Monday, October 31, 2016

Night of the Big Cat


    An Excerpt from my new book, Little Home on the Piney, the true story of my father’s boyhood.      

       In November of 1938 I was eleven years old and soon to be twelve.  Pop showed me how to set a deadfall, and how to bait them and run up to 40 at a time without forgetting where they were. With deadfalls you would catch lots of possums, and skunks and a weasel now and then. Weasels were small, their pelts about one-third the size of a possum, but they were worth more than a possum or skunk. 

       A skunk was worth more the less white he had on him. Once I caught one that was coal black except for a white spot on his head. Pop was tickled with that. He said it was a pelt that fur-buyers called a ‘star-black’ and worth as much as two dollars.  
       For some reason, a skunk killed outright and quick under a deadfall didn’t spray anything and didn’t smell unless you cut the scent bag while you skinned it. I never skinned nothin’ as carefully as I skinned a skunk. Pop taught me to skin everything as I went, and bring the pelts back in a burlap bag.

       I would head out with the bait in another smaller bag, usually a rabbit head or the heads of suckers Pop had gigged. I guess I would cover a couple of miles in a half day, and I would usually return with no bait in the sack, but at times, enough furs that I would have to drag the bag.

       Several wild house-cats were roaming around in the woods on that stretch of the Big Piney, and back up Arthur’s Creek. I would catch one now and then in a deadfall, and furs of those cats, all different colors, were worth a quarter to fifty cents. I wondered if there were ladies out there somewhere wearing fur coats made out of cats and skunks, thinking they had something really valuable. 

       Pop said there was no greater killer in the woods than a wild house-cat. He said a wild house-cat had no inclination to stop killing when it had enough to eat, and it would kill every bird and rabbit and chipmunk it could catch. Pop was so smart about things like that and he was always teaching us what he knew. 

       He had told me too, how big cats like mountain lions could jump on top of a deer and rip through the jugular vein. I wish he hadn’t.

       When it was snowy or cold, Pop saw to it I stayed warm while running deadfalls, with old clothes of his, and boots to go over my shoes. Well, they were sort-of boots. He took burlap sacks and wrapped them around my feet way up above my shoes, then tied with binding twine. I could walk all day long and they never came apart, but after a couple of days I would wear holes in them under my shoe soles.

       I always had matches and carbide along, in case I needed to start a big fire in a hurry. The little handful of carbide needed a small amount of water to make the gas which blazed up high and strong when you lit it. You could pour water on it and the flame just got bigger. Pop taught me to start out with really small twigs and crushed leaves, and even if they were wet, the fire would dry them and they would begin to burn. Then you added bigger twigs and bigger pieces as the fire grew. But of course you had to have enough brains to know where to build it… not out in the open but sheltered a little by a rock outcropping or a big tree that leaned out and made for a little dry spot. 
       I got a late start for some reason or another one memorable day, and by mid-afternoon I think I had skinned a young coon and a skunk and three or four possums. Then way up Arthur’s Creek where the high ridges surrounded it on both sides there was a deadfall back up in a small canyon of the creek with a dead possum beneath the rock, and there wasn’t much left to it, just blood and hair. It had been ripped to shreds.

       When you realize how heavy those deadfall rocks are, and how much I strained to lift them when I reset one, you realize that it took something big to get under it and pull that possum out. I looked around, and that’s when I saw it…a distinct track of a big cat, about twice the size of the track of a bobcat. There wasn’t any doubt about what it was, because cats are so much different than a coyote or dog or wolf. The claws are held up in the toes, so they do not show in mud or sand or snow, like the claws of a wolf do. 

       In that deep ravine, where the creek ran north toward the Piney River, it was getting dark quickly and I was better than two miles from the cabin. I shuddered, looking at the blood and hair, and I just left that deadfall as it lay. I threw the bag of furs over my shoulder and I lit out down that rock-strewn creek, leaping from ledge to rock to gravel, traveling faster than I ever had. I could feel him coming, behind me.

       Getting close to where the creek ran into the river, I made a long jump across it and my burlap boots caught on a clinging vine. I plunged headlong into the rock and gravel and shallow water, jamming my elbow and knees and both hands into the creek bed. I stood up and looked at my stinging, bleeding hands, and wet trousers and as I did, I
heard the most horrible scream up on the ridge behind me, something awful and hideous and blood-chillin’-horrible in the gathering darkness. The cat was following me and he wanted me to know it.

       I was gosh-awful scared, the first time I really new what terror was. I thought to myself that I would not likely get much older than I was. He would make me look like that possum soon. I thought of leaving the furs there. But I couldn’t do that. We were so poor, and Pop needed those furs.

       I rounded the mouth of the creek and began to run as hard as I could run, dodging brush and trees, back up through the wooded bottomland.  I was a mile north of my home. I could feel that cat behind me, and as fast as I ran, I knew he was much faster than me. I would never make it! 

       I had my skinning knife, and I figured that before he got me I could sink my knife blade somewhere in that killer. I did some praying like I never did before, as I raced up across the bank into the little clearing. I promised God I would do better at being 12 than I had done whilst I was 11. 

       The praying helped keep my mind off of what it would feel like to get eaten, but I knewI’d soon feel his claws and teeth ripping me apart. In my imagination could hear his rapid footsteps. Truthful, I don’t know if he was ever there, but that night you couldn’t have convinced me he wasn’t.

       Then I could see the lantern light through the windows of the cabin before me, and finally I flung open the door to fall down by the stove, exhausted and bleeding. Mom fussed over me and washed my skinned places and wrapped me in a blanket. 

       Pop told me it took some intestinal fortitude to do what I had done. He had learned that term from one of those western magazines Mom’s folks had brought him.  And he was amazed at the sackful of furs, bragging on me somethin’ awful. I felt proud to have contributed so much. But I wasn’t near as proud as I was happy to be alive, there in our little home on the Big Piney.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Six Headed Fish-Eater

                  A drake wood-duck searches for acorns along the creek


Less than a year ago, mark Powell and a couple of men from a Springfield Baptist church brought a group of 27 fatherless boys to the Panther Creek Youth Retreat I have been working on for a year. They spent three days, and together we all built a trail through the creek bottom.      

       It is part of a circular trail still not totally complete, but it runs along the bottom, then up along the wooded ridge=top, and it is a magnificent place to see wildlife of all sorts, and hyuge trees and flowers and birds.

       A day or so ago, I walked it, carrying my over and under .22—20 gauge, which is one heck of a squirrel gun. Early in the hike, I walked upon a fawn that was maybe 6-months old, which I watched for awhile. It had no spots now of course, and I don’t think it would have weighed 60 pounds.

       Just afterward I flushed a woodcock in the bottoms along the creek.  Next to a food plot of clover, bordered by standing millet and milo, there was a big buck and a doe, and I wondered if they might be the fawn’s parents.

       Walking out on a gravel bar, I stopped in my tracks when I saw a drake and a hen woodduck, and I eased backward without spooking them. They were in shallow water eating the acorns. I might add here that I have never in my life seen so many acorns as there are this year, from both the red oaks and white oaks. A big white oak towering above my open porch on Lightnin’ Ridge has dumped so many acorns you cannot see one that is not touching another. The plenty which is afforded to wildlife this year is a blessing. If the winter isn’t really severe, the survival of my quail coveys should be really good, and I will let them and the rabbits go unhunted.

       As I reached the point where the trail leaves the creek and climbs up into the woods along the ridge, I caught sight of a creature swimming in the water below, and figured it was one of the muskrats or beavers I see quite often. But not so, a head poked up out of the water several inches above the surface and there was another right beside it. 
       They were young otters, and I estimated that there in that big hole of water, there were three or four. Then they became aware of my presence, and all of a sudden there were six little heads sticking up, peering at me high on the bank. And there I was with my camera back in the cabin. 

       These were young of the year, but very close to being adults, and I am quite sure that the creek is too small to give shelter to fish they search for.

       The stocking of otters a few years ago was done by young biologists who had no idea what was about to happen. It was like spreading seed on fertile ground, and the otters burgeoned into a real problem for those who have private fish ponds. A family of otters can completely wipe out the fish numbers in a good-sized pond, and they have done it in the Ozarks. 
       In creeks and rivers today, they are the greatest enemy that bass, catfish and trout ever faced. The reason they are more of a problem now than they were in an earlier time, perhaps a hundred and fifty years ago, is the lack of trappers in the Ozarks today. There was a time when hundreds of trappers went after otters each winter. 
       That also was a time when every stream in the Ozarks had twice as much water as they have today, and each stream was much deeper, with rocks and holes in the depths that today are gone, filled with silt and gravel from the erosion of the watershed. Fish cover is nearly gone in smaller streams. Some of those six young otters, and hopefully their mother and father, will be gone by spring if I can remember what my grandfather taught me about a creek-bottom trapline.

       As the sun began to fall lower into the woods, I approache a little ridge-top clearing where the old barn sets, and froze when a group of turkeys stepped out of the woods. I called a little by mouth, and soon they were all around me, maybe fifteen or so of the spring hatch, and I couldn’t see one beard. They got close and an old hen saw me. 

       I stepped out from behind my tree and turkeys went everywhere. For a minute I was undecided as which one to shoot. Then one of them flew up into a tree at perfect range. My twenty-gauge barrel had only one shell… size 7 shot. 
       Years back when my granddad was telling me about hunting fall turkeys as a kid with his old Steven’s double barrel, he said that the best shot size for big spring gobblers was size 6, but for young fall turkeys he said there is nothing better than size 7.

       There was the roar of the shotgun and then the thud of the turkey hitting the ground. It was a two-year-old hen. I prefer not to shoot a hen in the fall, but I can tell you that the hatch along Panther Creek this spring was good enough to not worry about it this time.

       In our first year, we have had some great success with  this Panther Creek youth project, but I am only halfway finished there at the place we want to use as a new experience for underprivileged youth, a place that can maybe change the lives of some kids. Our sports field isn’t finished yet, nor is our spring-fed trout pond. I do have a shooting range started, but we need an automated trap thrower, just in case someone out there has one they will sell.

       This coming Saturday, the 22nd, we will have our Panther Creek fish fry for those who want to see the place. You won’t believe the natural beauty that is there. Come prepared to explore. It is a free event, but don’t come without notifying us, because we have to know how many fish to thaw out a day before.

       Our only difficulty is a neighbor to the west that I believe is the most evil-hearted man I ever heard of. He has tried to extort money from us, has torn down our west boundary fence, made a false charge of theft against me, and accuses us publicly of advertising the cabins for rent and making money from them. 
       I will put my hand on the Bible and swear before God that those cabins have never been so advertised, nor have any of the dozens of kids and guests staying there ever been charged a penny. 
       I have a list of names of all who have come here, and all can readily confirm they were never charged. This man seems determined to destroy what we want to do, and he gains nothing by doing it.  His last threat was to burn or bulldoze a 12-year old cabin, of which he thinks a few feet of one corner sets partially on his land. 
       Somewhere in the Bible it talks about running into this kind of thing when you want to do something good. But I know this, that man will be of no consequence if God really wants this retreat for youngsters to change the lives of a few or many.  He will make it work in time. I have never been patient enough to give God enough time. I always did think He should do things faster.

       Call us if you want to come to our fish fry, and we will send you a map to get there. Phone 417-777- 5227. Or email me at

Friday, October 14, 2016

Canada and October

Canada in October at Lake of the Woods

       It was nice in Canada last week, except for the wind. In the sixties for four days, it abruptly turned cold, with a skiff of snow overnight. When giant Lake of the Woods has much wind, you have to cross the whitecaps and find someplace that is sheltered in order to fish.  A fisherman becomes a hunter at such times, hunting a place that has the right depth and the substrate to hold fish. Last week I found such a place, a spot I had never fished before.  Lots of fish in 30 feet of water, most of them good-sized yellow perch, averaging twelve inches long.  But the walleye were there too, and we feasted on walleye filets one afternoon that were as good as fish can get. 
       Of course before I found that sheltered spot, I wasted some time in less productive places.  But in Canada in early October, every place you find is beautiful, with spectacular foliage and not one piece of litter to be seen. You cannot get back in the secluded waters of that giant lake without wanting to get out of the boat and go exploring. 
       My Labrador, Bolt, enjoyed that exploring as much as I, looking
for grouse and mushrooms and moose tracks.  But at one spot, he surged ahead up a narrow game trail and returned in a flash.  He retreated to the boat and wouldn’t get out.  You could see him saying, “Don’t go up there boss, let’s get out of here and go somewhere else.”  He came across the fresh scent of a bear or wolf, I am sure, and he didn’t like the prospects of seeing what he smelled.

       Unfortunately, the fishing in Lake of the Woods has declined over the last 30 years. Places where we once landed fish right and left in early October are now just fishless, and what you catch is about one-half the size of what was once there.  Places where we caught big fat crappie twenty-five years back have none now.  Of course, the guides know of secret places where they can get plenty of fish for their clients, but if you go to Lake of the Woods now in October, you will not see anything like what I experienced thirty years ago.  Lots of walleye and northern pike, but they are small, and fewer crappie and bass. 
       The numbers of walleye and crappie you can keep to bring home are low now, and I think that is a good idea.  If fish numbers anywhere were decimated years ago, it was Americans that made it happen.  Twenty or thirty years ago we were a greedy bunch, and everyone thought that fishing pressure could never affect the plenty we found there. Today you can still catch lots of yellow perch and bring home twenty or so per angler. If you use light gear, you cannot help but enjoy catching them, and the 12- to 15- inch walleye found with them.  Yellow perch are as good in the frying pan as walleye, in fact you can’t really tell which is which when you eat them.  I keep the bigger yellow perch and when they are filleted, you have one nice chunk of meat from each side that can be fried whole, just like a big bluegill or average-sized crappie.

       We caught a limit of four- to six-pound northern pike and they too are great eating.  But for the color of the meat, when you eat northerns, you would think you are eating walleye.  But they are slimy, and fishermen do not like to handle them.  You need to find a sand bar, plenty of them in Canada, rub sand all over the pike and then wash it off.  Then the fish is easy to handle and filet. 

       But you have to know how to take a filet, which may be two feet long on an average pike, and remove the Y-bones down the center.  It is simple to do, but it is absolutely amazing how few fishermen from the states know how to do it.  If you do not remove that small strip of Y-bones, the filet is tough to eat.  But when they are gone, anyone who doesn’t like a northern pike filet has problems with appetite.

       This country in Northwest Ontario is the land of my ancestry, French trappers and Cree Indians.  On my dad’s side, both his great grandfathers were Canadian French and one grandmother was a Canadian Cree.  As I get older, and I see the mess this country has become, I feel drawn to that Lake of the Woods country. 

       When I am there, and can retreat to some small cabin that can only be reached by pontoon plane or hours of portaging, I have no idea what is happening back here in the U.S. and it is the kind of peace some men yearn for.  No T.V., no phone, no computers, just a land where God’s face never seems to be turned away, where the perfection of natural law has not changed since the beginning of time. 
       When winter comes, with a pair of snowshoes, a man can walk anywhere, even crossing over miles of frozen water. Build up a supply of firewood, and fill a couple or three coal oil lamps, and be able to hunt well and fish through a hole in the ice and you wouldn’t have to worry about who becomes president, nor the kind of nation a new supreme court will create here. 

       That wilderness is too difficult a place for those who live here on entitlements. They will never be a problem. To survive there you have to work.  But I know that if I were there for an entire winter I could easily write a couple of books that I never seem to get finished here.  While there for only five days I wrote the final three chapters on a book I am about to publish.

       Sometimes, seeing the situation we have in the Ozarks, with growing numbers of lazy people we all have to support, and the law and justice system we have deteriorating by the year, it seems that Canada’s wilderness is a place where peace can be found for a few of us… not many.  The Canadian government is far worse than ours, but the people who survive deep in the bush are folks that live without fear of that government, because they are out of reach.  If I were young and had no family, I would be there in a heartbeat, and never leave. 

       The book I am finishing is entitled, “Little Home on the Piney” and it is the story of my dad’s  life from 1937 when he was ten years old to 1945, when the war ended.  It results from the years I spent listening to him recall his boyhood on the Big Piney River. It is packed with old photos and artwork.  If you enjoyed the book, “Ridge-Runner”, you will like this one even better.  The first 100 books off the press will be signed and numbered, and if you want one you can order it for 15.95 and we will pay the postage necessary to send it to you.  I will personally inscribe those books to you or someone else.  They’ll be ready well before Christmas. 
       My address is Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613.  Email me at  Somehow, I have a Lightnin’ Ridge Facebook thing that one of my Publishing Company employees set up.  Ms.Wiggins, our executive secretary, keeps it going and shows me reader responses.  So if you know what that Facebook nonsense is all about, you can see that.

Our big fish fry at Panther Creek is Saturday October 22.  If you want to come, please let me know by calling Ms. Wiggins at 417-777-5227.