Wednesday, March 30, 2022

An Owl Before Dawn




There is no more efficient predator than a great horned owl.  Silent and deadly, he can eat whatever he wants, up to and including a roosting wild turkey.  Their flight is completely silent, and they occasionally break the neck of roosting turkeys in the darkness before the dawn.  But that does not happen often if there are plenty of rabbits and small ground mammals to feed upon. 

Did you  know that one of a great horned owl’s regular prey is skunks?  For some reason, the scent of a skunk is something that doesn’t bother an owl.  When the moon was bright, I watched rabbits playing around my place, in the pre-mating season antics which include games like jumping over each other and kicking their heels up as if they had never heard of a great horned owl.  

Certainly the semi-civilized atmosphere around my home, and the presence of my Labradors, eliminated the threat of foxes and coyotes, which stay down in the woods behind the pond.  So this became a sort of haven for cottontails, especially with all the brush piles  I have here on Lightnin’ Ridge.

       Of course, I would probably opt for not having one house mouse or Norway rat in the whole Ozarks, but I like the idea of some ground mammals like the woodrat and harvest mice and white-foot mice.  And I’d lot rather have cottontails and quail than hardly anything I can think of. My one covey seems to not expand much. If I could do it, if God gave me the power of eliminating some of his creation, I would get rid of only a few things beside the house mouse, and that would be ticks, brown-recluse spiders, starlings, copperheads and rattlesnakes, carp, gar, armadillos and maybe cormorants.  

       But even though I would do it, I would feel guilty about it.  It seems selfish to try to create a perfect world up here on my ridge-top when so many people have to live in suburbs and can’t do a thing about it.  I sincerely suspect that the thing that would make this old world work better is the elimination of about half the people who are overcrowding it, and what worries me about that is, what if I am one of the half which should be eliminated?

My grandfather, who always lived out in the woods or on the river somewhere, sawed the top out of medium sized trees up about twenty feet from the ground, to create a flat landing place for the great horned owl, and then would set a steel trap there, and bait it with a wood rat or small squirrel.  He was paid a small bounty at the county courthouse for the feet of owls, but he also saw no good in them, and believed in maintaining them only in strong enough numbers so that they survived along the river miles from where he kept a few chickens. 


Grandpa liked to eat eggs and the owls liked to eat chickens, and he was much more inclined to believe in the survival of things he liked to eat, like rabbits, quail and ducks, than things he didn’t eat. There were so fewer men back then than there are today. Grandpa wasn’t so far removed from a time when a man’s greatest concern wasn’t so much economics and gas  prices, but what he was going to eat and perhaps what might be about to eat him. Who could believe we would ever make a great and drastic impact on the land, and perhaps endanger our own existence in time?

When I was 15 years old, Grandpa and I floated a particular Ozark river in a wooden johnboat he built, and caught some nice fish from it.  Today that stream is completely and totally dry. If I mention it on occasion when I speak to a live audience somewhere it quickly comes to me they would rather I didn’t. So more often, I talk about the funny stories that came from the old men in the pool hall back in that time. 

I figured out long ago that even if you know something, it isn’t always wise to try to explain it to anyone. That’s true of things like the spreading of billions of gallons of chemicals, all over the Ozarks.  Nothing will stop it, and what is going to come from it is going to come from it, and that’s that. 

Maybe God himself knows this, and is just watching and waiting, ready to reclaim, rebirth and regrow the perfect earth he created, sometime in the future.  I guess it follows then, that the best thing to do is the best we can, to try to get our grandkids someplace where there are songbirds still singing and the water still has some crawdads and kingfishers and there are more trees than there are stumps.  But, not many of the grandkids in the world today care about those things.  They are more interested I new boxes! The latest computers and smart phones.  To  each his own I guess.  More kids today will choose drugs than old fashioned things like clean water and forests.

If you wonder how any of this has anything to do with that owl, I can’t explain it.  I just thought about some of those things while I was listening to him one night, mice and rabbits and water. It was awfully quiet and peaceful up here on Lightnin’ Ridge, with the moon so bright it was casting shadows on my lawn as it sunk toward the west well before dawn.  And it was so still. That old owl is likely sitting in a hollow tree somewhere right now, getting some sleep, and maybe a little bit hungry because there aren’t enough mice and rabbits around my place.  Some of that may be his own darn fault. But at least he has no steel traps to contend with now.


Friday, March 25, 2022

A Place to Be, Someday! Culmination of a Dream



      I know that folks in Houston Missouri have doubts about the Big Piney-Old Time Ozarks museum I am going to build. But it is going to happen, in time, and here is why.

         Logs, lumber and fireplace rocks to make this a beautiful, strong building, 28 by 40 feet, is all free. That’s right, all is free.

To make a building like I want to make, I am getting help and advice from Fred Hoppe, a foremost museum expert (he owns four) and sculptor. (see his website)

         I plan a 28-by-40-log building with no windows and wooden floors like you could see in old country stores.  All the lumber will be cedar, collected from Bull Shoals Lake, logs that have laid there to weather and dry for 70 years.  I am talking about thousands of them, from a few inches in diameter to more than fifteen inches.  I was a naturalist for the National Park Service in the mid 1970’s and did contract work as in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission during winter months.

        There were times during the winter that I had little to do but write and explore Bull Shoals Lake, back then little-developed and fairly wild.  Along the high water line of the giant lake were the huge, cedar logs which were seasoned to a point over the years that the white outer wood had decayed away, leaving only beautifully grained red wood inside that had long since been devoid of sap and oil you find in green, live trees.  I took a chain saw and cut a fireplace mantel out of one that was twelve inches wide, 6 inches thick and eight foot long, one of the most beautiful mantels I have ever seen.  It took me an hour and I sold it to a man building a new home for 200 dollars.  In the seventies, that was a lot of money.

         Then I met a man in Wisconsin by the name of Dave Ladd who had a business called Walnut Hollow Farms, where he had been cutting and selling walnut and basswood plaques around the country to craft shops.  Ladd was building a business that employed hundreds of people, and he told me he thought cedar plaques would sell great. I went to the Corps of Engineers and got a permit to cut a bunch of those logs. I and s friend and fellow naturalist back then by the name of John Green, went to work cutting and hauling about 100 big cedar logs back to a place where we could store them and about a week later we rented a big U-haul truck and calculated the maximum weight in cedar logs, hauling a big load too Dodgeville, Wisconsin.  I think in the winter of 78 we hauled 3 loads to Dave and he paid us well.  When we calculated what we were making with the hours we put in, against the expense involved it was better than 40 dollars an hour.  And remember, that was 1978.  You can see photos of those Walnut Hollow products on my BlogSpot, You can also see what those logs look like today on Bull Shoals Lake.  John and I got into other things that gave us lots of time outdoors. With the writing I was doing back then for Outdoor Life and Field and Stream, plus weekly newspaper columns and contract naturalist work I continued to do, there wasn’t time for the logs.   But now I want to see them used, rather than left to decay away.  I am about to go ask the Corps for another permit to bring in a hundred or so to use with my museum.  It will take a lot of work, but I intend to use nothing but Bull Shoals Ozark cedar for the museum.  Too read more about this, order a copy of our spring magazine The Lightnin’ Ridge Outdoor Journal.   

Fred and I will schedule another meeting in Houston sometime in April or early May, and I will put that time and place in this column.

I will be asking for help getting those logs, so if you are interested in being involved in making this museum a reality I would like to hear from you.  You can call me at 417 777 5227 or email me at  My mailing address is   Box 22, Bolivar, Mo.  The museum is to be free admission, completely non-profit.  It will house two billiard tables brought to Houston in the 1920’s and two antique riverboats, plus a 500-gallon aquarium filled with Big Piney native inhabitants found there 150 years ago. When finished, rocking chairs will set before one of the most beautiful rock fireplaces ever built, and old timers can come there to drink coffee and play dominoes like they did decades ago. And it will give the story and photos of a great Ozark era and great Ozark river where I spent my boyhood.  That river and an old johnboat likely made my career as a writer possible.  Be a part of it; come to our meeting when we have the next one.


Monday, March 14, 2022

A Lunker Bass and a Small Rock


Uncle Norten with a spinner bait lunker

It was March about 15 years ago, and the bass I was fighting was a dandy.   I lifted a spinner-bait up over the top of some underwater logs and he nailed it.  After a long winter, a fellow needs something like that, a hard fight that ruffles the surface considerably, a casting rod with a little backbone in it arced hard, a bass that feels bigger than he is when you get him in the boat.  I said, as I held him high for my uncle to look at, that he’d go seven pounds.

My uncle knew bass fishing, and bass, like no fisherman I ever fished with.  I never fish anywhere without thinking about him, wishing he was still here.  “Six and a half!“ he said around the butt of his cigar. on that warm sunny morning years ago. 

That afternoon we stopped at a little grocery store and asked if we could weigh that bigger one on meat scales in the back part of the store.  The owner agreed, as long as I brought the fish around to the back door.  As he and my uncle waited, I took the big bass out of the ice chest and wedged a nice rock down in his throat as I skirted the store and came in from the back.  Hanging from the scales, he weighed a couple ounces better than seven pounds.  

Uncle Norten wasn’t fazed…   “Get that rock out of his throat,” he said.   Sure enough, the bass was a six and a half pounder, rockless.

It was a trick my uncle used on occasion when he was young, a guide on lakes like Norfork, Bull Shoals and Greers Ferry way back when those lakes were new.   He found ways to make his clients think their fish were bigger than they were.  He said he once got a 20-dollar tip because a fisherman who was trying his best to get a five-pound bass had one just a little short of that, and a rock about the size of a baseball pushed it over the top.

“Isn’t that dishonest?”  I asked him.  

Uncle Norten shook his head.  “Yeah, I reckon it is,” he said, but nothing about fishing is honest,” he said.  “You are trying to make a bass think something with a hook in it is a living meal of some kind.  That ain’t honest is it?”  I reckoned it wasn’t.

Then a few years later in March, we were back on the water again with spinner-baits after big bass. We were fishing an Ozark   reservoir that day. 

“I ain’t saying this water is exactly warm,” my Uncle told me.  “But it is WARMER than it was a couple or three weeks ago, and you don’t need warm, you just need warmer.”  Somehow, I think I understood that.

“Bass aren’t thinking about spawning,” he said, “ they’re just thinking about eating a little more.  Most of the really big ones might spend 23 hours a day out there in fifteen or twenty feet of water, but for an hour or so they might be up in three or four feet of water looking for something to eat, and if you are there fishing with a spinner-bait at that right time, you might hook into a bass so big he won’t need a rock in his gullet.”  

Fish that spinner-bait up off the bottom a little, keeping those spinners flashing ever so little.  In March, you fish it S-L-O-W.  As slow as you can anyway… you have to keep it off the bottom, and moving.

I always put a pork trailer of some kind on my spinner-baits, because I use a second hook, known as a trailer hook, which will come off if you don’t keep it above that pork rind on the primary hook.  I like a black or brown pork strip, usually five or six inches long, with a yellow skirt in March.  Some like chartreuse skirts, which is good in murky looking water, and some prefer white.  Of course in water that is very clear, fishing great big spinner-baits in March isn’t very productive.  But using them in murky water, green water, brown water, any water that is just a little hard to see down into, that’s when they work best.

It was about 2:00 p.m. that day years back, in March, back in a little cove with lots of standing timber and logs.  I guess a big bass had gotten tired of snoozing out in deep water under some ledge and decided to move into shallow water and look for an easy meal.  She saw my spinner-bait and about fifteen feet from my boat, not ten feet from the bank, and she nailed it.  She whacked it, clobbered it… nearly jerked the rod out of my hand!  I set the hook, and she tried to get her around a tree.  Fourteen-pound line stops that kind of maneuver.  

It was a blast, fighting that fish.  In the murky water on occasion I saw her broad light-colored side, wide as a boat paddle blade, her mouth, big enough to swallow a grapefruit.  I gave her just a little line against the drag, but soon had her beside the boat and I landed her. My uncle picked up my camera and took a picture for me.

“Seven and a half pounds, maybe eight,” I said.

“Maybe,” uncle Norten nodded, “ with a little rock.”

Get out on a warm day this month and fish a bassy-looking bank with an oversized spinner-bait.  You might catch a bass which doesn’t even need a rock in its gullet to be a genuine lunker. 

To contact me write to Box 22. Boliivar, Mo 65613 or email me at



Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The Little Niagara’s Trout




         Many, many years ago I bought a 12-year collection of old Forest & Stream outdoor magazines, from 1910 through 1922. Occasionally I read through some of them, always finding something new. In the June 27th issue of 1914 I came across a fishing article written by an Edward Cochran about southern Missouri’s best trout stream, the Little Niagara River. The following is part of that article, there’s not room for all of it. Where do you suppose the Little Niagara is? Is it buried beneath an Ozark reservoir? Regardless, you may enjoy reading this account of a fishing trip to the Ozarks that took place over 107 years ago…


         “Hidden among the gigantic elm, poplar and oak trees of the “Irish Wilderness,” a remote and sparsely settled region of the low and ragged Ozark Mountains in south Missouri, flows the “Little Niagara River”.

         The bad mountain roads, which are more like trails, made by the natives, no bridges, and poor method of travel, make it possibly the most difficult stream to reach in all the great southwest. It is a region of poverty, the natives being the most shiftless and unprogressive of any in the southern states, which accounts for the bad roads and other things of the sort that must be fought on such a journey. This also accounts for the abundance of good fishing.

         Upon arrival by train, we found a lumber wagon, of the rough mountain type, loaded with our provisions, tackle, a camp stove, tent, etc., A drive of thirty-two miles over rough mountain roads and trails put us at our destination. From sunrise to sunset we traveled up and down these low, rocky hills, where is laid the scene of the famous novel, “The Shepard of the Hills,” and then we pitched camp for the night.

         We retired early, and at daybreak we were aroused again for the remainder of the journey, which was seven miles of the roughest going on the entire trip. Before noon we reached the bank of the beautiful stream and found a level spot of green grass, resembling an oasis in the desert. Here we pitched our camp and gave orders to the driver to return for us in two weeks.

         The “Little Niagara” wends its crooked way through these scraggly mountains and roars over solid rock most of its course. The water is perfectly clear and cold, being fed by springs from the mountains, and the stream averages about twenty feet in width. There are many deep pools where the rainbow trout abound, and black bass and other finny inhabitants are not scarce.

         It always has been more or less of a mystery to those who have caught large rainbows out of the “Little Niagara,” how this variety came to be there. The natives claim that a New York banker and a few friends once sought to establish a camp in the wildest part of the Ozark Mountains, where they could spend one or two months every year far away from civilization. They wanted to fish where there was plenty, and hunt where big game could be found in abundance. This was an ideal spot for both some years ago. They found a large spring flowing out of the rocks about half a mile from the “Little Niagara.” They built a dam near the river and made an artificial lake. Into this they put thousands of rainbow trout and hired a watchman to take care of the grounds and see that no one caught the trout.

         The trout multiplied rapidly in the cold spring water, but the Easteners soon gave up the camp and the dam was allowed to wash away and the trout went into the “Little Niagara,” where for many years they have multiplied, with no one cutting down the supply. As the result the stream is well stocked. The natives are not skilled fishermen. They use nets a great deal, and a croppie or a perch is as good to them as a trout. The first day in camp we landed a good catch of trout. One in the party is a lover of bass fishing, and he came in with some of the black boys that are right next to trout when it comes to eating. We waded the cool waters day after day for the two weeks we were in camp, often going far as ten miles upstream and our invasion against these prize beauties was successful each day. (Note—This writer is full of baloney about wading upstream ten miles and back in any Ozark river, now or then.)

         It will be a century before the gamey trout is extinct in this region, because of the difficulty anglers encounter and the time required to reach this river. It is not likely that the time will come in the next half century when travel in the “Irish Wilderness” of the Ozarks will be made easier, because railroad experts have stated that the cost of reducing the hardships of travel in that section is so great that it will not pay, the fertility of the soil being of a very low grade; and there is no other source of wealth in that country. 


Friday, March 4, 2022

The Weird Story of Two Walleyes



       I will swear with both hands on two bibles that this is the truth, but heck, I wouldn’t blame you for not believing it.  It was the first week of March maybe a half dozen years ago when three of us were fishing up a river where white bass run in the spring.  It was above a reservoir, and in late February and most of March, walleye came up the river too.

       What made it an unusual situation was that smallmouth bass, about that time of year, moved slowly, bit by bit up that river, in a 5 or 6 mile stretch of water, and there were a lot of them, good chunky brown bass that fought hard and made a fishing trip exciting when you found them. There were smaller male white bass with them and a couple of times that day, using that special little 4 inch minnow lure I would catch two fish at once.  It was always a smallmouth that would take it, then he’d be swarmed by the white bass and one of them would get the other treble hook.

       Later in the afternoon, one of my fishing partners, fishing a longer, multi-colored suspending rogue about 6 inches long hooked a big fat walleye and landed it.  It was beauty about 6 pounds. Even so, I kept fishing that black and white Rapala topwater minnow, jerking it down to run about two feet under the water, nailing smallmouth that would often be better than two pounds.  On my light-action spinning rig they’d bend that rod and strain the six-pound line.

       And then all at once, something came up from the depths and just took it with him.  He fought a good while and I could see it was a nice walleye, I think between four and five pounds.  The medium light rod and six pound line should have handled him just fine, but I assume there was a nick or weak place in the monofilament near where I had tied it on.  I have mentioned often that a fisherman who is hooking quite a few fish should retie the lure every now and then, but, like the old boy in the pool hall who came in limping with a gravel in his boot, and replied that he hadn’t removed it because “I jest ain’t had the time”, I used the same excuse.

       So I watched my line snap and the hefty walleye dive for the bottom, gone and happy about it, I presume.  Complaining and tying on a similar lure as I did, I just never figured it would work as well, and I was right.  We just drifted down the river and while my fishing partners kept catching fish, I wasn’t.  Up 'til now, this story may be a little boring, but from here on out, you’ll have to believe what is hard to picture. My two fishing partners saw it happen and will vouch for me.

       Thirty minutes and a couple hundred yards below the walleye that took my lure, I cast into some swirling current and reeled back, on the rear hooks of the new lure I had tied on, the lure that the walleye had broken off, and somehow found a way to shed.  Now folks, if that had been the end of the story that would have been enough to make it a good one.  But of course, as my outlook brightened and all three of us marveled at the fact that something like that had happened, I followed my own advice, cutting the last three feet of line from my reel, and tying that old dependable lure I thought I would never see again.  

       And as we drifted down into a stretch of dark water below a high shade-the-river bluff, a fish engulfed it out in deep water between the bank and the bluff, and right quick I knew he wasn’t a bass and it was big and it was a walleye.  Amazingly she was just nearly identical in size to the one that broke my line an hour or so before.  It was one of those fish you might tell everyone weighed five pounds but really wouldn’t quite make it.

You can see the picture of that fish on my BlogSpot and  judge for yourself.  Several of that day’s photos can be seen at  But pictures never really tell the story, they can exaggerate things a little bit.  But those who know me well know that I am not one to exaggerate unless it is a rare case where I am forced to.  And that trip isn’t one of them.  It happened just as I have written it… the day the river gave me back my lure and a walleye maybe just a little bit bigger than the one who first took it away!


I hope some of you readers near Houston and Licking will join me TONIGHT, March 4, to hear my plans for a ‘Big Piney-Old Ozarks’ museum.  I will be there at the Savor Restaurant across from the Hospital, in Houston at 6 p.m.