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Mexico turkey hunt erases all doubt

It’s been said that travel is the greatest cure of ignorance. I have found this to be true.

When my wife and I were married in 2004, Mexico was our dream honeymoon destination. At the time of our wedding, we were in the process of buying a house. My loving and generous grandparents made us an offer. Either they would send us to Mexico, or they would give us the equivalent cost of the trip in cash to use towards the down payment of our first home. We took the money.

Brandon and Melissa Butler pose with an ocellated turkey taken on a hunt in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Brandon and Melissa Butler pose with an ocellated turkey taken on a hunt in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Having decided to wait five years before trying to add to our family, we thought we’d just go to Mexico the following winter. Three months later we were expecting. Bailee was born in June. Annabel followed 13 months later. We never made it to Mexico.

When Bill Cooper, one of Missouri’s most accomplished outdoor writers, asked if I’d be interested in joining him on a trip to the Yucatán Peninsula to chase ocellated turkeys, I only had one question, “Can my wife come?”

On March 5, 2015, after nearly 11 years of waiting, Melissa and I were finally on our way to Mexico. We landed in Cancún late in the afternoon and immediately hopped in a passenger van headed to Mérida. From this point forward, my ignorance of Mexico rapidly deteriorated.

Many Americans, myself formerly included, have established preconceived, negative notions about Mexico based on media coverage that leads us to believe Mexico, outside of the Las Vegas style resort areas, is a very dangerous place. To the contrary, Mexico is a wonderful, beautiful and diverse land. There are areas of dirt-poor poverty, and areas of exquisite extravagance. As we traveled the Peninsula, passing through small villages and walking city streets at night, I never once felt unsure of my wife’s safety or my own.

Mérida is the largest city in the Yucatán Peninsula. It is the capital of the state of Yucatán. Mexico has states. I didn’t know that. We stayed in an old, elegant, colonial hotel with a beautiful open courtyard from which you could stare at two towers of the Mérida Cathedral, which was built entirely in the 16th century.

In Mérida, we met up with Maya Amazing Adventures. Rueben Encalada, their public relations director, sure knows how to plan a trip to expose outdoor enthusiasts to the natural and manmade treasures of the Yucatán. Our tour guides were Pancho, a 38-year-old local who teaches recreation and tourism classes at a college, and Lisa, a 19-year-old intern from Austria. Lisa was promptly nicknamed “Lefty,” so our tour guides were Pancho and Lefty.

We spent the next two days touring Mayan archeological sites, swimming in cenotes, exploring costal wildlife refuges, eating incredible food and enjoying outstanding company. Mayapan was my favorite site. It has over 4,000 structures around the Temple of Kukulcan. Cenotes are water filled sinkholes. You’re basically swimming in a cave full of crystal clear water. We took a boat from the fishing village of Dzilam de Bravo to Parque Natural San Felipe. Pink flamingos were everywhere, providing an incredible bird watching and photography opportunities. Fresh, line-caught fried grouper, a chilled octopus cocktail and a couple of cervezas served seaside was just one of the meals I won’t soon forget.

From Mérida, we traveled to Campeche where we spent time touring Fort of San Miguel until Roberto Sansores of Snook Inn Hunting and Fishing picked us up for the hour long ride to turkey camp. Roberto’s father, Jorge Sansores, is a legend of ocellated turkey hunting. He’s been outfitting on the Yucatán Peninsula for over 50 years. He prides himself on helping hunters achieve the World Slam, which is accomplished by shooting all six subspecies of wild turkey.

Jorge’s camp is located in the small village of Carlos Cano Cruz. It’s about an hour outside of Campeche. The accommodations are perfectly adequate for an authentic Mexican hunting adventure. The food at Snook Inn was the best I’ve ever experienced in a hunting or fishing camp. One night, we had all the stone crab claws we could eat paired with fresh grilled Spanish mackerel. For desert, we enjoyed pineapple drizzled with honey and rum.

The turkey hunting takes place in agricultural fields surrounded by dense jungle. Jaguars roam these fields. Ocellated turkeys often come through in flocks. The first morning five gobblers came in front of me, and I ended my hunt before sunrise with a single shot. The beauty of the ocellated turkey is in its colors. A shimmering aqua and bronze body is highlighted by a tail fan with each feather hosting an eye of blue. I spent the second morning behind the lens of my camera. Over 100 turkeys in a single flock flew down in front of my blind. The next hour was mesmerizing.

Everything I ever dreamed about Mexico came true. It’s not a scary place. Mexico is an amazing country I will return to again and again.

For more information on hunting ocellated turkeys, visit www.snookinnhunting.com.mx. For more information about adventure tours in the Yucatán, visit www.mayamazing.com.

See you down the trail…

Lake of the Woods Ice Fishing Worth the Trip

The thermometer outside a frosty window read 25 below zero. Inside the cabin, we had a fire raging and fresh coffee in the pot. Leaving warmth and safety to travel 20 miles out onto Lake of the Woods to ice fish in these conditions seemed crazy, and I maintained that thought the whole way to our ice fishing shanty.

Joe Henry, the Executive Director of Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau, holds a 31.5 inch 12 pound behemoth, Lake of the Woods walleye. (Credit: Capt. Terry Frey)

Joe Henry, the Executive Director of Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau, holds a 31.5 inch 12 pound behemoth, Lake of the Woods walleye. (Credit: Capt. Terry Frey)

Lake of the Woods is located in the northern reaches of Minnesota and stretches into Canada, ranging into both Ontario and Manitoba. It’s the sixth largest fresh water lake in the United States behind the five Great Lakes. It is over 70 miles long and 70 miles wide. The lake has 65,00 miles of shoreline and over 14,500 islands.

When my six fishing companions and I stepped out of our bombardier, which is an enclosed vehicle running on tracks, we were exposed to true nothingness. As far as you could see in every direction was windswept, snow-covered ice dotted only by a smattering of ice fishing shanties. I have no idea how cold it was with the windchill, but if you took a breath through your nose, your nose hairs instantly froze and crystalized.

Bombardiers transport you to your ice fishing shanty.

Bombardiers transport you to your ice fishing shanty.

Once we stepped inside our shanty, the temperature outside ceased to matter. A propane heater quickly warmed the wooden structure to a point where keeping our coats on was unbearable. We scooped floating ice out of our predrilled holes and lowered our baits, spoons and jigs tipped with minnows, 32 feet down to the bottom.

Serious fishermen recognize Lake of the Woods as one of America’s premiere open water and ice fishing destinations. With every cast, or in the case of ice fishing with every drop, you don’t know what you’ll hook into, but northern pike, perch, sauger, crappie, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, lake trout, sturgeon, and muskellunge are all a possibility. However, it’s walleye that make Lake of the Woods famous. Anglers visit Lake of the Woods with expectations of catching loads of walleye and with the realistic hope of landing one of the giant lunkers that make the lake famous.

On this trip, Lake of the Woods did not disappoint. Throughout the day, our group plugged away at catching a bunch of eater-sized, 12-14 inch, walleye and sauger. Then it happened. Joe Henry, the Executive Director of Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau, calmly announced a bite and set the hook. A few seconds later his calm demeanor turned to excited concern, when he aggressively stated, “big fish.” Indeed it was. Joe landed a 31.5-inch behemoth that we estimate weighed a staggering 12-pounds. A walleye of this size is truly a fish of a lifetime for any angler.

Dan Stefanich "roughs it" in the Igloo Bar.

Dan Stefanich “roughs it” in the Igloo Bar.

After a hard day of fishing, we headed to one of the coolest attractions I’ve visited in quite a while. The Igloo Bar, which is a structure built to look like an igloo, is set up a couple of miles out on the lake. It’s owned and operated by Zippel Bay Resort. Inside the bar, you can enjoy food and beverages while ice fishing at your table. I watched a guy pull a nice walleye through the ice with one hand while clutching a beer in the other. All the patrons cheered.

Baudette, Minnesota is known as “The Walleye Capital of the World.” The little town of just over 1,000 residents is warm and welcoming. You can find everything you need for your own fishing adventure including lodging, boat rentals and guides in and around Baudette. On this trip, we stayed at Sportsman’s Lodge and everything about the experience, from the accommodations to the food to the friendly staff, was exceptional. I can’t wait to return during the late summer or early fall with my family for an open water walleye experience. For more information about Lake of the Woods visit the website www.LakeoftheWoodsMN.com

The Zippel Bay Resort Igloo Bar.

The Zippel Bay Resort Igloo Bar.

Reelfoot Lake Duck Hunt is a Unique Experience

In fog so thick you could barely see your hand in front of your face, Bill Blakely’s War Eagle boat raced through the thick stands of cypress trees covering Reelfoot Lake. This ride took trusting a guide to a whole new level. But sure enough, we arrived at Blakely’s duck blind unscathed.

Billy Blakely of Blue Bank Resort calls ducks into his hole on Reelfoot Lake.

Billy Blakely of Blue Bank Resort calls ducks into his hole on Reelfoot Lake.

Reelfoot Lake is located in the northwest corner of Tennessee just a mile or so off the Mississippi River. The shallow, timber filled 18,000-acre natural lake is a sportsman’s paradise.  It’s unquestionably one of the best crappie fishing lakes in country.  But come winter, Reelfoot turns into a duck factory. Hundreds-of-thousands of birds dump into the lake each season as they migrate along the Mississippi. Hunters from all over the country descend on Reelfoot each year to experience not only duck hunting, but duck hunting culture at it’s finest.

Reelfoot is an experience like none other. The cypress tree filled lake has a unique beauty all its own. The combination of this scenic appeal, the sheer number of ducks, fishing, southern fried food and a local economy based on an outdoor lifestyle is enough to draw duck hunters to Reelfoot from hundreds of miles away. But then add in the fact that Blue Bank Resort is a premiere lodging and dining destination, and that your hunting with Billy Blakely, the unofficial “King of Reelfoot,” and well, duck hunting trips just don’t get any better. On this trip, I was excited to introduce my friend Jeremy Stephens of Delta Waterfowl to the Reelfoot way.

Billy Blakely’s life revolves around fishing and hunting on Reelfoot Lake. It’s all he’s ever known.

“I started guiding for Blue Bank in the 9th grade, and been doing it ever since,” Blakely said.

He has 40 years of experience on Reelfoot and it shows, in both his knowledge of the lake, how the ducks work and his ability to please his clients. When you spend over 50 days a year in duck blind, you have to figure out how to make the experience about more than just shooting ducks. So Blakely built the duck hunting Taj Mahal.

My normal duck hunting routine is hauling bags full of decoys into flooded fields where I set them out in the morning and gather them back at the end of the hunt, after standing in freezing water for the hours in-between. It’s a tough, labor-intensive process. This recent hunt with Blakely was a bit different.

Jeremy Stephens of Delta Waterfowl enjoys fried pork chops and potatoes that were cooked right in the duck blind.

Jeremy Stephens of Delta Waterfowl enjoys fried pork chops and potatoes that were cooked right in the duck blind.

We pulled his boat into the blind. Yes, you read that right. We pulled his boat into the blind, opened the door and stepped in. Blakely flipped a switch and the lights came on. To my amazement there’s a full-sized stove in the corner and a heater on both ends. There are eight shooting stations. Blakely mans the far left end where he controls the spread of electronic Mojo decoys, a custom made splasher and a jerk rig of 2x6s for making waves that add motion to the 1,600 decoys filling his “hole.”

There is a lot of competition on Reelfoot, with blinds spread out about 200 yards apart throughout most of the lake. So calling is important here. Blakely and his assistant guide, Dustin Butler, bellow on their ducks calls. It works. Right at legal shooting time ducks were circling us. Blakely and Butler started calling and ducks began dropping in on us. After an intense volley of gunfire, greenheads splash down in the coffee colored water. (more…)

Missouri Wild Elk A Legacy of Our Generation

MO Elk 3Listening to a wild Missouri elk bugle for the first time was one of the most moving and inspiring moments I’ve ever experienced in the outdoors. To witness a native wildlife species, especially an animal as majestic as the elk, returning to the lands on which they belong is simply astounding.

Those of us who cherish wildlife and wild lands recognize and thank the conservationists who came before us for their gifts of restoration. If it were not for concerned citizens back in the 1930s, we wouldn’t have white-tailed deer and turkey today. Waterfowl would be non-existent and countless other non-game species would have disappeared from our lands. Because of the conservation ethic that swept our state nearly a century ago, we are flush with game in Missouri; game that inhabits healthy, rich environments.

Some fail to recognize that we are still restoring wildlife to our landscape today. Future generations will have today’s conservationists to thank for elk and black bears. We are writing our own chapter in the history of Missouri conservation. Our children and our children’s children will hear stories of how our generation repopulated elk in the Missouri Ozarks. They’ll have common opportunities to view, photograph, listen to and even hunt wild Missouri elk. Such opportunities were lost on generations of Missourians. (more…)

The Dream of One’s Own Hunting Property

I have land envy. There’s no denying it. We’re not supposed to covet what others have, but I’d be lying profusely if I said I wasn’t jealous of my friends born into hunting properties. If I could go back in time and talk to my great-grandfather, the conversation would include me begging him to buy rural land fifty years ago when it was practically given it away.

My whole life I’ve been hunting on other people’s properties. I realize I’m fortunate to have had such opportunities, but hunting another person’s place is a lot like going to dinner with your buddy and his wife. You just don’t really know how to act, so you just operate as an abbreviated version of yourself.

It's every hunter's dream to own a piece of ground.

It’s every hunter’s dream to own a piece of ground.

Leasing is an option growing in popularity, but it’s still more of the same with rules and regulations set by the owner. You’re just paying for the privilege of being a guest. Hunting is about freedom. It’s an escape from the pressures of rules and constrictions, so who wants to call ahead and let the landowner know you’re heading to the woods, only to drive where you’re allowed. (more…)

Iowa Deer Farm Exposes Dangers of CWD

The Missouri Department of Conservation is taking proper precautions to protect against the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). Recent events in Iowa prove the new captive cervid regulations proposed by MDC are needed, and are in no way overreaching.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship recently announced 284 of 356 captive deer at a single captive deer farm, or 79.8% of the herd, tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

Back in July of 2012, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s (APHIS) National Veterinary Services Lab in Ames, IA confirmed a positive CWD case. It was a buck killed on a shooting ranch in southeast Iowa. The buck had been shipped to the facility from a deer farm in north-central Iowa.

The investigation also, very importantly, revealed the buck had just been released into the killing pen. Meaning, the buck was CWD positive when it arrived. This is critical information, because the captive industry likes to claim there is no proof of CWD being spread by way of trailer transportation.

To me, this proves what everyone has known all along; CWD has been spread across this country and into to Canada by shipping infected deer from one farm to the next. (more…)

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…