After a couple hour car ride showcasing Missouri’s beautiful rolling hills, pastureland pockmarked with cattle, one lane bridges, and a zig-zagging trip through a lush green forest on a narrow gravel road, my wife, daughter, and I arrived at our destination in Spring Lake, about 10 minutes from Kirksville. Our hosts, newlyweds Brett and Michelle, greeted us and Brett and I immediately began setting up our family tent. A short time later, after more friends had arrived, cold drinks were being passed around and fully loaded kebob skewers were sizzling on the grill.
Brett and Michelle live in a rustic cabin butting up against Sugar Creek state forest where, the previous year, Brett and I went out for our very first turkey hunt. This time around, we will still be using our shotguns, but for almost an entirely different purpose: the Wingshooting for the Hunter Workshop offered by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
After the kabobs were all but polished off and the ice cold brews from Martin City Brewing were nested in hand, Brett, another friend, and I walked down the steep slope towards the lakefront that overlooked the grassy marsh that marked the lake’s north tip. Fireflies blinked on and off like sparkling gold in the deep blue of the evening. The night time sounds of frogs and insects were only interrupted by the laughter of the girls further up on the hill. The summer night was cool, a welcome break from the recent heat wave. It was good to be back at Spring Lake.
Emerging from the tent the next morning I was greeted by a tranquil lake as the morning sun burned off the mist. Brett and I were sent off on our day with coffee, snacks, and provisions for lunch. Bouncing down the bumpy gravel road we headed to the MDC office for the class. The session was mostly full with a diverse group spanning from young to old, novice to experienced, and both men and women. Truly family friendly and all ages appropriate. At around 40 minutes, the classroom portion of the course was perfectly timed. The importance of year round practice was self evident, and the instructor, Rob Garver, was well spoken, knowledgeable, and experienced.
Upon completion of the classroom portion, the group headed out to Big Creek conservation area for the skills session where we would practice shooting clay pigeons and learn to pattern our shotguns. Overhead the sky was mostly cloudy and the temperature hovered in the lower 80’s. A light breeze moved through the air. It was a perfect summer day. While we waited our turn to shoot, Brett and I struck up a conversation with some of the folks there. We were fortunate to chat with a gentleman from the Soil and Water Conservation Program who was able to offer us some pointers on proper shooting form. Later on an older gentleman kindly helped us further refine our technique. There was an intern, also from the Soil and Water Conservation Program, and some veteran hunters who were engaged in a lively, though age old debate, on the merits of their preferred cartridges, a couple of younger kids, and a couple of assistants to the instructor from the MDC. You couldn’t ask for a more well rounded group of friendly and welcoming individuals.
We started by shooting at pigeons flying in the standard left to right to warm up. After everyone had their turn the instructor, Rob, gave us some tips on how to improve. The class took turns again and the number of broken pigeons went up dramatically. Satisfied with the improvement Rob took us to the pattern range and instructed us how to properly pattern our guns. We were then split up into two groups – one group to pattern and one to shoot the pigeon course that he set up.
The pigeon course consisted of three mechanical throwers: one to the front left throwing an angle towards the shooter, one to the front right throwing to towards the shooter’s left, but away from the shooter, and one to the back right throwing a small, fast disk across the field. Brett and I lucked out and we were among the first to ‘shoot the course’. During the down time I had been practicing the tips and techniques learned from the more experienced shooters. Their advice proved to be immensely helpful – as did Rob’s instruction and immediate feedback. I was actually consistently hitting pigeons! Sure some got away, but overall from the start of the class my improvement was significant.
The whole time Brett and I were there I could not get over the fact that the class was free. The MDC provided the pigeons, ammo, paper for the patterning targets, and expert level instruction. The people that showed up to the class were a big added bonus. The weather turned out to be perfect. You could not ask for anything better. For most of the afternoon after completing the class I found myself on a soapbox telling anyone who would listen how great it was and how amazing the MDC is, and heaping any other praise that came to mind. This class represents everything good and right about the tax funding of the MDC; this is why I bought my truck in Missouri (so a portion of the taxes would go to the MDC). Every single Missourian should feel their chest swell with pride at the spectacular Department of Conservation and the good people whom we are privileged to enjoy access.
When we were finished with the class Brett and I made a stop at Greek Corner Gyros. Fun Fact: Greek Corner Gyros has the best Italian beef sandwiches outside of the Chicagoland area. No trip to Kirksville is complete without a stop there. Seriously.
When we arrived back at Spring Lake the girls were out on a boat. Brett and I donned our swimwear and hopped into his bass fishing boat with a cooler of cold beer to meet them. We found them docked at “Rebel Cove” as they had run into a mechanical problem. The owner of Rebel Cove (it’s what he named his dock) was incredibly hospitable to the boisterous group and encouraged us to take a leap into the lake. My hands smelling of gun oil and gunpowder and my shirt sticking to my skin, a dip in the lake was surely needed.
Regardless of when it happens, that first leap into a lake is the truest mark of the start of summer for the individual. Sure the signs are all around you and the heat hangs heavy in the air, but when you take that first leap and land in the lake water, that’s when your body feels that summer has truly arrived and there’s more fun to be had than there is time. Bobbing in the water endless adventures form in the mind, but they don’t allow you to stray too far from the pleasure of the present moment. This is what was felt diving into the water at Rebel Cove.
Later that evening, after a dinner of brats, bison hotdogs, guac, summer salads, and cold basil infused lemonade and vodka, we were joined by a couple of locals Brett had befriended, Mark and his grandson Jack. Jack is all of about 14, but with the wisdom and outdoor skills of a man advanced in age. He can take a gun apart in seconds and put it back just as quickly. Though I’ve not seen it personally, I have no doubt that he can skin his small game just as quickly.
Much of my evening was spent conversing with Mark about the proper way to strip the hide from a racoon and how to properly prepare it. Mark suggests that the racoon is nailed to a board by it’s paws and a cut from ‘wrist to wrist’ then down the center. Then you work your thumbs at the intersection of the “T” formed by the cuts, and pull down.
To prepare the racoon for dinner Mark suggests that you boil it for 30 minutes changing the water every 10 minutes. (To accomplish this he has a couple of pots on the stove full of water ready to go so that after 10 minutes he transfers the racoon to the second pot of boiling water, and does this again after another 10 minutes.) Then he puts the racoon into a pan, slathers it with his (your) favorite rub and BBQ sauce, and finishing it by broiling it in the oven.
I have not yet had the opportunity to try this, but Brett and I are planning a hunt up there during archery season. We hope to get some instruction from Jack on our deer hunt and to try Mark’s racoon recipe, hopefully made by Mark himself. If you have any thoughts on this, please share them in the comments section. Personally, if I were to try this, I think I would try boiling the racoon in salt water to see how that turns out. Both Steve Rinella and Hank Shaw are big proponents of braising and brining game, brining for a day or more before preparing sometimes. Though one must wonder if the boil method speeds up the time required to tenderize the quarry.
The next day my morning slumber was cut short by my toddler’s awakening as if to signal that the trip had come to an end and it was time to go home. We broke camp, loaded up the truck, and bounced down the gravel road one final time. The Wingshooting Hunter Workshop cemented my role as a diehard evangelist for the incredible Missouri Department of Conservation. The time spent with our friends at Spring Lake and in Kirksville solidified it as a favorite weekend destination. In a short span of time I’ll be back for the start of archery season, and hopefully for a final dip into Spring Lake once more as an endcap to a spectacular summer of outdoor adventure.