Saturday, February 22, 2020

A Secret Place in the Woods

       As much as I love to hunt and fish, I was born a naturalist first and foremost, and I have made much of my living actually working as a paid naturalist for two state park systems, for the National Park Service and for a natural heritage commission.  I continue that even now.

Several times a year I take groups of 10 to 15 people to that secret place that is quiet and serene, and wild and beautiful. There are no roads into it; I get there via boat. In fact I am going there this week. I will head up into familiar hills, which make up the watershed of Truman Lake, about 120 thousand acres of undeveloped public land.

       In the woodlands, where giant oaks and hickories are as big as any I have ever seen anywhere, there are still rubs made by buck deer not long ago. I found some big shed antlers there last year, a twelve-point headdress for a buck that survived the deer season. Not far away are the remains of a rock foundation only about 10 by 15 feet, where an old cabin once stood, built more than 120 years ago.  There is the remains of an iron bedstead there, nearly rusted away, and nothing more. Folks lived here for many years. I found a 1922 license plate there once.

       But a huge cedar growing out of the middle of it has to be 80 years old, so the cabin has been gone at least that long.  I wonder what the people were like who lived there a hundred years ago and much farther back. Wouldn’t it be something to go back in time and meet them? I imagine the six piles of rock on a small flat area above the creek are graves of some of them.

       Last year I sat down against a big chinquapin oak and marveled at the frenetic chatter of more than a thousand robins in an acre or so of woods along the creek. In sitting, I noticed that woodrats had an advanced nest around a nearby tree with a root system favoring a tunnel beneath it.  It is quite an arrangement of sticks.  These woods are filled with dens of one type or another, beneath rocks and crevices, under the roots of huge fallen giants, in the boles of standing, but rugged, den trees. There is such a variety of wild creatures here it is amazing.  The tracks along the creek tell me that.  A couple of years ago I photographed the tracks of a wandering mountain lion not far from the place where start.

This is my secret place, this large acreage of land set aside on Truman Lake.  For once they made a lake right, preserving so much.  Never ever, anywhere else have I seen individual species of white and chinquapin oak, cedar, Osage orange, hickory, black cherry and other species anywhere as large as I have found here.  It is typical of the northern Ozarks, with a winding small creek, stretches of cedar glade and open, mature forest. There, I can lose myself, and wonder if God isn’t behind me somewhere, smiling because I have returned to marvel in the greatness of His unspoiled creation. There is no greater place to talk to God.

      Last year in the early morning of a March, a group I had brought there got to see hundreds of frost flowers, growing from the base of stems of composite plants.  They are unique, white, fragile ice formations that form in the night as the dead plant somehow emits a water vapor, which freezes and creates hundreds of pieces of sculptured art.

       In the lateness of the day last year, as small flakes of snow began to fall and robins flew up in great flocks, I gained my feet and continued on, slowly, watching for whatever I may not have seen on other trips to this forest. I found a huge cedar with the hole beneath it, making it appear to be a miniature version of those California redwoods where roads pass through and beneath them.  Not much farther along the game trail I follow, there was an oak tree with a huge hardened mushroom growing up along its base nearly three feet off the ground.  It looked a great deal like some bird-bath which nature had fashioned. In all my life I have never seen any of those shelf-mushrooms that large. 

        My secret place will be blooming again soon with scattered wild plum and redbuds, and the skies will be bright blue.  New life is only a few weeks away.  Baby squirrels are being born right now in the many den trees. Red-tailed hawks and great horned owls are mating. It is the beginning of mating season for many furbearers too, and it is hard to realize that, in the bleakness of February.  But no matter when I come I have a feeling of peace I find nowhere else.  It is easy to forget that there is a conflict or problem of any kind anywhere on earth. 

       You can go with me sometime this if you would like.  In March, I will take ten to fifteen people at a time into this secret place of mine on a big pontoon boat, and we will make a day of it, hiking woodland which has no beaten path.  At noon we have a fish fry for lunch, fresh fish I have caught only days before with beans and potato salad, coffee and brownies. After dinner and a rest, we take another short hike along a creek then head in at sunset.  If you want to go along, contact me and I will send you the details.  Then in April, I will take another group to my secret places via boat and teach them to find mushrooms and shed deer antlers.  In October I will take groups to see a different world that fall colors create.

Friday, February 14, 2020

An Old-Timers Walleye Story

         Back in the seventies, when I was working as an outdoor columnist for the Arkansas Democrat, I became involved in the Greer’s Ferry Walleye Tournament, which took place in late February and March.  They offered a million dollar prize to anyone who could catch a world record walleye.  I got to know some great people up there, good fishermen and honest enough to do it right.

         Of course, when they found out that the world record walleye reported years earlier was a complete hoax, they found out that the world record actually HAD BEEN caught from Greer’s Ferry during one of those spring events by a man named Nelson.  He never did get his million dollars!

         But one of those years I was up at Clinton, Arkansas in late February having coffee in one of those little restaurants where old men gather and they were talking about Big Ed Claiborne’s 19-pound walleye caught the week before.  I was only 24 years old.  That brought a few smiles from those old-timers who read my outdoor columns and knew that, as yet, this kid from the Big Piney up in Missouri had yet to catch even one walleye.  Most of them had caught hundreds of those glassy-eyed ‘jack salmon’. 

         After most of them had gone that morning one old-timer said he would tell me a story if I would promise not to write about it.  I promised, and listened and now almost 50 years later, I am going to break that promise.  He said that the big walleye out of Greer’s Ferry went up the Little Red River in February, preparing to spawn.  He said there are two baits they love more than anything, big night-crawlers and small bluegills.

         “If’n you go up that river and set yourself a half dozen trotlines for catfish, well that’s all legal.  You just bait up one that has 5 or 6 hooks in a little hole across the deep water below a shoal.  Then you do the same thing up in the next hole below the creek riffles and the same thing up in the next ones ‘til you’ve set all the trotline hooks what’s legal an’ tagged ‘em like the game wardens want it done.”

         He slurped a big cup of coffee and hunched over closer to me and said, as if he were afraid someone else might hear…. “You know when them fisheries biologist was up there shockin’ walleye in the Li’l Red at night last year an’ they caught that big hen walleye that you run a pitcher of in yore newspaper?”

         I nodded… they said they figured the walleye they had shocked, photographed and released might have weighed 24 pounds. “Well sir, that there walleye was caught on one of my trotlines.” he said, “And they found ‘er.”

         As to whether or not he was telling the truth I don’t know, but that old guy ate a lot of walleye.  On many of the reservoirs in Missouri and Kansas, the same thing could be done, and a fisherman who started catching the smaller male walleye could surely figure out what pool the females were coming too soon afterward.  You cannot legally fish for walleye at night in the spawning period, but you can set your lines in the afternoon, run them in the morning and keep the catfish, or the walleye, that you catch.  Not very sporting but some fishermen like to eat walleye, not caring how they are caught.  Up one river I know of, fish traps are already being used.  Conservation agents waiting downriver in their pickups, looking for some kind of technical violations, will never find them.

         Walleye spawning runs are beginning, and I intend to go to my favorite places in various tributaries to catch a few very soon.  My best days are the days with no sunlight, overcast and dreary, because a walleye’s eyes are sensitive to sunlight.  I’ll fish vertically in deep pools below shoals, with light- blue or blue-green half-ounce jigs, having big hooks tipped with night crawlers or chubs.  But the old fellow back then was right, you wouldn’t need the jigs if you found a few small bluegill you could set out there on the bottom with a half ounce of weight about two feet up the line.  

         And while it is indeed against the law to fish for walleye at night, you can motor up the river, or paddle down it, and shine a light into the deep waters looking for a rod and reel you have recently lost, and you’ll see the congregating walleye by shining their eyes.  Then you might know where some are the next day.  Be darn sure if you do that, you have no fishing gear in your boat, because that is a technicality that a pair of wardens, waiting somewhere in their pickup, can use.

         It isn’t that you cannot fish at night for catfish or crappie, but if you catch a walleye in darkness, you darn sure better release it.  And in an Ozark river, you cannot keep a bass in March, April, or May; no matter what time of day you hook it. 

         To contact me, email or write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo.  If you would like to reserve a free table at our big outdoor swap meet on Saturday, March 21 at Bolivar, just notify me, or call my office, 417-777-5227.  This year we have nearly 10,000 square feet available free… for vendors.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Making Memories

       It’s a sad time… duck season has ended. I can switch to something else quickly if the weather stays nice enough to make the walleye begin to move earlier.  But the past week was one of great enjoyment to me as my old Labrador and I walked miles of river, jump shooting mallards and gadwalls from backwaters and sloughs.  Old Bolt is going to be 10 years old this spring and he can barely see out of one eye.  But he got to retrieve several ducks in the past three or four days of the season.

       I can’t explain, to someone who has never owned hunting dogs, the love you can develop for a Labrador.  Bolt sleeps beside my bed, dozes beside my desk when I write, and rides in my pickup wherever I go.  He sits in my boat while I fish, and chases squirrels away from the corn feeder.  Then he sneaks back and eats more corn than they would.

       And there I was at a small pothole last week watching an old drake mallard that was just out of gun range, wishing I could get a shot at him so Bolt could retrieve him.  Then I heard it, and he did too, that unmistakable sound of wind sliding over wings as ducks drop down through tree branches.  And there they were, right out before us, a drake and hen mallard, with their red feet extended toward the water below them.  I had an easy shot and the emerald-headed drake folded neatly into the middle of the slough.  

       Normally I do not kill hens of any species, but this was a perfect way for Bolt to make a double retrieve, and I couldn’t pass it up.  He charged down to the waters edge, and I knew he couldn’t see the two mallards kicking at the sky before him. So I looked for a rock, and couldn’t find any.  I took a small stick and threw it out in the middle, and he headed for the sound of the splash at my command. His nose did the rest.  We sat there at the edge of the pothole, with me telling him what a great job he had done, hugging his wet neck and relishing the moment.  There have been lots and lots of moments like that, and it hurts to know there may not be anymore.  I dearly love that old dog, as I did his father and grandfather and great grandfather in years gone by.

       And I looked to the sky and thanked God for that moment in time, and the blessing he has given me to be able to roam the valleys and the hills, still, as I have done for so long.  I go slower, but the amount of ground I cover isn’t important. At a slower pace, you see more. We have a lot of ducks to eat this spring, and lots of photos to keep the memories fresh.  Before the week was out Bolt retrieved more greenheads and a gadwall drake from ponds and sloughs along the river, and I had days when I hated to see the night come.  But even though the season has ended, I intend to shoot some more ducks, as I said, with old Bolt by my side.  This time it will be with a camera.

       I wrote an article decades ago about Bolts great grandfather, a big frisky chocolate Labrador I called Rambunctious.  It was entitled, The Best There Ever Was, and you can read it and many other duck hunting stories in my book, “Memories From a Misty Morning Marsh”.  If it isn’t in your local library, call me and I can tell you where you can find it.  The gist of that story was Rambunctious’ last hunt and final retrieve.  It was a long time ago and I never thought then about my last hunt someday.  This week, roaming the river bottoms, I started to think about that.  You can thank the Creator at such times for the day, the dogs and the ducks, and not worry about what hunt might be your last, and what memory is the final one. I figure on lots more miles of wooded valleys to walk, more hills to climb and more rivers to paddle down, either here or in heaven. 


       Some of what I have come across in the woods miles from nowhere is amazing.  This past week I sat down on a stump in a little wooded knoll over the river and there in the ground beside me was a flat rock nearly covered by soil.  There was an inscription in it, it was tombstone of a lady who had been born, according to the crude etching, in 1820 and died in 1843.  Her name was Mallala Moore Williams. Looking around and found about three or four more such stones. 

One was of a man named Williams, born in 1798 and died in 1851.  One was a civil war soldier headstone saying 28th Illinois Regiment.  His name was Wellington Bailey. 

       Five or six small headstones were unmarked, likely children’s graves.  I sat there for awhile as Bolt rested and dozed.  How I would have loved to be able to see them and how they lived.  Maybe we are living in the best of times, and then again... Maybe we ain't.  What might that river below have looked like when our nation was only 30 or 40 years old? Wish I could have seen it then.