The last Sunday of the 2015 Missouri Rifle Deer Season proved to be an example of you can never let your guard down when you are in the woods. I have spent most of my life hunting, fishing and camping in remote places. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains in Searcy and Newton Counties of Northwest Arkansas. At twelve years of age in 1963, I would take my .22 rifle, my dog and a couple of biscuits left over from breakfast and hit the woods, not returning until dark. I never once worried about encountering anything that would create a serious concern for my safety. Of course there were poison snakes in the summer to watch for; copperheads were plentiful and what we called ground rattlers, a type of pygmy rattlesnake, the occasional timber rattler and along the creeks I knew to watch out for the cotton mouth moccasin.
Large canids or felines were unheard of for the most part. There was the rare bobcat sighting and ‘wolves’ were sometimes found killing small livestock. They were really coyotes that started showing up to fill the ecological niche left by the disappearance of the Easter Red Wolf. There were possible remnants of the wolf population during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Arkansas still had a bounty on wolves at this time. We had something killing our chickens around 1957. My father set out some traps around some of the dead chickens and caught a female canid that I now believe was actually an Eastern Red Wolf. The color and size was not that of the typical coyote. She was obviously nursing pups but eating our chickens was a capital offence. She was dispatched, scalped and her scalp, including her ears was turned in at the Highway Patrol Office for what I remember as a $10 bounty. Big money in 1957! There were rumors of ‘panthers’ being seen or heard and the occasional mention of bears. Arkansas Game and Fish did start a restoration effort in 1959 for black bears. This was in the Boat Mountain area on the upper part of the Buffalo River. We lived very close to this area, as Boat Mountain was the predominate geological feature, appearing in our front window.
The point of this background is the fact that I have spent a great deal of time in the wilderness and have never in all of those years felt threatened or even worried about my safety from any wild creature.
This past Sunday created a small ripple in my security blanket. At about 5:00 that morning, I stepped out on the front porch of my cabin which is located in a very remote area of Crawford County, Missouri. My property is completely surrounded by the Mark Twain National Forest. It was a cold clear morning with a heavy frost and a temperature of about 17 degrees. When I turned on the porch light I was greeted by an irritated deer. He was only 30 yards from the cabin. He snorted, stamped his feet and wheezed for the next several minutes as he slowly moved off. He headed down the utility cut and up to the top of the next ridge and I could hear him the entire way. I turned off the light and stood quietly while listening to his challenge. When he quieted down, I finished getting ready and headed out to circle around him and hopefully be in position to spot him at first light. I circled about a quarter mile to the east and got into a position that would give me a good view of the hillside that I expected him to traverse. It was still well before daylight and very dark. It was clear but the moon had already set and only stars provided any light. I checked my watch and determined that it was about 15 or 20 minutes prior to shooting light and decided to hit my grunt call and pawed in the dry frosty leaves with my hand, hoping to get something coming my way. As it got closer to daylight, I grunted one more time and pawed in the leaves.
I sometimes carry a small stool to keep me off the ground and give me a better view over the underbrush. I have found that it is much more comfortable and allows me to keep still for longer periods of time. I sat beside a large white oak tree right on my property line. It’s a big tree that would make a wonderful log if I had the heart to cut it. It is so big that I can’t reach around it by several inches and the first limb is at least 20 feet high. It offered good cover to hide my silhouette.
Not long after I made that second grunt, I was greeted by the slightest scurry of leaves just up the hill and on the other side of the tree. I listened carefully and determined that a hungry squirrel was starting his day early. A few more slight rustles confirmed, at least in my mind, that a squirrel was indeed searching for an acorn. There was a faint lightness on the horizon but not enough light to even make out individual trees when suddenly there was a loud, heavy bounding coming directly at me from perhaps 30 feet away. I whirled around to face the sound as I released the safety on my Browning BAR 30-06. Whatever the creature was, its last jump landed it about 6 feet in front of me. I couldn’t see a thing! There was no white throat patch; I could have seen that! After a millisecond of pause, it pounced directly up the hill away from me. Again I could see nothing, no white flag, only some movement could be discerned of a dark colored creature that showed no white. It bounded to the top of the ridge and stopped as I kept trying to find something in my scope. Finally, its outline highlighted against the backdrop of the graying sky for just a moment, and I was able to verify the identity of the beast. It was a very large coyote. At least it was a large canid, and I prefer to think it was a coyote. Had I not turned around when I did, I firmly believe the next jump would have landed this creature in my lap. He circled around me twice; presumably trying to identify what he thought should have been breakfast. I only caught glimpses of movement as he circled at about 20 yards. Of course he left before shooting light.
There are some lessons to be learned here. There was a book written that was titled, “If You Want To Catch A Mouse, Make A Noise Like A Cheese”. It would follow that if you are sitting in the dark in the woods, don’t make a noise like a prey animal. There are creatures in the woods now in Missouri and most other Midwest states that would consider a large buck deer prey. There have been sightings of mountain lions and one was even captured not many miles from my property in a neighboring county. There are bears sighted regularly in most counties south of the Missouri River. A neighbor only a mile and a half from my property got a picture of a large black bear on his game camera a couple of years ago and posted it at the Cherryville Store. There were two Grey Wolves that escaped captivity in neighboring Washington County last year and only one has been accounted for. A wolf with a tracking collar was killed in Grundy County a few years ago while stalking a farmer’s sheep. Be careful out there!
From now on I will always carry a hand gun in addition to my rifle. Had this creature landed in my lap, it would have been hard to bring a rifle into play. It could have been a frantic scene for a while, as we sorted out who was actually at the top of the food chain that morning.