes, until the boat ramp appeared again.  That’s when it dawned on me that the cursor on my phone’s screen had changed from the usual arrow, with its pointy end indicating direction of travel, to a largish dot with a funnel shaped thing protruding from one side.  This led to several questions.  Why had the cursor changed?  Had I accidentally switched a setting?  Did Google Maps automatically make the change when we went from land to water?  From day to night?  Was that funnel supposed to be the wake behind our boat or a beam of light preceding it?

This, in turn, led to several minutes of fumbling with settings, widening and narrowing the view to find landmarks and ordering Bill to go faster, slower, stop, turn left, turn right and stop altogether while I tried to figure out how facts on the water related to the image on my screen.  About this time, Bill looked up and exclaimed, “Oh, there it is!” Apparently I had navigated us – entirely by accident – to the desired spot.  Never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, we proceeded to transfer our hunting gear to shore so Bill could motor farther down the cove (keeping the shoreline in sight!) and hide the boat.  Meanwhile, I began setting out decoys.

Everything went smoothly until I dumped the bag containing scaup decoys on a 100-foot jerk line.  There was evidence of an elegant scheme to keep decoy cords and the main line orderly.  However, that effort had been defeated by the hurly-burly of tossing decoy bags into and out of truck and boat.  Utter chaos now prevailed, and a pocket knife seemed the only remedy.  Bill set about deploying the other decoys while I applied years of experience with tangled baitcasting reels to the diver rig.  Amazingly, I had it mostly untangled by the time shooting light arrived.

That’s when Bill discovered that he had left our stools and food in the truck.  No matter.  We had managed to remember our guns and ammo, and we had camo netting to drape over buttonbush and willows to create individual blinds.  We were set.  All we needed was ducks.

Late-season hunts on southern Missouri’s big Corps of Engineers reservoirs are most productive when neighboring ponds and streams are frozen.  That had been true the previous week.  However, the past few days had been warm, and puddle ducks now were contentedly preening on a thousand farm ponds.  So, we pinned our hopes on diving ducks, whose preference for big water keeps hunters in business at Pomme de Terre regardless of weather.

We did see a few goldeneyes and ringnecks, but none that showed significant interest in our decoys.  The only shots we fired were at a pair of Canada geese that strayed dangerously close around 8 a.m.  Feathers drifted down as the pair disappeared into the fog.  Moments later, we heard honking out on the water a few hundred yards away.  The distressed calling continued and it seemed clear that one of the birds was down.  Bill hotfooted it back to the boat with his retriever, Hector, and went in search of the crippled bird. They returned empty-handed half an hour later.

Bill’s dog Hector had a great time retrieving sticks while we worked with decoys, and he slept like the dead during the drive home.
Bill’s dog Hector had a great time retrieving sticks while we worked with decoys, and he slept like the dead during the drive home.

Two hours and several decoy adjustments later, we admitted defeat and collected our gear.  As we motored back to the boat ramp, Bill noticed that his shotgun was missing.  Back to the point we went and retrieved the gun in its cunningly camouflaged case.  At least the fog had lifted, and we could find our way without digital assistance.

At the ramp, we experienced what we thought was our final humiliation of the day. Earlier in the morning, when Bill pulled up to park his truck after launching the boat, the fog apparently had confused him so thoroughly that he parked 50 yards too far downhill. As a result, his trailer was blocking half of the boat ramp’s width.  “Did I really do that?” Bill asked in dismay. Yep.  He sure did.  The one boater who arrived after us had kindly refrained from leaving a nasty note or scratches on Bill’s new truck.  But he surely must have had some choice words for the rubes who preceded him.

On our way home, as Hector snoozed contentedly between us, we decided to visit a pond owned by one of my neighbors.  Geese regularly visit there, spreading gooey green poop liberally across lawn and sidewalk.  She is delighted to have me visit periodically and put the fear of God in these feathered manure spreaders.  To simplify our approach, we traded vehicles, putting guns and retriever in my truck for the trip to the pond.

Alas, we found it deserted, dashing our last hope.  I dropped Bill and Hector back at his truck before heading home, ready for a nap.  Then I realized that Bill hadn’t retrieved his shotgun from the back of my truck.  After a quick phone call, we both reversed directions and returned to our rendezvous point to do a final sorting of gear.  He still ended up with my phone charger, but that was small potatoes in the Chinese fire drill that our day had become.

Every hunt creates memories, regardless of whether game is taken.  If nothing else, our last duck hunt of the 2016-17 season resulted in a full limit of stories to tell.

Midwinter Flickers and Colorful Woodpeckers

  • We Watch Wildlife and Learn About Nature
  • Sunflower Seeds Bring Birds to You in Winter
  • It’s a Great Year for the Birds!
Flicker – In the eastern U.S., Male flickers have black moustaches in addition to the red nape patch and yellow feathers.
Flicker – In the eastern U.S., Male flickers have black moustaches in addition to the red nape patch and yellow feathers.

By Jim Low

What do you suppose is the most popular wildlife-based activity in Missouri and nationwide? If you guessed deer hunting or bass fishing, you missed the mark.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2011 survey of outdoor recreation showed that a little more than 1 million Missourians engaged in fishing and spent $505 million doing so.  Missouri’s 576,000 hunters spent $773 million on their sport.  That’s big. But 1.7 million Missourians reported watching wildlife, and they spent $1.2 billion on their hobby, including buying bird food.

I thought of this yesterday, when I bought my 10th 40-pound bag of sunflower seeds since October.  Squirrels get their share of our sunflower largess, but most of that 400 pounds has disappeared down the throats of finches, juncos, doves, cardinals, chickadees, titmice, wrens, nuthatches and blue jays.  It’s amazing that such tiny animals can consume so much food.

Red-Bellied – Red-bellied woodpeckers are slightly smaller than flickers.  The reddish-brown tinge on their bellies doesn’t live up to promise of their name.
Red-Bellied – Red-bellied woodpeckers are slightly smaller than flickers. The reddish-brown tinge on their bellies doesn’t live up to promise of their name.

Sunflowers are only part of what we provide.  Cracked corn, millet, sorghum and thistle seed also are on the menu, and I have lost count of how many suet cakes we have gone through.  I would guess it’s more than 50 store-bought cakes, plus several pounds of dense, high-energy fat from deer that I shot.  I don’t want to know how much we will spend feeding birds by the time the nectar feeders come out of storage in the spring.  All I know is that the show is well worth the price of admission.

We used to believe we fed birds to help them get through the winter.  But our friend, the late Jim D.  Wilson, who was Missouri state ornithologist for many years, informed me that was an illusion.  He said birds have plenty of natural food and don’t need handouts from people.  People feed birds, he said, because they love seeing them and want to bring them close enough for a good view.

Lately I’ve been getting a great view of some of my favorite birds, woodpeckers.  I have had a soft spot in my heart for Northern flickers since I was 9 years old and rescued one that had probably had flown into a window or a tree limb and then got so cold sitting in the snow that it couldn’t fly.  We brought it indoors, and an hour later it flew away, apparently as good as new.  That hour of close contact with the pigeon-sized bird made a lasting impression on me.

Our house in the woods has always had an abundance of downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers.  Even the big pileated woodpeckers that frequent our woods pay regular visits to our suet feeders.  But in the past, we hardly ever saw flickers and never a red-headed woodpecker.  This year, for some reason, several flickers have put us on their daily feeding rounds.  This prompted me to set up my camera and tripod.  My office window looks out on several feeders, so I can continue to work, reaching out to touch the shutter release when birds show up.

Hairy – Hairy woodpeckers are smaller than flickers or red-bellies.  However, they are larger than downy woodpeckers and have longer, stouter beaks.
Hairy – Hairy woodpeckers are smaller than flickers or red-bellies. However, they are larger than downy woodpeckers and have longer, stouter beaks.

Woodpeckers are a particularly attractive group of birds, but for my money, none is more handsome than the flicker.  It’s also the most widely distributed in North America, with a range extending from north-central Alaska to Nicaragua and from Nova Scotia to Cuba.  Although there is only one species, the flicker shows a surprising variety of color phases across its range.

Eastern flickers are commonly called yellow-shafted or golden-winged flickers or yellowhammers, on account of the yellow shafts and undersides of their flight feathers and the bright yellow shafts of their tail feathers.  Their heads are gray, except for a red band on the nape of the neck.  Their most endearing feature is a black moustache, which only males have.

Out West  flickers’ wing and tail feathers are red instead of yellow, so they are sometimes called red-shafted flickers.  Their heads, necks and throats are uniformly gray, except for males’ moustaches, which are red.  Both sexes lack the red nape patches of their eastern relatives.  In the Southwest, male flickers also have red moustaches.  Both sexes have rusty brown caps, and gray cheeks and throats.  Otherwise, they look just like their neighbors farther north.

The bodies of all three varieties are dappled with jet-black spots.  Their backs are barred, and they have white rump patches that are seen only in flight.  The flicker’s final dramatic touch is a striking black chest patch, which is present in both sexes and all regions.  These are called “gorgets,” a reference to a piece of 18th century armor designed to protect the wearer’s throat.

Downy – Smaller size and delicate beaks distinguish downy from hairy woodpeckers.  Otherwise, the two are very similar.
Downy – Smaller size and delicate beaks distinguish downy from hairy woodpeckers. Otherwise, the two are very similar.

Flickers differ from most other woodpeckers in that they spend much of their time foraging for ants and other insects on open ground, often in company of robins or bluebirds.  In areas where trees are not available, they will nest on the ground like nighthawks or killdeers, scooping out shallow depressions in which to lay their eggs.  Our house is surrounded by forest, which is why we haven’t seen much of them before.  I have no explanation for their appearance in numbers this year.

Pileated – The pileated is Missouri’s largest woodpecker – up to 20 inches tall.  It’s raucous, “kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk!” sounds like Woody Woodpecker’s wacky call.
Pileated – The pileated is Missouri’s largest woodpecker – up to 20 inches tall. It’s raucous, “kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk!” sounds like Woody Woodpecker’s wacky call.

Now if I can just figure out how to attract red-headed woodpeckers, we will have all the species commonly seen in central Missouri.  That might be a tall order, since they favor farm land with dead trees standing in the open.  But we can hope!

(No) Duck, (No) Duck, Goose

  • Abundant Honkers Offer Nice Compromise
  • How to Find a Goose Pond
  •   Tasting the Bounty, a Great Recipe
The first waterfowl, the author’s golden retriever, Willa, ever fetched were a pair of Canada geese shot on a small pond.  It tested the 55-pound puppy’s strength and determination, but was she ever proud of the accomplishment!
The first waterfowl, the author’s golden retriever, Willa, ever fetched were a pair of Canada geese shot on a small pond. It tested the 55-pound puppy’s strength and determination, but was she ever proud of the accomplishment!

By Jim Low

I admire perseverance as much as the next guy, but at some point in a dismal duck season, a sensible person cuts his losses and finds something else to do.  If the alternative advances state wildlife management goals, all the better.  That’s why I have shifted my hunting efforts to Canada geese.

This close to Christmas, it can be hard to devote much time to hunting, which makes hunting Canadian honkers even more attractive.  There’s not a county in the state that doesn’t have at least as many of the big birds as it needs.  Consequently, you don’t have to go far to find them.  Geese are nuisances around golf courses, city parks and subdivisions, where the combination of ponds and large expanses of mowed areas act like goose magnets.

Goose Abundance

When people can’t cross their own driveways or take a walk in the park without stepping in goose poop, they frequently ask the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) to do something to reduce goose numbers or at least move them away from people.  MDC encourages people to take the initiative in controlling goose numbers.  It even gives hunters and early hunting season in addition to the regular season, which runs through Feb. 6 this year, with generous daily and possession limits of three and nine respectively.

The key to cashing in on the abundance of Canada geese is finding landowners who are fed up with goose poop on their sidewalks and lawns, and convincing them that a polite, safety-conscious hunter like you is the answer to their problem.  When you spot a pond with a bunch of geese around it, put on nice clothes, shave and knock on their door with a carefully planned sales pitch.  Something like, “I noticed that you have a lot of geese around your pond and wondered if you have problems with them pooping on your driveway or tearing up your lawn?”

Request Permission – Here’s How

If they say no, that they like having geese around, thank them for their time and move on to the next place.  But if they admit that the geese sometimes are too much of a good thing, tell them that you might be able to help them with the problem.  Tell them that geese are gregarious, and if one group is using their lake, others will soon follow.  But geese also are smart, and they quickly abandon places where they don’t feel safe.  A few visits by a hunter during the three-month hunting season will discourage some of the flocks, keeping the number that visit their property to a manageable level.  Don’t overpromise.  Your chances of permanently scaring all the geese off a particular pond are practically zero.  Anyway, most landowners want fewer geese, rather than none at all.

Be sure to mention important details, such as your willingness to call before each visit to their pond. Ask them what times of day and which parts of their property they feel comfortable with you hunting. And be sure to emphasize that you will always be careful to shoot only in safe directions, taking livestock, buildings, neighbors and nearby roads into account.  You also can offer to share the bounty, should you succeed in bagging geese.  A plucked and dressed – maybe even roasted – Christmas goose is a great way to say thank you for the privilege of hunting.

Be Ready, Go Prepared

My favorite goose pond is just two miles down the blacktop from my house.  The owner is a widow who would be just as happy if she never saw another goose.  She is so motivated that she calls me when she looks out her window and sees a bunch of geese.  She long ago told me not to bother calling before opening fire.  I can help myself any time.  I try to cruise by her house whenever leaving the house or coming home to increase my chances of surprising a bunch of honkers.  I keep my 12-gauge autoloader and a box of BB steel shot shells in the truck throughout the goose season, along with a pair of muck boots and coveralls.  That way I can suit up and go to “work” on a moment’s notice.

I have occasionally hunted from a ground blind, but I usually jump shoot geese.  The pond dam provides cover at the deep end, and a wooded draw at the other end offers cover for sneaking up on birds at the shallow end.  If the geese are near the house, I park on the road and pop up over a little rise in the yard within 20 yards if the unsuspecting birds.  Last year I bagged nine geese this way.  My neighbor was grateful, and my retriever got some work she wouldn’t have had otherwise.  I removed the breast meat from most of the birds and used to make one of my extended family’s favorite Thanksgiving appetizers – goose rumaki.

Favorite Recipe

This is a variation on the traditional recipe that uses goose liver wrapped in bacon.  Instead of liver, I substitute half-inch cubes of goose breast meat marinated in teriyaki sauce. I wrap these in bacon with a slice of either water chestnut or jalapeno pepper.  I also add fresh ginger and minced garlic to the marinade for extra flavor.  Even my daughter, who ordinarily isn’t fond of red meat, thinks these are extraordinary.

Farm ponds in rural areas also are great places for this kind of hunting, though you might have to spend some time identifying the owner.  Plat maps (land owner property/lot map) at the county assessor’s office are an excellent resource for this.  I prefer knocking on doors and asking for information.  It increases your opportunities to talk with landowners who might welcome a hunter thinning local goose numbers.  Keep this in mind next time you pass a pond crowded with geese.  It’s a great way to extend the fun of waterfowl season past the point when the ducks depart for Arkansas.

Ugly Ducking: Hunting Show or Hunting Porn?

  • New Shotshells DO Shoot Farther and Kill – BE CAREFUL
  • Hunt for the Camaraderie, the Excitement, the Deep Spiritual Meaning

for-sto-01042017-hunting-picture-1of3By Jim Low

I don’t ordinarily watch hunting shows on television, but the Hunt Channel caught me in a weak moment.  I’m still coming to terms with the fact that my 2016 duck hunting season ended without me firing a single shot at a mallard.  Sad.  So sad that when I saw a duck-hunting program listed on my satellite TV menu, I clicked in, hoping at least to share the experience of luckier hunters.  What a disappointment.

All the physical elements of a duck hunt were there – guys, guns, decoys, dogs and the factor that has eluded me this year, ducks.  Yet somehow it didn’t add up to hunting.  There was plenty of killing, though.  Five minutes into the program I had already seen more birds fall out of the air than would have been necessary for me to call a day in the marsh a success.  But something was missing.

For one thing, there was none of the banter that enlivens a morning spent with hunting buddies.  No reminiscing about past hunts, no good-natured jibes about shooting ability or choice of ammunition.  Mostly it was grim determination and gear talk. Long shots were the order of the day.  Despite the presence of large numbers of ducks that readily worked the decoys, only a few managed to get closer than 40 yards before the three hunters unleashed a barrage of expensive non-toxic shot in their general direction.  The implicit message was that hunting skill is superfluous when you can simply buy bigger, better shot shells capable of knocking down ducks at 60 yards.  Never mind the large proportion of crippled birds.

Neophyte waterfowlers would not have learned much from the endless series of money shots.  The hosts offered no observations about wind or other weather variables and how they might affect hunting strategy.  There was no explanation of how the decoy spread was structured to invite passing ducks to land.  No wonder, since the spread showed no sign of forethought.  It was an amorphous wad of bobbing plastic, with no opening to lure birds into shotgun range.

Time spent with friends – two- and four-legged – is one important aspect of hunting that doesn’t depend on killing game.
Time spent with friends – two- and four-legged – is one important aspect of hunting that doesn’t depend on killing game.

Violating the most basic rule of duck calling, the trio continued to blow loudly on their calls even when the birds were swooping toward the decoys.  When ducks fell, the party’s lone retriever piled into the water unbidden, a serious breach of retriever etiquette.  The only dog work and handling that viewers got to see was when the Labrador Retriever delivered a duck to hand.  All you saw was a wild barrage of shooting, one or several ducks falling and – if you were lucky – a dog climbing back into the boat with a duck.

There was plenty of product placement, however.  To be honest, that description implies a level of subtlety the show’s producers did not possess.  “Product placement” implies that hunters are shown using particular brands and models of equipment.  To compensate for a lack of careful filming, ham-handed editing superimposed huge product photos over the hunting video when a sponsor’s gewgaw was purportedly in use.  The whole thing would have made the brazen pitchmen of AMC’s Mad Men blush.

Devising a decoy spread that takes wind, sun, cover and other factors into account is critical to bringing ducks close enough for quick, clean kills.
Devising a decoy spread that takes wind, sun, cover and other factors into account is critical to bringing ducks close enough for quick, clean kills.

Three-quarters of a century ago, Aldo Leopold lamented the fact that outdoor media were becoming mere billboards for outdoor gadgets.  He said he was glad he wouldn’t live to see the end result.  I know how he felt.  I don’t mind gadgeteers making a buck by peddling bigger, better, faster and generally over-rated products.  I even end up buying some of them and then laughing at myself.  I once bought a box of steel shot shells touted as “hypersonic.” When my hunting buddy ran out of ammo, he teasingly asked me to lend him a couple of my “hyperbolic” loads.  Made me laugh and blush simultaneously.

Up to a point, commercializing hunting doesn’t bother me.  It’s good for the economy and real hunters quickly figure out which gimmicks work and are compatible with their standards for fair chase.  What really troubles me is reductive treatment of blood sports.  New hunters, potential hunters and non-hunters who watch shows like the one I saw would never guess that hunting is about more than killing things.  The Spanish philosopher and hunter Jose Ortega y Gasset said that he did not hunt to kill, he killed in order to have hunted.

I wanted to kill ducks this fall, I really did, but I still considered my time in the marsh with friends worthwhile, in spite of the scarcity of killing.  It would have been even more satisfactory if ducks had deigned to visit my marsh, even if I had failed to kill one.  I will continue to hunt as long as there is a possibility of ducks cupping their wings and sliding into a cleverly-conceived decoy spread, whether it happens or not.

I don’t consider the guys in the hunting video bad people or unethical hunters.  I strongly suspect they understand, deep down, the truth of y Gasset’s view of the relationship between hunting and killing.  However, I do consider them and the producers of their show to be thoughtless and embarrassingly inept storytellers.  If you are going to portray hunting in a public forum, please don’t cheapen it by reducing the experience to hunting porn.  Do your best to capture the art, the camaraderie, the excitement and the deep spiritual meaning that comprise hunting at its best.  I know it’s not as easy as stringing together a bunch of kill shots, but it’s more truthful.

Dogs, Rabbits and Smith & Wesson

  • Labs, Beagles & Bassets 
  •   Secret, Succulent Rabbit Recipe 

for-sto-12212016-hunting-picture-1of2By Jim Low

My friend Dave Urich has hunted rabbits behind beagles since childhood.  He has always loved the music of baying hounds, but he doesn’t enjoy racing to rescue freshly shot bunnies from a pack of crazed canines.  He has never succeeded in teaching his beagles not to tear up rabbits, so he found another solution.

Enter Smith & Wesson*, a pair of Labrador retrievers.  Smith is a black lab, while Wesson is more or less the same shade of yellow as the well-known brand of cooking oil.  Dave keeps Smith & Wesson at heel while his pack of six to eight beagles rousts rabbits.  When he bags a bunny with his .410 over-under, the labs go into action.  They usually beat the beagles to the game and gleefully deliver it to Dave’s waiting hand.

This system works fine, but Dave isn’t one to settle for “good” when a little tinkering might get him to “better” or all the way to “perfect.” In that spirit, Dave added a basset hound named Porterhouse to the mix.  Beagles are an excitable and hasty lot, prone to missing small olfactory clues and being fooled by of cottontail chicanery.  They would mill around in circles for hours if not forcibly redirected.

Dave Urich shows what a pack of beagles can do to a rabbit if you don’t get to it first.
Dave Urich shows what a pack of beagles can do to a rabbit if you don’t get to it first.

Bassets, on the other hand, have keener noses than their longer-legged cousins and are nothing if not deliberate.  Porterhouse normally trails minutes behind the beagle pack, patiently following meandering traces of rabbit spoor as if every molecule were the finest French cologne.  Rabbits that cross a creek or double back and then hide in out-of-the-way nooks watch the howling beagle pack pass by and think they have it made.  Next thing you know, Porterhouse has his nose beneath their backsides and the chase is on again.

This is much more orderly in theory than it is in practice.  Individual beagles go off on tangents that take them to the next county.  Others decide it would be fun to chase deer.  Labs get bored and wander off to roll in raccoon poop when Dave isn’t looking.  “Chaos” is too mild a word for a hunt with Dave’s dogs, but entertainment is never in short supply.  To keep things manageable, Dave fits every member of his pack – except those carrying guns – with shock collars, which he controls individually to correct the behavior of whichever dog might go rogue at a given moment.  How he keeps track of the dogs, let alone the collars, is beyond me, but we haven’t lost a dog yet.

That is more than I can say for rabbits.  We do well enough shooting them, but with so many eager dogs in play, we seldom get through a day without losing at least one rabbit to canine exuberance.  It’s a small price to pay for so much fun.  Eating them can be extremely pleasant, too.  Rabbit meat is a lot like chicken minus the generous helping of fat that goes with chicken skin.  Frying in back grease and then slow-braising in a covered skillet supplies the moisture that rabbit flesh lacks, and that is a perfectly acceptable way to cook it.  My favorite, however, involves heavy cream, white wine and bowtie pasta.  Here’s how I do it.

Meat and Cooking

Remove the meat of two or three quartered rabbits from the bone.  Sear them in olive oil with chopped garlic in a cast-iron Dutch oven.  Cut into half-inch chunks and set aside in a covered container.

Sauce

Sautee 4 green onions in butter in the Dutch oven until they start to soften.  Add 12 ounces of dry white wine and 12 ounces of chicken stock and stir to dissolve browning residue from bottom of oven.  Add four bay leaves, two teaspoons of peppercorns, 12 chopped sprigs of fresh thyme and simmer until reduced by two-thirds.

Add 8 ounces of half-and half to the sauce and simmer until reduced by half.  Remove from heat and strain the sauce into another container.  Discard the seasonings and return strained sauce to the Dutch oven.

Dice a stick of butter and whisk it into sauce.  Add salt and fresh lemon juice to taste.  Stir in the diced meat and keep it warm while preparing the pasta.

Pasta

Slice two bell peppers – one red and one green – into thin strips.  Cut 16 ounces of fresh mushrooms into quarters.  Sautee pepper strips and mushrooms in butter until they begin to soften, but are still firm.  Set aside.

Cook a large package of bowtie pasta or wide egg noodles, drain and pour into a large serving bowl.  Arrange the peppers and mushrooms on top.  Pour on the sauce and serve.

* I asked Dave how his basset hound acquired such an unusual, but undeniably descriptive name.  “None of my dogs answer to their names,” he said, “So I give them names that I like.  For a while I was in the habit of naming them after cuts of meat.” He says that led to “Pork Chop,” “Ribeye,” “Tenderloin” and “T-bone.” If I ever acquire a beagle of my own, I’m calling him “Ground Chuck.” “Chateaubriand” might be a good choice for a classy bird dog.

Short Corn, the Silver Bullet for Duck Hunters?

  • Missouri Harvests Reported Low 
  • Location, Location, Location…Short Corn
  • Weather Factors are Key
Duck hunters along the Mississippi Flyway have been looking for ducks this year. Joe Forma Photo
Duck hunters along the Mississippi Flyway have been looking for ducks this year. Joe Forma Photo

By Jim Low

Last week I attended a meeting of the Conservation Federation’s board of directors, a group that includes quite a few duck hunters.  While we were waiting for the meeting to start, we convened a neoprene caucus to compare notes on the season so far.

The mood was not festive.  The story was the same everywhere.  Guys who hunker down in the weedy borders of farm ponds and millionaires who spend thousands of dollars annually planting corn and pumping water around deluxe pit blinds were killing the same number of ducks – almost none.

The final word came from a St.  Louis area hunter who said he had a conversation with a U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service agent about this year’s lousy season. “He told me that if anyone claimed to be killing ducks, he was lying,” said the discouraged Mississippi Valley hunter.

For me, I take this personally.  The last time I fired a gun at a duck was before resident wood ducks left for Arkansas.  How in the name of Nash Buckingham can we have historic high numbers of ducks, ample water and great habitat and me still not be able to have one decent hunt in the entire first month of duck season?

  Anytime duck hunters talk about rotten hunting, Bob Brown Conservation Area (CA) is sure to come up.  This 3,300-acre managed wetland area in Holt County is, depending on your mood, either a shining beacon of hope or a relentless reminder of your dismal luck.  From opening day to season’s end, the per-hunter average daily bag seldom drops below three.  Once a substantial number of ducks arrive in northwest Missouri – usually around the second week of November – the kill rate often hovers between five and six ducks per hunter for days at a time.  It’s enough to make a hardened veteran of the Mallard Wars weep.

Missouri duck hunters have spent lots of time scanning empty skies this fall.
Missouri duck hunters have spent lots of time scanning empty skies this fall.

The worst day at Bob Brown is better than the best day most other places.  Consequently, it’s next to impossible to get a reservation there.  I had the good fortune to draw one two years ago.  It was for opening day, which is less than ideal because Missouri seldom has many ducks that early in the year.  There was no wind, the sky was clear, and the high temperature that day was 85 degrees.  In short, it was a particularly unpromising day.  But it was at Bob Brown.  I shot two wood ducks, two pintails and a green-winged teal.  I would have limited out if I hadn’t been taking a leak when the last flock of the day bombed into our decoys.  Incredible.

Last week, I stood in a stand of flooded corn at Grand Pass CA with three friends, watching an empty sky.  Naturally, we mused about what Bob Brown has that nowhere else in the Show-Me State does.  Pat, who is our group’s custodian of wild rumors, said he heard that the managers at Bob Brown plant a special strain of corn that bears ears just inches above ground.  This makes the high-energy food available to ducks the minute water creeps into a strip of corn.

“I don’t know if that’s true, but I don’t have any other explanation for why they kill so many ducks over there,” he said.

That’s the sort of simple answer that people – myself included – find irresistible.  I wanted to believe that short corn was the silver bullet of duck hunting.  If true, it would allow my duck club to make its 150-acre wetland a webfoot paradise.  It was too good a rumor not to pursue, so I dialed up Bob Brown CA and asked whether they had a secret weapon growing in their marsh.  The answer was “yes and no.”

At Bob Brown and other wetland areas managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), corn and other crops are planted under two different plans.  The majority of crops are planted by permittee farmers, who bid for the privilege of growing corn on MDC land with the stipulation that they leave a certain number of rows in certain locations for ducks and other wildlife.  The remainder – which is all left in the field – is planted by MDC staff.

Permittee farmers and MDC both have their choice of different types of corn, classified according to how long they take to mature.  Ninety-day corn is the fastest growing, and because it has to produce ears in shorter time, it doesn’t get as tall as 100- or 120-day varieties.  All the corn planted by Bob Brown’s staff is the 90-day variety.  Permittee farmers are encouraged to plant 90-day corn, but they can choose their varieties according to their own preferences and needs.*

MDC Resource Scientist Doreen Mengel, who specializes in waterfowl management and biology, says the option of planting 90-day corn is available to all MDC wetland managers.  So there’s no reason think that Bob Brown’s enviable harvest history is the result of short corn.  Instead, she and the staff at Bob Brown say the area’s success results from a variety of factors, one of which is location.  The Missouri River makes up 3 miles of the area’s western boundary, which offers several advantages.  For one thing, the river is a major migration corridor, an unmistakable sign to southbound waterfowl.  The sign says, “This way to Arkansas,” “Plenty of water here,” and “Good Eats!”

Bob Brown’s location at the northwest corner of the state means ducks arrive there without having been shot at as much as they will have been by the time they reach more southerly wetlands.  Anyone who has watched flock after flock of ducks fly straight toward a decoy spread with half a dozen motion-wing decoys, only to veer off at 60 to 100 yards, knows that educated ducks are harder to fool than naïve ones.

Finally, and probably most importantly, Bob Brown also happens to be located just 2 miles south of Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  It’s a place where hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese can stop to rest from the rigors of migration without getting shot at by hunters.  Fountain Grove CA is similarly close to Swan Lake NWR, but there’s a difference.  The managers of Swan Lake plant corn for waterfowl to eat.  Squaw Creek doesn’t.  If ducks at Squaw Creek want to tank up on high-energy food for the next leg of their trip south, they must leave the refuge.  How significant is this difference? To quote Pat, I don’t know, but I don’t have any other explanation for why they kill so many ducks over there.

Mengel says the main reason for this year’s poor duck hunting is warmer-than-normal weather, whatever “normal” is these days.  It certainly isn’t normal for a pair of Canada geese to start nesting in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in November, but Mengel says that actually happened this year.  Here in Missouri, warm weather has meant that the substantial number of ducks already here (more than 1 million by late November) have tended to settle into refuges and stay there.  With daytime highs ranging from the 50s to 70s, ducks burn up almost none of their fat reserves and don’t feel the need to leave refuges to eat.  That explains the empty skies over spots that otherwise might provide excellent hunting.

Interesting as all this is, the main thing on my and other Show-Me State duck hunters’ minds today is whether we will enjoy even one decent hunt this year.  Duck season runs through Dec.  27 in the North Zone, and action in the South Zone lasts through Jan. 22.  But with snow and low temperatures in the teens forecast for the next few days, experienced waterfowlers know the season could be nearly over, practically speaking.

Mengel, who enjoys duck hunting herself, says she is as worried as anyone that Missouri wetlands could become skating rinks this week, sending hundreds of thousands of birds south before she gets a crack at them.

“My hope is that this cold spell is a short one and the birds stick around,” she said.  “Also, we could see a warm-up in December that would prompt birds to move back in.”

If the cold spell does turn out to be short, it could result in superb hunting.  Falling temperatures and north winds would get ducks up and moving into the cornfield in Grand Pass’s Buckwheat Hole where John, Pat, Paul and I didn’t fire a shot last week.  It also might cause a sudden flurry of duck activity at my duck club, where we installed an Ice Eater last year.

If the hunting in my area doesn’t improve, I will continue to hope for another reservation at Bob Brown CA, because the corn is always shorter on the other side of the state.

* Incidentally, I was also pleased to learn that the folks at Bob Brown also use and encourage permittee farmers to plant non-Bt corn.  Bt corn has been genetically modified to produce a protein that kills the larvae of butterflies and moths.  I understand the importance of GM crops in feeding a hungry world.  However, I also worry about the effect these crops have on things I love, such as monarch butterflies.  And it seems to me that using Bt crops is inconsistent with MDC’s mission of conserving nature.

Deer Hunting with Friends is Tradition

  • Missouri Deer Magic
  • Mentoring – Builds Character, Humility 
  • Camaraderie, Friendship, Fun  
  • Organic Meat for the Freezer
Scott Gerlt, of Columbia, Missouri, with his Cole County trophy.
Scott Gerlt, of Columbia, Missouri, with his Cole County trophy.

By Jim Low

One of the things I love about deer hunting in Missouri is its democratic nature.  With 2.5 million acres of public hunting land managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and the USDA Forest Service, anyone can pursue white-tailed deer in the Show-Me State.  Most deer hunters chase whitetails on private land at least part of the time, but the abundance of public land helps ensure the continuation of a vigorous hunting tradition.

While I am fortunate enough to have deer hunting property of my own, I always open the November portion of firearms deer season with friends in southern Cole County.  While not exactly a “deer camp,” the camaraderie of hunting with long-time friends, Tom and Susie Schulz, adds a dimension to the experience that I would miss even if I managed to shoot a big buck elsewhere on my own.

So, opening morning found me at Tom and Susie’s place, scanning a weedy food plot for activity.  I didn’t have to wait long.  Less than an hour into the season, a beautiful spike buck emerged from the woods to check a scrape 20 yards from my stand.  I know lots of hunters who would have passed on this yearling deer, hoping for a big-antlered buck.  But to me, taking a medium-sized buck or a fat doe is as exciting as dropping a buck with coat-rack antlers.

I freely admit to being a meat hunter.  My wife and I both prefer venison to beef, and the chance to stack loins, back straps, roasts, steaks, stew meat and ground venison in the freezer is mostly what deer hunting is about.  Don’t get me wrong.  I go weak-kneed at the sight of a massive set of antlers just as most hunters do, but I have exactly the same reaction to the appearance of a pair of 150-pound does.  If I have two antlerless tags in my pocket and enough ambition to tackle processing two deer, I’ll shoot both of them.  Then, I’ll wonder at their beauty as I prepare to turn them into a year’s meat supply.

The only thing sweeter is getting the chance to “make meat” or bag a trophy buck with friends is doing both in one day.  That’s what happened the second Saturday of this year’s deer season.

Years ago, I began mentoring a boy of 16 who had a passion for hunting but no one in his family to take him.  Scott Gerlt has matured into a fine and accomplished young man and what began as mentorship has ripened into a rewarding outdoor partnership.  After striking out in the duck marsh last Saturday morning, Scott suggested the possibility of hunting deer in the afternoon.  That seemed like a good idea, so I called Susie, got her blessing and headed out to their place.  Scott, Tom and I were in our stands by 3:30.  Susie elected to monitor events from the house via text messages.

Scott had never hunted deer there before, but he was intrigued by accounts of abundant deer, including some big ones.  At 4:30 I heard shots from Scott’s direction.  A text from Susie informed me that Scott had shot a forkhorn.  Thirty minutes later, a beautiful, mature doe came cantering toward me.  When she pulled up short and turned broadside to test the air, I put a solid copper, 160-grain Barnes bullet through both her lungs.  She was down seconds later, having conveniently run 120 yards toward the road.  “Doe down!” I texted Susie.

Tom and Scott soon arrived to help me load my doe.  That done, Scott asked if I would like to see his forkhorn.  Why not, I thought.  It ought to be as fine on the table as my doe.

OMG.  Scott and Tom had been pulling my leg.  Tom’s truck bed held not a forkhorn but a big – and I mean BIG – buck.  I don’t have much experience scoring antlers, but I would be surprised if this one didn’t gross 160.  The net score will suffer from asymmetry in the G2 and G3 tines and a ring-hanger point on the left side. But the length, spread and mass all are impressive.  It’s a deer we all will remember, regardless of whether it makes the Show-Me Missouri Big Bucks or Boone & Crockett club books.

Before the hunt, Scott told me he wasn’t interested in antlers.  He wanted a doe for the freezer.  He didn’t do anything special to “earn” this trophy. Heck, he hadn’t even thought he wanted it.  Yet there he was, posing for photos and considering how to broach the subject of taxidermy with his wife.  On the way home, he was thinking about asking the Schulz’s if he can bring his 5-year-old daughter, Maddie, hunting at Tom and Susie’s to show her what all the fuss is about.

That’s what I mean when I say deer hunting is democratic.  In Missouri, anyone can hope to shoot a trophy deer – whatever that means to them.

With the threat of CWD looming on the horizon in this part of the country, for Scott and Maddie’s sake, I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) – Part 2

Arkansas and Missouri News

  • Fenced Enclosure Deer add to Cause
  • Spread by Infected Proteins called Prions
  • Eradication Not Possible 
  • Healthy Deer Could Become RARE
Jim Low shares, “With CWD, infection rates will soar and deer populations will decline until – like 80 years ago – white-tailed deer sightings are so rare, they make newspaper headlines.”  Joe Forma Photo
Jim Low shares, “With CWD, infection rates will soar and deer populations will decline until – like 80 years ago – white-tailed deer sightings are so rare, they make newspaper headlines.” Joe Forma Photo

By Jim Low

I hate to think about how the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) will change the rich deer hunting tradition of Missouri.  This month’s issue of Arkansas Wildlife, published by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC), has an excellent article documenting the dawn of a new era in deer management for our neighbor to the south.  The article, titled “Charting New Territory,” describes the discovery of a new outbreak of chronic wasting disease (CWD) just across the border from southwest Missouri.

The basic facts are extremely worrisome.  After confirming CWD in one elk and one deer in Newton County, Ark., earlier this year, AGFC tested 256 more deer and elk.  They found CWD in 23 percent of the animals.  That is an extremely high infection rate for a newly discovered outbreak, indicating the disease has been in the area for several years.  The infection rate among Arkansas bucks 2.5 years and older was 43 percent, further evidence that the outbreak began years ago.  AGFC expanded its sampling area to a 10-county area around Newton County during this year’s firearms deer season.  So far, that effort has detected 136 more infected deer and elk.  All 10 counties had CWD-infected deer. Three of those counties border Missouri.

The situation isn’t quite as dire in Missouri – yet.  Since 2003, MDC has tested tens of thousands of deer and turned up only 11 cases of CWD in high-fence breeding and shooting operations and 33 cases in free-ranging deer.  This is a good-news/bad-news situation.  The good news is that Missouri seems to be ahead of the game compared to Arkansas.  The bad news is that we already have three separate CWD infection zones and an extremely hot CWD outbreak on our southern border.

The Arkansas Wildlife article goes on to explain measures that the AGFC plans to take to manage the disease.  Notice that I said “manage.” Eradication is not possible.  Neither is containment.  The infectious agents that cause CWD – abnormal proteins called “prions” – are easily spread.  Infected deer can pass the disease to other deer by direct contact.  They also shed prions in their urine, feces and saliva.  Once in the soil, prions remain infectious virtually forever.  And unlike blue tongue and other hemorrhagic diseases, no deer has or can develop immunity to CWD.  It is 100 percent fatal.

Even worse, CWD prions are practically impossible to destroy.  You can’t kill them, because they aren’t alive.  They’re just naked strands of protein, but despite their simplicity, prions are remarkably durable.  So far, the only known way of destroying them is to incinerate contaminated soil at 900 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter for at least four hours.  Even if an outbreak were confined to a small area – say one county – you could never treat all the soil in this way.  And even if you could, you would still have infected deer roaming the landscape re-contaminating the soil, not to mention leaving the area and spreading the disease.

The only “good” thing about CWD is that it develops slowly, typically taking 18 months to cause symptoms – lethargy, loss of appetite, weight loss, excessive thirst, salivation and urination and drooping head and ears.  Slow development is a two-edged sword, however.  CWD doesn’t cause rapid, massive die-offs like those you see with blue tongue and other hemorrhagic diseases, so outbreaks can go unnoticed for years.  Meanwhile, infected deer continue to shed prions, spreading the disease.  By the time the slow-moving outbreak puts a serious dent in deer numbers, CWD is so prevalent that effective management is impossible.

To prevent this, monitoring and early detection are critical.  MDC’s CWD monitoring program took a more aggressive turn this year, gathering 19,200 tissue samples from deer killed on opening weekend in the state’s three CWD Management Zones.  This enormous effort – which required nearly every full-time MDC employee to pull off – will yield much more detailed and reliable data about the extent of Missouri’s CWD problem and the disease’s prevalence in the management zones.  Unfortunately, planning for the stepped-up sampling was well under way before Arkansas learned the extent of its CWD outbreak.  Hunters in southwest Missouri were asked to bring deer for testing, but a full-blown effort must wait until next year.

Hunters and conservation agencies in Missouri and Arkansas will be dealing with CWD from now on.  Whether either state will be able to muster the resources and the political will be to deal with the root of the problem – interstate transportation of deer and elk – remains to be seen.  As long as keeping deer in fenced enclosures and shipping them elsewhere continues to generate huge profits for deer-breeding and canned-hunting operations, CWD-infected deer will continue to crisscross North America, igniting dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of new outbreaks.  Endemic areas will merge.

Infection rates will soar, and deer populations will decline until – like 80 years ago – white-tailed deer sightings are so rare, they make newspaper headlines. Missouri hunters and others who simply love seeing deer, need to think long and hard about what all this means for them. Then they need to think about what they can do to help.

One thing you can do is talk to your state legislators about bolstering MDC’s authority to regulate captive deer.  For a more permanent solution, we might consider amending the state’s constitution, as they have done twice before in conservation matters, and putting an end to high-fence hunting operations.

What’s at stake is no less than the future of deer and deer hunting in Missouri.

Targeting Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)

  • Learn What It Is, What It Means
MDC employee Mark Raithel prepares to collect lymph nodes from the neck of a hunter-harvested deer to have them tested for chronic wasting disease.  MDC collected about 19,200 tissues samples at 75 locations in central, northeast, and east-central Missouri on opening weekend of the November Firearms Deer Season.
MDC employee Mark Raithel prepares to collect lymph nodes from the neck of a hunter-harvested deer to have them tested for chronic wasting disease. MDC collected about 19,200 tissues samples at 75 locations in central, northeast, and east-central Missouri on opening weekend of the November Firearms Deer Season.

By Jim Low

Last weekend, Missouri hunters brought 19,200 deer to 75 stations set up by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) to gather tissue samples to be tested for chronic wasting disease (CWD).  It was a huge effort that involved approximately 1,200 MDC employees – the majority of MDC’s full-time employees – working at sampling stations on opening weekend of the November firearms deer season.

This intensive effort is the latest piece of MDC’s ongoing program to detect and slow the spread of a disease that – if left unchecked – will spell the end of deer hunting as we know it in the Show-Me State.  That would be a catastrophe for several reasons.  For one thing, the state’s deer herd is the foundation of a deep and rich outdoor tradition.  I don’t know how many people the Kansas City Royals, the St.  Louis Blues or the MU Tigers pull in for a game, but I’m sure those figures would be dwarfed by the more than 500,000 hunters who pour into Missouri’s forests and fields every November in pursuit of deer.

Deer hunting is more than a cherished tradition in Missouri.  It also yields approximately 2.5 million pounds of lean red meat annually.  If you assume a very conservative value of $5 per pound for organic, free-range venison, that’s $12.5 million worth of meat.  And thanks to hunters’ generosity through the Share the Harvest program, approximately 10 percent of Missouri’s annual deer harvest goes to food banks and local charities that provide nutritional assistance to our neediest families.  Besides all that, economists figure that deer hunting supports around 12,000 Show-Me State jobs and pumps more than $1 billion into the state and local economies.

However, if you ask deer hunters why they go out with rifle in hand each November, you aren’t likely to hear about dollars and cents.  I posed this question to several hunters while I was at the Cole County R-5 School in Eugene on opening day, having my deer sampled for CWD.  Every single one mentioned the mental and emotional boost they get from time spent in the woods, engaged in the age-old quest to provide food for themselves and their families.  Their sentiments were summed up most eloquently by one of the younger hunters I spoke with, David Newton, of Jefferson City.

“There is something spiritual and right in my soul when I get to hunt,” Newton told me.  “My life is really busy, and even if I don’t get to shoot anything, if I get to sit in the woods and think about the world, see how things slowly move, it puts my mind in the right place.  There’s also the challenge of providing food for my family, having the blessing of being able to take dominion over the earth like God gave us.  It all fits in.”

I also asked hunters if the spread of CWD in Missouri concerns them.  They all said yes, and again, Newton had a good answer.

“As someone who is passionate about hunting, it’s certainly something I’m concerned about and want to see dealt with sooner rather than later,” said Newton.  “I hear guys talk about the time in the past when there weren’t deer around.  I’m a young guy, so if I hunt long enough, I know I’m going to see deer.  But if deer get sick and start dying out, there won’t be deer any more.  I’ve got three boys.  When they’re old enough to hunt, I don’t want them to have five or six years when they don’t see a deer.”

All this is enough to make you wonder how we got to the point where such a valuable and treasured resource is in danger of disappearing.  As in other eastern states where CWD has cropped up in the past 20 years, Missouri’s outbreaks in free-ranging deer all have occurred adjacent to high-fence facilities where deer are kept for breeding and shooting.  Since the owners of these facilities have a financial stake in deer health, you might think they would be in the forefront of efforts to contain CWD.  You would be wrong.  Missouri’s deer breeders and purveyors of canned hunts have fought tooth and nail against common-sense measures proposed by the Missouri Conservation Commission as a compromise to allow captive-deer facilities to continue operating.

There was a time when the average hunter’s attitude toward captive-deer operations was live-and-let-live.  Paying to shoot a “frankendeer” with freakishly large antlers as it bellied up to a timed corn feeder might not have appealed to them, but they weren’t willing to criticize others for doing so, even if it seemed like the opposite of hunting.  But now, with CWD threatening to destroy the sport they love, and with the danger of creating a new outbreak every time a deer is imported or moved from one shooting pen to another in Missouri, attitudes are changing.

Earlier this year, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission announced the discovery of an extensive CWD outbreak in counties bordering southwestern Missouri.  This expands the already huge area that MDC must monitor for the presence and spread of CWD.  At this rate, CWD could be so widespread in Missouri that containment is impossible within a very few years.

Thank You – These MDC staff were among about 1,200 who collected tissue samples from hunter-harvested deer to test for chronic wasting disease.
Thank You – These MDC staff were among about 1,200 who collected tissue samples from hunter-harvested deer to test for chronic wasting disease.

Missouri deer breeders and pay-to-shoot operations currently are unregulated, as a lawsuit they brought against the Conservation Commission works its way through the legal system.  So far, their money has spoken louder than hunters’ voices in the courts and in the Missouri legislature.   If you care about deer hunting, read up on CWD at mdc.mo.gov/CWD, and express your desire for action forcefully to the Conservation Commission and to your state and national legislators.

After having my deer sampled for CWD, I also asked other hunters there if they thought shooting deer inside fenced enclosures is “hunting.” Not one said yes.

I’m inclined to say no,” said Newton.  “Every intuition in me says no.  Maybe that’s rooted in the pride of hunting and the feeling that it’s not as challenging.  I think this idea of shooting for sport and shooting enclosed animals, I don’t think it’s hunting.  I don’t think its showing proper reverence or honoring the opportunity we have to hunt.”

Details about MDC’s CWD sampling are printed in the 2016 Fall Deer and Turkey Hunting booklet, available wherever hunting permits are sold.  Hunters who shoot deer throughout the rest of the hunting season in the 29 counties of the CWD management zone can still have their deer tested for the disease.  Contact the MDC Central Regional Office in Columbia at 573-815-7900, the MDC Northeast Regional Office in Kirksville at 660-785-2420, or the MDC St.  Louis Regional Office in St.  Charles at 636-441-4554.  Hunters can also find voluntary CWD sampling stations at mdc.mo.gov/CWD.

On a much more positive note, thanks to all of you who turned out to vote for renewing Missouri’s 1/10th of 1 percent sales tax for parks and soil and water conservation.  Eight out of 10 voters approved the renewal, sending a resounding message to state officials about how much Missourians value their parks.  Well done!

Green Timber Duck Hunting

-Fun, Tasty Harvest, Little Gear Needed

Very little gear is needed to hunt wood ducks.  Jim Low Photo
Very little gear is needed to hunt wood ducks. Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low

One of the things I miss from time that I have spent in Arkansas is green-timber duck hunting.  Missouri once had a considerable cypress-tupelo swamp in the southeastern corner of the state, but precious little of that is left.  What remains is a long way from my home in Jefferson City, but I still manage to get a taste of green-timber hunting during the first couple of weeks of duck season each year.

Wood ducks nest in wooded sloughs and along the margins of lakes, ponds, streams and Missouri’s big public wetland areas.  You can even find them around wildlife watering holes on land owned by the USDA Forest Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation.  I first discovered this when I was in college at MU and augmented my meager food budget with game from public land south and east of Columbia.  As I stalked squirrels one day, I spied a pair of woodies in a pond small enough to throw a rock across.  Both birds went home with me that day.  They provided the basis for one of the first meals I ever cooked for the lissome young woman who has brightened my days and nights for the past 43 years.

Thousands of wood ducks remain in Missouri into early November.  Until they depart for milder climes, they make it possible to enjoy the spectacle of web-footed prey weaving through tree trunks to splash down amid decoys.  My preferred spot to wait for them is along the banks of Mussel Fork Creek in Chariton County.  To be perfectly accurate, I hunt just over the banks of Mussel Fork, at the edge of a small, privately owned wetland.  Mussel Fork itself often is rather short of water this time of year, whereas the borrow ditch at my duck club – Mussel Fork Legacy Marsh – always offers hungry wood ducks a congenial place to loaf and chow down on their favorite food – pin oak acorns.

Last Friday, Mussel Fork’s pre-dawn silence was enlivened by the chortles of leopard frogs who were understandably confused about the season.  The calendar said November, but the thermometer tilted toward April.  My golden retriever and I were comfortable without parka or neoprene vest as we watched the lightening eastern sky impart a pink glow to water beneath half a dozen wood duck decoys.  Faced into the sun isn’t my first choice of duck-hunting positons, but I didn’t choose this spot – the ducks did.  The previous day I flushed 20 or so woodies from the corner where two levees meet, and I knew where I would be the following morning.

As daylight stole among the pin oaks, I learned why this spot attracted so many “wood widgeons.” The trees along the nearly dry creek behind me came alive with the squeals of wood ducks.  Dozens flew over my hiding spot as they headed out to forage, but I didn’t have to wait that long.  Several groups saw no reason to fly to distant spots when food was nearby.  They swooped in on Willa and me at five- to 10-minute intervals.

Admittedly, this was not the full green-timber experience.  I was at the edge of the trees, not surrounded by them.  But the ambiance had much in common with a northern Arkansas bayou, and the gunning was still challenging.  I spent five shells dropping two wood ducks.  When a hen hit the water, I declared my sporting limit filled.  Woodies continued to check us out as I took a few photos to memorialize the morning.

You don’t need much gear to hunt wood ducks.  The half-dozen I use is about twice as many as necessary.  I own a wood duck call, but almost never use it, having never seen an instance where it appeared to influence wood duck behavior.  What you absolutely must have is an idea of where wood ducks are hanging out.  The presence of pin oak trees whose branches overhang water is a huge advantage, but this doesn’t narrow the field much.  It’s also helpful to find a fallen tree that has sunk most of the way into the mud, providing ample perching space on its trunk and limbs.  But the gold standard of wood duck holes is a pocket of some sort.  An oxbow or a slough where a tributary enters the main stream is good.  So is a small pond, the back of an isolated lake cove or a dead end or bend in a borrow ditch.

Missouri has literally hundreds of public areas with excellent wood duck hunting spots.  One example is Mussel Fork Conservation Area in Linn and Macon counties.  Its 2,491 acres include four ponds, two wetlands and four miles of Mussel Fork Creek.  The Conservation Department’s website makes it easy to find areas like this in nearly every county.  Once you pick an area, the best way to find a productive spot is to simply walk creek banks, levees or wetland edges until you flush a bunch of wood ducks.  Leave immediately and return at about the same time the next day, and you likely will be in the money.  If forced to hunt without scouting beforehand, choose a likely spot and set out a small spinning-wing decoy with a handful of decoys to attract the attention of passing birds.  Don’t fret if you don’t own any wood duck decoys.  Hen mallard, gadwall or pintail hen dekes work fine.

As their name implies, wood ducks are creatures of the woods.  They tend to hug the edge of timber rather than flying out over large, open expanses.  As a result, I seldom get shots at wood ducks much beyond 30 yards.  No.  4 or 3 steel shot

Wood ducks are among the tastiest of all waterfowl.  Jim Low Photo.
Wood ducks are among the tastiest of all waterfowl. Jim Low Photo.

works well at that range.  I hunt with an over/under shotgun for versatility in choke selection.  Screw an improved cylinder tube into one barrel and either modified of skeet choke in the other, depending on the likelihood of longer versus shorter shots.

Wood ducks are right up there with blue-winged teal, canvasbacks and prime rib for eating quality.  To let the flavor shine, filet the breast meat from the bone and cut it across the grain into cutlets about ¾ inch thick.  Salt and pepper these lightly and sear them in a hot skillet with butter or olive oil.  When they are still pink in the middle, set the cutlets aside on a warm plate.  Add a little red wine to the skillet and sauté some sliced mushrooms until tender.  Serve the meat and mushrooms with your choice of potatoes, bread or buttered egg noodles.  There’s no finer eating.

Just Doodling, Timber-Doodling

-Woodcock Hunting is a Challenge

-Flushes, Shots, Missouri Fun

Double guns with twin triggers are the author’s favorites for woodcock.  Jim Low Photo
Double guns with twin triggers are the author’s favorites for woodcock. Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low

It isn’t my favorite game bird – that would be the wild turkey.  Nor is it the most delicious I’ve ever eaten – that would the rock ptarmigan.  But for a wingshooting challenge, my hands-down favorite is the American woodcock.  If that weren’t enough, the sporty little “timberdoodle” plugs the gaping hole between dove and quail seasons in Missouri’s upland bird hunting calendar.  Though you seldom find them here before Nov. 1, woodcock season opens Oct. 15 and provides a plausible excuse for field boots, shooting vest and elegant double guns that seem to rise to the shoulder of their own volition.

The author and his golden retriever with their first woodcock of 2016.  Jim Low Photo
The author and his golden retriever with their first woodcock of 2016. Jim Low Photo

My golden retriever and I went hunting three times this fall before finally seeing our first woodcock.  A load of No. 9s from my favorite woodcock gun – a plain-Jane Merkel that retains perhaps 5 percent of its original finish – sent dozens of cottonwood leaves tumbling to the ground.  The bird continued on its way, never to be seen again.  It was the only bird we saw that day.

Halloween was different.  I had just enough time to hunt a postage-stamp covert within two miles of the house, but the weather felt right, with a stronger-than-predicted cool front having pushed through the night before.  Fifty yards from the truck, a big adult woodcock flushed from the edge of a cedar thicket, and after spiraling up 15 feet it pitched into a tangled confusion of limbs and needles.  Shooting would have been pointless, even if I had been quick enough to snap off a shot, which I wasn’t.  So we pinned our hopes on a second flush.  But before we could pursue the departed bird, another sputtered out of the same spot amid the welter of cottonwood saplings.

A young bird, still unschooled in evading hunters, went up and then swerved straight left on as predicable an arc as any woodcock ever does.  The bird crumpled at my shot, and we both watched it fall.  Willa was on it in seconds.  After delivering the first woodcock of the year to hand, she was eager to find another, but I calmed her down long enough for a selfie.

While tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Missourians hunt doves each year, woodcock hunters number only a few hundred.  I suspect we all are Cubs fans.  If we had a patron saint, it would be Don Quixote.  If you think quail hunters are die-hards, you never met a timberdoodle addict.

Clear cuts and abandoned fields develop into first-rate woodcock habitat at around 10 years and remain so for 10 to 15 years afterwards.  Woodcock usage declines slowly as mature forest develops.  Jim Low Photo
Clear cuts and abandoned fields develop into first-rate woodcock habitat at around 10 years and remain so for 10 to 15 years afterwards. Woodcock usage declines slowly as mature forest develops. Jim Low Photo

Part of the charm of hunting woodcock is the birds’ surpassing peculiarity.  Although technically they are shorebirds, you won’t find them in marshes.  Instead, they haunt wooded stream borders and adjacent uplands.  There, they probe sandy soil for earthworms, which comprise 70 percent of their diet.  Because they spend so much of their time nostril-deep in the ground, their eyes and ears have migrated to the top of their heads.  Their 3-inch beaks are prehensile, and are controlled by a Rube Goldberg arrangement of tendons that encircle their bony eye sockets before attaching to muscles beneath their skulls.  Their feet are set far back on their bodies, giving them an adorable, waddling gait.

At least so I’m told.  I’ve never actually seen one walk.  They tend to hold so tight, you practically have to launch them into the air with the toe of your boot.  And because their plumage is a perfect match for a leaf-littered forest floor, finding them – before flushing or after shooting – is next to impossible with unaided human senses.  That’s why virtually all woodcock hunting is done with dogs.  Timberdoodles’ tight-sitting tendency makes them the perfect game for training young pointing dogs.  It’s also just right for flushing dogs.  Spaniels tend to hunt methodically and close to their handlers, and retrievers can easily be taught to stay within woodcock shooting distance.

Speaking of shooting distance, it’s close.  Often very close.  My golden retriever flushes most birds within 20 yards of me, often it’s closer to 10.  This is good, because woodcock like cover so thick that you rarely get a clear shot beyond 30 yards.  Naturally, this affects gun and ammunition selection.  A light, fast-handling double gun gives you the best chance of getting off a shot with an appropriate choke.  I recently bought a Weatherby Orion with 26-inch barrels and a single-selective trigger.  I couldn’t wait to hunt woodcock with it.  But after two hunts, I have given up on it as a woodcock gun until I grow more accustomed to shifting the barrel selector in the excitement of a flush.  Instead, I’m sticking to guns with double triggers.

Fresh whitewash droppings are a sure sign that timberdoodles are present.  Jim Low Photo
Fresh whitewash droppings are a sure sign that timberdoodles are present. Jim Low Photo

Fortunately, I own two guns that fit this description: the aforementioned Merkel side-by-side and a 1970s-vintage Zoli over-and-under.  Not so fortunately, the Merkel is choked full and extra-full.  The Zoli is choked full and modified.  The Merkel clearly was intended for pass-shooting driven birds, and the Zoli’s chokes are perfect for doves or pheasants.  Both are completely wrong for woodcock.

I solve this problem with spreader loads.  These shells include a cardboard baffle separating the shot column into four compartments inside the shot shell.  Once the shot leaves the barrel, the cardboard catches air and scatters the pellets, giving you a great killing pattern at about 15 yards, regardless of choke.  I load the tightest-choked barrel with a spreader shell and the other with a light load of No.  8 or 9 shot.  I learned long ago to reach for the

A woodcock’s skull and beak are a Rube Goldberg feat of engineering.  Jim Low Photo
A woodcock’s skull and beak are a Rube Goldberg feat of engineering. Jim Low Photo

appropriate trigger for the target’s distance.  I hope one day to develop the same reflex for the Orion’s trigger selector.

Willa and I went out again today, Nov.  1.  We had four flushes.  I fired five shots.  We killed zero birds.  It was a wonderful hunt.

Yea Cubs.

Ride on, Don Quixote.e

 

Going to Ground – All about Hunting Blinds

Ground Blinds offer Advantages of Comfort and Safety

-Low cost, Protection from Weather 

Ground blinds offer advantages of comfort and safety compared to tree stands, especially for aging hunters.
Ground blinds offer advantages of comfort and safety compared to tree stands, especially for aging hunters.

By Jim Low

A while back, a friend invited me to hunt deer on his property.  When I asked if he had a tree stand I could hunt from, or if I needed to bring my own, he said he didn’t use tree stands anymore.  He had gone to all ground blinds.  Having never hunted out of a ground blind, I decided to give one of his a try.  It was an eye-opening experience.  So much so, that I got one of my own.  Here are a few things I have learned about ground blinds and hunting from them.

PLUS/MINUS

Hunting from a ground blind has disadvantages.  The most significant to me is visibility.  Being 10 to 15 feet off the ground puts you above forest undergrowth, providing a clear view of approaching deer.  Elevation also gets you above minor undulations in the terrain, extending your field of view even farther.

Easy set-up, durability, wide field of view and shoot-through camouflage window netting are features of Bass Pro Shops’ BlackOut Hybrid ground blind that impressed the author.
Easy set-up, durability, wide field of view and shoot-through camouflage window netting are features of Bass Pro Shops’ BlackOut Hybrid ground blind that impressed the author.

The visibility factor is particularly important when bowhunting.  Even a twig can deflect an arrow, so after setting up a ground blind you must ensure clear fields of fire.  In my case, this involved a couple of hours of cutting bushes, brambles, saplings and sprouts with lopping shears.  The spot where I put my ground blind was in second-growth forest, so I also used a chainsaw to take out some of the smaller trees.

This wasn’t a bad thing in terms of forest management.  The area around my blind was overcrowded with small trees, so my work amounted to a timber-stand improvement cut, which needed to be done anyway.  The area is more open now, and the remaining red oaks will be more vigorous and produce more acorns, which means more food for deer and turkeys.

Another plus to ground blinds is safety.  I love hunting from a tree stand, but climbing up and down to and from them can be dicey after a snow or ice storm.  Older hunters, whose strength and reflexes are reduced, are at particular risk from falls, making ground blinds an attractive option for them.

Ground blinds also offer comfort.  Having four walls and a roof around you makes hunting more attractive when the mercury plummets.  You can’t shoot a deer if you aren’t in the woods, and ground blinds allow you to stay in the woods much longer than you would if you were 15 feet in the air, exposed to wind, rain, sleet or snow.

Being in a ground blind also gives you the freedom to stand up and stretch and otherwise move around without the risk of being spotted by deer.  Outdoor retailers also sell chairs made specifically for use with ground blinds, further increasing the comfort factor.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

One of the first things to consider when buying a ground blind is weight.  This isn’t a big deal if you can drive to your hunting spot, but if your chosen site is a mile from the nearest road, a 5- or 10-pound difference is significant.

Durability is the most important factor in my book.  Look closely at the design and materials used in struts, hinges, zippers and other stress points.  Consider the thickness of fabric and look for double stitching on seams.  If you buy your blind online, go to a brick-and-mortar store first, and examine the one you are considering.  Ask the clerk to let you take down the display model and then set it up again, so you find out how easy or difficult it is.  Better to learn now if you can’t set a particular blind up without damaging it.  This is also an opportunity to check for durability.

Consider the field of view from inside.  You don’t need 360 degrees of visibility, but 270 degrees is handy for spotting deer coming from behind.  The ability to open and close window panels is handy, since it permits you to exclude wind and precipitation from different directions.  This also permits you to darken the area behind you, so as not to be silhouetted against a light background, making movement inside the blind visible to deer.

Be sure your chosen blind has camouflage netting to cover the windows.  This enables you to see out, while hiding what’s inside from deer.  Bowhunters should be sure to get a blind with shoot-through window netting.  To work, these must be fastened at both top and bottom.  Otherwise, even a sharp broadhead can catch loose mesh enough to deflect the arrow’s flight.

When choosing a chair for your blind, be sure to buy one with adjustable legs, so it can be leveled on slanted or uneven ground.  Again, if you plan to buy online, try to find a store where you can test-drive your chosen model to check for comfort.  If this isn’t possible, don’t hesitate to send an uncomfortable chair back for a refund or exchange.  You are going to be sitting in this thing a lot of hours.  It needs to be well-suited to your body.

PRODUCT REVIEW

My blind is a Blackout Hybrid from Bass Pro Shops (http://www.basspro.com/BlackOut-Hybrid-180-Hunting-Ground-Blind/product/2215666/).  I got it with Bass Pro’s companion Black Out hard-arm chair (http://www.basspro.com/BlackOut-Swivel-Hard-Arm-Chair/product/1302280931/?cmCat=CROSSSELL_PRODUCT_HU_VTT1).  On balance, I like them a lot.  The blind only weighs 14 pounds and is ridiculously simple to set up.  All you do is pull on the strap at the center of each side panel to pop them into place.  It is tall enough to allow all but the tallest hunters to stand upright inside and has plenty of room for two chairs, day packs and other gear.  Multiple-panel windows provide excellent field of view and versatility, and the shoot-through camo netting is easy to install and remove.  The zippers are sturdy and function smoothly.  The ground anchors are sturdy and have step-on braces that make driving them into the ground a cinch.  Built-in side pockets are handy for stowing small items.  The blind is rather heavy, but I don’t have to go with it, and the sturdy nylon canvas has a shoulder strap to facilitate carrying.

I am especially pleased with the chair.  I have back problems, so I’m really picky about chairs.  Not one in 100 pieces of inside furniture are comfortable for me to sit in.  The Black Out chair is so ergonomically perfect that I can sit in it for

Bass Pro Shops’ BlackOut Hard-Armed Blind Chair is a pretty close to perfect fit for the author.
Bass Pro Shops’ BlackOut Hard-Armed Blind Chair is a pretty close to perfect fit for the author.

hours without the usual need of pillows or other stuff to make them comfortable.  The locks on the adjustable legs are easy to operate and lock positively.  Wide, circular plates prevent the feet from sinking into any but the softest ground.  The chair swivels smoothly and silently. Like the blind, it comes with a carrying strap.

The Blackout Hybrid blind and chair’s faults are few and very minor.  The pull cords on the zippers are flimsy.  However, when they break – as they inevitably do – they zippers still operate easily without them.  I honestly don’t know why they even bothered including the string pulls.  The upper portion of the chair slips down onto the base, which is very convenient, but there is no locking device to keep it in place.  This has not caused me any problems yet.  A thumb screw on the mounting sleeve would ensure that the chair stays on the base.  However, that would interfere with the chair’s swiveling.  Clearly, I’m grasping at straws when it comes to finding anything wrong with the chair.

I haven’t used my ground blind for turkey hunting yet.  It isn’t compatible with my run-and-gun style of hunting, but it will be great when I introduce fidgety youngsters to the sport, or years from now, when I’m too old and decrepit to chase gobblers all over god’s half-acre.

SAFETY

One thing to remember when you move from tree stands to ground blinds is that you lose the automatic back-stop effect.  If you miss when shooting down from a tree stand, your bullet or arrow goes straight into the ground, not across the field or over the next ridge.  It’s important to remember this when choosing a location for and using a ground blind.

In Missouri and many other states, there is a requirement to wear blaze orange when deer hunting.  This rule has saved dozens of lives and prevented hundreds of injuries since it went into effect more than 30 years ago, but wearing hunter orange does no good when you are inside a ground blind.  To alert other hunters to your presence, hang an orange hat or vest on the outside of your blind, or sew a piece of orange cloth to the top for permanent protection.

Crossbow Deer

-Boundless Potential

-Youth Replenished for Aging Hunters

At under 40 yards, crossbows are a deadly and precision hunting tool that eliminates runaway waste, I donated this deer to the needy Food Kitchen.  Jim Low Photo
At under 40 yards, crossbows are a deadly and precision hunting tool that eliminates runaway waste, I donated this deer to the needy Food Kitchen. Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low

Only 7 a.m., and my mind already wandered.  The temperature was in the low 40s, not bad for bowhunting in early October.  I was excited about being in my favorite tree stand, 20 yards from the intersection of two deer trails, a creek and a clover field.  Yet, I had to discipline myself to stay a while longer before climbing down to have breakfast and run errands.  A moment later I was very glad I had.

A flash of motion in the pasture 100 yards away caught my eye. Before I could fully raise my crossbow, two does had jumped the fence onto our property, crossed the creek and bounded to within 40 yards.  Already spooked by something, they now were standing directly downwind of me and were on full alert, tails up, ears swiveling and noses trying to pinpoint the source of human scent.  The larger doe decided it was time to leave. She took a dozen quick, tense steps, moving cross-wind until she reached the trail junction a mere 20 yards from my stand.  There, she paused to test the wind again. It was a fatal mistake.

The sharp thwack of fiberglass limbs snapping forward was followed by a hollow “whop” as the bolt struck home.  Startled by the sound and taken through both lungs by a 1 1/8-inch broadhead, the doe bolted toward toward the creek bottom at the northern limit of my property.  A moment after she disappeared from sight, I heard a crash, then brief thrashing.  My first crossbow deer was unconscious within seconds of the shot.

I retrieved my bolt, which was buried 6 inches in the soil even after passing through ribs and vitals. Then I looked for a sprig of shrubby St.  John’s wort to place in the doe’s mouth.  It might seem silly to some, but I like the old Indian tradition of thanking the deer for giving its life.  After doing so, I set to work.

WHY A CROSSBOW?

I sold my compound bow last year as a concession to age.  Surgery on both wrists put me out of the bowhunting business several years ago and I missed it.  So, halfway through archery deer season, I got a hunting methods exemption card allowing me to hunt with a crossbow.  I never got a shot at a deer, but it felt good to be back in the game.

Today, no one needs an exemption to hunt with a crossbow in Missouri.  The Conservation Department made crossbows a legal method for the archery hunting starting this year.  This means that hunters with joint problems and those who lack the strength to draw and hold a vertical bow now can enjoy archery hunting.

My new bow – a Parker ThunderHawk – throws bolts, as crossbow arrows are called, at 320 feet per second – 221 mph.  The optional scope with a lighted, multi-dot reticle allows accurate shooting at dusk and dawn.  I also opted for a rope-and-pully device that makes cocking manageable for almost anyone.

Even with these technological advantages, the most important things that define archery hunting are as true with crossbows as with longbows.  Shots must be taken within 40 yards, 50 at most.  Beyond that, arrow drop is too rapid for accurate shooting.  As with vertical bows, shot placement is more critical than when hunting with a gun, because there is no devastating shock or ability to break large bones.  And if you miss your fist shot, the complicated cocking process makes a second shot with a crossbow even less likely than with a vertical bow.

My first crossbow kill was textbook, with the doe giving me a close, broadside shot, and the broadhead piercing both lungs.  If I had any doubts about the ThunderHawk’s ability to do a vertical bow’s job, they evaporated when I walked up on my doe.  She was a fine animal, sleek in her new winter coat and in the full flush of vigorous youth.  After checking and field-dressing her, I drove her to a nearby locker plant and donated her to the Share the Harvest program.  Her lean, organic, free-range meat will feed a family fallen experiencing hard times.

The short bolts (that’s what they call crossbow arrows) fly at about 220mph (320fps), faster than many vertical bow arrow speeds.  Jim Low Photo
The short bolts (that’s what they call crossbow arrows) fly at about 220mph (320fps), faster than many vertical bow arrow speeds. Jim Low Photo

I did keep a few things, however.  One was her beautiful loin meat, which I harvested before driving to the locker plant.  I dropped these off at the home of an old friend.  Joel and his lovely wife, Marty, love venison, but declining health has ended his hunting career.  His delighted surprise when I handed him the prize cuts was worth their weight in gold.

I also kept memories of the crisp morning air, the blaze of sumac and dogwood leaves in the field edge and the inexpressible thrill of that moment when the doe’s life hung in the balance.  When she might have turned and run but didn’t.  When I might have decided to wait and see if a buck was trailing the pair of does.  When my shot might have missed.

Possibilities.  That’s what October is to me.  Boundless potential.  This might be the only deer I kill this year.  I might or might not shoot a turkey for Thanksgiving.  The spiraling woodcock might elude me and my dog, and ducks might arrive and be gone before I get a good crack at them.  This could be the last year I climb a tree and watch nature’s parade.  But in the middle of Missouri’s golden month, everything is still possible.

Last Chance for Missouri Parks, Soil and Water

-Don’t let disgust with politics rob you and your children of productive soil, healthy water and outdoor fun 

-Support the low cost tax

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Streams where you can safely swim and whose fish you can safely eat are among the benefits of Missouri’s dedicated sales tax for parks, soil and water conservation. The Missouri DNR’s three trout parks are made to order for introducing youngsters to fishing. Missouri DNR photo

By Jim Low

With Election Day looming, it’s time to revisit a topic covered on this page in recent months.  Don’t panic! This isn’t about Trump or Clinton.  It’s about something much closer to home for Missourians – the state’s dedicated sales tax for state parks and for soil and water conservation.

In previous columns, I talked mainly about the tremendous economic, recreational and spiritual value of state parks like Bennett Spring and Johnson’s Shut-Ins.  That alone would justify the measly $6 per year that each Missourian pays annually through the one-tenth of 1-percent sales tax.  But parks are only one-third of the programs funded through the tax.  It also supports Missouri soil and water conservation.

To put this in perspective, consider where Missouri was before voters approved the parks, soil and water tax for the first time in 1984.  Fish from the Missouri River and other Show-Me State streams contained enough pesticides and other contaminants that health officials warned against eating them.  In a related tragedy, Missouri was hemorrhaging topsoil.  We were second in the nation in the amount of soil washing off our agricultural land.  Today, you can safely eat Missouri River catfish and Current River smallmouths, and soil loss to erosion is the second-smallest in the nation.

The most remarkable thing about how the sales tax has improved life in Missouri is that it was all done through positive incentives, not regulations.  Missourians never wanted to swim, boat and fish in polluted water.  They didn’t want to see their agricultural wealth wash into the Gulf of Mexico.  They simply needed to understand the seriousness of the problems and be offered practical ways to solve them.

With the $6 per person per year that Missourians gave them to work with, soil and water conservationists at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) instituted market-based incentives for farmers to implement better soil-conservation practices.  This consisted mostly of sharing the cost of better agricultural practices enabling farmers to care for the soil and still make a living.  Measures included terracing and wiser tillage practices on cropland.  The DNR also helped ranchers install watering systems that kept livestock out of streams.  This prevented cattle from denuding stream corridors, trampling fragile banks and voiding biological waste into streams. Besides reducing soil erosion, these measures also protected water quality and fish habitat.

Missouri Parks offer quiet time for fishing and teaching kids how to share in the fun of the outdoors. Missouri DNR photo
Missouri Parks offer quiet time for fishing and teaching kids how to share in the fun of the outdoors. Missouri DNR photo

To further clean up water, the DNR helped farmers shift to practices that reduced the amount of fertilizer and herbicides needed to grow crops, thereby reducing runoff of these chemicals into ground and surface water.  The DNR also helped cities and businesses improve sewer and wastewater treatment systems so less pollution entered lakes and streams.

Six dollars per person per year pays for all this and helps fund dozens of state parks and historic sites that are open to all Missourians and attract visitors from out of state to spend millions of dollars in Missouri.  How else could Missourians possibly have gotten so much for so little? There must be a catch, right?

Missouri’s dedicated tax for parks, soil and water conservation helped stop the loss of topsoil that is the foundation for agriculture, the Show-Me State’s biggest industry. Jim Low Photo
Missouri’s dedicated tax for parks, soil and water conservation helped stop the loss of topsoil that is the foundation for agriculture, the Show-Me State’s biggest industry. Jim Low Photo

There is.  Missouri’s one-tenth of 1-percent sales tax for parks, soil and water conservation disappears unless voters reapprove it every 10 years.  It is up for renewal in the general election Nov.  8.  If you are so turned off by politics that you are considering not voting, think again.  Protecting Missouri’s parks, soil and water have nothing to do with politics.  It’s about our quality of life, our economy and our health.  Don’t let disgust with politics rob you and your children of the legacy of productive soil, healthy water and outdoor fun.  Vote “yes” on Nov.  8 to renew the parks, soil and water tax.

How Knot to Fall – #1 Hunting Tip

Prusik Knot – The Prusik knot is an elegant and economical way to protect yourself from the ground to your tree stand and back again.
  • Tree Stand Safety
  • Prusik Knot

Many hunters don’t know that accidental falls from tree stands – not firearms-related injuries – are the most frequent cause of deer hunting-related injuries.

Until fairly recently, hunters who used tree stands simply accepted this risk as inherent to their sport. Few took measures to prevent falls and those who did had few options. You could tie yourself to a tree or use one of the commercially made safety belts. Both of these options were likely to cause as much harm as no restraint at all.

The situation is much better today. Virtually every commercial tree stand now comes with a safety harness. Some are better than others, but none of them are very good. The best harnesses on the market today are approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). You can get one of these at a professional tool store or from an online forestry supply company such as www.baileysonline.com.

If you fall from your stand and your harness stops your fall, you still aren’t out of the woods, however. Inexpensive safety harnesses can cut off circulation to your arms and legs, rendering you helpless in minutes. If you are rescued, blood clots that form when blood pools in extremities can enter your bloodstream and kill you. Cheap harnesses also can restrict breathing, causing loss of consciousness and, eventually, death.

One way to avoid these outcomes is to position your tie-off point so it won’t suspend you beyond reach of hand-holds that enable you to climb back to your stand. Installing screw-in steps on the tree trunk is one solution. Another is keeping a length of nylon cord in your pocket, enabling you to lasso a branch or ladder rung and pull yourself into a better position.

Harness – Inexpensive safety harnesses like the one on the left will stop a fall, but they might not help you much after that. The Rescue One CDS harness, shown on the right, not only protects you in the air, it provides a safe way to the ground.

Even with such measures, however, many hunters simply are not physically fit enough to climb to safety. To the rescue comes the Rescue One CDS. This product combines a safety harness with a controlled descent system that allows users to lower themselves to the ground safely. This is a one-time investment in safety. You don’t have to install one in every tree stand, and it will last for years.

The Rescue One CDS has a few drawbacks. The biggest one right now is availability. The hunting version currently is out of production. If you can’t find one on EBay or Craig’s List, you will have to wait until 2017 to buy one. The manufacturer, Elevated Safety Systems (ESS), sells an industrial version. It can lower you 43 feet, twice as much as deer hunters need.

There were ergonomic drawbacks, with the original version of the Rescue One. The harness was bulky on your back, where it stores cord for the controlled descent system. This made sitting in a tree stand less comfortable. ESS says they are replacing the original cord with a thinner but stronger line, which dramatically reduces bulk while maintaining safety.

A bigger drawback is the fact that the activation cord for the controlled-descent system is inside the right shoulder strap, exactly where most hunters mount a rifle or crossbow stock. I’ve killed several deer wearing the Rescue One CDS, but the added bulk on the right shoulder makes gun handling awkward, especially if you aren’t shooting from a rest. ESS might offer the harness in a left-hand configuration, which would be excellent.

There are plenty of other, OSHA-approved safety vests on the market. Many are heavier than you would want to lug into the woods, but they will keep you safer than the ones that tree-stand makers supply to immunize themselves from lawsuits.

ARRESTING EVIDENCE

No harness, regardless how good, is worth a hoot if it isn’t attached to something. If this seems ridiculously obvious, consider that most falls from tree stands occur when climbing up to, into, out of or down from tree stands. If you are one of the few savvy hunters who clip onto a safety line before taking the first step up to your tree stand, go to the head of the class. Better yet, go out and shoot a deer.

If you are among the majority of hunters who are only protected while sitting in your stand, read on.

A friend of mine broke his back in a fall that occurred when he climbed down to tag a deer he had just shot. He was lucky and survived to hunt another day, but now he never climbs into a tree stand without first connecting his harness to a fall-arrest system. He uses a system that has a retractable, 25-foot safety strap. You tie the retractor above your tree stand and use a cord to pull the safety strap to ground level and hook up before each climb. The retractor reels in the safety strap as you climb up and lets it out as you climb down. If your rate of descent accelerates – as in a fall – an inertial clutch – like those in seat belts – locks up, stopping the fall. The system protects you from ground to stand and back again.

I bought two of these systems – one for each of my tree stands. I left them out year-round, because if I took them down, I would risk falling when I brought them in each winter and when I put them back up the following fall. Eventually, I began to worry about their reliability. After all, they had been out in all sorts of weather for years. So I finally took them down. I was glad I had. The mechanisms might have been fine, but sun and the elements had visibly degraded the nylon straps that held the devices in place. And since any mechanism is bound to deteriorate with age, I decided to retire them.

That is when I discovered the Prusik knot. The knot is named for Karl Prusik, an Austrian mountaineer who is believed to have invented it. It is extremely simple to tie and equally effective at preventing falls. Also known as the “cow hitch,” the Prusik knot is made by tying together the ends of a short length of flexible rope to form a loop, then passing the knotted part around a heavier rope and through the loop three. Each turn should lie inside and close to the previous one. Video instructions available online illustrate the process nicely.

A Prusik knot slides easily up and down the safety rope as long as no weight is placed on the loop, where you attach your safety harness. Pull down on the loop, however, and the increased tension and friction cause it to lock tight, stopping a fall.

The Prusik knot – combined with an OSHA-approved harness – now is my preferred fall-restraint system. The necessary rope costs a fraction of what mechanical systems cost. This makes it affordable, even if you have a dozen tree stands. Inspecting the ropes for wear and tear is simple and easy, unlike mechanical systems, which are necessarily enclosed in a housing to protect them from the elements.

If you haven’t been using these safety devices, now is the time to get up to speed. No matter how much you love deer hunting, but you shouldn’t have to risk your life to do it.

Missouri State Parks – Show Me a Sign!

Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park is a prime example of the high-quality outdoor experiences available free to all Missourians at state parks.

If you have visited one of Missouri’s 88 state parks and historic sites recently, you probably know that our park system – just like the national parks system – is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. That’s good timing, because in a little more than a month Missourians will vote on whether to maintain their parks or allow them to wither away in order to save $6 a year in taxes. If that sounds like a stark choice, it is.

In the past 40 years, “tax” has become something of a four-letter word in many states. Up to now, Missouri has been an exception to this trend. In 1976, Show-Me State voters approved a sales tax of one-eighth of 1 percent to support conservation. In 1984 – well into the taxes-are-evil era, Missouri voters approved a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for state parks and soil and water conservation. There’s an important difference between these two taxes. The conservation sales tax is written permanently into the state’s constitution. The parks, soil and water conservation tax must be re-approved by voters every 10 years. Otherwise, it lapses.

So far, voters have twice renewed the tax that keeps our parks open, prevents millions of tons of our topsoil from washing down to the Gulf of Mexico and keeps our lakes, streams, springs and wells flowing clean. But as the old saying goes – ironically in this case – the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. The continuation of the parks, soil and water tax is anything but certain. Free access to the outdoors is anything but certain. If too few people understand what is at stake when they go to the polls on Nov. 8, it could sound the death knell for parks like Bennett Spring, Johnson Shut-Ins, Taum Sauk Mountain, Current River, Elephant Rocks, Ha-Ha Tonka, Onondaga, Elephant Rocks, Lake of the Ozarks and Table Rock. These and other parks would have to reduce hours and services. Eventually some would be shuttered or sold off to private interests.

The same would be true of Arrow Rock, Mastodon, Nathaniel Boone Homestead, Mark Twain Birthplace and other state historic sites. In all, 88 places where Missourians go to remember their natural and cultural heritages are in peril if too many voters cast knee-jerk votes against a tax whose benefits are unknown to them. They need to know why they should want to continue paying for parks when they could reduce their tax burden by voting against it.

There are plenty of compelling economic reasons, such as the fact that a family of four pays just $24 a year for the privilege of visiting – with no entry fee – 53 state parks that preserve some of the best examples of the Show-Me State’s various types of forests, prairies, streams and lakes. Most Missourians don’t know that their parks generate more than $1 billion in tourism-related sales, much of it from out of state. They don’t know that parks support more than 14,000 jobs. That is a bargain by any measure.

Children young and old love scrambling around on rocks at Elephant Rocks State Park.

You can help ensure that the parks, soils and water tax is renewed. All you have to do is get a sign and place it in front of your house or business. The Conservation Federation of Missouri has signs at its office just west of the State Capitol Building at 728 W. Main Street in Jefferson City. They are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. You might find it more convenient to pick up a sign at one of the Missouri Farm Bureau’s county offices. Or you can 573-634-2322 and make arrangements to receive signs. While you are at it, get several extras and ask friends who value Missouri state parks to put them in front of their homes. Talk to co-workers about the tax vote and explain to them why they should want to vote “Yes” to renew the tax. Another way to help is by liking the Citizens Committee Twitter account and Facebook page and sharing their posts and tweets. Every little bit helps.

Readers of a certain age will remember the refrain from the Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Don’t wait until your parks are gone. You can ensure that we continue to have places for families to camp, fish, hike and rediscover why Henry David Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Deeking Out Over Decoys

A metal ring in the base of the decoy holds the bottom open on the way down and then keeps it underwater, so the air can’t escape.

No Ordinary Rubber Ducky!

One of my earliest memories is being in the bathtub with my brother, Rick, and playing with inflatable ducks. That’s right, rubber duckies. But not just any rubber duckies. These were life-sized, and they were painted with life-like colors. Years later, it finally occurred to me to ask where they came from. Mom informed me that they were samples that my father used when they lived in Salt Lake City, Utah. Intrigued, I went to eBay to see what the antique deeks might be worth.

Not much, as it turned out, but I did discover something worth more than mere dollars. Our duck-hunting legacy had a name – Deeks. Armed with this bit of trivia, I did a Web search, but there the trail went cold. The Internet revealed nothing about our childhood bath toys. The next time I saw Rick I gave him half of the Deeks and hung the other three in my office.

A few years later, I found myself in need of a sheet of nice writing paper. I was out of my letterhead but remembered that when Rick and I cleared out Mom’s apartment I kept a box containing an odd assortment of stationery. I pulled it out and as I sorted through the contents came across four sheets of pristine Deeks letterhead. My curiosity once again piqued, I did another Web search that led to a surprising treasure trove of information on the ISA Corporation’s website.

ISA is the direct lineal descendent of the Intermountain Rubber Company, which began making Deeks decoys in the 1930s. Competition from manufacturers in other countries prompted ISA to discontinue Deeks production in the 1960s, but ISA is making Deeks once again. Even more interesting to me was the fact that ISA had put a bunch of historical information about Deeks on their website. Far and away the coolest thing on the website is a segment from the old “Industry on Parade” television program showing how Deeks were made. Seeing how much ISA valued its history, I contacted them and asked if they would like to have a couple of sheets of the old Deeks stationery. They accepted the offer and kindly sent me a dozen Deeks to show their appreciation. Their greenhead mallard model was out of stock, so they sent black mallards instead. It turns out they are a perfect match for those I played with six decades ago!

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As an avid duck hunter, I could hardly have been more pleased with the arrangement. When I injured my back a few years ago, I sold most of my 200-plus decoys and replaced them with a dozen high-quality, flocked-head decoys from Cabela’s. I was hoping that quality could replace quantity. The notion has proved out pretty well, but there were still times when I wish for another dozen decoys. With my new Deeks, I have that extra dozen. Although the inflatables are far less credible to my human eyes, ducks don’t seem to notice the difference. Just last week I had a fantastic teal hunt over five Deeks and a Mojo Teal, and I used the full dozen Deeks in combination with my flocked-head Cabela’s decoys to good effect last year.

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Setting out Deeks is simple. A 4-inch steel ring holds open the bottom hole, and you simply drop them so they catch air on the way down. The weight of the ring holds the opening underwater, keeping it inflated. The chest of each decoy has a small pocket into which you insert a glass marble, and you tie your anchor line around the outside of the marble. Deeks are dramatically more compact than other decoys. The steel, marble and rubber add up to four or 5 pounds per dozen, making they significantly lighter than plastic decoys, and a far lighter than my foam flock-heads.

Lightness translates into more motion in light wind, which is a good thing, however, it also means that a brisk breeze can tip they far enough onto their sides that they lose air. ISA solved this with rubber caps that slip over the outside of the steel ring, holding air in.

When I’m too old to hunt ducks or remember my name, I hope the folks at the nursing home let me take a couple of Deeks in the tub with me!

deekingout4

Tealgating – Outdoor Cooking for Hunters

You don’t need fancy gear or ingredients to prepare a feast fit for a king.

My first forays into cooking anything other than scrambled eggs often involved ground beef and cream of mushroom soup. Those dishes weren’t sophisticated, but they were fast, easy and sustaining for a college student for whom “middle-age spread” was still several years away.

Campbell’s got less and less of my business as my waistline expanded and my cholesterol level climbed. Until a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t remember the last time I heard the delicious slurp of a slug of condensed soup slid out of a can into a casserole dish. But as dove season approached, I was in the market for an easy, delicious way to prepare dove breasts in camp, and I reverted to old habits with a few twists acquired in the intervening decades. The resulting feast was so wonderful, I was eager to repeat it. I got my chance on Saturday, September 17, 2016, which was the opening day of Missouri’s early teal season.

Even more than most waterfowl hunting, teal season is a crap shoot. It lasts only 16 days and if you don’t get a substantial cold front to push birds down from the Dakotas, or if you can’t be in the marsh when a migratory pulse occurs, you will spend the morning looking at empty skies. That has been my experience for the past few years. This year’s season opener, however, was the kind that sustains the zeal of teal devotees through the lean years. We saw more teal before sunrise than we had during the entirety of the previous five seasons combined. When the morning flight petered out around 10 a.m., I had five blue-winged teal to work with.

Browning meat develops savory flavors you can’t get any other way.

Back at camp, I fired up my Coleman propane stove and browned the breasts in olive oil in a cast iron Dutch oven. When they were on the dark side of golden, I set them aside, added another two tablespoons of oil and four medium-sized, sliced onions.

When the onions started to caramelize, I added some garlic powder, salt, pepper and cup of full-bodied red wine. I stirred with a steel spatula, taking care to scrape the goop off the bottom, then stirred in two cans of cream of mushroom soup and a can of water. I kept stirring the mixture on high heat until it started to bubble, then turned down the burner as low as it would go and placed the browned breasts on top of the onion-wine-soup concoction. I sealed the Dutch oven with its tight-fitting lid and set my cell-phone timer for 45 minutes.

Cook onions until they begin to caramelize, leaving some slightly crunchy.

Before starting this process, I had lit half of a small bag of self-starting charcoal in the fire ring. It was now covered with gray ash and ready to cook. After spreading the coals out in a flat bed, I peeled and sliced a large sweet potato and put the slices on a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. I salted the potatoes, added some squeeze margarine and a liberal sprinkling of real bacon bits, then folded the foil over and sealed the package. Then I laid out another sheet of foil, laid the packet top-down on this second sheet and sealed it snugly. This inverted double wrap makes it possible to turn the packet over and cook both sides without spilling the liquid inside.

When 45 minutes were up, I checked the doneness of the breasts. The larger ones were still a little rare for my taste. The last thing you want to do to waterfowl is cook it beyond medium-rare. The result will be tough, dry, livery-tasting meat. However, duck tartar is not my cup of tea, either. The sweet potatoes were perfectly cooked at this point, so I took them off the coals, wrapped the two too-rare breasts in foil and finished them on the coals. Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to eat. OMG. Medium-rare teal breast and potatoes smothered in mushroom gravy. Heaven.

Simmer until the meat is rare or at most medium-rare.

I ate until I was stuffed, then continued to snack on potatoes and gravy as I cleaned up the kitchen area, set up my tent and savored the left-over wine. That combination, plus having been up at the crack of dawn, beats any sleeping pill on the market. I read only half a page of my book before falling sound asleep. The glow of sunset hadn’t even faded from the western horizon. Perfect timing, since I planned to do it all over again the next day.

Who cares if this cholesterol fest shaves a few days off the end of my life. By then I’ll probably be in a nursing home, eating hot dogs and pureed spinach. It seems like a good trade-off to me.

I like sweet potatoes, but this recipe is equally good with Idaho potatoes.

Give Up Wooden Tree Stands!

A True Story of Survival

treestands
Using a haul rope to bring gear up and down from your tree stand keeps your hands free for climbing and reduces the likelihood of a fall.

Dave Reid of New Bloomfield had been in his tree stand for about three hours on opening day of the November deer season. He was stiff from sitting as still as possible, so he allowed himself the luxury of a stretch.

“I stood up, and the stand just went out from under me,” he recalls.

The plastic covering of one of his stand’s mounting cables was old, and the cable had slipped out of its clamp.

“There I was, 20 feet off the ground,” said Reid. “If I hadn’t been wearing a safety harness, I could have been killed.”

Bob Legler of West Plains wasn’t so lucky when he took a day of vacation to celebrate his 55th birthday. It was November 16, the peak of the rut, and Legler climbed into a wooden deer stand on his home property, hoping for a birthday supper of venison loin. The wooden tree stand was swaying noticeably in the wind, but he didn’t think much about that.

Everything fell into place around mid-day. He dropped a fat doe with one well-placed shot and savored the moment with a steaming cup of coffee. The temperature at dawn had been around 20 degrees and the hot drink helped chase away the morning chill.

A careful hunter, Legler lowered his rifle and backpack to the ground with a rope before climbing down to tag and field dress his deer. Adrenalin surged when the first 2X4 handhold he grasped as he left his stand gave way as he put weight on it. He grabbed at another piece of lumber nailed to the tree, but it too broke free, plunging Legler 20 feet to the ground. He landed on his back.

“At impact, I felt a sensation in my legs like an electrical current pulsing through them,” he recalls. “The pain was intense, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I knew I was hurt bad. I was alone, half a mile from home. No phone.”

Legler lay on the ground for several minutes trying to catch his breath. He prayed. After a while, he noticed that he could move his toes. That answered one of his prayers. He rolled onto his stomach, which triggered a wave of pain. He tried to push himself up onto his hands and knees, only to find that the fall had broken his left arm and wrist. He rolled back onto his back and checked his wristwatch. It was 11:30 a.m.

Legler’s friends and family had considerately stayed out of the woods so he could have them all to himself. It would be hours before help arrived. He tried repeatedly to rise, but excruciating pain stopped him each time. Finally understood that his back was broken, and attempts to move risked severing his spine. He lay back down, tried shouting for help, but his weak voice was swallowed up by the blustery wind.

Knowing that hypothermia was an imminent danger, he used his good arm to scoop dry leaves around his body for insulation. He prayed, recited scripture and sang hymns to bolster his spirit. Then the shivering began. First in his legs. Then in his abdomen and finally in his chest. Legler came to terms with the very real possibility that he would die before help arrived. But he was spared, his wife and son found him around 7:30 p.m.

In the emergency room, doctors determined that Legler had shattered his first lumbar vertebra, an injury that often results in paralysis of the legs. But Legler’s luck held. After surgery and six months of physical therapy, he walked again and regained most of the use of his left arm.

Examination of the faulty tree stand revealed that the deck screws Legler used to anchor lumber across two tree trunks had snapped under stress. The screws had less tensile strength than common nails. However, even stout nails might have loosened or broken after years of exposure to weather and stress from two swaying trees.

Reid and Legler’s cautionary tales are especially important this time of year. Archery season opens in just a few days, and gun seasons aren’t far behind. The Missouri Department of Conservation doesn’t maintain records of tree-stand accidents, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they far outnumber firearms-related deaths and injuries. Here are some important tips for using tree stands safely.

  • Don’t hunt from wooden tree stands. They are involved in a disproportionate number of accidents.
  • Use commercially made tree stands only if they are approved by the Tree Stand Manufacturers Association.
  • Check all components of tree stands for rust, wear or deterioration before and during the hunting season.
  • Pay special attention to the tightness of nuts, bolts, cables and other hardware.
  • Always wear a safety harness when climbing to and from tree stands, as well as when on the stand. Most accidents occur when climbing up, down, into or out of stands. For a reliable, inexpensive climbing safety device, use a Prusik knot and safety rope.
  • Use only OSHA approved, full-body safety harnesses. Lesser devices can cause injury when falls occur or leave you suspended with no way to get back to the tree or down to the ground. Even worse, substandard harnesses can cut off circulation to extremities or impair breathing, leading to suffocation.
  • Keep yourself on a short leash. If you fall only three feet, you are traveling at more than 25 feet per second. The impact when your safety tether snaps tight at this speed can break bones.
  • Use a haul rope to bring guns, bows or other gear to the stand and lower them after hunting. This keeps both hands free for climbing.
  • When using climbing stands, secure them to the tree with a safety chain.
  • Leave your stand if you get sleepy or if it starts to rain, sleet or snow, or when the tree begins to sway in the wind.
  • Use a rope and harness while hanging stands. Practice at ground level before starting.
  • Carry survival gear, including food, water, signal whistle, space blanket and, where practical, a cell phone in your pack, just in case something goes wrong.
  • When hunting alone, always leave word with someone about where you will be and when you expect to return.

Using tree stands safely isn’t hard, and the alternative is too grim to contemplate. I can’t think of a more appropriate topic for the old saying, “Better safe than sorry.”

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

It’s amazing what you see if you take time to be there for natural events.

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Hummingbirds are among the most amazing flying critters to teach us about airborne direction control.  Joe Forma Photo

A while back, as I sat working on an article, two hummingbirds were playing keep-away with the nectar feeder outside my office window.  One would be peacefully sipping away when the other would scream in from nowhere, doing a passable imitation of an F-16.  Not much later, the roles would be reversed.  Sometimes they banked so sharply that their wings produced a sound exactly like rubber tires squealing on a tight turn.  I enjoyed this show all day long and around sunset, when the intensity of the light outside and in my office were roughly equal, I heard another squeal of wings and glanced up just in time to see one of the hummers fly straight into the screen on my office window!

I thought it would bounce off with a broken neck, but to my amazement, his momentum had merely pushed his beak through the screen’s nylon mesh nearly up to his eyeballs.  As I watched in wonder, the trapped hummer continued the hovering pace of his wingbeats, holding his rear half in the air.  I immediately shouted to my wife to come quick, but nothing short of warp speed would have been quick enough.  After regaining his composure, the little guy threw his transmission in reverse and revved the throttle to full speed.  His beak came unstuck with an audible “Poik!” and after fixing me with his gaze for a nanosecond he was off like a shot.

This fantastic glimpse into the world of hummingbirds required no special equipment of knowledge, only being there to witness it.  That’s often the way with natural revelations.  Some of my most memorable nature experiences have been only peripherally related to hunting, fishing or whatever other pretext took me outdoors.

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Another one that sticks in my mind occurred as I sat in a tree stand waiting for an unsuspecting deer to wander within arrow range.  I was cold enough to begin thinking of breakfast when a barred owl hooted a couple hundred yards away.  Since I was about to climb down anyway, I hooted back.  Moments later, the owl glided silently past, alighting on a branch a few feet higher than me, perhaps 30 yards away.  He immediately turned on the branch and stared directly at me.  I knew that an owl has the uncanny ability to fix the distance and direction of sound.  I guess that’s not surprising, since they hunt in the dark.  But for this bird to have pinpointed my location from such a distance startled me.  I was in full camouflage, including a face mask, so I didn’t look particularly like a human.  Nevertheless, he had me pegged.

We stared at each other for a long time, neither blinking.  I finally decided that since the jig clearly was up, I might just as well have a little fun.  I hooted at him again.  Within a moment, he launched from his perch with his wings partially folded, quickly gaining speed in his downward swoop on a trajectory right toward my tree.  Unfolding his wings, he completed a parabola that brought him straight up at me.  I might have flinched if I hadn’t been so fascinated.  Just as he came up to my eye level he banked subtly to my right, ticking the tree trunk behind my ear with the tip of his outermost, right wing feather.  The message, as I understood it was, “You’ve been warned.”

Another incident that comes to mind involved a guy I wrote an article about many years ago.  He was going through several hundred gallons of sugar water each year feeding hummingbirds and I paid him a visit to see the swarms of ruby-throats that visited his feeders each day in September.  He would sit in a lawn chair beneath three of his many feeders just enjoying the show.  Sometimes he could get hummers to land on his outstretched finger.

Years later I got a call from the guy.  He thought I would be interested in something he had seen that day.  A roadrunner had taken up residence at his house, and he was really enjoying watching it run down lizards, snakes, grasshoppers and other stuff.  Then, one evening the roadrunner sidled up beneath a nectar feeder and stood still as a statue as birds zoomed in and out.  Then with lightning speed, it jumped up and snatched one of the hummer’s in mid-air.  “Imagine,” he said, “An animal fast enough to catch a hummingbird!”

If you are like me, you might be wondering if the last thing the ill-fated hummer heard was, BEEP-BEEP!

Hunter Preparations – Mixed Bag

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-Doves, Ducks and Deer are sure to be on hunters’ minds this week
-Missouri Hunters Smile and Say, “Whata’ We Hunting Today?”

We made it! The long dry spell for hunting is nearly over, and Show-Me State hunters once again will be savoring the piquant smell of burned gunpowder and the twang of bowstrings.  Some of you will have taken the hunting monkey off your back by pursuing squirrels or woodchucks for the past three months, but that’s cold comfort for those whose favorite pastimes involve winged game or deer.

Dove, snipe and rail seasons lead the way, opening September 1.  Waterfowl are next, with this year’s early teal season opening September 10.  Archery deer and turkey season launches Sept.  15, followed by rabbits, firearms turkey hunting and the early Canada goose season October 1.  One of my favorites, woodcock season, opens October 15 and duck season gets under way in the North Zone October 29.  Quail and pheasant seasons open November 1, and firearms deer season isn’t far behind.
Here are some random thoughts about this panoply of autumn excitement.

DOVES

I previously covered safety considerations and the abundance of hunting opportunities in hunting areas managed specifically for doves and dove hunters by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).  So here’s a tip to killing more doves: Go snake-eyed.  Nothing makes hitting a dove harder than not spotting the bird until it’s on top of you.  Because they can come from any compass point or elevation, our hunter natural tendency is to constantly swivel our head in all directions.  Don’t do it.  Motion registers in our brains when the image of an object moves across our retinas.  Putting your retina itself in motion by turning your head or cutting your eyes left, right, up and down only makes it harder to see the tiny motion of an approaching dove 200 yards out.

Instead, when waiting for a shot, pick a spot near the center of the horizon where doves are most likely to appear and settle your gaze there, as if you were a snake waiting to ambush its prey.  Don’t maintain focus on a particular spot.  Let your eyes drift apart, go a little walleyed.  Sitting with head and eyes still, you will be amazed at how easily you notice the movement of an incoming bird.  You won’t be able to see birds that are out of your peripheral vision, but that would be equally true if you were rubber-necking.

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TEAL

This works equally well for teal, which often fly low and fast and are on your decoys before you have time to blink, let alone raise a gun.  Speaking of teal and guns, these early migrating speedsters call for slightly different hardware and ammunition than full-sized ducks.  Teal – especially green wings – tend to fly in tight little flocks.  As a result, it’s easy to knock down more than one with a single shot.  I have killed as many as three with one trigger pull.  I was elated about that.  I did it deliberately and was over the moon at the result.  However, the intervening years have landed me in a place where I like to savor a hunt for hours, rather than end it in minutes.  Also, as you approach a limit, the possibility of killing more than one teal at a shot becomes a liability rather than an asset.

That’s why I now use a tighter choke during the early teal season than I do later in the year.  I use a full choke in my autoloader and choose an ancient Merkel side-by-side choked full and extra full or an Antonio Zoli over-under, choked full and modified.  Because maintaining adequate pattern density isn’t an issue with these chokes, I now use Number 4 steel instead of Number 6, as I once did.  The combination of tight choke and large shot size translates into many fewer birds crippled or lost.  If you hit a bird with a full choke and Number 4 shot, it’s going down for the count and the tight pattern allows you to target one bird out of a compact flock.

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BIG DUCKS

The regular waterfowl season is what I dream about the other nine months of the year.  To maximize my chances of getting some good hunts, I never miss a chance to apply for reservations at MDC’s 15 intensively managed wetland areas.  Throughout the season, I apply twice a week for reservations at Grand Pass, Eagle Bluffs or Otter Slough conservation areas through the Quick Draw system.  The first year I drew an astonishing four reservations.  For the past two years, I’ve come up with goose eggs.  Fortunately, I have friends who also use Quick Draw and since as many as four people can hunt on one QD reservation, I have gotten to hunt these areas every year.

The other opportunity I never miss is applying for a hunt under the regular waterfowl reservation system used to allocate hunting opportunities at MDC’s other 12 managed wetland areas.  MDC accepts applications for these areas from September 1 through 18.  Successful applicants receive notification October 1.  Finally, I take my chances at the slots allocated for hunters without reservations.  This involves arriving early at my chosen area and standing in the “Poor Line” with other reservation-less hunters in hopes of pulling a low number and getting to hunt.  When I strike out, I go to Plan B, driving to an open-hunting area with wetland habitat or taking my small boat to a sandbar on the Missouri River to hunt.

DEER

As Show-Me State deer hunters know, Missouri is in the early stages of a slow-moving epidemic.  Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a brain-wasting disease of deer, elk and moose caused by malformed proteins that are too primitive to even be called organisms.  That doesn’t prevent them from killing every deer they infect.

In an effort to slow the spread of the disease, MDC has instituted several measures to track the spread of the disease and reduce risk factors for spreading it.  In the past year, the number of counties where MDC is conducting CWD surveillance has increased to the point where it is no longer logistically feasible for the agency to cull deer for testing.  In order to continue surveillance, MDC is requiring hunters to submit for tissue sampling any deer taken in the 29-county CWD Management Zone during opening weekend of the November Portion of firearms deer season – November 12 and 13.  You can bring the whole deer or the head only, as long as you leave it attached to at least 6 inches of neck.
MDC will maintain 75 sampling stations in the 29 counties of the CWD Management Zone.  They will be open from 7:30 a.m. until 8 p.m.  November 12 and 13.  Their locations, including directions, are listed in the 2016 Missouri Fall Deer and Turkey Hunting Regulations booklet, which is available wherever hunting permits are sold or online.

I have already been fiddling with decoys and have inventoried my ammunition so I can fill any gaps during fall sales.  I even put on my muddy waders and climbed into the jet tub to pinpoint the source of last year’s wet crotch (I have a very patient wife).  The weather forecast shows high 70s for the dove opener, which means that teal will be filtering down from the Dakotas by September 10.  Lord, how I love this time of year!  At this point, it’s all promise.

DIY Dry Fly Floatant

Dry flies need to float – you can wear out flies with false casts to keep them dry and afloat, or you can use commercial or home-made floatant.

Float High and Dry in High Mountain Country or Anywhere Else

When my friend and coworker, Mark Van Patten, gifted me with a made-to-order fly rod in honor of my retirement a couple of years ago, I was honored and a little intimidated. Mark comes from a long line of fly-fishers and began throwing dry flies not long after taking his first steps. He had his own television show, The Tying Bench, for years. Fly-casting is so deeply etched in his muscle memory, I suspect he could cast in a coma.

Naturally, I feel obliged to “do right” by this special present. I got the perfect opportunity earlier this summer when a friend invited me on a backpack trip to catch golden trout in the Beartooth Mountains of southwestern Montana. The fish were biting when I got there, and we proceeded to wear them out on dry flies. Unfortunately, I also was wearing out my flies with the many false casts necessary to keep them dry. Watching me tie on a third fly, one of my companions considerately asked if I had any “floatant.”

“Any what?” I asked, like the fly-fishing novice that I am. Chris made his way over to me and produced a tiny plastic bottle from which he dispensed a drop of clear fluid onto my fly. The mysterious potion rendered my fly unsinkable for the next half hour.

For those of you who already are initiated in the ways of the Elk-Hair Caddis and Parachute Adams, please feel free to have a good laugh at the expense of the newbie. For the rest of you, here’s a helpful bit of information about floatant. It’s a compound of two petroleum products designed to keep dry flies from absorbing water, thus becoming wet flies. The compound typically includes a waxy substance that coats the fly and a lighter component that is liquid at air temperature and serves as a carrier for waxy stuff, sort of like paint thinner is a carrier for the oil and pigment in house paint. Like paint thinner, the light, fluid component of floatant quickly evaporates, depositing the waxy part on the fly. I made a mental note to buy some of this goop for future trips.

The biggest problem you are likely to face when making your own floatant is getting it into a tiny bottle for convenient use, this eye-dropper bottle worked perfect.

When I got home, I fired up my computer, fully intending to send Amazon.com a bit more of my hard-earned green in exchange for floatant. Then my inner Scrooge McDuck asserted himself. There’s a YouTube video for everything else under the sun. Surely someone had posted one about how to make your own fly floatant. I googled it, and came up with dozens of hits. Visiting several of these pages made it clear that anyone can make fly floatant if they have access to two ingredients – white gas and paraffin. Since I own a Coleman camp stove – the old kind with a refillable tank – and since my wife uses paraffin for canning jelly, I had everything needed, and I proceeded to mix up a batch.

Here’s how I did it. I thoroughly dried an aluminum water bottle with a tight-fitting stopper and poured in about half a cup of white gas. Next, I used a kitchen grater to shave very fine curls of paraffin onto a piece of paper. I made a LOT of shavings – more than enough loose shavings to fill a measuring cup. Using the paper as a funnel, I poured half the shavings into the water bottle, shook it up, put the bottle inside a clear plastic bag and put the whole thing on a piece of black plastic in full sun on my deck. After an hour or so the bottle was almost too hot to hold. I took it out, shook it again and peered down into the bottle to see if all the paraffin was dissolved. It was, so I dumped the rest of the paraffin shavings into the bottle and repeated the process. The next check revealed kind of a slushy mixture, so I added more white gas, let it warm up one more time and came up with a thick, clear fluid.

I was reasonably confident that this would do the trick, but I needed some means of dispensing it. I remembered a bottle of eye drops in the medicine cabinet. I hadn’t used the stuff in years, so I pulled out the stopper, drained and dried the inside with tissue paper and poured some of my home-made floatant into it. After letting it come to room temperature, I squeezed a little onto a fly, worked it in with my fingers and after a few seconds dropped it into a glass of water. It floated like a cork.

I have since used the stuff in the field and it works great. I added a little more white gas after an early-morning trip when it was cool enough to turn my home-made floatant slushy again. I can’t emphasize enough the approximate nature of the measurements given above. I didn’t measure anything. If you try this, keep adjusting the mixture until all the paraffin is dissolved, then test its fluidity by putting it in the refrigerator. If it gets too thick to squeeze out of your chosen dispenser, add more white gas.

The DIY sites I visited recommended heating the gas-paraffin mixture in a hot water bath. I’m sure that works, too. I shouldn’t need to say this, but if you use a water bath please heat the water and remove it from your kitchen range, hot plate or whatever before bringing the gas-paraffin mixture anywhere near it. We don’t want anyone setting themselves on fire just to save a few bucks on floatant.

My cost for the project was zero. I had everything I needed to make enough for 10 lifetimes. Not counting time waiting for the sun to heat the bottle, I’d say I spent half an hour on the project. Compare that with $5 to $12 for a little bottle from commercial suppliers.

Good fishing!

When Fish Don’t Bite

Finding a turtle digging a nest was a bonus for the author on a recent fishing trip.

Once-in-a-Lifetime Experiences Can Happen

I’m not the world’s greatest angler. The average outing sees me catch few fish and small ones at that. Not infrequently, I catch none at all. That’s how I came to be an expert in what to do when fish aren’t biting.

A recent trip is a case in point. Last Saturday, a friend and I drove down to Barlow Ford on the Gasconade River with two goals. First, I wanted to show Scott Gerlt a smallmouth honey hole that I discovered while “researching” a recently published article for Missouri Conservationist Magazine. Second, I wanted him to coach me on catching smallmouths with a fly rod.

We arrived at the gravel bar about the same time as two families towing a battered cargo trailer jammed with 10 kayaks. Curious how they knew about this remote spot, I asked one of the dads if they lived somewhere nearby. No, he said, they were from Marthasville, roughly 100 miles away. He asked where I was from. When I told him Jefferson City, he ventured a guess, saying, “I guess you read the article in the Conservationist, too. My cover was blown, so I admitted having written the article.

“I thought you looked familiar!” he exclaimed. He seemed genuinely pleased to meet the guy who had encouraged him, his fishing buddy and their families to explore the upper Gasconade. I’d like to believe that he also was a little impressed at meeting me, which is why I waited until the kayak armada was out of sight before wetting a line. I knew he would probably be the last sentient being I would impress that day. Heaven knows the fish seldom are awe-struck at my fishing prowess.

Scott doesn’t own a kayak, so we were in my Grumman Sport Boat, which is a pretty decent fly-casting platform. We went to the top end of the big bluff pool upstream from Barlow Ford, did a little wade-fishing farther upstream and then got back in the boat and drifted down through the deep pool with tall bluffs and a boulder-studded bottom. I had caught a really nice smallmouth in this pool the last time I was there, so I was optimistic. This time, however, the fish weren’t having any of it. I caught four tiny green and long-eared sunfish. Scott duplicated my catch and added a 10-inch smallie.

I attributed the slow action to the fact that it had rained 48 hours earlier and the river was falling. Whatever the cause, I was less than enthused about our prospects as we made our way back upstream for another drift through the hole. That’s when I spotted my first excuse for not fishing. About 30 yards away, on the shallow side if the pool, a turtle surfaced and seemed to be craning its neck slowly from side to side. At first I thought it was a big soft-shelled turtle, but then I noticed something odd about its neck and head. I expected it to be slender, with a pointy nose, but this seemed too slender and too flexible, even for a softshell.

By this time, Scott was looking at it too and we simultaneously decided the “neck” was a snake. We dropped our rods and began paddling to get a closer look at a medium-sized snapping turtle that was in the process of eating a water snake. That was something neither of us had ever seen before. As we got closer, Scott continued sculling while I fumbled to get my camera out of its dry bag. Then I had to remove the wide-angle lens and replace it with a telephoto. Meanwhile, Scott had trouble maneuvering the clunky Sport Boat against the current from his position in the bow. The net result was that we ended up farther from the action than when we started, and the turtle eventually took his dinner elsewhere. But the experience reminded me of a day last year when I stopped for a nap on a sandy bank a short way upstream and discovered a red-eared slider turtle digging a nest.

The second drift was pretty much like the first. We threw streamers, mohair leeches, wiggle minnows and cone-headed wooly buggers without much effect. That seemed like a good reason to eat lunch, which killed half an hour. Then we did another drift through the pool. Third verse, same as the first. If anything, the fishing had deteriorated.

That’s when Scott’s attention wandered to the bluff, which had what looked like a pretty sizeable cave entrance. I noticed a pile of freshly deposited gravel at the base of the bluff in front of the cave. To me, that indicated that water had been flowing out of the cave at a pretty smart clip during recent rains. I pointed this out to Scott, and we agreed that we ought to explore the cave. Down went the rods again.

Sure enough, a nice trickle of chill water issued from the cave. When we got up near the entrance, we were delighted to discover a torrent of cold air also issuing from the cavern. Using his cell phone as a flashlight, Scott led the way back some 100 feet into the cave, noting a couple of branching corridors along the way. Not having a helmet or a flashlight, it was only a matter of time until I cracked my head on a stalactite, so I went back to the boat and grabbed my camera. This was a photographic subject that wasn’t going anywhere! I got photos of Scott and the cave.

Scott used his cell phone as a flashlight to explore the cave we discovered.

In spite of the day’s heat and humidity, we were sort of chilled by the time we got back to the boat. At the end of that drift, we decided to cut our losses and go home. We also agreed that the day had been salvaged by the snake-eating turtle and cave exploration.

Some of the best things about days afloat or afield are the unexpected, once-in-a-lifetime bonuses they deliver. Here are some other things I’ve discovered that turn lousy fishing days into a great memories:

  • fishdontbite3On hot days, take a good book and plant yourself up to your bellybutton in cool water. A lawn chair is a nice accessory, but not absolutely necessary.
  • When things get dull, run with it by unrolling a ground pad on a shady bank and taking a nap. Therm-A-Rest makes models that roll up to the size of a bag of bagels, making them practical for the limited cargo space of kayaks. Use your dry bag for a pillow. Fishing might be better when you wake up.
  • Nature photography is a great way to show the fish you don’t need their approval. I’m too busy to stop and smell that roses when the fishing is good, but when things get slow, I’m quick to beach my boat and snap a few nature photos. If cell service permits, I share them instantly with friends and family via Facebook or Instagram.
  • In the fall, when there’s a chill in the air, it’s fun to build a fire and broil a fish in foil or trot out my PocketRocket camp stove and cook up a steaming bowl of ramen noodles.

You can probably add to this list. A wise track coach once told me that life throws everyone curves from time to time. You can’t change what happens to you in life, but what’s more important is what you do with adversity. So next time the fish refuse to cooperate, shift gears and turn lemons into lemonade.

Zinging Meteorites in August Night Sky

Spectacular Perseid Meteor Showers
Extraordinary Celestial Moments

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As an indifferent star-gazer at best, I am naturally skeptical about astronomy geek predictions of “spectacular” celestial events. They usually leave me wondering why I got up at 2:00 a.m. and risked mosquito or frostbite for sights that turned out to be ho-hum.

Last night, however, brought a convergence that was difficult to resist.

For a solid month, news media have been all atwitter about the approach of the Perseid Meteor Shower. I have never paid much attention to this annual event. I am content to get my shooting-star fix during Orionid Shower in October, when I customarily spend pre-dawn hours in a deer stand. However, I have been needing to get up to my duck club to clear beaver work from drains and since the location in rural Chariton County is perfect for stargazing, the time seemed right.

I arrived around 10:00 p.m. with plenty of time to stop by the cabin. I unpacked my clothes for tomorrow’s project and turned on the water heater and air conditioning. These light chores done, I grabbed a cold beverage, my ThermaCell mosquito chaser and my folding recliner out of the truck and parked myself on the lawn, facing northeast as instructed by EarthSky.org.

One glance showed the half-moon was still a little above the western horizon, obscuring all but the brightest stars, so I fetched my camera out of the truck, hoping to catch a few meteor tracks. By the time I finished fiddling with that, the moon was gone, and the show was on.

Dove Hunting Opportunities Abound

  • Dove Hunters Should Have Trigger Itch in Missouri
  • Great Prospects – Add Considerations for Safety

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A big plus for all dove hunters, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has a long-standing practice of managing hundreds of fields in statewide conservation areas for the benefit of doves and dove hunters.

Most of these fields are planted with sunflowers, but there are a good number of wheat, millet and buckwheat fields grown as well. Local weather determines when these fields get planted and mature. In good years, most are well along by mid-August, allowing managers to begin mowing a few rows each week. This puts seed on the ground and allows doves to establish the habit of visiting them daily. If that thought doesn’t make your trigger finger itch, you are not a dove hunter.

Good News First:

Hunters will find an abundance of doves flitting around the Show-Me State come September 1.

The Caveat:

Those of us who rely on public land for doving need to hunt defensively and be prepared to act like adults when others don’t.

The good news of proper feed and dense repopulation is the reason for the caveat mentioned earlier. MDC dove fields draw a great number of hunters. My experience is that about one in 10 human beings is an idiot (sometimes I think I’m way too optimistic about human nature, but that’s a different topic). So, if 50 people join you in one of the MDC managed dove fields, chances are good that a few of them will not be the sharpest tacks on the bulletin board.

Doves are Prolific Breeders.

The rosy season forecast is predicated on the fact that doves are the rabbits of the feathered tribe. A pair of mourning doves can raise six broods of two chicks each during the nesting season, which starts as early as March. With even modest nesting success, this results in droves of young, naïve doves for hunters to pursue. Nesting conditions have been good this year, so there’s no reason to believe we won’t have the usual, bumper crop of doves.

Hunter Awareness is Necessary.

Lack of sharpness can exhibit itself in several ways. Several years ago, a friend and I were in a dove field at Plowboy Bend CA near Jamestown well before sunrise on opening day to stake out good spots. The shooting was predictably spectacular. About 30 minutes into shooting hours, a doofus strolled in and walked down the field about 30 yards in front of all the shooters already there. That would have been okay, but when he got in front of me a dove flew over and he shot it. I was still okay with that – barely, but then he proved he was part of the bottom 10 percent by plunking his stool down and making as if to settle in.

Patience is Key.

This led me to point out that his chosen spot put him in the line of fire of at least three other hunters. I refrained from also pointing out that besides being an idiot, he was incredibly rude. Anyway, he got the point and moved on.

Later that morning my hunting partner took a pellet to the neck. The shooter was far enough away that the strike barely broke the skin, drawing a small trickle of blood. But the implication was clear. One of our fellow hunters had taken a shot far too close to the horizon and in the direction of another hunter. It was time to leave, and we did.

The good news is that I have had more trouble-free hunts on public land than problematic ones. Furthermore, safety problems are most common when Sept. 1 falls on a weekend, drawing maximum crowds to managed dove fields. I refuse to hunt public fields on Saturday or Sunday openers. It isn’t just that the safety concerns increase with the number of hunters. I simply hate crowds. It’s just not worth the hassle to me, let alone the risk.

Fortunately, his year’s opener is on Thursday, so the number of hunters converging on dove fields will be relatively sensible. That said, you still will find lots of hunters on MDC fields on opening day. Here are a few thoughts on making your public-land hunt as safe and pleasant as possible.

Avoid the Most Popular Areas.

I always hunt close to home, so I don’t know which CAs have the biggest crowds outside of central Missouri. My guess is that the ones listed on MDC’s dove information page are near the top for attendance. Instead, I suggest that you use MDC’s list of managed dove fields to identify one on a smaller CA near you that has managed fields. The web page has maps showing the location of these fields. Scout a few ahead of time, so you know where you would like to be on opening morning and can find your way there in the dark.

Arrive Early

Even the less popular areas can attract quite a few hunters. I suggest arriving at least an hour before shooting time. A headlamp is handy for alerting new arrivals to your location.

Set Ground Rules

Before the shooting starts, go around and introduce yourself to your hunting companions for the day. Gently point out safety risks to new arrivals who set up too close to others. Try to get everyone to agree not to take shows lower than 45 degrees above the horizon.

Dogs? Let Other Hunters Know

If you have a dog, share that with your group ahead of time and ask that no one ground-swat crippled doves. Offer the use of your dog to retrieve their cripples.

Wear Hunter Orange.

Doves react to motion, not color. Wearing a hunter-orange cap and vest isn’t going to hurt your hunting if you stand still and it certainly will alert other hunters to your location. Safety first.

Be the Adult.

Although it is tempting to read the riot act to unsafe hunters – that has always seemed dangerous to me, because idiots often also are belligerent and they have shotguns. Furthermore, it’s futile. You truly can’t fix stupid. So when things turn stupid, move or call it a day. Life is too short to waste time interacting with idiots.

Sign up for Managed Hunts at selected CAs. Dove hunting opportunities on these areas are allocated by daily drawings. You might not get in and if you do, you are assured that the number of hunters will be limited.

  • James A. Reed near Kansas City – Call 816-622-0900 for details.
  • Eagle Bluffs near Columbia – Call 573-815-7900.
  • Ten Mile Pond near East Prairie – Call 573-649-9491.
  • Otter Slough near Poplar Bluff – Call 573-290-5730.
  • Marais Temps Clair near St. Louis – Call 314-877-6014.

At its best, dove hunting in Missouri is among the most exciting hunting of all options, offering action-packed outdoor activity. Don’t let a few knuckleheads keep you from enjoying it.

Be smart, play it safe, and you’ll be fine.

Golden Trout Mother Lode

Like a Peacock and a Goldfish Combined in a Dream, Simply Beautiful!

The Montana Golden Trout at 10,000 feet above sea level in Sylvan Lake showed a marked preference for dry flies while we were there, while those Brook Trout in nearby Crow Lake at an even higher elevation preferred cone-headed wooly buggers.

For the first time in more than two decades, I planned not to attend this year’s annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Then fellow member and OWAA Legal Counsel, Bill Powell, asked when I planned to fly to Billings, Montana, for the event. When I told him I wasn’t going because of the expense, he didn’t play fair. He told me that if I skipped the meeting I would also miss a chance to catch California Golden Trout in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, not far from Yellowstone National Park.

I knew just enough about trout fishing to be aware of this subspecies of rainbow trout, which is native to the South Fork of Kern River in California. I had seen artist Joe Tomelleri’s illustration of a Golden Trout and found it improbable to say the least. His painting looked as if someone had crossed a peacock with a goldfish.

You might wonder, as I did, how the California Golden Trout got to a lake in Montana. The story I heard was that a shipment of Golden Trout was on its way to the East Coast when the train carrying them broke down near Billings. Knowing that the trout would be dead before the train was fixed, some 19th-century angler put a bunch of them into milk cans, strapped them to mules, hauled them 6 miles and up 3,000 feet from the neighborhood of Roscoe, Montana, and dumped them into Sylvan Lake. They have thrived there ever since.

The prospect of seeing these near-mythical fish in person was almost enough to make me raid my retirement account to pay for the trip, almost. But Bill, who has shared many a duck hunt with me and knows my weaknesses, informed me that several writers and photographers whose work I admire and whose company I enjoy already were signed on to make the trip. I registered for the conference immediately and began counting the days until our adventure commenced.

Then reality set in. I had to figure out how I – who live in Missouri, roughly 700 feet above sea level – was going to get from the trailhead at 7,000 feet elevation to the lake at 10,000 feet, carrying a backpack with food, water and camping gear. So, in addition to daydreaming about cool mountain air and ravenous, jewel-like fish, I began hiking 5 miles in hilly terrain with a 35-pound pack twice a week.

The distance and the hills didn’t bother me. At 65 I’m still fairly fit, but I knew that nothing I did around home could prepare me for the thin air I would encounter 9,300 feet farther above sea level. So my excitement was tempered by worry that my lungs wouldn’t be able to supply my legs with enough oxygen to get me up the mountain.

Following a high elevation hike to Sylvan Lake was rewarded with a gracious and delicious meal featuring Golden Trout.

My moment of truth came on July 20, when seven of us set out for Sylvan Lake. Bill, along with Chris Madsen and Jack Ballard, are more or less my age. However, they are accustomed to strenuous hikes at altitude. Hannah Kearse and Birdie Hawkins are in their early 20s. They live at elevations even lower than Missouri, and they too, expressed concern about the hike. Nevertheless, they had 40 years on me. I figured on watching them disappear up the trail ahead of me, not an altogether unpleasant prospect, but not exactly an ego booster either.

The remaining hiker, Tim Mead, of Charlotte, North Carolina, is 78. He was both, my reason for optimism and my worst fear. On one hand, surely I could keep up with a near-octogenarian whose home was at almost exactly the same elevation as mine. On the other hand, what if he left me huffing and puffing in his dust? That would be the end of believing I am in pretty good shape for my age.

I need not have worried. Tim and I made it to the top with enough reserve energy to go straight to the lake after setting up our tents in case the weather turned. We quickly discovered that even Joe Tomelleri’s extravagant rendering of the California Golden Trout could not do justice to the real thing.

Writers are seldom at a loss for words, but when these fish came to hand we were all reduced to the sort of incoherent babbling you expect of an adolescent boy in the presence of Shakira. No superlative can do justice to the visual feast presented by these shimmering amalgams of gold and jewel tones.

Although nothing could match their beauty, the flavor of the 10 Golden Trout we killed that day was a pretty close second. Jack and Chris cooked them in foil with a dab of olive oil to prevent sticking and a pinch of salt for piquancy. Starchy, freeze-dried entrees and brownies with black walnuts, coconut and dried black cherries considerately provided by Bill completed a feast fit for King Midas.

The glacial cirque that cradles Sylvan Lake provides a beautiful backdrop as Tim Mead catches supper.

I thought I would be hiked out after Day 1, but Day 2 offered the chance to hike another 2 miles and 1,500 feet each way to Crow Lake, where Brook Trout were on the menu. These fish proved even more willing than their golden cousins to take a fly. Once again we feasted on the fruits of our “labor.”

Birdie, Hannah and I laid a feast of ramen noodles cooked with fresh zucchini, broccoli and carrots, to which we added foil-cooked Brook Trout. The brownies were gone, so we improvised dessert with excess energy bars, dried fruit and other goodies that no one wanted to carry back down to the vehicles the next day.

The hike out on Day 3 was a breeze, thanks to lighter packs, downhill grades and two days’ altitude acclimation. At the end, we were more than ready for tall glasses of locally brewed beer and half-pound burgers with various wonderful toppings at the Grizzly Bar and Grill in Roscoe.

Backpacking to fish for alpine trout isn’t for everyone. I’m not sure how much longer it will be in the cards for me, but if you want to visit Sylvan and Crow Lakes, take a look at Montana Hiking Trails or AllTrails.com.

Beat the Heat: Catch a Trout

Rainbow trout grow fat and develop vivid colors eating natural food in Missouri’s wild-trout waters.

Trout Parks in Missouri

This is the time of year when the only way to enjoy time outdoors is to have all or part of your body immersed in water. It’s the perfect time of year to immerse yourself in one of Missouri’s many trout waters.

The Show-Me State has a wealth of trout-fishing options, thanks to five cold-water hatcheries operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). Missouri’s four trout parks – Bennett Spring, Meramec, Montauk and Roaring River – each has an MDC hatchery to supply its needs, and MDC’s huge, modern Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery at Branson rears trout for the world-famous Lake Taneycomo trout fishery, plus trout streams and the winter urban trout fishing program in cities around the state. In all, these hatcheries crank out 1.6 million stockers a year. If that number doesn’t astonish you, your astonishment threshold is much lower than mine!

But that’s just a number. The proof of Missouri’s trout fishing is in the catching, and the catching is good. The daily limit in trout parks is four fish. If you are willing to rise early and know what you are doing, it’s no great challenge to hit this mark. Savvy trout anglers know that the water just outside trout park boundaries can be even more productive than fishing inside the parks.

These two anglers were well on their way to a limit of four fish each at Montauk State Park.

This raises the question of permits. You need a daily trout tag ($3 for adults, $2 for anglers 15 and younger) to fish inside trout parks. You don’t need this tag outside the parks, but you do need a fishing permit if you are age 16 through 64. Also – very important – you need a Trout Permit ($7 for adults, $3.50 15 and younger) if you want to keep trout caught anywhere outside of trout parks.

There is some fine print to consider at Roaring River State Park, and you would do well to acquaint yourself with special regulations that apply on the 23 blue-, red- and white-ribbon trout streams. All this is listed in the annual Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations, which is available wherever fishing permits are sold or at www.mdc.mo.gov.

It’s worth noting here that while MDC operates hatcheries at Missouri’s trout parks, it does not own the parks. Meramec Spring Park, just outside St. James, is owned and operated by the James Foundation. The other three are owned and operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). In addition to trout fishing, these state parks offer park stores with fishing gear tailored to local conditions, restaurants, swimming pools, hiking trails and campgrounds and cabins where you can retire for cool beverage.

Believe it or not, the DNR might have to shutter its trout parks if park-loving voters fail to turn out for Missouri’s general election November 8. The November ballot will include a vote on whether to renew the one-tenth of 1-percent sales tax for parks, soil and water. This tax comes up for renewal by voters every 10 years. The tax provides about three-quarters of the operating budget for state parks, so you can bet that most of the parks and trails will be closed should the tax fail to get a majority of voters’ approval.

This proposition will be titled “Constitutional Amendment 1.” The DNR will be forced to shut down or dramatically reduce fishing opportunities at Bennett Spring State Park, which has been a haven for Missouri anglers for 93 years, if the parks tax fails to get voter approval. If you value this legacy, tell everyone you know to vote yes to extend the tax for another 10 years.

But I digress. My personal favorite among Missouri’s incredible array of trout waters is the North Fork of the White River. This gorgeous stream meanders through Douglas and Ozark counties on its way to Lake Norfork. The 8.6-mile stretch of the North Fork from the upper outlet of Rainbow Spring to Patrick Bridge is a designated Blue-Ribbon Trout Management Area. That means anglers can only use artificial lures and flies, you can only keep one trout a day, and it must be at least 18 inches long. In practical terms, this guarantees a high-density of 12- to 18-inch trout and superb catch-and-release fishing. It also ensures there are plenty of adult trout to spawn each year and maintain the North Fork’s wild trout population.

Trout caught here and in Missouri’s other wild trout streams are impossible to confuse with hatchery-reared fish. Their colors are beyond belief, and their flesh – if you catch a keeper and can bring yourself to eat it rather than taking it to a taxidermist – is simply out of this world. It has the color of wild-caught salmon and rich, complex flavor. Smoked on a charcoal grill, it puts store-bought product to shame.

The Summary of Fishing Regulations has a wealth of information about the North Fork and other Missouri trout waters. After perusing it in the air-conditioned comfort of home, grab your fishing gear and wade into the chill waters of your chosen stream for some of the world’s best trout fishing.

My Gray Tree Frog Guest – Warty Marty

The song of the gray tree frog is heard throughout Missouri and the eastern United States, though few people recognize its source.

Standing in my front yard yesterday, waiting for my golden retriever to fetch a retrieving dummy, I glanced at a bluebird house hanging on a cedar nearby.

It’s made of recycled plastic that would be indestructible if the surrounding woods did not harbor gray squirrels. Unfortunately, the bushy-tailed brigands are frightfully common hereabouts, and they feel it is their privilege, if not their duty, to enlarge the hole leading into any cavity to accommodate their girth.

The bird house, with its ragged, squirrel-gnawed opening, languished in my garage until recently, when my wife brought home a galvanized steel bushing designed to repair such rodent vandalism. It was too small to span the capacious portal, so I mounted a piece of plywood to cover the original surface, screwed the bushing in place and rehung the birdhouse, hoping to attract a late-nesting bluebird couple.

Twenty-four hours later I discovered that a new tenant that taken possession of the house. To my surprise, however, it was not blue and feathery, but gray…and warty. To be specific, it was a gray tree frog.

You might think I would be disappointed by this turn of events. In truth, I’m quite pleased. Bluebirds are fair-weather neighbors, arriving after winter has blown its last gale and departing long before November draws its dreary, gray curtain over Missouri skies.

Gray tree frogs, on the other hand, stick with us all year long. They might not be visible for much of the year, but they are out and about long before the first bluebirds of summer arrive and they can be found beside the porch light on evenings well into October. And when the inevitable warm spell occurs in February, they announce to all and sundry that spring is not far off.

This points up another area where gray tree frogs outperform Missouri’s state bird. Whereas the bluebird’s song is a brief, unmusical mumble, the gray tree frog announces itself with a lusty and remarkably birdlike trill that never fails to make me smile. This “song” is doubly remarkable for its volume, which is far out of proportion to the singer’s diminutive size. I would bet that not one in a hundred people, upon hearing a gray tree frog’s voice at dusk or dawn, ever guess that they are being serenaded by an amphibian, rather than a bird.

My warm, fuzzy reaction to the gray tree frog’s trilling song might have something to do with memories of how they helped me introduce my daughter and son to nature. As noted earlier, these little songsters like to hang out beneath outdoor lights, thanks to the smorgasbord of tasty insects that congregates there.

To illustrate this connection, I used to capture inch-long moths and dangle them, fluttering, in front of the 2-inch long frogs. In moments, the hungry amphibian would grasp the offering between its front legs and jam the dry morsels into their gaping maws with apparent gusto. Particularly large, dusty meals might require extra stuffing and several convulsive gulps to swallow, but I have never seen one of these guys start a meal it couldn’t finish. Watching such outsized morsels disappear into such a small creature is a geek-show that would put the carnival side-show freaks of yesteryear to shame.

Beneath the porch light is definitely the easiest place to find gray tree frogs. When perched in the more natural habitat of tree trunks, their mottled gray color and bumpy skin render them virtually invisible. Knowing this, you could be forgiven for mistaking juvenile gray tree frogs for an entirely different species. Young of the year are a bright – somewhere between lime and grass – green.

In one of those astonishing and inexplicable tricks of nature, the gray tree frog has two species, common and Cope’s. The two are visually indistinguishable, and their ranges overlap extensively. So, you may ask, how do herpetologists tell them apart? If you have a highly attuned ear, you might detect a higher pitch in the trill of the Cope’s gray tree frog. If not, and if you own an electron microscope, you count their chromosomes. The common gray tree frog has precisely twice as many as the Cope’s!

Gray tree frogs are common from the Atlantic Coast westward to Minnesota and eastern Texas. During the day you might be able to locate them on the undersides of wooden decks and lawn furniture. They also like to hide beneath the leaves of potted plants and in crevices of window and door casings. This last habit gets more than a few of them squashed.

They are most active at night and on overcast, rainy days, which apparently make them feel so fine they can’t resist singing. While I’m a little sorry my newly refurbished bird house won’t be hosting bluebirds, I’m tickled to know it is being used by a warty-skinned neighbor who shares my love of rainy days.

Smallmouth Changes in Wind for Missouri Anglers

Trophy Fish, Regular Fish, Fun Fishing and Healthy Fishery is Goal

Many anglers consider the opportunity to catch a bragging-sized smallmouth more important than the ability to take fish home to eat. If you have an opinion about proposed changes to Missouri smallmouth bass and goggle-eye (rock bass) regulations, visit mdc.mo.gov/contact-engage and share your thoughts with the Missouri Conservation Commission.

At their regular meeting on June 24, the Missouri Conservation Commission heard a staff presentation that leads me to believe that change is in the air for smallmouth bass anglers.

The presentation covered research conducted in recent years, including surveys of angler attitudes about the possibility of more restrictive harvest regulations on smallmouths and goggle-eye.  The goal of these changes would be to increase the average size of fish available to anglers.  The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) began looking into this at the urging of the Smallmouth Bass Alliance.

MDC conducted basic field research on the food habits and ecology of smallmouths from the 1960s through the 1980s.  In the 1990s, they studied how far smallmouths move and the types of habitat they use.  Seven years ago, MDC began exploring how increased length and reduced creel limits would affect the size distribution of smallmouth populations.  After this work was done, the agency held open-house meetings and on-line surveys to gauge angler support for a tentative set of recommendations for regulation changes.

For many years now, the statewide length limit on black bass, including smallmouths, has been 12 inches.  The daily limit has been six black bass – largemouth, smallmouth and spotted, in aggregate.  In recent years, however, MDC has been conducting trials of 15- and 18-inch length limits for smallmouths within Smallmouth Management Areas (SMAs) consisting of parts of 11 streams.  At the same time, anglers in the SMAs have been limited to one smallmouth daily in their aggregate limit of six black bass.

During the study, MDC conducted periodic electrofishing samples on the affected areas of the streams.  It also sampled portions of the streams where the more restrictive regulations were not in effect so they could compare results and determine if the experimental regulations were having the desired effect.  Streams included in the experiment were Big Big Piney, Gasconade, Elk, Jacks Fork, James, Little Platt, Meramec, Mineral Fork, Osage Fork of the Gasconade River and Joachim Creek.  The resulting data suggest that the more restrictive length limits did increase the number of larger fish.

In addition, MDC imposed an 8-inch minimum length limit on goggle-eye – also commonly called rock bass – in some streams with the same goal – determining how this affected the size structure of goggle-eye populations.

Based on these data and angler attitudes, MDC Fisheries Division staff say they are developing recommendations that include:

  • Maintaining the 12-inch minimum length limit on smallmouths and daily aggregate limit of six black bass for most streams in the state.
  • Instituting a 15-inch minimum length limit and a daily limit of one for smallmouth bass on most of the streams where more restrictive regulations have been tested.
  • Placing a statewide minimum length limit of 7 inches on goggle-eye.
  • Extending the SMA boundaries on the Jacks Fork, Big, Meramec and Big Piney rivers.

MDC’s Fisheries Division Staff decided not to recommend more restrictive harvest regulations on smallmouth bass on the Current River, where tournament anglers expressed strong objections to the idea.  They also decided to recommend discontinuation of the restrictive smallmouth harvest regulations on the Osage Fork SMA, because data suggested it was not needed there.

These changes would affect only smallmouth bass in the SMA’s.  A minimum length limit of 12 inches would remain in effect for largemouths and spotted bass.

Also during the June 24 meeting, the Conservation Commissioners seemed to like the idea of the changes.  Consequently, MDC Fisheries Division Staff expressed their intention to develop a formal proposal for the Commissioners’ consideration at their upcoming meeting on August 26.

Many smallmouth devotees will hail the proposed regulations as long overdue.  Those who want to catch and keep up to six smallmouths of at least 12 inches daily will still have streams where they can do so.  Those who think the chance to catch a trophy smallmouth is more important than taking fish home will have places to follow their bliss, too.

The Conservation Commission encourages anglers who have preferences in this matter to visit mdc.mo.gov/contact-engage, and express those preferences.  If the commissioners vote to approve the proposed regulation changes, there will be a period for comments afterwards.

If they receive no comments or hear nothing that changes their minds, the regulation will go into effect March 1, 2017.

Wild Boneheads of Nature

Learn About Deer Sex – Antlers, Genes, Hormones and Nutrition

A trail camera caught this buck in Vernon County, Missouri, while his 207 5/8 B&C antlers were still in velvet

I changed out the memory cards in my trail cameras yesterday.  This always feels like Christmas, not knowing what I will find “under the tree.”  This time, the biggest excitement was a close-up of a buck that stuck its head right into the corner of the frame, showing off a budding set of antlers.

Looking at pictures like this one over the years has brought home to me just how amazing deer antlers are.  Most of you probably know that calling the headgear of deer, elk and moose “horns” is technically incorrect.  Goats and antelopes have horns, which consist of the same material as your fingernails.  Antlers consist of bone.

What you might not know is that during the peak of antler growth in mid-summer, white-tailed deer antlers can grow as much as two inches…a day!

I learned this after noticing almost unbelievable branching in the antlers of a deer I had been monitoring for a few weeks.  This was back before Missouri’s first documented case of chronic wasting disease (CWD).  Back then, I put out corn to attract deer to my trail cameras.  Now doing anything to artificially concentrate deer is irresponsible, because it promotes CWD transmission.

Anyway, because I had the same deer coming to my cameras on a regular basis, it was easy to track the growth of individual bucks by their antlers.  One that I had been watching appeared to be destined to have a nice four-point rack.  Then two more points appeared.  And then two more.  I never see the eight-pointer during deer season, but the astonishing growth of his antlers sent me to reference books and deer biologists for more information.  They said that whitetail bucks with a combination of ample nutrition and the right genes could sustain antler growth of eight inches in a week.  So the guy seen in the first photo here could be a wall-hanger in just a few weeks.

In my imagination, he went on to resemble the deer in the second photo.  This also is a Missouri deer.  It was killed by an Indiana resident Owen Mason last year in Vernon County.  This image was captured with a trail camera on a neighboring farm.  Antler geeks would not forgive me if I failed to mention its official Boone and Crockett score – 207-5/8.

Rapid growth wasn’t the most interesting thing I learned in my modest research into antlers.  Later that year I got a call from a hunter who had shot an antlered doe.  I knew that does sometimes grow antlers, just as some hen turkeys grow beards, but I wasn’t prepared for what I learned.

First, antlered does aren’t as rare as I expected.  Depending on which source you consult, as many as one in 65, or as few as one in 4,437 whitetail does, grow antlers.  It’s all a question of hormones.  Like humans and other mammals, both male and female deer produce testosterone.  Most does have too little to grow antlers, but if plotted on a graph, individual testosterone levels would be a continuum, with most does falling at the low end and a few producing enough of the male hormone to grow pretty respectable antlers.

The most recent download from one of my trail cameras caught this promising little whitetail buck, setting my mind spinning down the antler rabbit hole. Jim Low Photo

The average antlered doe – if that’s not a contradiction in terms – has very poorly developed antlers.  Often they retain some velvet late into the fall and are not thoroughly hardened.  That was definitely not the case with two deer harvested in Missouri in 2011.  One was a nice 9-pointer taken in Platte County.  The other was a 10-pointer that fell to a hunter in Wright County.  Both racks were typical in form and fully hardened.

Because Missouri’s hunting regulations distinguish between antlered and antlerless deer, rather than bucks and does, the hunters had to burn their buck tags, even though their deer were females.   And when I say they were females, I mean that in every sense except antlers.  Biologist tell me that most antlered does are fully functioning females, capable of reproducing.  You can draw your own conclusion about how mating with a 10-point doe might affect the gender identity of a buck.

Diving deeper into deer hormones and gender, it turns out that white-tailed deer can possess characteristics of both sexes.  A fully functional female can have a penis, and an otherwise virile buck can have internal or external female organs.  In most cases, the misplaced genitalia are underdeveloped.  In many cases, they might go unnoticed, but on the other hand, they can leave a hunter scratching his head as he tries to figure out which tag to put on the deer he just shot.

If the ratios mentioned earlier hold true for Missouri, our annual harvest of 280,000 deer could include anywhere from 70 to 8,000 sexually ambiguous deer.  So before you field dress your buck or doe, examine it closely.  Your buddies might think it’s a bit odd when you stroll back into camp humming The Kinks’ gender-bending anthem, Lola.

Bear Awareness Dawning in Missouri

The Largest Wild Mammal in the “Show-Me State” Should Not Be a Source of Fear, but Deserves Respect

Hundreds of bears like this healthy adult male roam Missouri’s Ozarks. A few have ventured as far as the Iowa border.

Eugene Gerve was awakened by the furious barking of his dog one May night.  When he shined a spotlight into his yard in Webster County, Missouri, he was startled to find a 300-pound black bear a scant 15 feet away, rapidly emptying a cat food dispenser.

Gerve is one of a growing number of Missourians who have learned to take bears into account, whether they are at home or at play.  The new awareness results from a black bear restoration program conducted by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in the 1950s and 1960s.  The program’s success guaranteed that bears – who can’t read signs – would eventually cross the state line and repopulate their historic range in Missouri.

They began doing that at least as early as the 1980s and more likely in the ‘70s.  Interestingly, Missouri probably would have gotten its own bear population without Arkansas’ help.  DNA studies strongly suggest that bears in Webster and Douglas counties, which has Missouri’s highest-density population of the animals – are genetically distinct from Arkansas bears who probably stem from a remnant population that survived near-extermination in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Wherever they came from, the Show-Me State has an estimated population of several hundred black bears.  Although they are much more common south of I-44 than in the northern two-thirds of the state, there have been confirmed sightings all the way from the Arkansas border to the Iowa State line.  So no matter where you live, hunt, fish or camp, you might encounter a bear.

Bears are least likely to run afoul of humans in the fall, when “hard mast” food items – mostly acorns, are abundant.  Spring and early summer are another matter.  Bears are lean and hungry after their winter fast, and there’s little for them to eat besides grass and tender young vegetation.  Things ease up a bit as summer progresses and berries and other “soft mast” become available.  So the time you need to be most concerned about bears is from now until nuts start falling.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts about living with bears.

AROUND HOME 

Gerve’s experience illustrates the main point to remember for preventing bear problems at home.  Bears are not finicky eaters.  Berries, roots, small animals, carrion, pet food, grain bins, bird seed, garbage and barbecue grills all are equally enticing to their sensitive nose.  So it’s important not to leave these where bears can get at them.  If you live north of the Missouri River, you probably don’t have to invest in bear-proof garbage cans, but it would be wise to keep containers of bird seed, pet or livestock food in locked buildings.

IN CAMP

You need to adjust your attitude if you travel south of the Missouri River to float, fish, backpack, camp, hunt or picnic.  If possible, keep coolers and other food containers locked in vehicles when unattended, along with trash.

When float-camping, bring along bear-proof containers, such as sturdy coolers with sturdy latches.  Army-surplus ammunition cans are available in sizes large enough to accommodate all the non-perishable food you need for a couple of days.  Never bring these containers or anything that smells like food into a tent or soft-sided camper at night.  Hunger sometimes overwhelms the natural shyness of black bears enough to try to snatch food from under the nose of sleeping people.  A slight miscalculation can result in a bear grabbing a camper’s foot instead of a hot dog.

When you are fortunate enough to bring fish or game back to camp, show the same caution with the harvest as you would with store-bought food stuffs or garbage.  Don’t leave gut piles or other offal lying around camp or in the water nearby.  Keep them far from camp or put them in trash bags and keep it where foraging bears can’t smell or reach them.

BRUIN FACE-OFFS

Even if you observe the foregoing cautions, you might end up face-to-face with a bear.  I incurred such an event!

It’s important to remember that black bears are naturally afraid of people.  Thousands of years of fighting losing battles with humans have removed most of the aggressive black bears from the gene pool, so when confronted by a human, 99.99 percent of black bears run away (unlike grizzly bears, which don’t live in Missouri).  We will get back to that 0.01 percent of black bears in a minute.

Black bears and people end up face-to-face in two ways.  One is when a bear is lured close to people by the promise of food.  A bear that is rummaging in garbage, raiding a cooler, or guzzling nectar from a hummingbird feeder generally heads for the high timber when a human shouts at them, honks a horn or bangs pots and pans – all from indoors and at a safe distance, of course.

If a bear ever fails to hightail it when humans appear, call the nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office, conservation agent or law-enforcement agency for help.  Bears are protected in Missouri and shooting one just because it showed its face where it isn’t welcome can earn you a hefty fine.  If imminent loss of safety is involved, that’s another story.

The other way that bears and people end up in confrontations is surprise encounters.  A bear foraging for berries might not hear a hiker walking silently along the Ozark Trail.  Similarly, a bear has no way of knowing that it is approaching a deer hunter sitting in a tree stand.  In cases like these, it’s up to the human to defuse a potentially dangerous situation.  This is very important.  Please heed.

Missouri Department of Conservation Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer places a GPS tracking collar on a sedated bear. Information from the collar, along with genetic data from blood samples, will help the Missouri Department of Conservation determine how many bears Missouri has, where they live and where they came from.

Proximity is a very important consideration in handing bear confrontations.   Just like people, bears have a personal space inside of which they feel threatened.  Spying a bear 50 yards away, before it sees you, is a very different situation than looking up and seeing a bear that has just seen you 15 feet away.

In the first instance, the thing to do is to quietly leave the area.  If the bear notices you as you are leaving, it might stand up on its hind legs.  This is not a threat.  The bear is simply trying to get a better look at you and figure out what you are.  Don’t make eye contact, which bears perceive as aggressive.  Instead, speak in a calm, conversational voice (letting the bear know that you are a human) and slowly back away until the bear is out of sight.  Then quietly leave the area.

If you are uncomfortably close to a bear when you first see it, don’t turn and run or make any other sudden moves that might startle the bear.  Again avoiding eye contact, back away.  When surprised at close distance, a bear may feel threatened whatever you do.  In such cases, black bears often snap their jaws and stamp their feet.  This is the bear trying to intimidate you.  It is not a sign that it is about to attack.  If you back away without eye contact, the bear almost certainly will leave the area once it is sure you are not a threat.

It is not uncommon for black bears to make bluff charges to scare off a perceived threat.  This is incredibly frightening.  I have been bluff charged by a bear that I knew was restrained by a foot snare and I still fell over backwards in absolute terror.  The good news is that bluff charges are just that – bluffs.  If you do not react aggressively, the bear will leave after having given you a good scare.  If you are made of sterner stuff than I was, the best way to react to a bluff charge is to look away and stand still.  When the bear backs off, take your cue and back away slowly.

GOING TO EXTREMES 

Now we get to that troublesome 0.01 percent of cases where a bear turns aggressive.  These usually result when a female bear perceives a threat to her cubs.  Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually have to get between the sow and her cubs to trigger a protective attack.  Just being too close for her comfort can be enough.

The best way to avoid this scenario is to make noise wherever you go.  A sow that knows you are coming will get her cubs out of your way.  If you see a bear cub, immediately leave the area the way you came.

A far less likely scenario is an encounter with that rare black bear that has lost its natural fear of people.  Such bears do attack people on very rare occasions.  However a bear attack begins, do not try to run away.  The best track-and-field athletes in the world could not outrun a bear on level ground, let alone in the woods.

The black bear experts I have interviewed over the years advocate fighting back if you are attacked.  Unlike grizzlies, which are not deterred by resistance, black bears have been repelled by small adults using nothing more than bare fists, rocks, sticks or whatever other weapons were at hand.

While I understand this, I also know that not everyone has the mental makeup to put up a fight in the face of an angry bear.  I honestly don’t know if I could.  If you find yourself unable to fight, then wrap your hands and arms around your neck and head and curl up in a fetal position.  In all likelihood, the bear will stop when you no longer seem like a threat.

If the attack continues for more than a few seconds, the bear might actually be trying to kill you.  At that point, you have no choice, but to screw up your courage and convince the bear that it will have to pay a high price for your life.

Having said all this scary stuff, I want to emphasize that more people die of bee stings, drowning, bicycle accidents, falls at home and infected hangnails than die of black bear attacks.

If you scour news media and historic records going back 200 years, you will be lucky to find a dozen cases of fatal black bear attacks.  These are wild animals that deserve tremendous respect, but they do not pose a significant threat to people.

Don’t let overblown fears provoked by Hollywood horror flicks keep you away from Missouri’s outdoors!

Celebrate Trails Day at a State Park

National Trails Day – June 1, 2016
Nature Abounds in State Parks… Sharing Some of My Experiences

This timber rattlesnake was calmly sunning itself on the trail to the top of Taum Sauk Mountain. Rattlesnakes pretty much keep to themselves I you let them be, the good part is they usually give you a warning if they sense danger to themselves. Just walk around them.

Nothing could ever take the place of hunting and fishing for me, but they aren’t the only outdoor pursuits I enjoy.  Sometimes, especially in the summer when most hunting seasons are closed, nothing sounds better to me than a day hike with my camera.

Beautiful flowers abound, this spiderwort was one of hundreds growing alongside a trail at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park in June.

The American Hiking Society designates the first Saturday in June as National Trails Day and encourages people to get out and sample some of America’s amazing landscapes.  That’s a suggestion I wholeheartedly endorse.  Missourians are incredibly fortunate to live in what is arguably the best state for public hiking trails.  If you don’t believe me, just ask American Trails, a national nonprofit that  works on behalf of hiking, biking and riding trails.  In 2013, American Trails named Missouri the Best Trail State in America.

No wonder, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s more than 1,000 conservation areas have hundreds of miles of designated trails.  Some of those trails are included in the 350-mile Ozark Trail, but for my money, the best trails with the widest range of experience are to be found in parks owned and operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The diversity is stunning, from Civil War battlefields to swamps, prairies, waterfalls and strange volcanic rock formations.

A network of trails short enough for day hikes stitches together Johnson’s Shut-Ins, Taum Sauk Mountain and Elephant Rocks state parks and the 7,000-acre St. Francois Mountains Natural Area.

No other place in Missouri has more to offer day hikers than the relatively small patch of eastern Ozarks that contains Johnson Shut-Ins, Taum Sauk Mountain and Elephant Rocks State Parks.  Besides being able to climb to the highest point in the state, this piece of real-estate offers swimming in pristine water, viewing the  tallest waterfall in the state and clamoring over slick-rock barrens littered with pink granite boulders – some the size of houses!  Some of it is made to order for little kids.  Other parts are definitely for adults, assuming you are interested in serious hiking or rock climbing.  The landscape and the huge variety of plants and animals it supports make this one of the state’s best spots for photography, too.

Of course, not everyone wants to drive to the Ozarks on any given weekend.  Good thing, too.  You couldn’t find room to stand, let alone hike, if everyone showed up at the same time.  So I suggest you visit these extremely popular parks during the week if possible, or you can save yourself a drive by taking advantage of the trails at a state park nearer to home.  The Missouri DNR has a convenient search engine (https://www.visitmo.com/walking-trails.aspx) that enables hikers to get detailed information about parks statewide.

Here is a sampling of the kind of opportunities available at Missouri State Parks:

  • Watkins Woolen Mill State Park north of Kansas City
  • Roaring River, Bennett Spring and Montauk State (trout) Parks
  • Grand Gulf State Park south of West Plains
  • Big Oak Tree State Park in southeast Missouri
  • Meramec State Park southwest of St.  Louis
  • Wakonda State Park north of Hannibal
  • Thousand Hills State Park west of Kirksville
The rushing waters of Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park create an idyllic summer escape.

The Missouri DNR also operates more than 30 historic sites, including Battle of Lexington, Mark Twain Birthplace, Mastodon, Scott Joplin House, Boone’s Lick, Deutschheim, Dillard Mills, Nathan Boone Homestead, Sandy Creek Covered Bridge and Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio, to name a few.  If you can’t find something to pique your interest in Missouri State Parks, you might ask a doctor to check for a pulse.

Thanks to the early wisdom of Missourians’ who provided for a dedicated sales tax to support state parks – along with soil and water conservation, you can access most park picnic areas and playgrounds for free.  But that could change.

State parks in Missouri’s western prairie counties have a grandeur unmatched elsewhere in the Show-Me State.

Missouri’s one-tenth of 1-percent sales tax for parks, soil and water is up for renewal by voters this year.  Since that tax provides about three-quarters of the operating budget for state parks, you can bet that most of the parks and trails will be closed should the tax fail to get a majority of voters’ approval.   This proposition titled “Constitutional Amendment 1,” will appear on the ballot in the general election on Nov. 8, 2016.  If you live in Missouri, urge everyone you know who values Missouri’s parks and historic sites, not to mention the state’s soil and water, to vote yes to extend the tax for another 10 years.

Treasure in Peril

Missouri State Parks REALLY NEED That 0.01% Tax

David Gray’s granddaughter Emory Gray and mom Melissa Gray enjoy Roaring River State Park’s crystalline water.

You might be aware that Missouri’s one-tenth of 1-percent sales tax for parks, soils and water is up for a vote again this year.  In an era when “tax” is a four-letter word, this particular tax is an exception.  It is exceptional because, for starters, Missourians voted to establish it in 1984.  You don’t see that every day.

Many of the lodges and other structures at Missouri State Parks were built by workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, providing tangible links to American history.

Even though state parks receive only half of proceeds from the tax, it constitutes more than 75 percent of the operating budget for Missouri’s 53 state parks and 35 historic sites.  Thanks to this stable funding, the Show-Me State has what is generally recognized as one of the best state park systems in the nation.  While it is stable as long as it remains in effect, it requires re-approval by voters every 10 years.  Voters may legitimately ask why they should continue paying for parks when they could reduce their tax burden by voting against it.  There are plenty of convincing economic reasons, such as the fact that for a cost of $6 per person per year the tax generates more than $1 billion in tourism-related sales and directly or indirectly supports more than 14,000 jobs.

But that’s just money and I personally think it’s the least compelling argument for providing funding for our parks.  To illustrate what I think is the most important reason for renewing the parks tax, I can’t think of a better example than that of David Gray’s extended family.  David is a friend of mine.  He is the founder of Ardent Reels, which manufactures high-quality spinning and casting reels in Macon, Missouri.  He recently told me with pride and more than a little fondness about one of his family’s traditions.

Two-year old Emory Gray admires cousin Alex Como’s catch.

Each spring, members of the Gray family come from scattered locations around the nation and converge on Roaring River State Park in Barry County.  Roaring River has been part of Missouri’s park system since 1928 and the focus of the Gray family reunion for 40 years.  The most recent Gray family gathering had attendees spanning four generations and ranging in age from 2 to 95.

That’s a wide age span to please, but Roaring River and Missouri’s other state parks do it with ease.  The park has hiking and handicap-accessible trails, buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, picnic grounds, a swimming pool, nature programs, sites for primitive camping or deluxe motor homes and – of course – world-class trout fishing.

While at Roaring River, Gray regularly runs into out-of-state visitors who express amazement at not having been asked to pay to get in.

“Not having to stop at a gate and pay a per-person or per-vehicle fee seems impossible to them,” he says.  “You pay a nominal fee if you want to camp camping, but in Missouri, you don’t need money to enjoy nature.  I think that’s how it should be.”

“Roaring River is close to my family’s heart,” says Gray.  “We go there to renew our family ties and our spirits.  Honestly, it would break our hearts if we lost the place where we have gathered as a family all these years.  It’s a treasure beyond price.”

Michael Como and his daughter Alex are happy with their nice catch with this Roaring River rainbow trout.

But, it’s a treasure that might very well be lost this year.  If those who value Missouri State Parks don’t go to the polls and show their support, most of the parks – which are owned and operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources – would have to be shuttered.  With no money to run them, the DNR likely would be forced to sell most of these treasured places.  Johnson Shut-Ins, Elephant Rocks, Bennett Spring, Meramec, Montauk, Lake of the Ozarks, Ha Ha Tonka, Pomme de Terre, Truman Lake, Mark Twain Stockton, Katy Trail state parks and dozens of others that draw a total of 18 million visitors per year would suddenly be off-limits to Missourians who have built family traditions similar to the Gray family’s.

This is no exaggeration.

The Missouri legislature already has slashed parks funding to the bone.  State parks receive no money from the General Revenue Fund.  Without the sales tax, Missouri’s state parks will virtually disappear.  And don’t confuse this sales tax with the one-eighth of 1-percent sales tax for the Missouri Department of Conservation.  That’s separate fund that is constitutionally separate from other state money.  There’s no way to rob the conservation fund to pay for parks.

If you use any of Missouri’s fabulous parks, or if you see value in having a park system that makes our state a better, more prosperous place to live, vote to renew this tax.  But that’s not enough.  Tell your friends and family that the parks tax is up for renewal and beg them to join you at the polls.  As of this writing, it has not been determined whether the vote will take place in August or November.  Watch this page for more information.

Four generations of David Gray’s family – ranging from 95 to 2 gathered for a photo to commemorate their most recent gathering at Roaring River State Park. “You are always young when visiting Missouri State Parks,” says Gray, “and that is one of the things that make our state parks very special places.”

Fins & Feathers Day

Let’s call the fourth Saturday in May what it really is.

Maries River Smallmouths – Jefferson City native Randy Boeller drove all the way back home from Houston, Texas, to catch this hefty smallmouth from the Maries River.

To my knowledge, the fourth Saturday in May is the only date on the calendar when Missouri anglers and hunters all have something to rejoice about.  That’s because the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend is opening day for squirrel hunting and for catch-and-keep fishing for black bass south of the Missouri River.

This year’s squirrel season runs from May 28 through Feb. 15, 2017.  You can fish for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass year-round, and you can keep these three black bass species all year anywhere north of the Missouri River and in impoundments statewide.  Though in most streams south of the Missouri River, you may not legally keep black bass until the season opens.  This is designed to give bass protection during their spawning season and during the part of the year when Ozark streams are at very low levels and bass are concentrated in small pools.

Note that I said “most” streams south of the Missouri River.  The area where black bass fishing is restricted excludes what is commonly known as “swamp east Missouri,” the low area that is part of the Upper Mississippi Embayment.  This includes all of Dunklin, Pemiscot, New Madrid, Mississippi and Scott counties, most of Butler and Stoddard counties and tiny bits of Ripley and Cape Girardeau counties.  The actual boundaries are much more precise than this, being demarcated by highways as described in the Conservation Department’s Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations.  The booklet is available wherever fishing permits are sold or online at http://on.mo.gov/1LwnqRA.

There’s no trick to finding places to hunt squirrels.  Anyplace with trees is sure to have bushy tails.  If you don’t own such land or know anyone who does, there are literally hundreds of conservation areas that are crawling with squirrels.  The Conservation Department makes it easy to find an area near you with its online Conservation Area Atlas. The database is searchable by county, activity or type of facilities.

What might be slightly more complicated is finding the right kind of squirrel.  To me, the “right” kind are fox squirrels, which are about twice the size of gray squirrels, and consequently are more likely to add up to more than one serving apiece.

In principle, finding fox squirrels is easy.  They inhabit open woodlands and areas where wooded acres are surrounded by open ground, especially agricultural land.  This means southwestern and northern Missouri for the most part.  However, you can find fox squirrels throughout the state where forest borders on pasture or row crops.

Black Powder Squirrels – A small-caliber muzzleloader is a good tool for hunting squirrels in the summer, when foliage dictates close shots.

Most of the bass you catch in Ozark streams will be smallmouths, those bronze-backed masters of the aerobatic hook-toss.  In a few streams, however, smallmouths have been fighting a losing battle against an invasion of spotted bass.

I’m not normally one to intervene in a fair fight, but in this case I think anglers have legitimate cause to take sides.  For one thing, the spotted bass’s fighting ability pales in comparison to that of a smallmouth.  Add to that the fact that spots are significantly smaller, on average than smallies, and you’ve got a no-brainer.

To let anglers weigh in on the smallmouth-spotted bass battle, the Conservation Department has removed the minimum length limit for spots on all or parts of the Big, Bourbeuse, Courtois, Meramec rivers and on Huzzah, Blue Springs, Dry Fork and Mineral Fork creeks.  Taking home a limit of six spotted bass of various sizes lets anglers enjoy fish on the table without reducing the supply of hard-fighting smallmouths.

More restrictive length and creel limits apply to smallmouths on various other streams where the Conservation Department is trying to build trophy smallmouth fisheries.  Before heading out, be sure to check the section of the Fishing Regulation Guide for regulations specific to the area you plan to fish.

Stream bassing in Missouri isn’t all about the Ozarks.  Several streams in Northern Missouri have good smallmouth bass populations mixed in with the dominant bucketmouths.  The South Fabius (pronounced (Fabby”) River, which runs through Knox, Lewis and Marion counties north of St. Louis.  This Mississippi River tributary is virtually unknown outside of Northeastern Missouri, but it is notable enough to be included in the Conservation Department’s “Padder’s Guide to Missouri.”

Plenty of other northern Missouri streams also have excellent black bass fishing.  North of the Missouri River there are the North Fabius, Grand, Chariton, Salt and Platte, and in the south you have fine Ozark Border streams, including the Lamine, Moreau and Maries rivers.

Oil up your shotgun and fishing reel.  The fun is about to start!

Non-Game Grab Bag Fishing Fun

Fish Catching Fun Just About Everywhere Fish Swim!

These guys put the game back into “non-game” species as the author lands a nice, eating-sized freshwater drum.

I recently got what seemed like the dozenth press release from the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) about a new state fishing record.  Looking back over agency releases since the first of the year, I discovered that my perception was a little exaggerated, but not entirely unfounded.  In the first four months of 2016, MDC certified no fewer than seven new records.  That’s more than get submitted in some entire years!

What also struck me just as interesting was the fact that six out of seven of the new records were for fish species that MDC classifies as “nongame.”  This category includes a few surprises, such as the bluegill and green sunfish, but most of the rest are critters that few anglers actively pursue: suckers, carp, buffalo, drum, gar, bowfin and their ilk.

Now there is a widespread perception that these species are somehow less desirable than those classified as “gamefish.”  You might get an argument about that if you asked a devoted sucker-gigger or a 16-year-old whose crappie jig has been inhaled by a 10-pound freshwater drum.  So-called non-game fish can be just as sporty and tasty as their more illustrious kin.  Non-game fish might not win a popularity contest or a beauty pageant, but they definitely are not trash fish.

All this got me thinking about the fact that I’ve never tried fishing for any of these species.  The smallmouth bass is my favorite fish, but being realistic, I know that my home area on the south bank of the Missouri River has more good non-game fish water than smallmouth streams.  I grew up here.  Why have I never tried my hand at these underused fish?

I remembered that one of my co-workers used to enjoy going out about this time of year and catching suckers from a wadable tributary of the Moreau River that runs through Scrivner Road Conservation Area.  I further recalled that his preferred method of stalking these delicious fish was to drift nightcrawlers through riffles.  This is a type of fishing I understand.  Although I long ago left behind bait fishing in favor of artificials, I cut my angling teeth on worms and bobbers.  I’ve been wading small streams in search of smallmouths and sunfish for more than half a century.

So I headed down to the nearest bait shop, where I scored some size 6 bait-holder hooks, size 8 trebles, small barrel swivels and assorted sizes of egg sinkers.  I rigged up half a dozen spinning and baitcasting rods with slip-sinker rigs.  I cut off about 1-foot of monofilament, sliding a sinker up the standing end of the line, then tied on a swivel, tying the foot of monofilament onto the other end of the swivel and finishing up with a hook so it dangled about 9 inches below the swivel.  Then I headed to another Moreau River tributary not 10 minutes from the house.

I knew as I set out that I was a little late by the calendar.  Suckers are most concentrated and therefore easiest to catch during their spawning run.  This usually occurs the last week of April or the first week of May.  Spring came early this year, thanks to warmer-than-average weather, so I probably had missed the hottest action, but I hoped to catch a few slow-starters. Besides, once suckers get this far upstream, they don’t go back down to the big rivers where they spend the winter.  They drift down to deeper holes, sometimes lying at the heads of pools where they can vacuum up morsels washed in at the tail ends of riffles.

Other than being a little late in the spring, conditions were perfect.  The water was a little dingy from recent rains and the creek had a nice, brisk flow.  Areas that will be gravel bars in a few weeks were still under 1 or 2 feet of water.  With high hopes, I tossed out three lines (the most allowed without labeling them with your name and conservation ID number, Then I pulled out the book I was reading at the time, “The Last Full Measure,” by Jeff Shaara. (Great read, btw.)

I didn’t get much reading done and before I knew it, I had a fat, 15-inch channel catfish on the line.  That was followed by several largemouth and smallmouth bass, all of which had to be released, as black bass season is still closed in most streams south of the Missouri River.

Even when there were no fish to unhook, I was kept pretty busy checking lines, refreshing bait and replacing slip-sinker rigs that snagged on rocks or roots.  A couple of hours later I had a 3-pound drum and my original catfish to show for my trouble.  No suckers, but I figure next time I’ll head downstream to a long, deep pool and try my luck there.

There will be a next time. The relaxed pace, ease of access and excitement of not knowing what would turn up on my hook next made me understand why some people target “nongame” fish.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go fry those fish.

Welfare for Winter-Weary Wildlife

Controlled Burns, Planting Food Plots, Pond Conservation Ideas

The Missouri Conservation Department has information on-line and offers workshops to help landowners conduct prescribed burns safely.

“Hey buddy, can you spare me a food plot? I’ll pay you back in the fall.”  You’ll never hear this line, because deer, turkey and bass don’t ask for handouts.  Life can be harsh for the animals that bring hunters, anglers and nature lovers so much pleasure.  After a tough winter, it’s not a bad idea to lend wildlife a helping hand.  Spring is the right time to start.

For instance, it’s the perfect time to plant a food plot and it’s not too late to plant trees that will provide food and shelter for wildlife and control erosion.

If you farm, this might be the year you decide to leave a few rows of grain for quail and turkeys, or increase the width of buffer strips between crops and stream corridors to improve water quality for fish.  If you have warm-season grasses, you can plan now to use grazing and haying techniques that improve yield and wildlife habitat.

Prescribed burning is one way to improve wildlife habitat.

Instead of letting your wood lot become overcrowded with unhealthy trees, you can conduct timber stand improvement, increasing production of acorns and other forest crops needed by deer and turkeys.  While you are at it, you might fell a few trees around the edges, creating critical woody cover for quail, rabbits and other ground-nesting wildlife.

Did you notice dead fish when your lake or pond thawed this spring?  If so, it makes sense to investigate the cause.  Siltation might have reduced water depth to the point where fish have no place to escape winter’s icy grip.  Fish kills also can result if you have too much aquatic vegetation.

While you are thinking about your lake, consider creating underwater habitat by installing fish-attracting structures.  Usually called brush piles or crappie beds, these underwater habitats create places for tiny invertebrates to grow.  This fuels the growth of aquatic insects, shad, minnows and other food items for bluegill, crappie, bass and catfish.  Fish-attracting structures also do what their name implies – attract fish to spots where you can key in on them with pole and line.

A trip to the local farm supply store for food plot seed will pay dividends this fall.

Lack of expertise is what stops most of us from taking these simple measures for better hunting and fishing.  That is why the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has self-help publications and employs private land services biologists.  It’s their job to help landowners achieve their fish and wildlife management goals.

You can get started by visiting http://mdc.mo.gov/your-property and checking out the resources available there.  To identify the private land services biologist for your area, visit http://on.mo.gov/1Uk3E5d, select your county from the drop-down menu under “Who’s My Local Contact” and get started.

Fish and wildlife really will pay you back.  Honest!

Turkeys by Proxy

Mentoring, First-Time Turkey Hunting, Sharing the Outdoors

Scott Gerlt called in this feisty gobbler on April 22 at a farm in southern Cole County, Missouri. Watching him work the bird, his first bird, and then close the deal was sweeter than shooting one myself.

I don’t recall exactly when I started deriving more pleasure from game shot by others, than from animals I bagged myself.  I suppose it was inevitable that the switch to proxy hunting would begin with the wild turkey, whose pursuit offers rewards too abundant and varied for one person to enjoy properly.  The current 2016 spring turkey season is a good example.

You might think that Missouri’s three-week turkey season would be enough for any sensible person, but turkey hunters are not a sensible lot.  Most of the hunters I know extend the fun by scouting birds they plan to hunt days or weeks before opening day.  I started this year’s turkey season a week before opening day, shadowing a tight-lipped gobbler that had been roosting with five hens about a quarter mile southwest of my back door.  His presence was indicated as much by history as by observation.  His voice had only wafted through my open bedroom window twice, but the biggest, baddest gobbler in our area always roosts in that spot.  A gobble or two was all I needed by way of confirmation.

Old gobblers are choosy.  The long-standing roost near my house has offered a long line of big toms multiple fly-down options: three pastures, a tiny forest clearing and oak-hickory forest, plus dense cedar thicket.  It has something for every combination of weather and mood.

The backyard gobbler’s mood the week before opening day was taciturn.  With all those hens around him, he had little reason to gobble other than pride, which old toms are keenly aware goeth before a fall.

Nevertheless, I had him pegged.  He and his hens were on an unusual pattern.  Thanks to the fact that my neighbor had cattle in all three pastures that ordinarily were the landing strips for the birds.  With dozens of large ungulates cluttering their runway, the yard birds were flying down into the woods and heading north through the woods directly behind my house.

This couldn’t have been better.  Thinning and periodic burning have kept my 5-acre oak-hickory wood lot open and uncluttered by undergrowth.  You can see pretty well from one end to the other, with the exception of declivities between minor ridges.

Opening morning found me snuggled against the trunk of a red oak 50 yards from my back door.  My ghillie suit rendered me virtually invisible.  I have never owned such outlandish garb before this year, but I also have never before hunted turkeys with a crossbow.  I thought I could use the added edge if I was going to be poking a 2X4 up to shoot (I could have used a ground blind, but that violates my personal definition of fair chase unless I’m teaching a wiggly kid to hunt).

A light ground fog shrouded the tree trunks at dawn and my bird issued his first challenge at 5:48 a.m., precisely as he had done the previous morning.  He was on the ground by 6:20, and he and his entourage came straight to my calls.  I know he wasn’t merely following the hens, because his was the first head to appear over the slight rise 25 yards in front of me.  I had him dead to rights, but I was holding out for a jake.

“What?!” You might be thinking.  Here is where the proxy hunting comes in.  This particular tom is the only active gobbler in the area where I have permission to hunt around home.  I’m saving him for my son-in-law, Major Dwight O. Smith, U.S. Army-Retired.  The “Retired” part is brand new – like two weeks ago.  After multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Dwight left his band of brothers for civilian life.  Naturally, I’m grateful for his service, but I’m doubly grateful that my daughter’s husband will be with her, out of harm’s way – or at least as much as you can be out of harm’s way with Beth!

So the yard bird is safe, at least until Dwight finds time between selling a home in Virginia, buying one in Kansas City and starting a new job and come to central Missouri to hunt.  In the meantime, if a jake is foolish enough to respond to my calls, he will become dinner when Dwight visits, but, given the relative scarcity of birds around home, that probably won’t happen.

Fortunately, I have another proxy-hunting option.  More than 20 years ago, I met a young man who needed an outdoor mentor.  His family are fine folks, but they don’t happen to be interested in hunting and fishing.  Scott Gerlt was more than interested.  He was obsessed.  I knew the symptoms from my own youth.  So Scott and I became hunting partners.  On balance, I’m sure to have benefited more from our relationship than he has.  Not only have I rediscovered the excitement of first-time outdoor experiences through Scott’s eyes, I now have someone who can teach me about fly fishing.  More important, he calls me and gets me to go do things I wouldn’t do on my own.

As the first weekend of turkey season approached, Scott called and asked if I wanted to hunt with him.  I did.  But since I was saving my yard bird for Dwight, I did something I wouldn’t have done otherwise.  I called friends in southern Cole County and asked if Scott and I could hunt their 400 acres of prime habitat.  “Come on down,” they said.

Tom and Susie Schulz have carried on the work her father, groundbreaking quail biologist, Jack Stanford, had started on their farm.  They have made it a paradise for game from quail and woodcock to deer and turkey.  Unlike my home area, you can take your pick of gobblers to hunt at Tom and Susie’s farm.

Scott and I were there well before dawn, standing in a tunnel-like logging road, when the gobbling began.  We counted at least five toms sounding off from various compass points.  Picking the nearest one, we hot-footed it down the two-track to shorten the distance the gobbler would have to travel to meet us, and hopefully his untimely end.  We set up in a tiny clearing.

Scott Gerlt Tele-checks his gobbler with the Missouri Conservation Department before heading home.

Our gobbler came to us in textbook fashion.  He moved perpendicular to a line between his roost and our calling until he hit the logging road, then turned our way.  We spotted him at about 70 yards, parading back and forth as if in a shooting gallery.  Both our hearts were thumping like trip hammers.  That part of the hunt never changes, never gets old.  What a thrill.

It took 30 minutes of judicious calling to break the gobbler loose and another 15 minutes to lure him another 30 yards down the path.  When the gobbler turned his back to show off his fan, I whispered to Scott to get his shotgun up.  “Don’t you want to shoot him,” he asked.  That’s Scott, always considerate. “No,” I whispered, “I’d rather see you shoot him,” which was the plain truth.  A well-placed 3-inch load of buffered No.  6 lead shot ended the gobbler’s earthly travail.  I’ve shot bigger gobblers, but I have never enjoyed a hunt more, except for the first birds I have helped other new hunters kill.

I was out in our back 40 this morning shadowing the yard bird.  The cattle are in a different pasture now.  The big tom has moved his base of operations, abandoning not only his travel route, but his roost as well.  Seems like the occupant of that roost does the same thing about this time every spring.  It makes hunting him next to impossible, due to topography, but I wouldn’t want Dwight’s first turkey hunt to be too easy.  He’d get the wrong idea about the sport and I have a feeling he will take to the challenge.

When he does shoot his first gobbler, I will commemorate the event with a First Turkey Certificate generated from the Missouri Conservation Department’s website.  I’ll probably be more proud of it than he is.

Marvelous Mill Creek, Missouri

More than 200 volunteers removed 7.5 tons of trash from the Mill Creek watershed during the Friends of Mill Creek’s annual spring road cleanup.

I am deeply proud of my home state’s conservation history.  Missourians were the first in the nation to realize that forests, fish and wildlife were too precious to trust to the partisan tug-of-war that goes on in state legislatures.  In response to chronic mismanagement of their wild resources, they set up a citizen-led system of conservation governance that remains a model for other states to aspire to.

Damming of Mill Creek resulted in collections of debris like this one and raised the water temperature in some parts of the stream to the point where it was no longer capable of supporting trout.

The only drawback with our system is that it can only maintain and enhance resources on the 1.6 million acres that the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) owns or manages.  If you add the 1.5 million acres of the Mark Twain National Forest and the relatively small holdings in state parks and national wildlife refuges, Missouri has something like 2.6 million acres under public stewardship.  That sounds like a lot, but it is only 6 percent of the state’s land area.  No matter how good a job government agencies do on their tiny sliver of land, efforts to maintain the state’s natural resources clearly are going to be won or lost on private land.

In spite of the wonderful conservation legacy we received from our forebears, conservation remains the job of everyday people who treasure the natural world and the physical and spiritual renewal they find outdoors.  And here I finally get to today’s subject, Mill Creek.

Historically, this small stream southwest of Rolla was a little piece of Eden.  The stream corridor is chockablock with springs.  In fact, if you look carefully, you discover that the entire valley is one big spring.  Almost every square foot has water seeping out of it.  Before European settlement much of the valley was what ecologists call a muck fen – land so boggy you couldn’t walk through it.  And meandering down through the middle was a cold, clear stream made to order for trout.

Casting in tight quarters can be challenging on Mill Creek, but the presence of true trophy fish makes it worth the trouble.

God neglected to include trout in Missouri’s native fauna, but humans corrected that oversight as early as the mid-1800s, stocking Mill Creek and other spring-fed streams near railroad lines with rainbow trout hauled in from the West Coast.  The descendants of those first trout continue to thrive in Mill Creek.  The creek also received brown trout stockings starting in the 1940s.

So far so good.  But not all human endeavors in the Mill Creek watershed have been so benign.  Early on, people began “improving” Mill Creek by draining its life-giving wetlands, building roads and towns and damming the creek itself.  This tended to make the once free-flowing creek more sluggish and increase its water temperature.  Still, the creek’s potential remained clear to see.  Eventually, farsighted individuals and groups who recognized how special the creek was coalesced to form the Friends of Mill Creek (FMC).

MDC Fisheries Management Biologist Nick Girondo stands in front of Wilkins Spring, which marks the upper limit of reliable trout fishing water on Mill Creek.

Formed in 1997, FMC is a volunteer, community-based organization that supports landowners in rehabilitating Mill Creek.  Members include landowners, government agencies and corporate sponsors.  At first glance, FMC might seem to be composed of people and groups with conflicting interests.  The organization’s genius lies in focusing on shared goals and values rather than differences.

One of the main ways FMC pursues its goals is the Mill Creek Stewardship Rangers.  This is a group of high-school students directed by the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA).  Each summer since 2003, GRCA hires students and a Crew Leaders to undertake rehabilitation projects along the creek, often on private land.  The Rangers are supported by Puslinch Township, the City of Cambridge, the Optimist Club of Puslinch, and local businesses and individuals who donate their time, money and expertise for the betterment of the creek.

MDC Fisheries Management Biologist Nick Girondo stands in front of Wilkins Spring, which marks the upper limit of reliable trout fishing water on Mill Creek

Past projects have ranged from trail maintenance and cattle fencing to removing ponds.  One project involved an in-stream pond that raised peak summer water temperatures in the creek by as much as 7° F, a very bad thing for a trout stream.  FMC created a new channel and turned the former pond was turned into a wetland.  They planted cedars along the banks of the new channel to provide shade, and seeded the area with native grasses.  The whole project took three years to complete, but the results were stunning.  Within a year, brown trout had returned to the creek downstream of the former pond and adult, juvenile, and young-of-the-year trout had populated the new channel.

More recently, several tons of pea gravel, donated by Dufferin Aggregates, has been deposited in a tributary of Mill Creek to create Brook Trout spawning habitat.  Additionally, workers have removed overhanging branches and woody debris blocking a section of the main stream and placed log structures to encourage the creek to find and follow its natural channel.  One of the coolest things I saw when I visited Mill Creek in early April was trout hides created by burying untreated railroad ties along bank edges at water level.  The result is recessed holes where lunker trout can lie just out of the current, waiting to ambush passing morsels.  These are also great spots to drift a dry fly.

Earlier this month, FMC held its annual spring road cleanup, an important tool for keeping ugly and potentially polluting debris out of Mill Creek.  This year’s event drew more than 200 volunteers who removed 7.5 tons of trash from 55 miles of roads in the Mill Creek watershed.

Several floods in recent years have created excellent trout holding habitat on Mill Creek.

Ongoing efforts like these resulted in MDC’s designating Mill Creek as one of only six Blue Ribbon Trout Streams in the state.  These areas are so designated because of their high potential for producing trophy-sized trout. Most of the fish you catch will be 7 to 10 inches, but this is one of the few places in Missouri where you can be sure that trout18 inches or larger are present.  It isn’t easy to fool these wild fish, but the thrill of having one rise to your fly is indescribable.  You can read about Blue Ribbon Trout Areas and regulations at on.mo.gov/1WDHqvB.

The Missouri Trout Hunters website (bit.ly/1K408F5) has this to say about fishing Mill Creek:

“Dry fly fishermen usually have a great time throwing highly visible patterns like Wulffs, Irresistibles, or Humpies.  And throwing big dries can be quite entertaining at times.  Often smaller fish will hit these larger flies so aggressively that they’ll pop straight up in the air.  For a lot of reasons, the fishing here can be a wonderful experience.”

I could go on forever about Mill Creek and FMC, but I think you get the idea. The best way to understand their significance is fish the creek.  To get there, take I-44 to the Doolittle exit west of Rolla and turn south on Highway T. Drive through Newburg and across Little Piney Creek, then turn right on Highway P and watch for the Mill Creek Recreation Area sign on the left.  Take Phelps County Road 7550 to a picnic area.

The fishing from here on upstream is pretty good, though you will find casting space tight in some areas.  If you drive on past the picnic area on CR 7550 you will come to Highway AA.  Turn left and AA will take you to a sign for Pitts Pond, which is fed by Wilkins Spring.  Parking is available on the left just after crossing a concrete slab bridge.  Yelton Spring is upstream from here.  MDC’s Bohigian Conservation Area has access points on both AA and the Forest.

The fishing begins at Yelton Spring and extends all the way down to Little Piney Creek, but the best fishing water is below Wilkins Spring, which dumps around 3 million gallons of water per day into the creek.  Fishing upstream of the bridge is occasionally impossible, as Yelton Spring tends to go dry in the summer.

Localized thunderstorms can swell Mill Creek to unfishable levels pretty quickly.  To save yourself a fruitless drive, check the U.S. Geological Service’s gauge at on.doi.gov/1YFsADa.  It will reveal whether rainfall has caused a spike in stream flow and let you judge how quickly the water level is falling.  Fishing reports are available at the Mill Creek Fishing Reports page.  If you go, return the favor by sharing your experience at bit.ly/20UALxc.

After you have seen Mill Creek, you might want to be part of its continuing improvement.  Visit FMC’s website – friendsofmillcreek.org/ – and find a way to contribute to their work.  There’s no better way to carry on Missouri’s proud tradition of citizen conservation.

Anti-Tick Tactics – Protect Yourself

This national Lyme disease map from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides an illustration of the approximate distribution of predicted Lyme disease risk in the United States. Note that Western New York is at high risk.

Warm weather is back. Hooray!  Break out the camo clothes and turkey calls, fishing rods and binoculars.  It’s time to enjoy the great outdoors again, but as you pursue outdoor fun, don’t forget that there are some less-than-desirable things pursuing you as well.  Foremost among those things are ticks, there are several types, but deer ticks- also known as black –legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis), have recently become known as the “bad boys.”  They’re very, very tiny, hard to see, and their bite is nearly painless.

For as long as I can recall – and I can recall more years than like – ticks have been a source of concern beyond the “ick” factor.  Back in the day, we worried about tularemia and Rocky Mountain Spotted fever.  More recently, we have added Lyme disease, Lyme-like disease, Ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, borreliosis and probably a few others that haven’t crossed my radar yet.

Tick identification and relative size by stage in comparison. Courtesy of the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

The good news is that many of us will not get any of these maladies.  The bad news is that the chances of getting them are NOT ZERO and the consequences are potentially life-changing.  You want to do everything you can to reduce your chances of getting any tick-borne disease.

The additional good news is that there are excellent and very effective means of avoiding ticks.

Your first line of defense is clothing.  Long-sleeved shirts and long pants make it harder for ticks to reach your skin.  The wide variety of lightweight fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin makes it much more pleasant to dress for tick defense than it used to be.  Choose light colors to make it easy to see ticks that hitch a ride before they find an opening in your defenses.  You can further enhance clothing’s protective value by tucking pants legs into boots or using rubber bands to hold cuffs snug against your ankles and wrists.

These clothing measures are most effective when combined with chemical repellants.  Far and away the most effective of these is permethrin.  This chemical is lethal to ticks on contact, and they know it.  Just drop a tick on permethrin-treated clothing and see how it scrambles to get off!

Permethrin-based repellants are amazingly effective and because they work on all mites too, they also provide protection against the dread chigger mite.  Permethrin has low toxicity to humans and is poorly absorbed by skin.  It’s odorless once it dries, however, it is a toxin.  So the recommended method of usage is by spraying on clothing.  This is the best of all possible approaches anyway.  Once sprayed on clothes, permethrin-based repellants remain effective even after several washings. It’s actually not the water and detergent that remove it, but rather abrasion.  So to retain tick repellency as long as possible, wash garments on gentle cycle and line-dry them, rather than running them through a clothes dryer.

Do be aware that cats are more sensitive to permethrin than dogs or other mammals.  If you have cats in your home, keep them away from areas where you are spraying clothing, and change clothes before inviting Fluffy up on your lap.

I buy my permethrin in bulk online and treat several changes of clothes at once.  I lay the garments out on the driveway and spray one side, let them dry for a few minutes and then turn all the shirts, pants and socks over and repeat the process.  I keep treated clothes separate from the rest of my wardrobe so I know which ones to wear to the woods.

The next-most-effective tick deterrent is DEET (N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide).  Experts aren’t sure how DEET works, but there’s no question that it does.  Like permethrin, it is supposed to be applied to clothing, not skin.  Unlike permethrin, DEET comes off in the wash. It melts plastic, which is another significant disadvantage, and it smells awful and continues to smell as long as it is effective.  You don’t want to get this stuff in your eyes, but it works.

If you want real protection, go with permethrin or DEET.

Of course, even with the best of protection, you are going to get bitten occasionally.  This doesn’t have to be a problem. Your biggest risk of infection comes when a tick has fed for a while and regurgitates some of its stomach contents into your skin. This is most likely to happen some time after it attaches to you, so early removal is very important.

It’s hard to see every place on your body, so it makes sense to do a tick check with a friend as soon as possible after outings. (Insert joke here.)  When you find a tick DO NOT use one of the old methods of removal, such as touching it with a hot pin or covering it with a turpentine-soaked cotton ball. These methods will almost certainly cause the tick to regurgitate, which is the last thing you want.

ticktactics3

Instead, use the following procedure:

  • Use sharp, needle-style tweezers or your fingers covered with rubber gloves or a piece of tissue paper to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible.
  • Avoid squeezing the tick’s body.
  • Pull the tick slowly and steadily straight away from the skin until it pops free. This can take a few minutes.
  • Disinfect the bite area and tweezers/fingers with alcohol.

Then you have two choices, save the tick for medical analysis and review (place it in a tissue and insert in a pill bottle) or destroy the tick.  If you live in an area with high density to Lyme disease, save it and get the tick analyzed, and get to a doctor.  If not, it’s up to you.  I usually drop them in a jar of alcohol, a fire, etc.  They’re nasty critters and deserve it, or you can just flush it down the toilet, like my wife does.  If you are removing lots of ticks, it’s handy to use a piece of duct tape to corral them until you decide their fate.

Most tick bites are no big deal. However, you should keep an eye on them to be sure you don’t develop a bullseye rash at the bite site. If you do, get to a doctor for treatment.  Tick-borne diseases don’t mess around and you shouldn’t either.

It’s actually possible to have serious medical problems even if you don’t get one of the more dangerous tick-borne diseases from a bite.  Pay special attention to any tick bite on the head or neck. The proximity to the head and its sensitive neural tissue poses an increased risk of serious side effects from tick-borne diseases.

Besides the tick-borne diseases listed above, some people are particularly sensitive to the substances that ticks inject into bite victims, just as some people are extra sensitive to shellfish or peanuts.  For these unfortunate few, any tick bite is extremely unpleasant and some can be dangerous.  Tick toxicosis begins with reddening and swelling at the bite site.  If you get a reaction that goes beyond the usual slight redness at the bite site, seek medical help right away.  It’s not worth the risk of having it get worse.

Under no circumstances let fear of ticks keep you from enjoying the outdoors.  Be prepared by taking the proper precautions and enjoy the outdoors.

Morels or Else!

It only takes a few morels like this beauty to make a meal.

Hunting for Mushrooms is Great Outdoor Fun

My wife is remarkably tolerant of all the time I spend outdoors. I flatter myself that she is genuinely glad when I return, but I also have noticed that she welcomes me home with special enthusiasm when I bring back venison or morel mushrooms.  Lady Luck smiled on me last fall, so we have an ample supply of the former, but I felt some pressure last week as I set out on a morel-hunting trip.

Truth be told, I am only a muddling mushroomer.  It’s a rare year when I don’t bring home at least a handful of Missouri’s most treasured spring morsels, but oftentimes that’s all I find.  My failure to excel is not for a lack of wear and tear on boots.  I log a lot of hours in the woods at this time of year, nor is it because I lack information.  I know people who collects bushels of morels each spring and I have tried my best to learn the secrets of their success.

Morels can be as much as a foot tall, or as small as this micro-mini specimen. It takes a keen eye to spot one of these and quite a few to make a meal!

Over the years I’ve also amassed a small library of books on the subject and since the advent of the internet, I eagerly consume every available tidbit of morel lore.  Yet my annual haul is more likely to be measured in ounces than pounds. My spotty mushrooming record does make the occasional success all the sweeter.  So far, this year’s morel season is better than average.  My only outing so far yielded enough morels for the two of us to make complete pigs of ourselves, not once, but twice!  As proof, I offer the accompanying photos.  With my confidence bolstered for at least one year, I’m ready to offer what wisdom I possess about finding morels.

WHEN

First, it’s wise to remember that every morel season unique.  For example, the spot where I struck it rich this year consists of perhaps 50 acres of forested Missouri River bottomland between Jefferson City and Rocheport.  In some years, I don’t find a single mushroom on my first two or three visits and then hit the mother lode.  Other years – like this one – the morel “hatch” is sporadic.  I know this because on my first visit, I found about four dozen mushrooms ranging from freshly sprouted specimens to ones whose condition clearly indicated they were at least a week old.

That first, highly successful trip occurred two weeks after I heard the first reports of others finding morels and a full month after the early bloom of red (Gyromitra esculenta) mushrooms. What finally got me motivated was the opinion of a professional botanist that the big yellow morels (Morchella esculenta) come up about the time lilac bushes are in bloom.  By coincidence, the lilacs in my front yard had just popped and it motivated me to shake off my winter doldrums.

I’ve received many other tips about when morel blooms occur and what triggers them. Many people say that morels will appear when May apples sprout or when oak leaves reach the size of a squirrel’s ear.  They seem irritated when I ask whether they mean gray or fox squirrels.

Another variation is that gray morels appear when serviceberry trees bloom.  I’ve been told that morels come out at the same time that the galls of cedar-apple rust produce their gelatinous spore fingers.  This sort of makes sense, because this happens after a rain.

Gray morels generally emerge earlier than the larger yellows, but sometimes they overlap.

I’ve heard the date of two weeks before the average date of last frost offered as the magic moment for morels, but the dates for this seasonal event given by almanacs and university extension services have gone out the window since climate change set in.

Some of the sources I have consulted over the years suggest that black morels (Morchella elata) and gray morels (Morchella tomentosa) begin emerging when the average daily temperature (the average of the high and low temperatures) reaches 50 degrees.  Personally, I think this formula needs to take into account whether the sky is clear or cloudy.  Without direct sunlight to warm the soil, I don’t think that days with high and low temperatures of 60 and 40 degrees will trigger a morel crop.

It’s also important to keep in mind land aspect – the direction that any slopes face.  South and west-facing slopes get significantly more direct sunlight and will always produce morels earlier than north or east-facing slopes.  It makes sense to look for morels the day after a warm rain.

To be honest, I haven’t found that following the preceding rules of thumb improves my success, but anything that gets you off the couch and in the woods improves your chances of finding morels!

WHERE 

Where to find morels is the other half of the puzzle.  River and creek bottoms are excellent places to start, but you can also find morels on ridges and everywhere in between.  The public land surrounding the many U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs in Missouri produce scads  of morels each spring.  Hiking as far from road or water access will increase your odds of success.

One guideline that seems to have almost universal credibility among successful morel harvesters is that big crops are triggered by woodland fires the previous year.  Reliable reports of this phenomenon always seem to come from the Western United States, which is not much use to Midwestern mushroomers.  However, this widely accepted wisdom does seem to have a logical connection to an intriguing scientific discovery about when morels appear.

This cluster was part of a clump of 15 medium-large yellow morels I found last week.

We tend to think of morels and other mushrooms as complete organisms like trees, however, mushrooms really are only fruiting bodies, much more like pine cones than trees.  In the case of mushrooms, the “tree” is a huge underground network of root-like runners known as a mycelium.

Like all fungi, morels lack chlorophyll, so they can’t make their own food.  Instead, they get their nutrients from plants that do have chlorophyll.  Some fungi get break-down tree stumps and other parts of dead plants.  Others are parasitic, but the situation is more complex for many fungi, including morels.  Their mycelia intertwine with the roots of trees in a mutually beneficial relationship.  The morels get sugars from the tree’s sap.  The trees tap into the morel’s huge underground mycelium, multiplying their own roots ability to pull water and inorganic nutrients out of the soil.

Here’s where it gets interesting, research has revealed that when a tree’s health begins to decline, the associated morel mycelium somehow detects this fact.  Sensing that its chlorophyll gravy train is near the end of the line, the morel sends up escape pods – the delectable, spore-producing mushrooms that we humans eagerly snatch up.

In light of this, it makes sense that morels would be more plentiful the year after a forest fire might have stressed trees in a stand of forest.  One recently burned forest tract in Austria was reported to have produced 44,000 pounds of morels in one season.

Please don’t take this as a suggestion that you start a forest fire.  Instead, touch base with the Mark Twain National Forest or the nearest office of the Missouri Department of Conservation and ask about areas where they have conducted prescribed burns in recent years. You might also want to pay special attention to the area around trees that have been struck by lightning or seem in poor health.

Frying morels dredged in eggs, milk and salted butter allows their subtle, scrumptious flavor to come through.

HOW

I find most morels scanning the ground within 10 feet of me.  When I spot one, I immediately drop my hat next to it and spend at least 10 minutes minutely examining the surrounding area for more. You do occasionally find a single morel, but more often they occur in groups.  I have spent  as much as 90 minutes painstakingly examining a 50 x 50 foot area where small, gray morels were growing and come up with several dozen for my trouble.

One thing I do know to a moral certainty is that the best places to find morels are those places where you have found them before.  Going back to the sites of previous bonanzas isn’t a sure thing, but it’s as close as I have found.  That’s why I will be headed back to the Missouri River bottoms tomorrow.

MOREL CUISINE

My favorite way to prepare morels is to soak them in water for a few hours to dislodge debris and insects, then slice them in half longways, dredge them in a mixture of eggs and milk followed by salted flour and fry them in butter until golden brown.  They also are excellent served over pasta when sautéed and then stirred together with sautéed onions and heavy cream. Google “morel recipes,” and you will find a world of other recipes.

Ethical Turkey Hunters are Safer and Happier

There is nothing quite so beautiful to see than a three-year old Tom Turkey on the opening day of turkey season in your state. Now, to control your heart rate! Spring turkey hunting is exciting, but please be sure to stay safe and ethical. Joe Forma Photo

Ethics are important for all hunters, but for turkey hunters, they can make the difference between a pleasurable outdoor experience and disaster.  If you don’t believe it, ask David Bozoian.

He was hunting on his land in Lewis County, Missouri, when two men who lacked ethics came onto his property.  The trespassers stalked close enough to Bozoian that he could hear their voices.  Instead of shouting to alert the trespassers to his presence, Bozoian sat quietly.  Moments later, two shots rang out and lead pellets hissed over his head.  The violation of trespass law and hunting ethics earned one of the shooters a $200 fine.  That wouldn’t have been much comfort to Bozoian if the shots had been a little lower.

Deficient hunting ethics play a role in about three-quarters of all spring turkey hunting accidents, according to statistics from the Missouri Department of Conservation.  That is the percentage of firearms-related turkey hunting accidents that involve a victim mistaken for game.  In these incidents, the shooters failed to observe the most basic rule of hunting safety – positively identifying their target.  Instead, they shot at a flash of color, a movement glimpsed through undergrowth or a sound they thought was a turkey.

Positive Identification

Positive identification requires waiting to see the entire animal.  Good hunting ethics also dictate waiting for a clear shot to ensure a clean kill. When you can see the whole turkey, in the open, inside your shotgun’s killing range, it’s pretty hard to mistake it for another hunter or a decoy.

Because safety is an integral part of hunting ethics, ethical hunters avoid actions that could put anyone – including themselves – in harm’s way.  For example, safe hunters don’t wear white, red or blue – colors associated with gobblers’ heads.  T-shirts, handkerchiefs and even socks in these colors have been cited as contributing to turkey hunting accidents.

Turkey hens sitting on their bed will stay absolutely motionless, often with eyes closed, to let hunters and predators walk right on by. Nature at work protecting their own. Joe Forma Photo

Avoid Becoming a Target

Head-to-toe camouflage is another must for turkey hunters. More than one hunter has been injured when another hunter noticed an un-camouflaged hand moving while operating a turkey call.  Another way to avoid being shot is to hang a hunter-orange hat or vest in nearby vegetation before settling in to call.  Turkeys only associate orange with danger if it is on a moving hunter, so advertising your presence to other hunters won’t decrease your chances of tagging a gobbler.

Any turkey hunter who values his or her skin should bring hunter-orange clothing to the field and wear it when moving from place to place.  That is among the easiest ways to reduce the chances of being mistaken for game.

One sure way to attract the attention of every hunter in your area is to use a gobble call.  If you do, you should take extra precautions to avoid becoming a target.  For starters, always position yourself to minimize the chances of line-of-fire accidents.  Sitting with your back against a tree that’s wider than your shoulders eliminates the possibility of being shot from behind.  Also try to position yourself with substantial barriers, such as brush piles or hillsides, to your sides.

Decoys Work – Use Caution

The use of decoys requires extra safety awareness, particularly if you include a fake jake or gobbler. These look like targets to other hunters.  Even a hen can draw fire from an inexperienced or unethical hunter.

When using decoys, try to position them behind some visual screen so they would be invisible to hunters approaching from directly in front of you. This reduces the likelihood of line-of-fire injuries. Placing decoys in a spot lower than your calling position also helps keep you out of the line of fire.

Make sure decoys are completely hidden when moving between hunting spots. You don’t want another hunter to see a turkey’s head bobbing through the woods under your arm.

Never Stalk a Turkey

On the other side of the equation, your first thought when you hear a gobble should be whether it might be coming from another hunter.  Don’t be the one who puts others in danger.  It’s not a good idea to try to stalk within shooting distance of a gobbler.  For one thing, the odds are against you, because gobblers’ vision is much keener than yours.  More important, your stealthy movements could make another hunter think a tom is approaching, and you have made yourself a target.

Whenever possible, set up to call in spots that offer a clear field of view ahead and to your sides.  This way, it will be impossible for another hunter to approach unseen.  If you do see another hunter, shout to advertise your presence.  Yes, you will spoil your chances of shooting a turkey at that spot, but that probably was already ruined by the interloper.  Waving a camouflaged arm can make you look like something to shoot at.

Resist the temptation to split up when hunting with a partner.  The ease with which you can lose track of your buddy’s location is evident in hunting incident reports where friends or family members shoot one another.  It happens every year.

These defensive measures are particularly important when hunting public land, such as conservation areas or national forest.  But don’t be lulled into complacency if you are the only one with permission to hunt a particular spot.  Remember David Bozoian’s near miss and take every possible precaution to avoid being or creating a victim.