A six-headed fish eater

Less than a year ago, Mark Powell and a couple of men from a Springfield Baptist Church brought a group of 17 fatherless boys to the Panther Creek Youth Retreat I have been working on for a year. They spent three days, and together we all built a trail through the creek bottom. It is part of a circular trail still not totally complete, but it runs along the bottom, then up along the wooded ridge-top, and it is a magnificent place to see wildlife of all sorts, and huge trees and flowers and birds.

A day or so ago, I walked it, carrying my over and under .22 – 20 gauge, which is one heck of a squirrel gun. Early in the hike, I walked upon a fawn that was maybe 6-months old, which I watched for awhile. It had no spots now of course, and I don’t think it would have weighed 60 pounds.

Just afterward I flushed a woodcock in the bottoms along the creek. Next to a food plot of clover, bordered by standing millet and milo, there was a big buck and a doe, and I wondered if they might be the fawn’s parents.

Walking out on a gravel bar, I stopped in my tracks when I saw a drake and a hen woodduck, and I eased backward without spooking them. They were in shallow water eating the acorns. I might add here that I have never in my life seen so many acorns as there are this year, from both the red oaks and white oaks. A big white oak towering above my open porch on Lightnin’ Ridge has dumped so many acorns you cannot see one that is not touching another. The plenty which is afforded to wildlife this year is a blessing. If the winter isn’t really severe, the survival of my quail coveys should be really good, and I will let them and the rabbits go unhunted.

As I reached the point where the trail leaves the creek and climbs up into the woods along the ridge, I caught sight of a creature swimming in the water below, and figured it was one of the muskrats or beavers I see quite often. But not so, a head poked up out of the water several inches above the surface and there was another right beside it.

They were young otters, and I estimated that there in that big hole of water, there were three or four. Then they became aware of my presence, and all of a sudden there were six little heads sticking up, peering at me high on the bank. And there I was with my camera back in the cabin.

These were young of the year, but very close to being adults, and I am quite sure that the creek is too small to give shelter to fish they search for.

The stocking of otters a few years ago was done by young biologists who had no idea what was about to happen. It was like spreading seed on fertile ground, and the otters burgeoned into a real problem for those who have private fish ponds. A family of otters can completely wipe out the fish numbers in a good-sized pond, and they have done it in the Ozarks.

In creeks and rivers today, they are the greatest enemy that bass, catfish and trout ever faced. The reason they are more of a problem now than they were in an earlier time, perhaps a 150 years ago, is the lack of trappers in the Ozarks today. There was a time when hundreds of trappers went after otters each winter.

That also was a time when every stream in the Ozarks had twice as much water as they have today, and each stream was much deeper, with rocks and holes in the depths that today are gone, filled with silt and gravel from the erosion of the watershed. Fish cover is nearly gone in smaller streams. Some of those six young otters, and hopefully their mother and father, will be gone by spring if I can remember what my grandfather taught me about a creek-bottom trapline.

As the sun began to fall lower into the woods, I approache a little ridge-top clearing where the old barn sets, and froze when a group of turkeys stepped out of the woods. I called a little by mouth, and soon they were all around me, maybe 15 or so of the spring hatch, and I couldn’t see one beard. They got close and an old hen saw me.

I stepped out from behind my tree and turkeys went everywhere. For a minute I was undecided as which one to shoot. Then one of them flew up into a tree at perfect range. My 20-gauge barrel had only one shell – size 7 shot.

Years back when my granddad was telling me about hunting fall turkeys as a kid with his old Steven’s double barrel, he said that the best shot size for big spring gobblers was size 6, but for young fall turkeys he said there is nothing better than size 7.

There was the roar of the shotgun and then the thud of the turkey hitting the ground. It was a 2-year-old hen. I prefer not to shoot a hen in the fall, but I can tell you that the hatch along Panther Creek this spring was good enough to not worry about it this time.

In our first year, we have had some great success with this Panther Creek youth project, but I am only halfway finished there at the place we want to use as a new experience for underprivileged youth, a place that can maybe change the lives of some kids. Our sports field isn’t finished yet, nor is our spring-fed trout pond. I do have a shooting range started, but we need an automated trap thrower, just in case someone out there has one they will sell.

The Panther Creek fish fry is Saturday, Oct. 22, for those who want to see the place. You won’t believe the natural beauty that is there. Come prepared to explore. It is a free event, but don’t come without notifying us, because we have to know how many fish to thaw out a day before.

Our only difficulty is a neighbor to the west that I believe is the most evil-hearted man I ever heard of. He has tried to extort money from us, has torn down our west boundary fence, made a false charge of theft against me, and accuses us publicly of advertising the cabins for rent and making money from them.

I will put my hand on the Bible and swear before God that those cabins have never been so advertised, nor have any of the dozens of kids and guests staying there ever been charged a penny.

I have a list of names of all who have come here, and all can readily confirm they were never charged. This man seems determined to destroy what we want to do, and he gains nothing by doing it. His last threat was to burn or bulldoze a 12-year-old cabin, of which he thinks a few feet of one corner sets partially on his land.

Somewhere in the Bible it talks about running into this kind of thing when you want to do something good. But I know this, that man will be of no consequence if God really wants this retreat for youngsters to change the lives of a few or many. He will make it work in time. I have never been patient enough to give God enough time. I always did think He should do things faster.

Call us if you want to come to our fish fry, and we will send you a map to get there. Phone 417-777-5227 or email me at lightninridge@windstream.net.

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