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Family Camping Adventure Brings Lifelong Memories

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Not much can bring a family together like an extended camping trip. Having just returned from a week on the road with my wife and two daughters, I’m now further educated on the joys and trials of a packing four people into a small recreational vehicle for a long vacation.

Work was taking me to the Smoky Mountain National Park for a couple of days, so I thought what a great opportunity to extend the trip into a family camping vacation to one of the most beautiful places in America.

A family camping trip in a motorhome is an incredible chance to bond while exploring neat places across the country.

A family camping trip in a motorhome is an incredible chance to bond while exploring neat places across the country.

At the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference this past spring, I was introduced to the Winnebago Travato, which is a touring coach. It’s an oversized van converted into a motorhome. It has a full bed in the back and a table system that folds down into another bed. There is a bathroom with a toilet and shower, a refrigerator, stove, sink and small cooking range. The compact Travato has everything we needed to be comfortable on the road.

Winnebago offered me a test drive, so I took them up on it. My daughters were giddy as they loaded their gear into our loaner RV. It was a mixed bag of camping supplies and dolls.  They enjoyed watching movies on a flat screen television while buzzing down the interstate. And I enjoyed the fact that because of its smaller size the Travato didn’t break the bank at the gas pump. We averaged around 15 miles per gallon. (more…)

The Unexpected Loss of Man’s Best Friend

Junior was born the son of Bocephus. He was destined for greatness. Having a renowned retriever for a father sets expectations high. Junior may have never won a world title, but he was a champion. The tears of two little girls prove it.

From the first time I read Where the Red Fern Grows over 20 years ago, I dreamt of owning a well-trained, highly-functional hunting dog. Time and attention kept that dream from becoming a reality for too long. Opportunity struck when I was presented the chance to buy Junior as a three-year-old field trial washout.

We made the most of our only hunt.

We made the most of our only hunt.

Finished retrievers aren’t cheap. Paying $3,000 for a dog wasn’t a decision I took lightly. But the first time I walked up to Junior’s kennel and saw him standing there smiling his big goofy smile, with eyes so full of life and muscles rippling under his shiny black coat, there was no doubt he was going to be mine.

My daughters had no idea I was bringing home a dog. When I asked them to come outside to meet someone, I’m sure they figured it was just another fishing buddy. Instead, they saw Junior. They looked up at me for a tell tale sign he was ours. My smile gave it away. Hugs, shrieks, giggles and face licks lasted a good half-hour, then I ran him through a series of retrieves to show his new family how special Junior truly was.

It took him awhile to figure out how to be a family dog. Junior’s life had been a series of trainers and kennels. He had lived like an Olympic athlete. Now, he could lie on a couch, have his belly rubbed, swim in our pool and every so often enjoy a piece of bacon. His new life must have felt surreal. (more…)

Conservation Organizations Offer Youth Dove Hunting Opportunities

The Mourning Dove is Missouri’s most popular migratory game bird. Their population, both nationwide and in Missouri, is stable with no evidence of a change in abundance. Dove hunting is an exhilarating experience, and a sound wildlife management practice. They taste pretty darn good, too.

Dove Hunting is great fo

Dove Hunting is great for kids.

Dove season opens in Missouri on September 1. Since it is one of the first hunting seasons to open each fall, dove hunting is somewhat of a kickoff for fall hunting season.

Dove hunting is a great means of introducing youth to hunting, since it doesn’t require sitting still for hours and the action can be fast and furious. To ensure dove hunting opportunities exist for youths around the state, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) is partnering with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and Quail Forever (QF) to provide mentored hunts for first-time dove hunters eight years of age or older. The hunts will take place on five sunflower fields located on private land across the state and one on public land.

Hunts will be offered on the private and public fields on opening day of dove season, but don’t worry if you can’t get on one that day. The fields will hold more hunts throughout the season. The specific dates for hunting each field will be determined by the participating landowners. You likely won’t have a field all to yourself, but the number of hunters will be managed to maximize safety and provide a quality experience.

To participate, the hunters must first attend a hunter-orientation workshop. The participants will learn about doves and how important hunters are to wildlife management. Hunter safety will be covered, and the youths will have the opportunity to practice shooting a shotgun. A parent or guardian must accompany hunters 8-15 years during both the pre-hunt workshop and the hunt. No equipment is necessary for the workshops or hunts.

The hunter-orientation workshops will be held:

  • Meadville — Aug. 10, 1-5 p.m., MDC Fountain Grove Conservation Area;
  • Kirksville — Aug. 17, 1-5 p.m., MDC Northeast Regional Office;
  • High Ridge — Aug. 21, 5:30-9 p.m., MDC Jay Henges Shooting Range;
  • Parkville — Aug. 27, 28, and 29, 5:30-8:30 p.m., MDC Parma Woods Shooting Range;
  • Williamsburg — Aug. 30, 1-5 p.m., MDC Prairie Fork Conservation Area;
  • Ash Grove — Aug. 30, 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., MDC Andy Dalton Shooting Range;
  • Cape Girardeau — Aug. 30, 4-8:15 p.m., MDC Apple Creek Trap and Skeet Range.

If you can’t make one of these events, you can still hunt doves on public land around the state, or on private land you have permission to access. Dove hunting is simple. Hitting them in flight is not. As far as guns go, any 12, 16, or 20-gauge shotgun will work. Take plenty of shells with you, because you’ll need more than you think. Size 7 ½ or 8 shot will suffice for loads.

Mourning doves congregate in agricultural fields of sunflowers, wheat, millet and buckwheat. In drought-prone years, corn chopped for ensilage provides crop residue that attracts doves.

Situate yourself and other hunters on the edge of a crop field edge with the sun at your back. Doves are hard enough to hit without blinding yourself by looking into the sun. Stay low and break up your outline the best you can, and don’t move until your ready to shoot.

Once you have shot a bird, visually follow it to the ground. Mark the spot you saw the bird fell. Call the field cold, meaning no one shoots, and retrieve your dove right away. These little birds can be hard to locate, so thinking you can shoot three and find them all is a dangerous idea. No one wants to waste game, so do the ethical thing and retrieve immediately following your kill. A good retriever makes dove hunting an even more enjoyable experience.

For more information on how you can participate in one of the managed youth dove hunts, contact John Burk of NWTF at 573-676-5994 or jburk@nwtf.net, or Elsa Gallagher of QF at 660-277-3647 or EGallagher@pheasantsforever.org.  Apply online at tinyurl.com/nax8qhm.

 

See you down the trail…

Eminence Offers Exceptional Outdoor Experiences

Situated in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks, Eminence is one of those few places that truly has something for every outdoor enthusiast. It’s the Ozark National Scenic Riverways (OSNR) that draw me to the area. Well, the Riverways and the abundance of forest, turkey, deer, hiking trails, mushrooms, horseback riding, springs, campgrounds and elk. Yes, wild Missouri elk.

Floating the Jacks Fork in an Outcast PAC 1400

Floating the Jacks Fork in an Outcast PAC 1400

It’s 6 a.m. and Otie McKinley, the national public relations manager for Chevrolet Trucks, and I are sitting in the front corner of Ruby’s Family Restaurant sipping coffee and looking out on the sleepy little town of Eminence. There’s not much going on at 6 a.m. in this hamlet of outdoor indulgence. McKinley and I are on our way to float the Jacks Fork River in my raft, but we’re not in a hurry. You don’t come to Eminence to be in a hurry.

We head west out of town on Highway 106. Six miles later we’re at Alley Spring Campground. We drive a 2015 Chevy Duramax right to the river’s edge where we unload the raft and rig up our fly rods. Days that begin this good need to be written down so they can be recalled to help us through rough ones.

The water is moving swiftly, but in no way too fast to float. I can tell right away it’s perfect rafting water. I’m more excited to row and float than I am to fish. I instruct McKinley to take the bow and we shove off. The current grabs us and for the next four hours we ride the power of the river, throwing flies to fishy looking spots.

To be honest, we didn’t catch a single smallmouth. You can’t hold that against the fishery, though. McKinley and I are dedicated fly fishers and we wouldn’t give up. All the other fishermen who were part of the Missouri Outdoor Communicators (MOC) event we were attending tore the smallies up throwing soft plastics with spinning equipment. The bass were on the bottom in deep holes, and McKinley and I just couldn’t get our flies down to them.

The Ozark Scenic National Riverways are Missouri's gift to the country.

The Ozark Scenic National Riverways are Missouri’s gift to the country.

Back at Shady Lane Cabins, McKinley and I met up with the MOC members who went turkey hunting. Gobblers were sounding off in every direction according to the hunters, but the MOC didn’t scathe the local population. That night at Dos Rios Mexican Grill, Eminence Mayor Jim Anderson conducted the local traditional of shirttail cutting on the two turkey hunters who missed their shots.

Elk tours were on hold at Peck Ranch Conservation Area because it’s calving season, but we were given a great tour of Current River Conservation Area by Missouri Department of Conservation staff. A bachelor group of bulls live on Current River CA, but we didn’t see them during our tour. We did see a lot of sign, like rubs and tracks. I can’t wait to go back to Eminence this fall to hear the screaming bugle of a wild Missouri elk.

Eminence is an all around amazing outdoor destination. It’s a crown jewel of Missouri, and the OSNR is a national treasure. It truly is the Yellowstone of Missouri. The people are friendly and inviting, the scenery is unrivaled and there’s no end to outdoor opportunities.

My daughters are begging me to take them to Eminence for a weekend of horseback riding. Don’t tell them, but they won’t have to twist my arm too hard.

See you down the trail…

Florida Trip Relieves Mid-Winter Blues

Timing is everything, and there is no better time than right now to head to Florida. This winter has been the coldest I can remember in a long, long time. Walking the beaches of Captiva Island, fishing the Gulf of Mexico, exploring the Everglades and eating dinners outside in Key West last week resulted in the best vacation I’ve had in years.

Sea trout were fun and easy to catch.

Sea trout were fun and easy to catch.

This trip was arranged around the winter board meeting of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers. My companions included my wife, Melissa, and a number of friends.  We worked with the great folks at The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel Visitor and Convention Bureau (VCB) to set up our stay on Captiva Island. Working with a regional visitor’s bureau, especially a great one like these folks, is the best way to ensure every detail of your trip will be arranged according to your wants and needs.

We flew into Fort Myers and stayed at South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island, because we wanted to be able to fish and have beach access from a single location. The property was exceptional and so was the fishing. Our first night there was highlighted by a dinner buffet right on the beach. Sitting in shorts, eating seafood and drinking daiquiris while watching the sun set over the ocean sure beats the snow shoveling I have planned for later today. We ate the second night at Key Lime Bistro, and I’m telling you, if you ever visit Captiva, you must have the key lime pie from this quaint little joint. None I’ve ever had before comes close to comparing. (more…)

Branson, Missouri Offers Winter Fishing Retreat

Phil Lilley admires an average Lake Taneycomo rainbow trout.

Phil Lilley admires an average Lake Taneycomo rainbow trout.

In the 1950s and 60s Branson emerged as the tourist destination of the Ozarks. The region’s scenic beauty drew visitors from around the country. Stage shows began to really take off in the 1980s when Roy Clark opened his Celebrity Theatre, which brought the biggest names in country music to town. Yet, the real star of Branson has always been and remains today, water.

The White River’s free flowing course ended in 1913 when Powersite Dam was constructed, forming Lake Taneycomo. For 45 years, Taneycomo was a popular warm- water fishery. That changed when Table Rock Dam was built in 1958. The cold water flowing in from the depths of Table Rock Lake transformed Lake Taneycomo into one of the premier cold-water trout fisheries in the country.

Lake Taneycomo is unique. The 22-mile long lake flows and fishes much more like a river than a lake. Since it is sandwiched between the two dams though, it is officially a lake. The cold-water supports trout, lots of trout. In fact, the Missouri Department of Conservation stocks 750,000 trout in Taneycomo each year. (more…)

Phillip Vanderpool says Food Sources Are Key to Late Season Deer Hunting Success

Late season deer hunting can sometimes feel like a post-apocalyptic scene from a movie. As you sit in the bitter cold starring out across empty expanses watching nothing but wind whipping snow, swearing there isn’t another life form within miles, you start to think your friends watching football by a fireplace are the smart ones.  Don’t give up hope. The deer are still there and in the right spot the action can be hot. Whitetail hunting guru Phillip Vanderpool says the key is finding their favorite food source.

Phillip Vanderpool poses with a sliver of his impressive collection of mature whitetail bucks.

Phillip Vanderpool poses with a sliver of his impressive collection of mature whitetail bucks.

“First of all, you have to know what food sources are available in your area. Are there picked agricultural fields, like soybeans and corn? If so, these are likely to be the hot spots. If not, you have to look a little harder for mast crops like red oak acorns or honeysuckle,” Vanderpool said.

Deer congregate in large groups throughout the winter, so once you find their preferred food source you’re likely to have found the majority of the deer in your general vicinity.  The key to successfully hunting late season deer once you’ve located them is to never let them know you’re there. This means scent control is paramount, as is entering and exiting your stand site without being seen.

“A lot of hunters only think of hunting acorns in the early season. These are mainly white oak acorns, which are the first to fall, but also the first to rot. Come late season though, there are typically still some red oak acorns around. If you can find a red oak flat, then boy you’ve found something special because in the cold weather the deer need the high levels of protein acorns provide,” Vanderpool said.  (more…)

Missouri Fish Tales Compiled in New Book

Missourians love to fish. It’s a fact. Statistically speaking, residents of our state fish significantly more than the national average. Given our multitude of gorgeous lakes, rivers and reservoirs this is likely no surprise to you. What you may find interesting though, is why so many Missourians go fishing.

Mackenzie Rogers poses with her first largemouth bass. It was caught in a Missouri farm pond.

Mackenzie Rogers poses with her first largemouth bass. It was caught in a Missouri farm pond.

Hook, Line & Sinker by Dr. Mark Morgan is a new book aimed at exploring why people enjoy fishing. Comprised of a collection of fish stories told by Missouri anglers, this regional work explores the emotional aspects of fishing. It wasn’t written to teach you how to catch more fish, but instead to explain why you might enjoy going fishing.

Dr. Morgan is an Associate Professor in the Dept. of Parks, Recreation & Tourism at the University of Missouri. He teaches classes in and conducts research on the human dimensions of natural resource management, especially as it relates to education and outreach. He has a strong interest in recreational fishing, and is an avid angler himself. Hook, Line & Sinker was born from his curiosities of what motivates others to go fishing. (more…)

Conservation Officer Assists with Injured Deer

You never know what you’ll discover when hiking in a state park, but you don’t expect to cut a fresh blood trail. That is exactly what myself, Larry Moorlag and a bunch of kids stumbled upon at Swan Lake State Park just outside of Carroll, Iowa the day after Thanksgiving. At the end of the trail, we found more than we bargained for.

A holiday hike became a deer recovery for Mackenzie Rogers, Colton Lammers, Caden McGuire, Ryan Moorlag, Brandon Butler, Bailee Butler and Brenden McGuire in an Iowa state park.

A holiday hike became a deer recovery for Mackenzie Rogers, Colton Lammers, Caden McGuire, Ryan Moorlag, Brandon Butler, Bailee Butler and Brenden McGuire in an Iowa state park.

Watching kids play on iPads and iPhones drives me crazy, and the youngsters at our family Thanksgiving looked like they had wiped out the nearest Apple Store. So after listening to “What Does the Fox Say” for the hundredth time, I convinced most of the kids to power down the electronics and go hiking at the park in hopes of spotting some deer and other wildlife.

In the winter, the park gates off a good portion of the roads to keep plowing expenses down. We parked at one of these gates and started leisurely walking down a road covered in a light dusting of snow. A little ways in, I looked to my left and realized the snow was dotted with blood. We had cut a blood trail.

I call the kids to gather around and explain to them what I found. The blood was fresh. It couldn’t have been more than a few hours old. There were no boot tracks, so we began to follow it. For the most part, it was an easy trail, so I let the kids take the lead. Every once in awhile, they’d miss a turn and have to circle back to figure out which way the deer went. Their excitement was infectious. I watched with glee as their senses naturally dialed in to a level of keenness they’d never known before. Most of these kids had never seen a dead deer before, so I began to wonder what their reactions would be if that’s were this trail ended. (more…)

Beaver Island Improves Hunting with Quality Deer Plan

Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan is one of my absolute favorite destinations for outdoor adventure. I’ve been there a number of times to fly fish for carp and smallmouth bass, and each time as I left I committed to return with a deer rifle in my hand. I finally did and was not disappointed.

Brandon Butler, Tony Smotherman and Rion Moody prepare to board this small plane for 20 mile flight over Lake Michigan to Beaver Island.

Brandon Butler, Tony Smotherman and Rion Moody prepare to board this small plane for 20 mile flight over Lake Michigan to Beaver Island.

Hunters can get away from it all on Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. This remote camp had success harvesting a couple of does.

Hunters can get away from it all on Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. This remote camp had success harvesting a couple of does.

Situated approximately 16 miles off the Michigan mainland, Beaver Island awaits those looking to get away from it all. There are no fudge shops, no horse drawn carriages and no suit jackets at dinner. Beaver Island is rustic and remote, yet completely satisfying. There is one grocery store, a few restaurant and bars, and endless expanses of pristine north woods wilderness teeming with wildlife.

I love the place so much my friends probably tire of hearing me talk about it. Yet my stories have intrigued a few to join me on trips to Beaver Island, and I couldn’t have been more excited than to have Tony Smotherman, the Travelin’ Hunter, join me in pursuit of whitetail bucks while working to highlight the island’s quality deer management efforts on his Travelin’ Hunter television show that airs Sunday nights on the Sportsman Channel.

Anyone familiar with deer hunting in Michigan knows you aren’t likely to find the same sort of big-racked bucks roaming the agricultural lands of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa or Missouri. Northern Michigan deer for the most part don’t have the benefit of feasting on high protein corn and soybeans, and a high population of hunters during the rifle season heavily pressures them. This doesn’t mean mature bucks can’t be found, especially if an area commits to establishing quality deer management practices. Beaver Island has done just that. (more…)