Backyard bird feeder brightens bleak winter background

Only when the squirrels manage to outsmart my arsenal of prevention devices does monitoring the birds in my backyard cause me any angst at all. I love to stare out the window watching them fly, flit and fight over free seeds.

Obviously the food is free for them and not for me, but I can find all I need at reasonable prices from my local Buchheit store. A combination of black oil sunflower seeds and the cracked corn, wheat, milo and millet simply called Wild Bird Mix attracts a great variety of birds.

Bright red northern cardinals add a touch of color to a bleak winter landscape.

The hometown favorite is probably the northern cardinal for its association with the local baseball team as much as the bright color it brings to a bland winter background. They are big fans of the sunflower seeds. I guess they have that in common with the ball players too.

Both male and female cardinals can be bullies at the feeder. They’ll take a spot on a perch and then spend more time trying to keep other birds away than actually eating seeds. They are the biggest of the common song birds around the feeder and are always willing to throw their wings and weight around.

Despite the redbird’s diligence, the quick hitters still manage to retrieve plenty to eat with their dash and dine strategy. They snatch a seed and then quickly retreat to a nearby tree to crack the shell and get their reward. Sometimes they will get the cardinal to chase them from perch to perch before grabbing and going.

Dash and dine is the strategy for a tufted titmouse and his cousins the black-capped or Carolina chickadee.

The tufted titmouse is a swoop and scoot expert. With a pointed crest he looks a little like a smaller version of his cardinal nemesis, but with gray back, wings and crown. Males and females look much the same and can be hard to spot against the gray tree bark, but their non-stop chatter makes them easier to find.

Carolina and black-capped chickadees are from the same family as the titmouse, and they are experts at the in and out game too. A bit more bold than their cousins, they will roost closer to the feeder waiting for an open opportunity.

The two chickadees are almost identical, and most easily distinguished by their location. Birds in the northern half of United States are black-capped, and any in the south and east are Carolina chickadees. The dividing line swoops straight across Missouri, so we may see both in Jefferson County. Black-capped chickadees have a tiny bit more white on their wings and a slower pace to their similar songs. Those slight differences are hard to notice.

Other year-round residents likely to find their way to the stash of seeds are white-breasted nuthatches. Similar in color to the chickadees and titmice, their unique trait is a propensity to travel down tree trunks headfirst. They even appear to be upside down on the bird feeder while getting a bite to eat.

Goldfinches, attracted by nyger thistle seed, are not the bright yellow birds of summer this time of year.

Other common birds at the feeder in the winter include Carolina wrens, house finches, and American goldfinches. (Their feathers are not the familiar bright yellow of spring and summer.) Several different sparrows are winter residents in the area, and the dark-eyed junco “snow bird” is a regular on the ground underneath the feeder, hopping and hoping for scraps.

Four different woodpeckers can be attracted to a suet feeder filled with seed-infused blocks of animal fat. The red-bellied woodpecker has more distinct red on his cap than on his front, but he is not a redheaded woodpecker, which is bright red from the neck up. His feathers are more solid black and white rather than the zebra stripes of other woodpeckers.

Downy and hairy woodpeckers are almost identical except for their size. The downy version is about the same size as wire feeder cage. The hairy woodpecker has a longer bill and looks large compared to the feeder as he hangs on and eats.

A downy woodpecker is about the same size as the standard suet feeder cage. Hairy looks much larger in the same spot.

My favorite of the bird feeder woodpeckers is the common flicker. There is nothing ordinary about him in comparison to the others. He is larger than all but the pileated woodpeckers, which are less likely at the feeder. His brown color is unique and his wings hide a bit of golden yellow. Both male and female have black bibs at the base of their necks, and males can be distinguished by a smart looking mustache.

Sometimes bird feeding takes on a different perspective as this Cooper’s hawk feasts on a bird he caught.

Occasional and accidental bird visitors are a real treat of backyard bird-watching, including the hawks who come looking for birds rather than seeds. To my chagrin, the scheming squirrels still get more than their fair share.

Originally published by Leader Publications Feb. 3, 2022.

Changes in camera technology add to hunting adventures

Anyone who has been around a while has seen his share of advancements. From the guy who was using stone tools when metal made its appearance, or the horse and buggy driver who lived long enough to own trucks and cars, or the bow and arrow native Americans who found firearms as an option, the changes were dramatic.

It is not on that level, but I am amazed by the evolution in camera technology in my lifetime. The earliest pictures of me and my sisters are black and white. Not because Mom and Dad liked the shading or contrast, but it was what had been readily available and affordable.

Black and white pictures were the standard of the day for me and my baby sister.

Instamatic color pictures came quickly into my childhood. You used single shot flash bulbs and had to ship the film off for processing or drop it off a at kiosk in the shopping center parking lot. A few days later you could return for you prints or wait by the mail box.

I remember being amazed by a contraption that one of my uncles or aunts brought to Christmas. They took a picture and it immediately spit out a square piece of paper that right before your eyes developed into a color photograph.

A trip to visit Aunt Dot and Uncle Warren at Table Rock Lake was not complete until they took a Polaroid picture.

In high school and college I had classes that required mixing chemicals and exposing images in a dark room to produce pictures for a grade and for the newspaper and yearbook. One-hour commercial photo processing began replacing the mail-in option.

At our wedding we had little cardboard, disposable cameras that guests could use to snap candid shots throughout the night, getting different perspectives of the evening from other people and angles.

As our kids grew, photography went digital, and film slowly became obsolete. You could see the images you took immediately and edit or retake them before getting prints. Now nearly everyone carries a camera and video recorder in the form of a cellular phone.

Back in my black and white days, I remember adventures of Dick Tracy and other comic strips or cartoons who relied on amazing spy technology that allowed them to see pictures and talk into their watches. It was too hard to believe that something like that could be possible.

Now spy-type technology allows people to see folks who ring their doorbell and talk to them from remote locations. It also has become a big part of hunters’ scouting strategy. Those upgrades are beginning debates about fair chase, but we’ll leave that for a future discussion.

My first trail camera had an electronic white light flash. I still use it, and it captures high-quality images. The night time photos are far better than the new infrared flash pictures, but it gives away its location with every after-dark snap. It also uses up its batteries in a relative flash.

New infrared flashes are much more secretive, but the night time photos are not as good as with the old white flash.

I have had batteries in one of my new cameras last 18 months, through two winters. It has the capability of recording still images or video and storing them on a removable memory card that can hold thousands of pictures. I can transfer them to my computer for editing and organization. The camera records the time of day, moon phase, and temperature.

Those are the cheap, off the rack models. The top technology forest spies will instantly send what it captures to your mobile phone or computer via sattelite. That’s where the fair chase questions start. Could you sit at home waiting for a deer to show up on your camera and then go out to “hunt” it down?

I’ll stick to my “simple” single shots. Throughout the year, I can track individual deer and compare them as their antlers grow and develop. It is exciting to know that they are in the vicinity where I will be hunting. The misfortune comes when a deer shows up when I should have been in the stand. Such was the case at the end of archery season.

I was working on the farm where I hunt on the last day of the season. The day started with snow, and we were busy early enough that I decided to forgo a morning hunt. If there was enough daylight when we finished, I would try my luck one more time in the afternoon.

The project was going good, and we kept busy. With more than an hour before sunset, I could have taken a walk into the woods for a quick ladder climb. Instead, I opted to head for the showers and rest.

The next day I went to retrieve the camera card and check the snow for tracks and trails. (It’s an old fashioned but less reliable form of scouting.) Sure enough a few minutes before sunset the camera caught a nice buck standing less than 20 yards from my stand. He stayed around long enough to get his picture taken three times.

This nice buck was in the woods near my empty stand in the last minutes of archery hunting season. Unfortunately, I opted not to be there to greet him.

Hopefully he’ll show up on the camera again this spring and through next summer growing even bigger antlers. And then, with a different bit of luck, I can be in my stand at the right time.

Originally published by Leader Publications January, 27, 2022.

Ten-year streak: Jefferson County holds top archery status

With just minutes remaining in the 2021-22 archery season, this nice buck visited my deer stand location. Unfortunately I opted out of spending the end of the day in the woods.

With a little luck and a bit more ambition, I may have added to Jefferson County’s archery deer harvest tally. For the tenth consecutive year, Jefferson County maintained its reign as the top county in the state with 1,563 reported to the state’s Telecheck system. The total is below the record setting 1,645 from last year, but lower numbers were the standard statewide.

Missouri’s archery harvest unofficially reached 60,834 compared to 67,487 in the 2020-21 season. This year’s archery deer harvest total was 10% below last year’s record harvest, yet it was 8% higher than the previous five-year average.

While I did add a deer to the county’s total in early November. I passed on a chance to hunt one more time on the last day of the season. After a full day of farm work, I opted for a shower and rest over spending the remains of the day in the woods. The trail camera within 20 yards of my stand captured three pictures of a nice buck standing around just before the season officially closed.

Jefferson continues to hold on to the top spot based on the combination of a large number of hunters and quality deer habitat. St. Louis County gets its boost because archery is the preferred or only permitted method for much of St. Louis County. Geographically, Franklin and Callaway are two of the largest counties in Missouri.

Jefferson County

2021-22 1,563

2020-21 1,645

2019-20 1,609

2018-19 1,224

2017-18 1,170

Franklin County

2021-22 1,272

2020-21 1,337

2019-20 1,300

2018-19 1,030

2017-18 1,000

St. Louis County

2021-22 1,120

2020-21 1,384

2019-20 1,230

2018-19 1,060

2017-18 1,022

Last year hunters in 10 counties harvested more than 1,000 deer during the four-month archery season, which runs from Sept. 15 through Jan. 15 each year. This season, only Jefferson, St. Louis, Franklin and Callaway counties reported totals above four digits.

The first time that any county topped 1,000 deer taken by bowhunters was the last time Jefferson did not lead the state. In 2011 Jackson County’s 1,026 topped Jefferson’s 1,016. Our home county has reached four digits every season since. Jackson (near Kansas City) has not been over 1,000 again.

The archery season success boosted Jefferson County’s total for all segments of the fall deer hunting season above 5,000. The unofficial total of 5,058 ranks fourth behind Franklin, Texas and Callaway counties.

For deer harvest summaries from past years, visit the state Department of Conservation website.

The overall totals include two youth seasons, the anterless portion, an alternative methods season that ran from Dec. 25 through Jan. 4, and the November portion. Young hunters in Jefferson County checked 235 deer in their two segments. The antlerless portion accounted for 225 deer locally. During the alternative methods season 165 deer were reported here, and in the November portion the county total was 2,869.

The online Telecheck tracker reported a statewide harvest total for all portions of 293,656 deer. That is slightly below last year’s 297,214 final official report, but it is the second highest overall total in the past five years.

Most species of seedlings sold out at state nursery for 2022

Maybe it is for the best, because I have had mixed success trying to grow the trees I have ordered from the George O. White State Forest Nursery near Licking, Missouri. When I went to the website this winter to place an order, I found that nearly 75% of their trees were sold out.

I have cooperated with a couple of projects that have paid some dividends, but my personal attempts at growing my own forests have been pathetic at best. I should probably just give up, but “plant native” is such a good concept, and the pricing is hard to pass up. Seedlings are available for as little as 34 cents each.

Like most of the species at the George O. White State Forest Nursery, persimmon seedlings are no longer available for this year.

The flaw in my plans this year is that I considered the suggestion to “order early before supplies run out” to be a marketing ploy. I know a little bit about that trick, but in this case it appears I should have trusted to order them in the fall and have them shipped in the spring at the proper planting time. The last time I checked the online order form, only 16 of the 69 varieties had remaining stock.

More than once I have ordered persimmon trees from the agency, and even the last time, I divided them into two bunches to double my chances to have plants that produced the fruits that made you pucker if you try to eat them green, but are delicious when mushy and ripe. In one location I gave them all the tender loving care and attention I could muster, and in the other planting site I gave them a start and let Mother Nature do the rest.

I really wanted them to grow to attract deer and feed wildlife that enjoy the sweet treats. Their seeds’ ability to predict upcoming winter weather is another story for a different time, but like most similar lore, I am pretty skeptical.

Back to my experiment. The trees that received all my immediate attention lasted into their third year before I finally gave up on what was left of the dead twigs in my backyard. The ones I planted on the farm property were indistinguishable from the other forest edge growth before the end of the first summer.

Coincidentally, we have since found several stands of persimmons in the same vicinity that just showed up naturally. With some regular monitoring, mulching, and most importantly more careful mowing, we have managed to produce a few crops. Other than a few passing tastes, we leave all of them to the deer.

To the good fortune of this year’s persimmon seedlings at the White Nursery, they are sold out, and I don’t have an opportunity to kill more of them.

Missouri Department of Conservation photo
Staff at the George O. White State Forest Nursery grow, store and ship more than 3 million trees and shrubs each year, but ordering early is essential.

The other times I have planted trees from the state, the results have been better. The loblolly pines we put in have produced a few tall trees along the farm driveway, but their real claim to fame is how determinedly the buck deer have destroyed their trunks by rubbing them with their antlers each fall.

Most of the trees planted around the big field are just stumps that more resemble ground cover. It seems as soon as they manage a shoot of a few feet off the ground, their trunks get destroyed. On the other hand they have been living that way for a dozen years or more. Loblollies are one of the species that is still available for order.

The best success that I have seen is with the bald cypress trees we planted around the pond. They have thrived along the lake banks. They have not quite turned the place into a tiny Reelfoot, with the trees’ notable knees poking from the water surface but they’re still growing strong. The famous Tennessee lake had a century or so of a head start on us.

Unfortunately for those wishing for similar success, bald cypress trees are among the seedlings listed online as sold out for this growing season. Among the trees that remained in stock at the state nursery include: Norway spruce, nuttall and overcup oak, redbud, river birch, rose mallow, short leaf pine, silver maple, sweet gum and sycamore.

Ordering from the nursery begins as early as Sept. 1 each year. A catalog is included as an insert in the September edition of Missouri Conservationist magazine each year, and the online catalog at offers up-to-date information on which trees are still available.

Telephone orders are not accepted, but for more information about the nursery, you can call 573-674-3229.

Originally published in the January-February 2022 Outdoor Guide Magazine.

Litter pick-up programs could be eliminated if people policed themselves

All around my hometown of Crystal City you can find signs with an iconic little insect pleading with everyone who passes, “Don’t be a litterbug. Help keep your community clean.”

If only it were that easy. Actually it is as simple as that. If people heeded the message and disposed of their waste properly, there wouldn’t be a need for adopt-a-highway projects or the expensive proposition of spending highway funds on roadway clean-up rather than repairs.

The upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday is designated as a day of service: “Make it a day on rather than a day off.” It’s just about the least I can do, but for the past several years I have chosen the weekend as an opportunity to collect trash along the road to my house. Unfortunately there is always more trash than I can fit into a couple of garbage bags.

Foam cups, plastic bags, aluminum cans, and all manner of trash is easy to find on the winter landscape. It would make a great New Year’s resolution for everyone to commit to a greater degree of respect for the environment.

River litter removal efforts and roadside pick-ups find an endless supply of dumped debris. Those efforts are heroic, but how nice would it be for them to become unnecessary if people just policed themselves.

Many states have package deposit programs of five to 10 cents per bottle or can to force the hands of consumers to reduce, reuse, return and recycle. The rationale against that sort of government-mandated waste management is that citizens don’t need Big Brother to force good behavior.

The evidence is contrary to that belief, but chances for such a system to be adopted in Missouri are zero. States like Iowa that have managed bottle and can returns for decades are practically litterless in comparison to our home state.

The latest refrain against the overwhelming evidence of climate change is that there isn’t proof that rising global average temperatures are caused by humans. I find that stance hard to believe, but litter and the general trashing of the planet can be blamed on nothing other than us.

It is hard to even dream, but it would be nice if future service projects could focus on helping people in need rather than picking up someone else’s trash.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” – Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Eagle Days event adjusted again; few reservations remain

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Eagle Days are back after a one-year hiatus brought on by COVID-19 concerns in 2021, and renovation work on the Chain of Rocks bridge has caused a change of plans again for this year. The annual event in north St. Louis County has been replaced by a program at Powder Valley Nature Center for 2022.

Pre-registration is required, and as of earlier today, fewer than two dozen of the 300 available reservations remained for the Jan. 15 event. The program will welcome 50 people per hour to view birds in person, and then visit outdoor locations to try to spot birds in the wild.

Those who were able to register will receive email communications regarding locations for viewing, and more importantly, updates about any changes to plans that could occur because of weather or coronavirus.

Captive birds will be on display at the modified Eagle Days events this year, but cold weather can allow ample opportunities to see one of our national symbols in the wild.

Bald eagles are one of the nation’s best comeback stories. More and more nesting pairs are appearing and making their homes in Jefferson County. With winter weather freezing lakes and rivers to our north, many of the avian predators temporarily move south in search of open water and their favorite fish meals.

The bald eagle is held in great reverence as a national symbol for our country, but not too long ago we were destined to wipe them out. First through shooting and habitat destruction, followed by use of pesticides that poisoned their food chain and led to reduced nesting success. There is still evidence that they get lead poisoning from eating carrion that had been injured or killed with shotgun pellets.

Regulations restricting the killing of eagles, protecting their nesting sites, banning the use of poisons like DDT, and requiring non-lethal pellets in wetland areas have all played parts in their comeback.

While Jefferson County only has limited public access to the Mississippi River, the mighty stream is a favored winter haunt as its water remains unfrozen in our region except in extreme circumstances.

The old Chain of Rocks Bridge is accessible from Illinois, and the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area is at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Both offer eagle watching opportunities. The Great Rivers Greenway organization also recommends Simpson Park and George Winter Park on the Meramec River in St. Louis County.

Alton and Grafton, Illinois, attract birds and watchers this time of year. Further upstream on the Mississippi River, the locks and dams at Winfield and Clarksville, Missouri, offer public facilities where visitors can view eagles over the open water downstream from the dams.

Anywhere you can find a river view or open water, you have the potential of spotting bald eagles flying and fishing.

Area First Day Hikes canceled due to inclement weather forecast

All of the First Day Hikes planned in the Jefferson County region have been canceled due to the forecast for inclement weather on Jan. 1.

The preview column posted in the Jefferson County Leader newspaper on Dec. 30 highlighted all of the area state parks where events were planned, but a check of each location on the website indicates that they have been canceled.

Babler State Park is a great place to hike in the winter, or any time of the year, but the forecast for Jan. 1 is not conducive for outdoor activities, so the First Day Hike at Babler and all parks around Jefferson County have been canceled.

Mastodon State Historic Site, Washington, St. Francois, Robertsville, St. Joe, Hawn and Babler state parks all had events planned. Since pre-registration was required, those who signed up should have received a notification about the cancellation.

First Day Hikes had been planned in 34 state parks throughout Missouri and at parks in all 50 states. Sponsored nationally by an organization called America’s State Parks, the annual event encourages getting the new year off to a great start with outdoor activity.

Workshop welcomes teachers to add fishing, hunting to school curriculum

Obviously children are the future of everything, and the case is made frequently by those who promote outdoors sports like hunting and fishing. Less than a century ago, kids spending time trying to catch or kill a meal for the family would have been common.

“We want kids to discover and learn outside as much as possible,” Conrad Mallady told the teachers who attended the Discover Nature Fishing workshop he coordinated at Hillsboro High School earlier this month. “I want you to go back to your schools and tell other teachers about the programs we have available. I’ll do as many of these workshops as I can to get this into schools.”

Conservation educator Conrad Mallady talks about equipment available to teachers during the Discover Nature Fishing workshop at Hillsboro High School.

The state Department of Conservation has offered Discover Nature Fishing as a community program for years, but the effort to get it added to school curricula is new, Mallady said. The success of the National Archery in Schools Program provides a positive blueprint.

Jessika Jacaty, the Agriculture Program coordinator at Hillsboro, invited Mallady to hold the workshop at the district’s barn and lake. After an introduction and review of the lesson plans, the teachers at the workshop put the elements of the education into action at the lake.

Four basic lessons teach how to cast and handle fishing equipment, tying knots and baiting hooks, fish habitat, and lures and regulations. Teachers who complete the workshop are eligible for a long-term loan agreement that provides rods, reels and other tackle. Transportation grant funding is also available to cover the cost of fishing field trips.

“We buy the stuff and you get to use it,” Mallady said. The education component becomes the responsibility of the teachers. “I’m not going to talk about everything that is in the teacher’s book. You are the professionals and you can go do what you do best.”

Mallady brings plenty of his own experience to the workshop. He has worked for the conservation department for 31 years with his first job in 1990 in Montauk Trout Park.

“It was fun working with and learning about the trout,” he said. “I also got to do a lot of mowing and weed-eating.”

The next year he was accepted into the conservation agent academy through the State Highway Patrol and served as an agent for 10 years before moving to the education division. Now serving as a conservation educator, he is also hopeful to get the hunter education certification program into the schools where possible.

“With the challenges of COVID we are seeing a lot smaller and fewer classes,” Mallady said. “Where we have been able to get into the schools, we are finding it very successful and the teachers are enjoying it.”

The only requirement to attend a Discover Nature Fishing workshop is a fishing license for teachers under age 65. To be certified to teach hunter education, teachers and volunteers have to complete the student course themselves first.

“The hunter education program has been strong since 1988 when it became mandatory. It used to be two or three days of lecture with 10 or 12 hours of classroom time,” Mallady said. “Now its half home study and half skill session.”

Teachers can also find other resources to introduce outdoors, ecology and conservation education to their classrooms through an online portal at After creating an account, teachers can access free materials.

“Outdoor time can be healing and can be healthy. That’s what our curriculum is all about,” Mallady said. “The goal of Discover Nature Fishing is to help kids and their families gain the skills they need to continue fishing on their own for the rest of their lives.”

To find out about bringing the workshop to your school, email

Originally published by Leader Publications Dec. 23, 2021.

Spread of chronic wasting disease in county strikes close to home

Over the past few years I have talked to Jasmine Batten several times, so when I answered a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize, it was pleasant to hear a familiar voice.

If her name doesn’t ring a bell for others, her work certainly will. Batten is the wildlife health program supervisor for the state Department of Conservation. She is the field general in the local army’s battle with chronic wasting disease.

All of my previous conversations with Batten have started with a telephone call or email from me to her. Why pray tell was she calling me?

This buck looked healthy chasing a doe through the woods,
but a post-harvest test proved he was infected with chronic wasting disease.

I had a fairly good idea of the answer before she confirmed that John Winkelman, the hunter on her list to call, was the same outdoor writer she had talked to frequently in the past. I shot a pretty nice buck with my bow the weekend before firearms season in southern Jefferson County and submitted a sample in the voluntary CWD testing program.

As a courtesy, she was calling to tell me that my deer had tested positive for chronic wasting disease. With still more samples to test and confirm, my deer was one of three new cases found in Jefferson County this year. In Ste. Genevieve County, four more deer have tested positive so far. With more than 20,000 tests complete, 28 new cases have been identified statewide.

Looking at a map of the previous positive test results from rural Festus, I knew I was hunting in an area with increased possibility for disease detection. None of the little gray boxes actually reached the farm property where my tree stand hangs, but I was in the neighborhood.

Because my voluntary submission was ahead of the thousands of bits collected in the mandatory sampling days of opening weekend, I was surprised that my conservation number continued to say “pending” when I looked online for results a month later.

It’s protocol for the state biologists to call hunters when they get a positive result. Everyone else finds out by checking for the news on the department website. Batten said the conversations she has with hunters allow questions and answers about next steps. Reactions range from “no big deal” to frightened heartache.

My reaction was somewhere in between. I was disappointed that all the work that follows the shot had gone for naught, but I was glad that I hadn’t done anything with the meat except store it in the freezer waiting for the results to arrive.

There is no evidence that the disease can cross species from deer to humans, and the butchering I did never included cutting into the spinal column or skull where the disease can be found. But I don’t want to be the test case that proves transmission is possible. Many times over the past few years, as an advocate for testing, I have said I wouldn’t eat or feed deer to my family that had not been tested.

Batten asked for a more specific location pinpointing the spot that had marked my lucky day. The map of southern Jefferson County now includes new shaded areas marking positive cases. The proximity to previous positive tests is not a prerequisite because mature bucks often travel significant distances, Batten said.

Chronic wasting disease is a deadly infectious disease that eventually kills all animals it affects. Hunters can help manage the disease by getting the deer they harvest tested. More information about testing options, and the map showing positive case locations, is available at

The next steps for me is disposal of the meat I have in my freezer. Batten said it could be discarded in a landfill or through municipal trash pickup, but she also offered that the department would pick it up for incineration.

The department also could offer a replacement tag, she said, but I declined since I still have a couple unfilled permits left. Now it’s time to get back to work with the remaining days of archery season and the alternate methods portions. I’m going to miss those butterflied buck chops.

Originally published by Leader Publications Dec. 16, 2021.

Deer hunting memories are the sport’s best rewards

For all the things you hope to bring home from hunting camp, the most important may not be venison, trophy antlers or the thrills of being outdoors. The memories you make are the true treasures, and they can last a lifetime.

A ready smile and wealth of hunting knowledge,
Big Ken Ebert was one of my mentors.

Big Ken Ebert was the patriarch of our small Camden County hunting camp. Around the campfire at night he was always quick with a joke or a slick barb for the whippersnappers surrounding him. His brother, who we all called Uncle Ray, joined occasionally to even the score, but my college buddy Steve Ebert and the rest of us “kids” still had them outnumbered.

Big didn’t just describe Ken’s physical stature. He commanded every room he entered. He had a solid gold heart and would give the shirt off his back. He was always ready to share his hunting knowledge, his best tips for sharpshooting expertise, and as a union butcher, he could handle a boning knife better than anyone I have ever seen.

It’s been more than 20 years now since we all hunted together, but thoughts about the last time still linger in my mind. Those memories flood back strong with every visit to the big woods in the fall.

Everyone was out for opening morning on the 80-acre patch we affectionately called Deersneyland. The first shot rang out just after sunrise in the bottom of the bottom, a deep gorge that paralleled the property’s northern border where Uncle Ray was stationed. Everything in that mostly dry creek bed led straight up to the food plots and the stands dotted along the ridge top.

When we convened for a late breakfast, Uncle Ray said he shot at and was sure he hit a doe, but he hadn’t found much evidence or his deer. Big Ken agreed to accompany his brother on a search and recovery mission. The two diligently tracked up and down the holler, but by the end of the day there was still no deer hanging at the cabin.

Around the campfire that night we all shared stories about the day’s experiences and talked about prospects for the next morning’s hunt.

“I’m hoping for better luck tomorrow; the only thing I saw all day was two old men stumbling through the woods,” Steve said with just enough salt in his tone and a big smile as he hit the target with the best shot of the evening.

This buck may not be a trophy of record book proportions, but the 10-pointer is a reminder of the years I got to hunt with Big Ken Ebert.

Later that winter, a quick and bitter battle with cancer called Big Ken home at 64 years old. That summer, Uncle Ray had a heart attack and joined his brother. The close knit family was devastated, and our hunting camp would never be the same.

Opening weekend dawned bright the following fall. Around 8 a.m. I was waiting quietly in the Lucky Dogwood Stand. About 50 yards away coming up from the bottom, the biggest buck I had ever seen on the hoof was walking slowly toward the field, where Big Ken’s Treehouse sat empty.

The adrenaline hit hard and then the commander’s voice came to me offering calm and confidence. I felt like the guide was sitting in the stand with me.

“Don’t move. Be patient. Breathe.”

“If you can see his eyes, he can see you.”

“When he goes behind that tree, turn slowly. Raise your rifle.”

“See your shooting lane. A few more steps he’ll be broadside in that opening.”


“Just a couple more steps. Safety off.”

“Find the spot. Aim. Let the trigger travel, don’t jerk it.”

The gun went off and the deer went down.

I chambered a new cartridge, slumped in my seat, put the safety back on and stared at the patch of brown laying on the ground.

Once my heart stopped racing, I was able to climb down and walk toward the deer. On close inspection I found an almost perfectly symmetrical five-by-five rack. One point for every year I hunted with Big Ken on his farm.

I love deer hunting, and I have since Steve first took me under his wing and introduced me to the sport. I have had the good fortune to take a several deer over the years, including a few that were bigger than the first trophy I hung on my wall, but that one will always be special.

I know it was not my woodsmanship, scouting skills or anything I did other than sitting in the right place at the right time.

I had hunted in that location for 10 years, and I had seen deer travel on that ridge top from every direction, but never had one climbed that steep hill and walked straight out of the bottom. What made that big buck leave his sanctuary? There may be more plausible theories, but I am pretty sure that it was “two old men stumbling through the woods.”

Originally published in Outdoor Guide Magazine September-October 2020.