The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


June 23, 2012

Evils of gambling also can be found on the river

Rich and Dennis and I are long-time friends, and there are distinct differences in the three of us.

Rich is apt to underestimate the weight of a fish, the distance of a good shot, the length of a turkey beard, that kind of thing.

Dennis, on the other hand is bad to exaggerate. I have seen him declare that a fish would weigh six pounds and turn it loose before anyone could argue. 

As an outdoor writer, I have to strictly adhere to the facts. If I drop a flying mallard at 50 yards I just can’t report that it was 60. When I catch a six-pound bass, you can pretty much figure him to be right there, give or take a few ounces due to climatological factors.

On a recent summer float trip, we all agreed to put a quarter on the biggest smallmouth, a quarter on the biggest largemouth, a quarter on the first fish and a quarter on the most fish. Since we turn them loose anyway, it isn’t necessary to pull one in the boat and put him to all that stress. If a bass gets loose on his own and we get a good look at him, that counts. 

It’s a situation where a fisherman can make a couple of dollars if he does well, and he can lose a dollar if he don’t. I don’t like to brag, but one summer I came out two and a half dollars ahead.

We headed down the river that summer morning in my 19-foot square-sterned canoe, which is the way folks ought to fish. Two of my daughters own kayaks, and I feel awful about that. It is very disturbing how kids nowadays often forsake the solid upbringing of their parents. Grizzled old veteran outdoorsmen will not be seen in a red or yellow kayak. Heck, I’ve caught fish big enough to sink one of those dinky little ol’  kayaks!

Anyway, I started out paddling that day, with Dennis in the middle and Rich in the bow. He catches a legitimate four-pound largemouth on a buzz-spin, and the fish jumps out of the water and throws the hook. But it counts, because we get to see the fish well.

By the time it is Dennis’ turn to paddle, Rich is way ahead in all categories, but there is still hope because no one has hooked a big smallmouth yet. That’s when it happens.

I was about to cast into a perfect spot ahead of the canoe where a log lay submerged just off the edge of the current. Rich, quick to see that I had focused on that very spot, cast there just before my lure landed. A big bass sucked it under and fought hard, staying deep enough to where we couldn’t see him. Rich played him toward the bow of the canoe, and he jumped up and threw the hook about three feet in front of us. That’s when Rich started yelling about the fish being a big smallmouth.

Neither Dennis nor and I could see the fish because of the bow of the canoe, and so we maintain we shouldn’t have to give Rich a quarter apiece for what might have been a carp, for all we know. The debate raged for quite awhile. It calmed a little when we stopped late in the afternoon to drink a soda pop and take a nap on a sandy gravel bar. Some storm clouds blew in about the time we woke up, so Rich never did get his turn at paddling. Dennis and I both maintain that we might have caught a bigger fish by dusk, but Rich carried on about how big the fish was and declared there wasn’t any chance of topping it.

Anyway, the trip caused so much dissension that Dennis thinks we ought to give up betting all together. We each gave Rich a dollar, which caused me to have to go without coffee one morning at McDonalds. But what really disturbs Dennis and me so bad is — we recently found out from his wife that Rich has been out looking for a good buy on a kayak!

I’ll bet a quarter he’ll be wanting me to paddle it.

Bird watching at Lightnin’ Ridge

I sit on my screened porch in the mornings, drinking a cup of coffee and watching life go on in the woods around me, as it must have a hundred years ago. This past week a hen turkey has been there eating black raspberries.

I have seen every bird you can imagine up here on Lightnin’ Ridge for the last 20 years, including a roadrunner. Migratory birds stop on occasion on the little pond I built to water wildlife, just down in the woods a ways. Eagles sometimes roost in trees overlooking that pond.

Most elusive of the birds which live here part of their lives is the rain crow, or yellow billed cuckoo, and they arrive sometime in late May usually. You hear them, but it is tough to see them, even as large as they are. They do know how to hide in those branches.

Most beautiful of them all is the male Baltimore oriole. He and his mate usually come early in May, and they nest in a medium sized walnut just beyond my garden. Their nest is like a sock, and a great construction feat, much more difficult than most nests. That male oriole is spectacular — bright orange. They stay to nest because I bought an oriole feeder, which you fill with nectar much like that the hummingbirds feed on. But the oriole has to perch when he drinks it. They have a raucous chattering call  which is anything but musical, but they give a splash of color to green leaves you just have to see.

My 20 acres of woodland is filled with huge trees, some of them more than 200 years old. I am working on a winding trail that I can open up to local nature lovers in time, to school classes that want to see a mature forest and the creatures within it. The way they are logging our conservation areas today, trees like this will be uncommon someday. 

I have had visitors who see my woodlands and wonder why I haven’t sold the timber. But I would rather have these trees than the money. That makes me a real oddball I suppose. You’d have to sit here early on a summer morning listening to the birds to understand. 

If I can get it done, I’ll have that trail built through this woodland by late fall, and make it available to those who want to enjoy a walk through the woods. Remembering those days on the Buffalo River as a naturalist for the National Park Service, when I took folks on hikes through the woods and along the river almost every day, I would even like to schedule some hikes with groups of people. Maybe by this winter we can do that.

I hope someday to make it. Lightnin’ Ridge a place where others can enjoy the blessing these trees and birds have been to me.

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