Ecstasy & Empathy: Dichotomy of Hunting

Killing two young turkeys and watching a mother hen’s reaction to their loss set the writer to thinking about the nature of hunting.  Jim Low Photo

  • If hunting doesn’t occasionally tug at your heartstrings, you might need to think a bit more deeply about it.
  • Far from threatening the natural world, hunting is its best hope for survival.
  • Turkeys share a sacred lesson about Hunting, Kindred Spirits, the Circle of Life

By Jim Low

One of the reasons I love hunting is the way it takes me inside the natural world.

Blood sports make me part of natural processes in ways that are unavailable through nature photography, nature study and other “non-consumptive” activities, which I also enjoy.  Opening day of fall firearms turkey season this year made me keenly aware of this difference.

Dawn found me tucked beneath the screening branches of cedar trees between two pastures.  Just at sunrise, I heard soft clucks issuing from the bordering woods.  I made a few “sleepy yelps” on my slate call, then put it aside and rested my shotgun on my knee.

My pulse rate ticked up a few beats.

Moments later, a young turkey glided down and landed directly in front of me, in easy shotgun range.  It was followed in quick succession by six more poults (turkeys hatched this year) and one hen.

Any turkey, young or old, male or female, is legal during Missouri’s fall hunting season.  I had wanted to shoot a gobbler, but now I began thinking otherwise.  I am a mediocre fall turkey hunter at best, so this was a rare opportunity to harvest the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner.

Also, the fact that you can shoot two turkeys on the same day in the fall season meant I might be able to kill two tender young birds that would be amazing table fare.  So, when two of the small birds stood with their heads inches apart, I dropped the hammer, and both went down.

Hunting turkeys in the fall opens the door to a whole different set of insights into the complicated lives of these amazing birds.  Jim Low Photo

As often happens, the remaining six birds did not scatter immediately.  Inexperienced and bewildered by a thunderclap out of a clear sky, they milled around excitedly, stopping occasionally to gawk at their stricken flock-mates.  I lowered my gun slowly and settled in to watch, expecting the survivors to vacate the premises fairly quickly.

Moments after my shot, a mature hen came on the run from the west, near the center of the pasture.

This open area, unapproachable by predators without being spotted, is where a cautious old bird would fly down.  In the flurry of arrivals in front of me, I hadn’t noticed her leaving the roost.

The old hen quickly made her way to the two downed birds, which were in their final death throes.  She watched until their struggles ceased, then began pecking them gently, first one and then the other.  After a few minutes, she began grasping their wattles in her beak and lifting their heads, then dropping them.  This went on for quite a while, gradually escalating to her taking a step or two backward and tugging at the dead poults.

After this had gone on for perhaps half an hour, she stepped over one of the dead poults, spread her wings and settled down as if brooding a clutch of eggs.  After a brief interval, she arose and did the same thing to the other downed bird.

This dispelled any doubt in my mind that all the hen’s actions were an effort to revive the lifeless poults.

Turkey broods in the fall hang close together and they watch out for each other, sounding the “time to go” call when danger appears to be near. Joe Forma Photo

This was a revelation to me.

Such maternal devotion would not have been surprising in a mammal, but I never expected it from a bird.  During the hen’s ministrations, the rest of the flock made repeated moves to leave, led by another hen.  They would drift away a few yards before looking back to see if the devoted mother was following.  Seeing that she wasn’t, the flock would drift back for a while, but as time went on, the flock’s tentative departures took them farther and farther away.

Finally, drawn by the pull of her flock, the mother hen began her own series of departures and returns.  An hour or so after the fateful shot, she finally abandoned the dead poults and followed the flock out of sight.

For many years, I resisted the urge to attribute human-like behavior to other animals.  Anthropomorphizing wildlife is frowned upon by many biologists and hunters, but well after over half-century of watching quadrupeds, including dogs, I am forced to conclude that “lower” animals share a great deal – perhaps most of human emotional responses.

I don’t know what went on in the brains of that mother hen and her companions, but it’s difficult for me to attribute it to mere instinct.  For that matter, who’s to say that human emotions aren’t instinctive?

This line of reasoning might raise the hackles of some hunters who refuse to concede anything to people whose empathy leads them to eschew or even disapprove of hunting.  But, it seems to me that if we are willing to take the lives of animals, we ought to be willing to think critically about it.

For me, the notion that turkeys and other game animals experience grief and other human-like emotions is not a reason to stop hunting.

All animals, human and nonhuman alike, take life and have it taken from them.

Turkeys eat grasshoppers and lizards.

Deer kill one another and have been photographed eating small mammals.

Strict herbivores kill plants.

Modern-day humans seldom fall victim to predators, but it matters little whether you die in the jaws of a grizzly bear or in the grip of Streptococcus pneumoniea.

Either way, you are dead at the “hands” of something that wants to eat you.

The predator-prey relationship between humans and game animals is as old as our respective species.  They, and we, are intricately adapted for the fateful dance we share.  The predatory urge encoded in human DNA is why many of us still feel a powerful pull to re-enact the timeless drama of the chase.  It reminds us of what we have been and what we remain as, at a very deep level.  And it can tell us much about why we are how we are.

Hunters since time immemorial have felt deep connections to the animals they pursue.

This connection goes deeper than nutritional necessity.

Our hunting forebears saw game in the same light that I saw those turkey poults and their devoted hen.  They saw kindred spirits, worthy of respect and empathy, worthy of immortalizing on cave walls.  They knew themselves to be integral parts of the pulsing, exultant, poignant pageant of life.

Hunting allows us to maintain that intimate connection to the natural world. 

Hunting allows us to maintain that intimate and sacred connection to the natural world, it binds us to the circle of life.  Joe Forma Photo

Without it, we risk thinking ourselves above and outside the circle of life.  We could fail to recall our connection to the natural world at our own peril as a species.

It is no mere coincidence that hunters are, and always have been, the beating heart of the conservation movement.  We don’t only do it simply to ensure the availability of living targets or merely because we like killing things.

As the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset observed, modern humans do not hunt to kill.  We no longer need to pursue game to sustain life.  Rather, we kill in order to have hunted, to maintain an authentic and utterly irreplaceable connection to the natural world.

My exultation in a successful turkey hunt was tinged, as it ought to be, with reflection about what it means to take a life.

I wonder how often nonhunters give similar consideration to the deaths they farm out to others.

In spite of the pang it sometimes gives me, I am more than proud of my hunting.  I see in it the best hope for the future of things “natural, wild and free.”

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CWD Testing More Important NOW Than Ever

  • MDC will conduct mandatory CWD sampling in 25 counties Nov. 11 and 12.
  • Check the fall deer and turkey booklet to see if your county is included.
  • Hunters can get deer tested for free throughout archery and firearms deer seasons.

By Jim Low

The thrills of deer hunting – not to mention the pleasure of eating venison, are worth taking precautions to protect.  Jim Low Photo

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) needs help from hunters to keep the deadly deer disease called chronic wasting disease (CWD) from spreading to more deer in more areas of Missouri. In light of recent developments, hunters might want to take advantage of free testing for personal reasons, too.
MDC will conduct mandatory CWD sampling of hunter-harvested deer in 25 counties during the opening weekend of the fall firearms deer season, Nov. 11 and 12. Counties included in this year’s sampling effort are: Adair, Barry, Benton, Cedar, Cole, Crawford, Dade, Franklin, Hickory, Jefferson, Knox, Linn, Macon, Moniteau, Ozark, Polk, St. Charles, St. Clair, St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve, Stone, Sullivan, Taney, Warren, and Washington. These counties comprise Missouri’s CWD Management Zone. It includes counties where MDC conducted mandatory CWD testing last year, plus St. Clair County, where a new outbreak was detected earlier this year, and five adjacent counties.

Concerns about possible exposure to CWD can be addressed by taking advantage of free testing. Jim Low Photo

MDC also has added four counties along the Arkansas border in southwest Missouri to the CWD Management Zone. CWD has not been detected in any of these counties yet, but a serious outbreak of the fatal deer disease just across the border is cause for extra vigilance there.
Hunters who harvest deer in these 25 counties during opening weekend must present their harvested deer at one of the Department’s 56 CWD sampling stations so staff can collect tissue samples to test the animals for CWD. You can find a list of sampling stations at www.mdc.mo.gov/cwd, or in the 2017 Fall Deer and Turkey Hunting Regulations booklet, which is available wherever hunting permits are sold.
In addition to the mandatory testing, MDC offers free testing for hunters who wants their deer checked for CWD. This is particularly important considering recent news about the susceptibility of some monkeys to the brain-wasting disease.
In a study led by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, macaques that were fed venison from CWD-infected deer developed the disease. The researchers noted that there still is no known case of CWD affecting humans. However, the apparent susceptibility of physiologically similar primates led them to conclude that, “the most prudent approach is to consider that CWD has the potential to infect humans.”
I am not an alarmist person by nature, and I am not going to let the small risk of shooting a CWD infected deer or the equally small risk of contracting CWD from eating infected meat, deprive me of a sport that I love and the pleasure of eating venison. However, with free testing available, I certainly will take every deer I kill to one of the eight MDC offices and 55 taxidermists around the state who are participating in the voluntary CWD sampling program. I put venison in the freezer, labeled with the date I shot the deer, and wait for test results before consuming it. That just seems sensible to me.
I also do what I can to avoid spreading CWD. For years, I put corn around my trail cameras to get better deer pictures. I stopped several years ago, when it became clear that anything that unnaturally concentrates deer and increases the potential for CWD transmission. I stopped putting out salt licks and mineral blocks for the same reason. The prions that cause CWD are shed in deer urine, so I also have stopped using urine-based deer lures.

Baiting the area around trail cameras brings deer up close, but it also increases the likelihood of disease transmission.  Jim Low Photo

After field-dressing deer, I usually take them home and process them myself. In the past, I got rid of carcass by putting them in the woods behind our house and letting scavengers dispose of them. No more. Now I put them in heavy trash bags and send them to the landfill, just in case they had CWD. If you take your deer to a commercial processor, you’re covered. In Missouri, they are required to send all their carcasses to approved landfills.
MDC’s regulation guide has more ideas for reducing the spread of CWD, along with tips for making the sampling process quicker and easier.
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Aldo Leopold would say, “START GROUSING!”

  • The ruffed grouse has had a long run of bad luck in Missouri, but time is still turning.
  • The father of modern wildlife management spent time here documenting the bird’s decline.
A hardbound copy of Leopold’s grouse report occupies a reverential place on my bookshelf, thanks to my alert and indulgent wife who spied it in an antique shop. Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low

In 1886, legendary trap shooter A.H. Bogardus reported shooting 50 ruffed grouse as a diversion, while spending most of his time chasing turkeys in Clinton County, north of Kansas City.  In 1918, an observer reported seeing 30 “partridges” a day in Oregon County in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks.

The next year, he could find none.  The story was much the same in other parts of the north-central United States, as documented by no less an authority than Aldo Leopold.

The man who would become the father of scientific wildlife management spent part of 1928 and 1929 crisscrossing a huge triangular area defined by Ohio, Minnesota and Missouri.  He focused on the current and historic abundance of bobwhite quail, cottontail rabbits, ringneck pheasants, prairie chickens, wild turkeys, waterfowl and white-tailed deer.  His sources included direct observation, popular hunting literature and interviews with hunters and landowners.  The resulting Game Survey of the North Central States was commissioned by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute.  It was an early example of how hunting and the industry that supported it would put up the cash to make conservation a reality.

A hardbound copy of Leopold’s report occupies a reverential place on my bookshelf, thanks to my alert and indulgent wife who spied it in an antique shop.  For the princely sum of $15, I acquired a window into conservation history.  I had occasion to take it down today after reading through a report by Jason Isabelle, a resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The report was intended to update the Missouri Conservation Commission on a collaboration with the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation.  The report documents Missouri’s stubborn refusal to give up on a magnificent game bird that has continued to hold a place in Show-Me State hunters’ hearts and imaginations, long after it lost its place on our landscape.

Leopold’s work showed that ruffed grouse once occupied all but Missouri’s southwestern and northwestern counties.  Although Missouri was at the far southwestern edge of the species’ original range, the plucky little birds were locally abundant wherever there was forest.  Until the 1920s, that was most of the state.  Ruffed grouse probably benefitted from early settlement.  Their habitat requirements include impenetrable thickets that spring up when tracts of hardwood forest are logged off and then allowed to regenerate naturally.  A patchwork of mature forest interspersed with regenerating clear-cuts of various ages is what “ruffs” need.  Logging only becomes the enemy of ruffed grouse when cut-over land is converted to row crops or pasture.

Leopold’s work showed that ruffed grouse once occupied all but Missouri’s southwestern and northwestern counties.  Jim Low Photo

 

That worked to the ruff’s advantage throughout the 19th century.  Settlers and city dwellers alike used wood to heat their homes, and farmers needed pole timber for fence posts.  Annual timber harvested guaranteed the renewal of habitat for grouse, not to mention quail and rabbits.

The LEGEND of the Leopold Map shown above provides interesting insight into Leopold’s findings. Jim Low Photo

Then things changed.  Leopold made a perceptive connection between the fate of ruffed grouse and America’s transition from renewable to fossil fuels when he wrote, “Petroleum, coal, and steel are rapidly making the woodlot a useless appendage to the farm, which must be grazed ‘grouseless’ to pay its keep.  Sportsmen should realize that a wood-burning gas plant for farms, or even an efficient wood-burning furnace, would do more to keep woodlots, and hence, grouse, on the map of rural America than many new laws or sermons on conservation.”

 

Of course, that was not in the cards.  Progress proceeded apace and continues today.  The 19th century’s patch-quilt of forest, regenerating clear-cuts, crop fields and pastures has disappeared.  In the northern half of Missouri, it has been replaced by mega-farms where corn and soybeans extend as far as the eye can see, unbroken by fence or woodlot.  In southern Missouri, we increasingly have unbroken tracts of forest.  Most Missourians are unaware that their state currently has significantly more forest acreage than it did before European settlement.  And since clearcutting became a dirty word, the supply of prime grouse habitat where hunters can experience the thrill of the ruff’s explosive flush, has steadily dwindled.

But Missouri’s state motto isn’t purely negative.  Citizen conservationists – hunters once again – have always taken the attitude that someone has to show them that the ruffed grouse can’t be brought back.  Next week, we will look at Missouri’s long – and continuing – history of grouse restoration efforts.

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NO SUNDAY BAY

  • Where there are no fish. 
  • Where you won’t catch the largest smallmouth of your life.
Trip leader, Tim Mead, leads a scrappy smallmouth to the boat. Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low
“There is no Sunday Bay,” intoned Tim Mead as he loaded the last huge pack into a Kevlar rental canoe. “If there is a Sunday Bay, it has no fish. If it does have fish, they won’t bite, and if they do bite, they are all small.”
He turned and looked expectantly at the rest of his party. The three of us nodded in solemn agreement and off we went.
Having been here every summer for the past 30 years, Tim took the stern seat in the lead canoe, a compass and a detailed map of Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park perched on the gear in front of him.
For the first hour and half of paddling, we occasionally heard and saw a motor boat near the American shore to our south. Then we rounded a spruce-clad point, and the motorized world disappeared.
For the next two days, the only human voices, or other sounds of civilization, we would hear were our own voices and the hiss of a Jetboil stove.

A big female snapping turtle visited us off and on for two days, trying to find a spot to lay her eggs. Jim Low Photo

We would be serenaded by loons and challenged by eagles.
We would receive multiple visits from a large and determined snapping turtle bent on laying eggs and we would catch more 3- to 5-pound bass than I ever imagined possible.
We would sleep on the ground, sip tea laced with plum brandy and fall so deeply under the spell of the Canadian boundary waters that going home would hurt.
Technically, our journey began with an 8-mile lift via johnboat to Prairie Portage, on the U.S.-Canadian border. The real adventure commenced after we checked in at the Canadian customs office and launched our two canoes into sprawling Basswood Lake.
Having read Tim’s book, Quetico Adventures, I had a good idea what to expect during our five-day trip. I was prepared for coolish weather (nighttime lows in the 40s), rain, mosquito swarms and living on dehydrated food. I thought I was prepared to encounter amazing fishing, but when the first 20-inch bronzeback darted from the depths to make a pass at my surface plug, all my mental fuses blew.
Before I knew what I was doing, I jerked the plug out of the water and shouted. Well, I shouted something I hoped my paddling partner, Mike Quinn, wouldn’t hold against me. I assume he heard worse during his years in the Navy, but what my swearing lacked in creativity, it made up for with awestruck intensity.
In 50-plus years of chasing smallmouths in Missouri, I had never seen one close to that big. In the next half hour, Mike and I landed or hooked and got good looks at the five biggest smallmouths I had ever seen in person. And we were only an hour into the first day of fishing!

Mike Quinn with a 28-inch Northern Pike.  Jim Low Photo

Over the following four days, we caught bass until our arms ached. Tim caught one largemouth bass whose mouth could comfortably accommodated a softball. He estimated its weight around 8 pounds, not a monster by Southern standards, but not bad for a fish species living outside its original native range and competing with fish their ancestors never had to contend with.
These included northern pike between two and three feet long and smallmouth bass that would have sent their Show-Me State kin dashing for cover. Boundary Waters smallies aren’t just long; they are built like defensive tackles, and they fight like demons, alternately burrowing toward the bottom and executing head-shaking jumps that would do a tarpon proud.
The smallmouth bass here bit with equal verve on everything from plastic grubs to Zara Spooks.
They bit at high noon, and at dusk, and at dawn.

Mike Quinn with one of the big bronzebacks caught in a place that definitely, absolutely is not Sunday Bay on the last day of the trip.  Jim Low Photo

In the past, I sometimes wondered if I might one day grow tired of catching smallmouths. That worry has been laid to rest. Apparently, my limitless capacity for enjoying smallmouths is actually limitless.
The real test came on the last day, when we reached a place that definitely is not Sunday Bay. Mike and I both were stiff from several hours in the canoe, so we hauled out on a rocky point to stretch. On the leeward side of the point was a large bay with a level bottom of basketball-sized rocks in 7 to 10 feet of clear water. As we stood savoring the view and the rest, fish began to feed at the surface. There were no violent strikes, just small pops followed by large swirls.
Just moments earlier, I had told Mike that I’d caught enough bass for one day. Seeing dozens of swirls changed my mind. I tied on a big, black buzzbait and threw it a little beyond the last swirl. It had barely begun to churn the surface when it disappeared like a surprised swimmer snatched by a great white shark.
When I reared back on my rod, it was difficult to believe I wasn’t stuck fast on a 100-pound log. But then the drag on my reel sang and the fun commenced. Tim and his partner, Phil Bloom, soon joined us, and we all had about 20 minutes of nonstop action before the bite abruptly ended.
As we stowed our fishing gear and began paddling for Prairie Portage and our ride back to United States soil, Tim called out, “There is no Sunday Bay.”
“If there is a Sunday Bay,” we answered in unison, “there are no fish.”

Mike Quinn shows off a nice smallmouth bass amid the splendor of Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario.  Jim Low Photo

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Voyage of Boatylicious Discovery

Kansas City’s skyline is visible from Kaw Point at the mouth of the Kansas River, where the MR340 starts.

By Jim Low

Missourians who wonder if they have the physical and mental toughness necessary to be extreme athletes don’t have to go far to find out.  They can test their mettle against a force of nature…the Missouri River.

In 2006, Scott Mansker and Russ Payzant, self-avowed “river rats,” decided to organize a paddle race to raise awareness of the world-class, but then little-known, recreational opportunities on the Big Muddy.  What they came up with was a nonstop ultra-marathon race from Kansas City to St.  Charles.  The distance between those two points – 340 miles – provided a name for the event, the Missouri River 340 (insiders generally shorten the name to MR340 or simply, “The 340”).  That first year, the event drew 11 solo paddlers and five tandem teams.  They were given 100 hours – a little more than two days – to finish the course.

Today, paddlers are allowed only 88 hours to finish the course.  They paddle so hard that the friction of their shirts causes their nipples to bleed, a distraction that veterans avoid with duct tape pasties.  The skin of their palms sloughs off in enormous blisters…more duct tape.

Packed like sardines at the start, paddlers soon are strung out over the Big Muddy’s vastness.

They endure the heat and humidity of August.

They risk literally being blown off the river by tornadoes or microbursts.

But if you think these obstacles cool the ardor of potential participants, you don’t understand the mindset of ultramarathoners.  Within days of wrapping up the inaugural Missouri River 340, Mansker and Payzant’s electronic in-boxes were flooded with email from paddlers eager to sign up for the next year’s race.

Participation ballooned so rapidly that they were forced to limit entries.   By early June of this year, nearly 500 individuals and teams had signed up for the race.  They will come from all over the United States and as far away as Japan to compete in 11 divisions: Women’s and Men’s Solo; Women’s, Men’s and Mixed Tandem; Solo Pedal Drive; Tandem Pedal Drive; Team (3-4 paddlers); Voyageur (5 to 10 paddlers); Dragon Boat (11-plus paddlers); and SUP (Stand Up Paddler.)

Spectators turn up at checkpoints to keep tabs on their favorite paddlers.

Last year’s top time – an astonishing 38 hours, 22 minutes – was posted by a six-woman team calling themselves “Boatylicious.”  The next four entrants to reach St.  Charles were all solo paddlers, three men and one woman.  All made the grueling paddle in under 45 hours.  That’s an average of more than 7.5 mph, including time to eat, drink and nap.

Napping is a must.  Even if you do, you stand a good chance of experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations, especially at night.  The 340 is scheduled to take advantage of a full moon, but phantom voices and spectral presences are a common experience in the profound darkness and calm that prevails between sunset and moonrise.  These can get you in trouble if you pay more attention to them than you do to what’s actually there.

Things like wing dikes, buoys, bridge pilings and barges.  While paddling at night in the 2007 MR 340, a mixed tandem team – ages 66 and 70 – misjudged the distance of an approaching barge and were plowed under when they tried to cross the river in front of it.  While their $5,500 kayak was being chopped to bits, the couple desperately clawed their way along the bottom of the barge’s hull, trying to avoid their boat’s fate.  Astonishingly, both paddlers emerged with only scrapes and bruises and were rescued by the barge crew.

“The 340” becomes a permanent part of some participants.

Racers are not entirely on their own.  A fleet of safety boats patrols the pack, checking on paddlers’ health, handing out sport drinks, helping in emergencies and – inevitably – picking up contestants who are simply played out.

Bringing up the rear is a safety boat known as “The Reaper.” Their job is to collect paddlers who fail to reach each mandatory check-in point in the pre-determined time necessary to have even a remote chance of finishing the race.  Slow, but dogged, paddlers dread the appearance of “The Reaper” the way that schoolchildren dread the end of summer.  But without this measure, the pack would become too strung out for safe supervision.

There are no adversaries at the finish line.

All this combines to produce epic stories: the cancer survivor who began training for the race while still undergoing chemotherapy; the alcoholic who set out to prove something to others and instead found the inner strength to overcome her physical and mental demons; world-class athletes who push themselves far beyond normal limits of human endurance and ordinary people who perform extraordinary feats.

It’s no surprise then that thousands of spectators turn out to witness the spectacle.  The biggest crowds gather at both, the starting point at the mouth of the Kansas River, and the finish line at St.  Charles’ Frontier Park.  But people also throng to the mandatory check-in points scattered along the course.  Ground-support crews mingle with relatives of racers, news media and curiosity seekers.  Highway bridges with pedestrian walks are favorite vantage points for gawkers and photographers.

If you want to get in on the fun, either as a participant or a tourist, visit rivermiles.com/mr340/ for details of this year’s event.  You also can follow the progress of the race Aug. 8-11 through posts on the MR340 forum, rivermiles.com/forum/YaBB.pl.

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

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!

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

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

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-

Black Powder Bushytails

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.