Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A New Book From an Old Naturalist

       Last week or the week before I asked if anyone could guess what bright red bird is commonly seen in the Ozarks during the summer besides the cardinal.  The answer is the summer tanager.  And if you occasionally see a bright blue bird that is smaller than a bluebird, with almost a metallic blue sheen, what is it commonly called?  Answer at the end of this column.

       I am proud to be publishing a new book on bobwhite quail which will be out this fall, written by one of the most knowledgeable outdoorsmen I have ever met.  His name is Michael Widner, and he was born and raised on an Ozark farm near Long Creek, north of Alpena, Arkansas.  He hunted quail as youngster, back in a time when quail were plentiful, and never could give it up, even as they became scarce.

       Lots of quail hunters just gave it up in the past 30 years, but there are some who love to work with dogs, who hunt declining coveys not to bring home a limit, but enjoy the satisfaction of bagging perhaps two or three birds and the opportunity to see a rare covey rise before a setter or pointer frozen on a beautiful point.

       I met the author when he was about seventeen years old, a junior at Arkansas Tech at Russellville, Arkansas.   I was only 22 at the time, just out of college and hired by the Arkansas State Park System to begin a new ‘naturalist division’ in four of the states largest and most visited parks.  I hired six young men that spring, and one of them was Mike Widner.  None had any more knowledge of the outdoors than he, and his grade point was about twice what mine had been, majoring in wildlife management as I had.         Mike had the purest Ozark accent I had ever heard, and he attracted park visitors like bees to honey.  They loved to hear him talk, and no one went on hikes with him, or attended an evening program he gave, that wasn’t impressed with what he knew, and what he taught them.  He was a true naturalist, an interpreter of the Ozarks natural world as good as any I have ever seen.

       A few years later, we worked together as naturalists on the Buffalo River for the National Park Service.  After a few years of that Mike applied to be a conservation agent for the Missouri Department of Conservation, and was accepted.  There after weeks of training, Mike graduated at the head of that class.
       He worked as an agent for a few months, but for some reason Mike resigned and came back to Arkansas.  He won’t discuss the reason why, but I have a hunch he found out the job was not what he thought it would be.

       Back in Arkansas he went to work to achieve a master’s degree in wildlife management and became the state’s wild turkey biologist shortly afterward.  Funny thing about that, when Mike and I were young, there were lots more quail than turkeys.  One spring when we were working for the state park system, he and I floated the Big Piney River, where I grew up, and camped for several days on a gravel bar, fishing and hunting.  Mike killed his first wild gobbler during that trip.  There were many, many more to follow.

       I know that Mike learned an awful lot about wild turkeys in Arkansas, through a dedicated study of the birds in the wildest parts of the state.  He used small radio transmitters attached to wild turkeys captured with cannon nets, and tracked them all through the year.  Turkey hunters in the Ozarks of Arkansas say the numbers of wild gobblers have steadily increased over the years. 
       I think Mike had more to do with that than anything else.  He retired a few years ago and has turned his attention to bird-dogs and quail hunting, and thus, this book, which covers fifty years of learning and experience in the field.  I can’t wait to get it out to all those who are so disappointed in the demise and steady decline of the greatest of all game birds.  You are going to learn a lot about the bobwhite quail.

       Widner won’t pull any punches.  Like me, he is disappointed that the quail means so little to state conservation agencies.  We both have seen young biologists come into their jobs with no experience in the field, just the basic knowledge of the outdoors and wildlife gained from books and classrooms.  Trouble is, almost no one educated in natural sciences now are country people from any kind of rural background.  Today’s biologists and conservation leaders, born and raised in a suburban setting, may have never hunted, or spent even minimal time in the outdoors.

     I have seen the opportunity to bring quail hunting back to the Midwest through the knowledge and experience of people the conservation Departments ignore, and if you want to read all about, be sure to order my Fall issue of   The Lightnin’ Ridge Outdoor Journal.  You will be amazed at the outstanding quail hunting I have found right here in Missouri, and how it can be enjoyed by anyone. 
       Mike Widner knows where to find the best of it, in parts of Kansas and Oklahoma, but he says that eastern Arkansas seems to be as close to old-time quail hunting as he has found anywhere.  But there is a way to bring the quail hunting experience back.  It will take money to do it, and the MDC has that money, if they will just use it for something to make better hunting for the common, ordinary people they have ignored in the past, the people who pay a tax on everything they buy to provide millions for the MDC to waste. 
       This state’s Conservation Department has become as corrupt as any state agency I have ever heard of.  They rape our public areas and get away with it because the large scale media is in the hip pocket of the agency.  They will not print the truth about what is going on. They help hide it!

       Each year, contract loggers take millions of board feet of lumber from the big trees on public owned land managed by the MDC , and fence rows and thickets and small game habitat are bulldozed so that the department can turn larger acreages over to tenant farmers, who give back thousands of dollars for the harvest of crops.
       Enforcement agents are becoming thugs, concerned with making targets of innocent people, and incompetent biologists flail away with something of a trial and error attitude.  I will have more about this in the next column and I hope you will look for that.

The answer to the first paragraph question is the indigo bunting. 
Write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65612 or email me at   Call our office to acquire our summer magazine or any of my books… 417-777-5227.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Purpose For Little Fish


       A grandfather who has lots of grandkids can put them to a great advantage if he loves to fish for catfish.  That’s because you need lots of bait for trotlines and limb-lines, and small sunfish are just about the best bait you can get. And kids love to catch ‘em. My grandfather only had one grandson living close and it was me.  And you will never see a kid more enthused about seining creeks for chubs or catching sunfish on a willow pole. 
       By the time I was 12 I held the record for the most green sunfish caught by a grade-schooler in the whole Midwest.  We ate some of them… the ones that got up to 8 inches or so in length.  But grandpa didn’t want those, he was most interested in ‘black perch’ which is what he called green sunfish, about three or four inches long.

       If you don’t know what a black perch is you ought to be ashamed of yourself. How are you going to teach your grandkids anything important?? In the Ozarks, black perch (or green sunfish) are no doubt the most numerous fish in any waters; lakes, rivers or ponds.  They have a mouth like a bass, larger by far than that of a bluegill or long-ear sunfish.  At times in the spring and early summer they are beautiful in the oddity of their markings and colors.  And in the worst looking little muddy farm pond, when nothing else will survive there, green sunfish may outnumber the tadpoles!  Put three or four in there this spring and next year you may have a hundred.

      At such small waterholes on most every Ozark farm, they get way too populated, and therefore are stunted.  If you toss out a little hook and worm underneath a bobber, you can catch dozens of them, and grandpa and I thinned the crop of them in many a farm pond.  But of course, they were abundant in the deeper holes of small creeks, and that was more fun.  There was also more shade, and cooler, cleaner water to swim in after the bait bucket was full.

       But when the sun was setting over some Piney River ridge, and night came upon the Ozarks, the green sunfish fulfilled its most important purpose.  We used them as bait for the trotlines set in a deep eddy where big flathead catfish lurked.  It wasn’t that there weren’t other good trotline baits, small bluegill and long-ears, (punkinseeds) were also good, but you could see why they weren’t as good as black perch.  The latter lived longer in a bucket, acted up more when they were placed on a big trotline hook, and thumbed their nose at a fat hefty flathead, which made the whiskered fish madder’n heck, so grandpa said.

       Truthfully, horny-head chubs or small suckers up to a foot long, were grandpa’s favorite, but we never could get enough.  There were big minnows we knew as ‘doughguts’, which were excellent but you had to work hard with a seine to get them. As I grow older I realize why grandpa started preferring catching the black perch, it was hard work to man that twelve-foot seine.  You can’t seine bait alone.

So here we are at the best time of year for trotlining, and when I say trotlining, I am not talking about blue cat or channel cat, I am thinking about those forty- or fifty-pound flatheads.  Their spawning period, later in the year than most any other fish, is over, and they are hungry.  And while dead bait and cut-up bait and commercial baits will catch blues and channel cat, flathead turn their nose up at such offerings.  They want live bait! 
       So I am going to have to find a whole bunch of green sunfish.  I can get them from my own pond up here on Lightnin’ Ridge or at one or two stock ponds on my neighbors farm.   But the best way is to go out on the lake, take a little ultra-lite outfit or a long fly rod, and fish around the shallow rocky banks where green sunfish like to hang out.  You can wade out waist deep and drag a bait bucket behind you and fill it up in a hurry with punkinseeds, bluegill and green sunfish.  If the trotlines are set and ready, and the night is dark and maybe there is a little rain coming, that’s all you need to bring home a flathead catfish as long as your leg.

       I have found that in July and August, if a summer storm comes through and just adds a little water to a river, and adds a little color to it, the chances of catching a flathead on your trotline increase just about 43 percent.  In a lake, a summer storm may not affect it much, but it still will make flathead roam around more, increasing the likelihood of catching one by about 31 percent.  Those figures come from a lifetime of trotline fishing and the certainty that no one can say absolutely that they aren’t accurate.  I like to write things that sound really authoritative and no one can really dispute!!

       If there were more room here I would have more to say about trotline fishing and flathead catfish, but you could write a book on that.  It all starts with the little black perch, as grandpa always called them, and the fact that if you can fill a stock tank with about a hundred of the feisty little fish, you have a big jump on landing a catfish that you will want a picture of.

       I intend to do just that.  I have a tank six foot across and 30 inches deep and an aerator to keep the water fresh and I will eventually fill it with bait.  Then I will write a summer column telling all about the monster flathead I caught sometime soon.

       But what I need right now is a couple of somebody’s grandkids that would like to catch some sunfish with me.  Drop them off at my place and I will try to have them home in time for supper.
       You can call me if you want to get my summer magazine, as we have a few left over.  If you are a subscriber and haven’t gotten your copy yet, you should let us know.  In some places, they are delivered in about 3 days, but in Arkansas and Oklahoma it may be three weeks.  If your magazine goes through a large city in route to you, it may go home with someone who works for the U.S. Postal Service!  That is really costly for us because it costs nearly 3 dollars to mail out a magazine after that first shipment is sent.  The percentage though, of books and magazines we mail out that never arrive, is way too high.   Last month I mailed out 40 free books to a group of kids in Neosho Missouri, and the postage was just under 20 dollars.   They were lost en route, and the USPS says there is nothing they can do about it, even though they were suppose to have tracking ability on them, since they were sent via something called media mail.  I have learned over the years in my business that the main problem with the postal service is… they just don’t give a darn.

       Our office number is 417 777 5227.  Email me at or write me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo 65613

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Advice for a Lunker Seeker

 In the middle of a dark summer night, another hefty brownie falls victim to a jitterbug.
       In this very column I am fixin’ to tell all you fishermen how to catch a five-pound smallmouth and three or four seven-pound largemouth on the same fishing trip, so if that interests you, keep reading.

       This is prompted by a phone call I got last spring. A fellow from a group calling itself ‘the smallmouth alliance’ called me recently and asked me if I was still guiding float fishermen on Ozark rivers.  I do that on a limited basis, and a friend of mine, Dennis Whiteside, guides river fishermen on a weekly basis, all over Missouri and Arkansas.

“I want to catch a smallmouth between four and five pounds, just once,” he said, “and I have been told you are the one who can help me do it.”

       Most readers know I come from a river family, and began guiding float fishermen who were mainly after smallmouth bass, when I was only 12 years old.  I was following in the footsteps of my grandfather, father and uncles on the Big Piney River.  Dad and Grandpa made the wooden johnboats and I put them to good use at a young age.

       On Ozarks streams in my lifetime I have caught lots of four-pound smallmouth.  In those years gone by I have only landed two bona-fide five-pound brownies myself, one from Crooked Creek in Arkansas and one from the Niangua.  They were just a couple ounces over five pounds.

I think I had one on the Kings River in Arkansas once that would have weighed five pounds that I released in the early 1980’s.

       But when I was about thirteen, I paddled Joe and Katy Richardson down the Big Piney, and in a long stretch of shaded swift water that local folks referred to as the Ink Stand, Mrs. Richardson hooked into biggest Ozark river smallmouth I have ever seen. We had no net but I got out in knee-deep water and got ahold of its lower lip. I don’t know which of the three of us was more excited.  That was the only bona-fide six-pound smallmouth I have ever seen taken from an Ozark river by rod and reel.

       Grandpa and I caught one nearly that large one late summer night at a place called the Peaked Rock eddy, on a trotline.  Completely against his nature, Grandpa talked me into letting it go, thinking it was bad luck to keep a bass on a trotline if you were after 30 or 40 pound flatheads.  Years later, I wrote an article about that night and the big smallmouth I released.  Outdoor Life magazine published it, in 1974 I think.

       But that doesn’t answer the question of how to catch a four to five pound brownie in the Ozarks.  It can be done, but the odds are against it.  Our rivers are a shell of what they were 30 or 40 years ago when I regularly saw big bass taken during the day.  Those deep holes are filled in so much, and fishing pressure is so great that four pound smallmouth, say in a river like the Niangua or Crooked Creek, are probably five percent or less of the number found in 1974.  I know… I was there!   I probably saw those rivers, floated and fished them,  before smallmouth alliance members or today’s fisheries biologists were born.

      But I am sure that this week or next, even into August, I can catch a five-pound smallmouth or a few seven-pound largemouth.  I would do it on some little isolated lake up in the Lake of the Woods area of Northwestern Ontario.  I would take my tent and fishing gear and camping supplies and have my friend Tinker Helseth, a bush pilot from Nestor Falls, fly me in to those places where there are no lodges and no cabins and no fishermen.  He has one such nameless lake where he flew a small boat in, strapped to his airplane’s pontoon.  One day on that lake a friend and I caught about fifty largemouth that were all less than 2 pounds.  That night in the darkness we fished with a jitterbug and caught lunkers one after another.  None exceeded seven pounds by much, because up there, largemouth bass don’t get any bigger than that.  In Canada, largemouth and smallmouth seldom thrive together in the same lakes.  Smallmouth, which are an introduced species, take over and crowd out the native largemouth.

       There are many more small wilderness lakes today where you can find the smallmouth, and likewise, in the heat of July and August you most likely won’t catch any really big ones.  But if you will pitch a tent on a windy, barren rock point where the mosquitoes get carried off on any breeze, you sleep until after sundown, then paddle along the shores fishing that jitterbug.  If you can handle that kind of fishing until first light, which comes a little after three a.m., you have a better than 50-50 chance to catch that five pound, or maybe six-pound smallmouth.  To tell the truth, I would give my left ear to be up there in early August.  My left ear is of little value, since my hair covers it anyway!

       You have to use strong line and a steel leader, because sometimes a 30- or 40-pound muskie will target your jitterbug.  That happened to my dad once when I took him to Canada on a night-fishing jitterbug outing.  He said that when the musky clobbered the jitterbug along the shore in the twilight, he thought briefly that Canada might have alligators!  Dad didn’t land that muskie but he did catch smallmouth bigger than any he had landed on the Big Piney.

       In my summer issue of the Lightnin’ Ridge outdoor magazine, you can read all about fishing the jitterbug in the Ozarks at night, but it isn’t easy to do unless you are an experienced ‘casting-gear’ angler. Forget doing that with spinning gear.  It takes an effort most of today’s fishermen won’t make.  There are lots of things to hang up on in the dark, and some snakes and bugs, etc.  And big smallmouth at night concentrate in a certain kind of water you have to know how to find.

       So I told the fellow who called, to get back to me in the dead of summer and we’d go to Canada and fulfill his dream, if he can handle the discomfort of it all, and the cost.  If not we will camp on an Ozark river gravel bar somewhere, fish all night and pray for a miracle!

You may call our office to get one of my books or the new magazine… 417-777=5227. Or email me at  Write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, MO. 65163.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Learning More About Wild Birds

       It is time for more nature stuff for all the master naturalists out there.  If you haven’t paid your money and don’t hold an officially authorized Missouri Department of Conservation Master Naturalist certificate, you can play along here anyway just as an amateur naturalist.  Or you can come and sit on my back porch with me and learn a whole lot and get by with only 50 cents a cup for the coffee.

       Because it is there in the mornings or evenings, as I drink coffee and watch the life go on in and below some 250-year-old oaks, that I learn a little each day.  For instance, just off my back porch a bright red bird spends a lot of time after bugs for his little ones in a nearby nest. He is not a cardinal, and his mate is an entirely different color. Since he is not a cardinal, there is only one other bird he can be.  What is he and what color is his mate.  Answer at the end of this column.

       One of the most plentiful birds here on Lightnin’ Ridge is one of the largest insect eating birds to nest high in the trees, and you almost never can see him.  We know him as the rain crow here in the Ozarks, but his scientific name describes the color of his bill. What is it? Now that ought to be an easy one to figure out.  A rain crow’s loud clucking, which gets faster as it continues, has long been said to be a warning of rain to come, and it is the most reliable of all weather predictions, because I have never heard one, ever, that I did not see rain to follow.  But once it didn’t happen for about three weeks!

       Which is larger, a whip-poor-will or chuck-wills-widow.  Why do they have the hairy looking bristles sticking out of the sides of their open mouths?  And did you know that neither of the birds build a nest.  They just lay eggs on the leafy forest floor, and their eggs are very susceptible to skunks and coons and possums and armadillo’s, four rotten no accounts that eat every egg they can find.  I truly believe that the decline I have seen over the past ten years or so in the numbers of these birds is due to a great increase in the egg-eaters. But a whip-poor-will can move its eggs easily. Any card-carrying master naturalist knows how they do that.  If you don’t see the end of this column.

       It is in late June and early July that you can so easily call up rooster quail if you can whistle like a bobwhite.  I hear one or two every morning around my place, and when I have the inclination I whistle one up to within a few feet of the porch.  I had one so frustrated once that he flew up on the roof and whistled back at me for an hour or so.  Usually though, a comical little rooster will run around in the back yard and finally fly up on a low oak limb, whistling away until I have to leave the porch and go do something else. But he will sit there on that limb while my Labrador runs around in the yard trying to find him. Do you know why a rooster quail will come to your call so readily as summer progresses?  Any top-flight naturalist knows the answer! 
       Back in the depression days their readiness to come running to a call got lots of rooster quail killed.  There were likely four or five times more quail back then, and folks lived off the land in hard times, always hungry.  My grandfather called up the bobwhites back then and shot their heads off with his .22 rifle, sometimes getting a dozen or so in a morning for his family.  Because they were all roosters, and there were so many of them, I doubt that impacted reproduction at all.  Male quail were always able of taking care of a number of hens, just like turkey gobblers, or leghorn roosters.

Sometimes when I talk to a group about nature they have a hard time believing the stories about fish jumping in the boat! Is that story about flying fish landing in a boat just a big tale to fool gullible folks or is it true?

       Well almost every summer, when we float the rivers at night and bang through the shallows with boat paddles splashing and headlamps on, we see it happen. Usually the bass are small, but some are up to 2 pounds or better, and they can leap from the water several feet in the air, distances of more than 10 feet and three feet above the surface. And yes, when I was young and we would go along a small river in a johnboat grabbing frogs with a headlight, we always seemed to take home a bass or two that jumped in the boat before the night was over.

       As for the rooster quail, by this time a good part of the mating season is over and many hens are nesting.  Like wild gobblers, his call is to attract a mate.  It stakes out where he is and that he is unafraid and available. That helps mark a special territory that is his, and any interlopers should expect a fight.  He comes to my call because he figures to whip that rooster he hears and run him off.

       The whip-poor-will often moves its eggs by holding them between her thighs while she flies from one place to another, and those bristles that stick out from the side of the birds beak is for feeding on insects in flight.  If they miss a bug in the air, the bristles may catch it and channel it into the wide, open mouth. The chuck-wills-widow looks very much like the whip-poor-will, but it is a little larger.

    The rain-crow is also known as a yellow-billed-cuckoo and if you get a good look at that bashful tree top dweller, you are fortunate.  It is a beautiful bird, as is the red bird I so often see that isn’t a cardinal.  It is a summer tanager, and while the male is bright red, the female is a subdued yellow color.

       Now you have all the answers, except to how you might get our brand new summer issue of the Lightnin’ Ridge Outdoor Journal magazine.  Concerning that, you may call me at 417 777 5227 and we can get you on our subscription list.   Write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613 or email me..