Saturday, May 28, 2016

Headed North 5/27/16

Sondra Gray with her football-shaped smallmouth

    Catching big smallmouth in northwest Ontario is no big deal.  Small Canadian lakes are full of them.

Gloria fighting a lunker

        Sometimes fishermen think the month of May is too early to fish in Canada.  There are lakes in northwest Ontario that still have a lot of ice earlier in the month.  But several years ago some friends and I went there the last week of May and discovered that it is one of the best times to catch the biggest of those football shaped smallmouth bass…. on topwater lures and buzz-baits.

         I can’t say for sure about the spawning of smallmouth and largemouth bass in those lakes, but it is obvious that they move to shallow water pretty quickly.  And the number one bait for us has been big white or yellow buzz-baits.  Other topwater lures may be just as good… Zara spooks, Rapalas and big popping lures of all kinds, but you can fish a buzz-bait much faster and that allows you to get in more casts.

         There are a lot of misses.  You’ll see smallmouth you are convinced weigh five pounds just roll at the lures and never get hooked.  But you will catch a few too, not many in that five-pound category but lots of them above four pounds.  As much as I like to fish buzz-baits in the late summer and early fall here in the Ozarks, that kind of fishing here has never given the results you see in Canada.

         I can’t wait to get there, back in the wilderness where the only motors you might hear is from a pontoon plane passing overhead on occasion.  In late May, we leave the boat to find morel mushrooms the size of jumbo ice cream cones, amongst pine cones and moose tracks. 
         As you fish you hear the sound of old-time farm tractors starting on a cold Ozark day, except there in the Canadian bush country, it is the sound of drumming ruffed grouse along the shores.  You will see a few pine martens and occasionally a fisher; mink and otter and beaver are plentiful.  And there are the loons, and the haunting but melodious calls they send out throughout the morning as you fish. 
         It is rare to see moose and bear, but over the years that has happened too.  And when you return worn out from a long day of fishing, you sleep like a baby. You occasionally marvel at northern lights when you step out on the porch at three or four in the morning to answer nature’s call.  Sometimes you will hear a wolf howl at night, but that too is rare. And it is difficult to figure why there are so many more stars in the sky than you have ever seen before.

         Whatever drastic news comes from the political problems and the terrorists back in the rest of the world, you do not know a thing about, because cell phones don’t work on those little Ontario lakes.  Who gives a hoot?

         But back to the fishing, which is the best reason to go there in late May. You’ll find that not only smallmouth bass like those big noisy buzz-baits.  The good thing about buzz-bait fishing is the fact that they work fairly well with an eight-inch steel leader.   That steel leader is necessary because every now and then a northern pike that weighs three or four pounds will intercept that lure take your lure by biting through the strongest of monofilament line.  And occasionally, when you get a ten or fifteen pound northern, you’ll want to land him, and you probably won’t without the steel leader.

         While that casting gear is the choice for bass fishermen, you also will want to have a light-tackle spinning outfit with you and some small jigs.  Because several times we have found big fat crappie from one to two pounds, schooling just outside of weed beds.  We seldom eat a smallmouth, because there are crappies for supper and they are absolutely delicious. I love Canadian crappie but I don’t filet the skin off, I scale them.  They are so, so much better to eat with that skin intact.

         And if you filet a five- or six-pound northern, and know how to take out those Y bones in the upper part of the filet, you will not believe how good they are, hot from the skillet.  Anyone who fishes in Canada needs to learn the simple procedure for removing Y bones from a northern pike.  It is simple.  But no matter how good they are to eat, they are repulsive to some fishermen because they are so slimy.  Indians of the region, including today’s Cree and Ojibway guides, called them ‘snakes’ and avoided them completely.   But why not, they had so many walleye to eat.
         So as you read this, I hope I am taking a picture of a great big smallmouth before releasing it, somewhere on a little lake where there are no other fishermen.  They come here mostly in the summer, to the easy access waters and fly-in lakes and I have very often heard fisherman brag about catching a hundred smallmouth a day. I have never counted the brownies caught and released in a day; it seems a silly, and downright impossible thing to do. When you are having so much fun on such fantastic waters, who wants to count fish?

         There are many lakes up there where you can catch smallmouth of a pound or so one right after another.  If you fish four hours you should easily boat a hundred of them. But most are not to be boasted about unless you are taken with fish under two pounds in weight.  You need to catch smallmouth above three pounds in order to count up your accomplishments.  I think that a few years ago a friend of mine caught 20 or so smallmouth above four pounds in one morning of fishing but we never kept track.  That was something to see.

         If you want to catch a six- to seven-pound bass, you can do that… in one of the remote lakes that holds largemouth.  How strange it seems to me that those largemouth lakes have no smallmouth, and smallmouth lakes have no largemouths.  One late August night in the darkness on an unnamed lake, I caught a largemouth close to seven pounds on a jitterbug, and we landed quite a few six pounders.  I have never seen largemouth bass that heavy and fat and that short and that color, nothing like Ozark largemouth.

         Perhaps this is a good place to say that if you fish our streams here in the Ozarks on opening day of the “bass season” you should release all the smallmouth you catch.  They are hard pressed here, as our streams increasingly become more polluted and fill in more each year, deep holes becoming scarcer as fishing pressure intensifies.  Keep the largemouth and Kentucky bass, even the green sunfish, if you want to eat fish, but release all the smallmouth and goggle-eye you catch, or figure on a day in the future when there won’t be any for a future generation to catch.
         Yeah, I kept the brownies and goggle-eye too when I was younger, but I kept my last one forty years ago when it became apparent they were being overharvested and I began to see the decline in habitat.  I plead with fishermen to release those two species from our rivers, as I do not know of a greater move a fisherman can do for conservation of a species.  More to say about this in another column.

         Thanks to the 52 people who came to our Panther Creek Youth Retreat last Saturday for our fish fry and tour of the place.  No one enjoyed it more than I.  It is so good to meet people like that, when you are someone who pretty much lives a solitary life outdoors. Often as I write this column up here on this secluded ridgetop, I wonder if there are really people out there who read it.
         I hope I get to see all of you again.  Special thanks to a couple of our youth counselors, Dennis Whiteside and Rich Abdoler, who fried almost three hundred fish fillets, and neighbor Pam Myers and my daughters Christy and Leah. It was a great day!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Becoming a Farmer, For Wildlife – 5-23-2016


My daughter Christy was talked into spelling ol' Dad for a round or two on the tractor.  Didn't last long… she kept thinking it was about to turn over!

A deer antler and two arrow heads found at Panther Creek Ranch. Only a few of the treasures youth may have the experience of finding and learning about at the ranch.

         In all my life, I never drove a farm tractor until just recently. I spent most of the day last Sunday on a 1948 Farmall Cub disking up four different plots of ground along our Panther Creek bottoms.  My maternal Grandfather, Bert McNew told me once that riding a tractor working on the farm was a great way for a man to talk to the Lord, because it was something he did all alone.  He was right!
         It is another way for a man to get his mind away from this messed-up world. I have spent my life escaping to the woods and the river as a naturalist, hunter, fisherman, guide, and explorer, but never did I try to work the land as a farmer.
         My recent experiences on that little red tractor of mine have nothing to do with harvesting grain for sale.  I am putting in wildlife food plots strictly to feed wildlife. Six miles from me there is a Conservation Department wildlife management area of considerable size that has no wildlife.  They have recently killed some of the smaller fringes of trees there with herbicide, and expanded gates to facilitate the machinery of a tenant farmer so he can harvest a large crop, of which the MDC gets a percentage.

         A year or so ago, a friend and I turned loose five beagles there and in more than an hour of hunting, we didn’t see one rabbit. That place, owned by all of us as public land, is basically an ecological desert.

         My place has rabbits and birds in abundance.  I have been taking care of a big covey of quail.  Going into the spring, there were 18 of them and I hope the careful combination of these small plots of food, escape cover and nesting cover, plus the control of egg-eaters like armadillos and possums and skunks, will allow these eighteen birds to expand their number.  Wildlife is increased by what is known as edge and interspersion.  I am creating that. 

         There was a time long ago when state-owned public wildlife areas were managed to produce edge and interspersion, and rabbits and quail, deer and turkey, and furbearers and birds.  These places are now for producing bushels of grain, or harvested logs, all for maximum profit, not wildlife conservation.  My intention is to make this small 50-acre tract an example of what can be done, when preserving wildlife is the goal. I am planting one of them with turnips and clover for deer and turkey, and another is planted in a wildlife mix, some sunflower, milo, soybeans, millet and others.  This will help feed my quail and rabbits.
         On Lightnin’ Ridge, where I live when not working on this Panther Creek project, there is nothing to plow and plant except the garden.  It is a high ridgetop of big trees, and they will not be cut down by contract loggers as so many landowners seem anxious to do today.  My office is a museum, and I have a long trail built through those big trees that I have opened for anyone to hike.  Visitors seem to enjoy it.

         We have similar trails along Panther Creek Bottoms and on the timbered ridges above it.  If you have been reading this column you know we are proud to be making the place a completely free retreat for underprivileged children of all ages.  We are in bad need of someone who owns a bulldozer to create an athletic field there.  That is one of our last projects left unaccomplished.  About everything else I have been able to handle with that old Farmall Cub tractor.
         The big fish fry we had last Saturday to show the place off, let over 40 folks see what we have to offer with our lodge and two cabins, enough room for a church wanting to bring 20 or 25 kids.  We had representatives from several churches show up to see it.
         When a church from Springfield brought seventeen boys for a weekend of fun at our place, I wrote about it, and got a phone call a few days later that I will never forget.  The lady who called me was crying, and asked me if she could get her little boy into such a group.  I explained that she needed to contact that church and likely they would include him.  Then she went on to say that he needed help, because his father had left them and he was becoming morose and difficult.

         I hope that lady is reading because she and other parents like her can enroll troubled young boys in a week-long stay at our Panther Creek project, running from June 13 to June 16, four days and three nights.  I will have on hand four other Christian men, whom I have known for years and years, as counselors.  There will not be a time when any boys will be alone with me or anyone else.

         We will act as a group, building trails and hiking, learning to swim, handle canoes and kayaks; hunting arrowheads and shed antlers, and working on daily classroom assignments involving our biggest purpose there…nature and  conservation.
         For those whose parents give permission, there will be a hunter safety course for their boys, teaching the safe handling of firearms and involving shooting clay pigeons with one twenty-gauge shotgun and one .22 rifle at stationary targets.  We have White River guide and fly fishing expert Jerry McCoy, from Arkansas, coming up to spend an afternoon teaching boys to fly-cast and use fly-rods right there in the creek.
         What I intend to do with these boys involves teaching them self-worth, emphasizing that God gives us all certain talents, and that each of them have some special gift they should pursue as the grow into men.  We’ll emphasize the evil lurking in the use of drugs and alcohol and the health aspect of using cigarettes.  It isn’t intended to be just a week of play and fun.  They will indeed have fun, but they also will LEARN.

         If you want to send your son, my email address is or telephone me at 417-777-5227 and we’ll have you fill out a form which tells us all about him, especially any physical or medical limitations. We’ll be glad to show you our place and explain what we will be doing. I should point out that later in the summer we will do this again if we have more than we can take during this first camp.  And we will do the same thing for girls at some time in the summer and fall, with women counselors, if there is an interest.

         I will be glad to furnish references for all of our counselors and myself.  Our purpose is to show the outdoors and the best of God’s creation to boys, to steer them towards interests they might have as individuals…  our purpose is to use nature and good men to change young lives of many boys for the better.



Friday, May 20, 2016

Terror on An Old Log … 5-9-16


--> Only a few seconds from sudden death via heart attack… there I was about to step down on him. --> And there he was longing to bite me on the leg.  

         It was perhaps the worst turkey season I ever saw or seen or heard about!   I won’t venture a guess as to why, but the late morning gobbling which I have enjoyed so much in past years just was non-existent.  I usually kill gobblers that gobble a lot after ten o’clock, and there are always plenty of them. That way, as I get older I don’t have to get up before dark anymore. Not this year.  I should have got up before daylight and shot one off the roost.  They deserved that kind of treatment!

         In my region of the northern Ozarks, the gobbling was poor, the gobblers seemed fewer and I actually missed one.  I know that is hard for some folks to believe, seeing as how I am a grizzled old veteran outdoorsman and professional turkey hunter and champeen turkey caller.  I couldn’t believe it myself!

          I did have lots of excitement however.  Late one morning I pulled my boat over to the bank of the Sac River to tie it to a log on a small sand bar.  Wild turkey lived in the woods beyond and though it was getting up late in the morning, I had fished enough in a tributary to the river, and it was high and colored in the wake of a good rain the day before.   I didn’t catch nothin’!  Likewise with the turkey hunting… I hadn’t kilt nothin’!

I have seen several really big cottonmouths…. this is one of them.
    About to step from the bow of the boat with my shotgun and turkey call I looked into a crevice in the log and there was a terrifying sight… one of the biggest cottonmouth snakes I have ever seen.  My foot was right above him!  My balance was just about to shift forward!  I was close to limping around for weeks and being able to write about being bitten by a cottonmouth!

         Due to extraordinary reflexes and sheer panic, I stayed in the boat.  I only had two high-powered turkey loads or I would have killed him deader than Uncle Jake’s mule.  As it is, he or she, whichever, still lives.  But someday I will go by that log again with more shells.

          I have seen cottonmouths all over… in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana.  The biggest one I have ever seen was on Truman Lake a few miles west of Warsaw.  He was a monster in girth, but no cottonmouth gets very long.  When people tell me they saw a four or five-foot cottonmouth, I know they have seen a non-poisonous water snake. There are places to the south where common water snakes are huge.  They bite too, if you are dumb enough to fiddle with them up close and personal, but they don’t have the fangs nor the venom. 

        This cottonmouth was in the top five of any I have ever seen, about two feet long and as big around as a mink! Fatter than a bullfrog! The Sac River, which I have traversed often from one end to the other, has more cottonmouths than I have seen on any Ozark river.  Their venom is as deadly as a similar sized rattler, and they are often more aggressive than any rattler or copperhead you have ever seen, especially during that late summer molt.  For me it was a close call, the nearest hospital would have been an hour or so away.  And remember that last year a man in good health died from cottonmouth bite here in the Ozarks. 

         But I saw more pleasant things while turkey hunting.  There was a nighthawk on the branch of a small tree that flew as I walked by and landed on the limb of a big oak, so I could get a good look at him.  As he flew or maybe I should say ‘fluttered’ away, those bright white bars on his wings looked like white pinwheels.  Nighthawks are much like whippoorwills and chuck-wills-widows in that they lay a couple of eggs on the ground with no nest whatsoever and all three species are declining because of the number of egg- eaters roaming the woods; ‘coons, skunks, possums and worst of all… armadillos.

         They all feed in flight, on insects.  Nighthawks do not sit on tree limbs very often.  The little short-billed, long-winged bird sat still and watched me watching him, and it was something special that morning, as the three old gobblers I was trying to call had ignored me. I should have left the shotgun at home and brought the camera.  Nighthawks range all over North America, all the provinces in Canada, down into Mexico.

         Whippoorwills and chuck-wills-widows overlap in Missouri and Arkansas, but the former lives and nests to the north and east of the Ozarks primarily while the latter dwells to the south and east.  Lordy I love to hear them on a summer night, as it brings back so many memories from my youth, camping on river gravel bars, and just living amongst them in the woods.  There are fewer and fewer to hear.

         Along my place on Panther Creek, there’s a nest of fish crows… and they don’t sound anything like a regular common crow.  They are about twenty percent smaller, and they warble and squawk and make sounds that really puzzle lots of folks.  If you look in the bird books, the range maps show they come as far north as the Oklahoma-Kansas border and up the Mississippi to about St. Louis, but they aren’t suppose to be in the Ozarks at all.  They weren’t when I was younger.  They just began to show up about ten years ago up in the northern Ozarks, maybe 15 years ago down in north Arkansas.

         They do indeed eat fish, and they DO NOT nest on ridges… they nest along the waterways, small creeks and rivers and marshes.  Here on Lightnin’ Ridge, I don’t think I have ever heard a fish crow, but on Ozark streams, I have heard plenty of them.  The sight of them won’t give you a clue to what they are, as they look so much like a common crow, but when you hear one you will know it.   That’s all we need… something else moving in that likes to eat fish!

         Fish crows make some of the strange sounds that Canadian ravens make but the raven doesn’t get down this far to the south, preferring to stay in the northern reaches of northern states, Canada and well down into the mountain states west of us.

         If you would like to come and visit our place on Panther Creek and hike our trails and see the fish crows, don’t forget our fish fry on May 21. If you come, bring water containers to fill from our artesian well, flowing out from nearly 500 feet below the ground.  The water has been tested and it is cold and clear and full of healthful minerals.  Actually I don’t even know if it has any minerals but I have been drinking it and it has made me look handsomelier and younger day by day.  I know it is the water, as nothing ever worked before.

         But we need to know who is coming to our fish fry and dinner, so just call my executive secretary, Ms. Wiggins, located in our executive offices here on Lightnin’ Ridge… 417 777 5227.  Ms Wiggins doesn’t drink enough of my spring water, as she is perhaps homelier than she has ever been, and crankier.  She constantly complains about my Labradors having the run of the office and my big chocolate male, Bolt, sometimes growls at her.  She says that he bit her once, but Bolt says that she bit him first!  I believe him because he has never lied to me and Ms. Wiggins has!

         You can email me at or write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Record Holders, and A Fish Fry -- 5/2/16

This is surely an alternative method record, a big bass caught by 7 year old Jack Luraas

-->         I think it was back in the 1950’s or 60’s that some good ol’ boys down in Kentucky got to yearning for fishing fame, and therefore figured out a way to have their names in the record books.  From some lying and paying off the right people they were soon the proud possessors of two world records.  One was a fictitious walleye weighing 25 pounds and a fictitious smallmouth bass at 14 pounds. 

         Trouble is, one of them had a conscience and when he got old he started thinking about how all that deception would play with St. Peter, whom he was getting closer to meeting on a first person basis.  So he spilled the beans and the records were cleared from the record books.

          Now the Missouri Department of Conservation has made it possible for perhaps hundreds of Missourians to get their names in the state’s record books in an honest though somewhat questionable manner, and someone has already taken advantage of it.  He is in the newly formed fishing record book with a three-pound white bass, a good two pounds smaller than thousands of other big white bass caught from Missouri waters.  I imagine in my lifetime I have caught a hundred white bass weighing four pounds or better myself.  Caught four of them in one night!  

         Many years ago when I was guiding fishermen on Bull Shoals I took a Nebraska fisherman out in May and he caught a five pound, two ounce white bass under the lights on a shad.  His name is Gary Butts, and he now lives down at Branson and is a well-known taxidermist.  I don’t know who caught the three pounder that was touted as an ‘alternative-methods’ record.  The MDC has just created that category and the three- pound white bass is a record for trotline fishermen since the fish of mediocre size was caught on a trotline!

         Now you probably know that you do not set trotlines for white bass or walleye or black bass or crappie, you set trotlines for great big catfish weighing 20 or 30 pounds.  Back in 1967 my old college buddy Darrel Hamby, and I caught a largemouth bass on a trotline that weighed almost eight-pounds and when we ran the line the bass was dead.  Today that bass would be a state record under the new alternative methods category.  Heck, anything you catch on a trotline now can probably be a record fish, say a one-pound crappie or a two-pound walleye, a three-pound bass.  For awhile anyway.

         But who cares!!!   What ARE all the alternative methods?  Can we include jug fishermen and cane pole fishermen… how about limb-line fishermen?  How about someone who catches something on a chunk of baloney, or a piece of cheese? That’s pretty alternative compared to a minnow or a night-crawler. If you grab a yeller sucker with a treble hook this spring is he a new record too?  If you bow-shoot a gar now or a carp, call the MDC and tell them about it because that’s got to be some kind of record, at least for awhile.  Alternative methods!

         Not many fishermen are going to want to get their name in the record book for catching a little old eight-inch green-sunfish on a trotline, or a ten-inch goggle-eye, but you can bet somebody will.  I think maybe up at Jeff City they may have some employees who don’t have much to do. Now they will.  Call in those alternative method fish you catch but be careful about it.  You don’t want to call in a two-pound smallmouth that you gigged. That’s illegal. And I would say dynamite is not considered an alternative method.

         I’d hate to say I caught another bass on a trotline.  But I caught a big eel once on a trotline and I caught an Ozark hellbender on a limb-line.  There’s two good alternative records right there that might never be broken. 

         We have a Missouri Sports Hall of Fame that has hundreds and hundreds of people in it. Lots of them didn’t grow up here and don’t live here now, they just played a sport in St. Louis or Kansas City and then got the heck out of Missouri.  Lots of the actual Missourians, no one has ever heard of. 

         They need to dedicate a wing to Missouri fishermen, and include those alternative methods folks who catch eels and hellbenders, black perch and punkinseeds… and white bass on trotlines!!  Now there’s you some hall-of-famers!

         I speak all over the Ozarks to various groups but as I remember I have never had a speaking engagement in my hometown of Houston, Mo. On May the 13th I will speak to a group at 1:00 oclock at the Catholic Church.  I understand it is open to the public and it doesn’t cost anything, so you can come and join us if you live close to Houston and can find the Catholic Church.  I will give away a bunch of my magazines and sell and sign my books. If you already have some of them you can bring them over and I will sign them for you.  I have no idea what I will talk about that day and may not know until I get there!

         If you want to come to a big fish-fry dinner, write this date and address down… Saturday, May 21 at the Panther Creek Lodge and acreage, 7140 SE 1200 Road, Collins Mo..  That is out in the country four miles southwest of Collins about forty miles north of Springfield just off Highway 13.  I am doing this to show our place for underprivileged children to all those who want to see it. 

         The old 1880’s iron bridge there is a real historic attraction, but boy are we going to have a big dinner that day.  We will eat between 1 and 2 p.m. and I need to know who is coming because I don’t want to be short of food.  So if you can come, write a postcard telling me how many there will be, to Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613.  Or you can email me at  You can even call my secretary, Ms. Wiggins at 417 777 5227 and tell her you are coming.  And if you need a map we’ll get one too you.

         But again, we intend to have fresh fish and baked beans and cold slaw (as opposed to warm slaw) and baked potatoes and dessert and coffee, tea or soda.  You can see what a predicament I will be in if….  1. Nobody comes.  2. A whole bunch of people come that I am not expecting… or  3. If it rains.   In case of number 3, we will postpone it until the next Saturday. 

         There will be no charge for the dinner, but if you wish to make a donation to help us run this place, there will be a bucket at the door for your donation. And if there are any ladies out there who wish to bring any kind of dish or dessert, I welcome it.   If I make a pie on Friday I sometimes eat all of it before Saturday gets here.

         I am really hoping that area churches will send youth counselors to see this beautiful place on Panther Creek, and then use this 70 acre-outdoor education center and retreat with enough cabins and beds for up to 20 kids at a time. We have a wonderful place to bring kids who have problems, or boys without fathers…COMPLETELY FREE OF CHARGE. 

         My hopes for the future for these kids involves hiking trails, a shooting range, a trout pool, a sports field, canoes and kayaks on the creek, swimming and fishing on a clean gravel bar, special speakers and gravel-bar bonfires at night and many other things.   Some of my own friends will be there to help and all are good Christian men I know very well.  And I will always be there myself, anxious to talk to kids about nature and conservation.

Hope you can join us on May 21.  Come and spend the whole day.