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Heartland Outdoors cover November 2017

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Through the Lens

Winter Wonders at Riverlands

Mon, January 15, 2018

While many of us think only of a warm fire and hot toddy during the dark cold months of winter – I think of big white birds.  Trumpeter and tundra swans, pelicans and of course snow geese. Big white birds, and lots of them!



Perhaps one of my most favorite places in winter is the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton, MO. Riverlands is just a quick trip across the Lewis and Clark bridge from historic Alton, Illinois.

Given its handiness to historic Aton, Elsah, Grafton and Pere Marquette State Park, I usually encourage folks to make a winter getaway out of visiting Riverlands. There’s so much in the area that you will want to explore, that a single day trip is often not enough!

The jewel in the crown of the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary is the Audubon Center.

Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, near the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers, The Audubon Center at Riverlands is truly a destination in and of itself.  It’s a destination visited by not just birders, waterfowl lovers, students and families from the Midwest, but also draws visitors from across the nation and the world thanks to Riverlands’ designation as a recognized Global Important Bird Area.

The center is cooperative project between the National Audubon Society and Audubon Missouri, the Center offers world class birding, educational programs, and multiple outdoor opportunities along one of the most major and significant migratory flyways in the world – the Mississippi River.

The Center also has a unique partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Rivers Project Office within its Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is comprised of 3700 acres of prairie marsh and forest. The Audubon Center is housed in the Corps’ visitor orientation facility at Riverlands.

Built in 2011, the Audubon Center building tells an important story of renewable building practices, water resource management, and river habitat preservation. Connected to the Corps’ River Project Office the Audubon Center features 45’ diameter gathering space that looks out over Ellis Bay; an indoor classroom; an outdoor classroom; and a large deck area.  This outstanding viewing area allows winter visitors to come inside and warm up, while continuing to watch the waterfowl, eagles, and wildlife along Ellis Bay. It’s furnished with spotting scopes, reference books and guides, and plenty of comfortable seating for just gathering to visit about the day’s adventure and warm up frozen toes and noses.

The two story circular bay windows constructed in an open timber frame was designed to resemble the complexity of a bird’s nest and provide a 140° grand view of the water and the many species of birds and wildlife that live in the surrounding wetlands, forests, and prairie.

What draws me, along with hundreds of other visitors to Riverlands each winter are the ever-growing numbers of trumpeter swans that over winter there. The swans usually begin arriving in late November and peak in late December and early January. Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary along the Mississippi River in St. Charles County, is the single most important wintering site of the southern states with counts of hovering around 1000 as recently as last year. During a recent mid-December visit I made, the numbers were already over 400.

Once hunted to near extinction in the late 1800’s trumpeter swans are making a comeback thanks to multiple restoration efforts in several Midwest states.  From the initial restoration efforts in the mid 90’s when only a very few trumpeters we originally noted and sighted in and around Riverlands and southern Illinois, the numbers continue to grow each year.

While visitors often will first encounter swans when entering the Riverlands Sanctuary at Ellis Bay, Teal Pond, and throughout the Riverlands Way road, the best place to see Trumpeter Swans in the sanctuary is at Heron Pond. Perhaps the most unique feature at Riverlands is The Heron Pond Avian Observatory. The observatory provides outstanding viewing opportunities for swans, all type of waterfowl, as well as many other bird and wildlife species that inhabit the wetland. The unique design of the observatory allows visitors to get a very close look at the birds and wildlife and makes a spectacular blind for photography.  There is nothing quite so soothing as sitting in the observatory listening to the constant conversation and chatter among the swans, ducks, and geese. It’s truly a wonderful place to learn the different sounds of the waterfowl and what the different calls and cries mean.

Adding to the cache of the observatory is its unique design.  Per the Riverlands Audubon Center web site, “The one-of-a-kind observatory was designed and constructed by students of the Washington University School of Architecture for a class that their professor, Andrew Colopy, titled “Studio Confluence.” The purpose of the class was to design, fabricate and build an avian observatory at Riverlands in collaboration with the Audubon Center at Riverlands and the Rivers Project Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Studio Confluence was awarded a grant from the Gephardt Institute at Washington University to engage in a positive process of community-based teaching and learning.  Students’ design research focused on camouflage for enhanced bird viewing as well as innovative, earth-friendly building concepts. “

The best times for viewing the swans are like those of all wildlife – early morning and late afternoon. Trumpeter swans head to farm fields during the day to forage. The best time to see the swans on Heron Pond is in the morning before they go to the farm fields. As the days grow colder and more and more areas of once open water freeze over the swans will tend to congregate in any area of open water and can often be viewed easily from inside the Center while they inhabit Ellis Bay.

When planning your visit, be sure to dress warmly, take along binoculars, a spotting scope if you are so inclined, a good bird field guide, and of course your camera.  Several areas of Riverlands Way road have very wide shoulders that easily accommodate a vehicle so that you may pull over to view and photograph the swans and other waterfowl. There are also multiple parking areas and pull offs for those who wish to park for a longer period. Plant to extend your visit by driving all the way down to the Lock and Dam area where Eagles feeding on fish are common sight, as well as making a quick roughly 4-mile trip to the Edward and Pat Jones Confluence Park, where you can take a short bird and wildlife filled hike out to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

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Plan Now for Sturgeon Spearing Season!

Wed, October 18, 2017

It’s no secret that I have an odd affection – if not outright love for the prehistoric and dinosaur fish. While I can get my ancient fish fix easily enough in warm weather with gar and bowfin – nothing can compare to the lake sturgeon that inhabit Lake Winnebago in Fond du Lac, WI.

Sturgeon spearing – especially opening weekend in Fond du Lac is an experience that I wish everyone could experience just once.

It’s all about the sturgeon in Fond du Lac – even if you don’t go out on the ice to try your hand at spearing one of the lake monsters, the entire city is filled to the gills with activities and events that celebrate the great lake sturgeon.

Once upon a time these magnificent fish were in danger of extinction. In the early 1900s, they had all but disappeared from the Great Lakes.  But thanks to the efforts of conservation groups, like Sturgeon for Tomorrow, many volunteers and population management by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), these giant, dinosaur fish currently thrive in Lake Winnebago.

It is thought that the current Lake Winnebago population of the giants includes more than 15,000 adult females and 30,000 adult males. This qualifies Lake Winnebago as the largest, self-sustaining lake sturgeon population in the world. It is also one of only two places in the country where sturgeon can be legally speared. Here, sturgeon-spearing season lasts 16 days on Lake Winnebago, or until the pre-set cap is met, whichever comes first.

Even though sturgeon season doesn’t open until the second weekend in February, it’s imperative that if you want to try your hand at sturgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago that you obtain your sturgeon tag NOW, make your reservations and seek out a guide NOW.  Sturgeon tags (1 per angler) must be purchased before the deadline of October 31. Spearers must purchase their license by October 31 to participate in the ensuing spearing season on Lake Winnebago at any WI DNR licensed sales location, through the WI DNR’s website at dnr.wi.gov by clicking on the online license center or by calling toll-free 1-877-WI LICENSE (1-877-945-4236).

What can you expect from your sturgeon trip?
Each year, during the second weekend in February, the sturgeon spearing season brings masses of people to Lake Winnebago. Literally, thousands of ice spearing shanties, campers, trucks and cars cover the frozen expanse of the lake, essentially creating a small city, a “shanty town” if you will as the dark houses are often referred to as “sturgeon shanties”.

The trip out across the ice just before sunrise offers a beautiful and surreal look at this true winter wonderland. Once safely in your shanty the wait for a monster fish to swim by is whiled away listening to local radio shows, enjoying food and drink, and even sometimes grilling out on the ice after spearing hours close.

Although there are similarities, sturgeon spearing is quite different than ice fishing and the equipment is different as well.  A spearing shanty, or dark-house as they are also called, is a little more specialized than an ice fishing shanty. It’s designed for spearing fish rather than using a tip up, line, rod and net. The spearing shanty is designed to be as dark as possible inside and is placed over a large hole cut in the ice.  Since the water on Winnebago is relatively shallow this allows the light to come up through the hole in the ice. Most of the equipment is also handmade with hand-carved wooden decoys that are used to attract sturgeon, handmade spears and a gaff. The exteriors of the shanties are often painted to reflect the spearers personalities and can be quite artistic.

If a spearer is lucky enough to spear a fish, things can get crazy. Once the spear is in the fish, the wooden handle of the spear is detached. Typically, the next thing thrown after the spear, is the chair out the door of the shanty.  Successful spearers need all the room possible inside the shanty to get the sturgeon up and out of the hole. The lucky spearer utilizes a rope that is connected to the spearhead to insure they don’t lose the giant fish.  Once speared, the sturgeon will disappear under the water until it gets tired, and the fisherman is able to drag the fish to the hole. Working as a team, the designated assistant stands by with a gaff hook, which is used to take the fish out of the water. Getting the sturgeon out of the hole, away from the water’s edge and completely out of the shanty as fast as possible s most important. The sturgeon, which can weigh up to 200 pounds, are exceptional fighters. If given the opportunity, sturgeon will violently flap back and forth, until they are back in the water and gone forever.

The sturgeon must be checked in as soon as possible after being speared at the closet check station. Most of the check stations are located at local bars and restraunts and the atmosphere is celebratory when the giant fish begin to roll in. It could be said that sturgeon check in is a bit of spectator sport.  The crowds that gather each day at check stations cheer each incoming fish. Successful spearers stop and visit with total strangers to show off their fish, pose for photos, answer questions. The staff from Wisconsin DNR that man the check stations are generous with their time and knowledge as they sample record and check in the sturgeon each day.

The success rate on Lake Winnebago is about 13 percent, so it is not uncommon for people to go home empty-handed. However, it’s not just about the fish. It’s the experience…. following traditions, creating new rituals and enjoying the camaraderie among family, friends and fellow fishermen.

Even if you don’t elect to go out onto the frozen lake to spear –  a visit to Fond du Lac for opening weekend of sturgeon season is well worth the trip. The city of Fond du Lac goes all out during opening weekend, with multiple events such as the “Sturgeon Spectacular”, bonfires on the ice the night before opening morning, ice kiting and sailing, art shows, music and in general quite the sturgeon related festival!  Not only is the city of Fond du Lac chock full of activities opening weekend, the proximity of Fond du Lac to the amazing Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge makes a visit there a must do for winter bird and wildlife watching. The natural wonders and history of the area are showcased at the Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center. Be sure to add a visit to the marsh to your travel itinerary.

This is a fascinating winter weekend in Fond du Lac, and unique to the Lake Winnebago Area.  If you are a lover of extreme fishing, traditions, heritage, and lots of dinosaur fish fun – you should start today planning for your trip to Fond du Lac in February. 

The lovely folks at Fond du Lac Area Convention and Visitors Bureau will be most helpful in helping you to plan your winter wonder visit to one of the only two places in the world where you can experience the magnificent tradition of spearing sturgeon.

A limited number of shanty rentals are available. Fond du lac area local contacts do offer rentals which typically include scouting the location, ice cut in, ice shanty, spear, gaff hook, decoy & heater plus some sturgeon 101 guidelines for first time spearers.  The Fond Du Lace Area CVB can provide you with an up to date list of locals who offer shanty rental and guide services.

Spearing Rules:
Spearing Dates: The lake sturgeon spearing season begins the second Saturday in February annually and runs for 16 days or until pre-set harvest caps for Lake Winnebago are reached, whichever comes first.
License requirements: Spearers must purchase their license by October 31 to participate in the ensuing spearing season on Lake Winnebago at any WI DNR licensed sales location, through the WI DNR’s website at dnr.wi.gov by clicking on the online license center or by calling toll-free 1-877-WI LICENSE (1-877-945-4236).
Spearing Hours: 7:00am to 1:00pm
Size Limit: Sturgeon must measure 36” or longer
Bag Limit: One lake sturgeon per license
Ice Holes: May not exceed 48 square feet (8’x6’) or (12’x4’); cut ins are allowed 48 hours prior to opening morning of spearing.

Hope to see you in Fond du Lac for sturgeon spearing this year! It’s an experience you will cherish for a lifetime! Winter beauty, fun activities, great food and drink, history, heritage, and more await you in Fond du Lac!

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Reflections on Opening Day

Tue, October 03, 2017

Crazy as it may sound to many, I usually don’t hunt opening day of archery season. Not one to break tradition, I didn’t hunt this year’s opening day either. I’d like to tell you it’s all part of some great deer hunting strategy, but the sad truth is, I never really have my act together for deer by opening archery weekend. Instead I roam around, talk with those who do hunt it, gather info and intel.

A few weeks ago, our fearless leader and editor Jeff and I had a long conversation about my current “disillusionment” with the outdoor world, media, and industry. AKA known as “Gee you are a cranky old woman lately”.

I set out at first light on Sunday, hoping that somewhere during my travels my faith would be restored.
Right out of the hat I noticed a sharp increase in the number of vehicles parked here, there, and yon on the public lands I visited. Also notable was the sharp increase in out of state plates.

Normally I don’t see that many non-residents until closer to rut, or gun season. That led to me to wonder if more folks were out and about due to the new crossbow changes.  Interestingly enough, I only encountered a couple of folks that were crossbow users, so that may or may not be the reason. Maybe they just haven’t gotten the memo that IL isn’t still puking out giant bucks at every turn of trail.  Maybe we are doing a better job of recruiting new hunters. Maybe folks just wanted to start early this year. I’m still a little confounded by the number of hunters that were afield.

Although I held out Sunday, and even Monday…waiting on THAT story, that encounter – you know the one that makes you smile for someone’s success, the one that makes you want cheer out loud for that young person who just got their first deer – I didn’t run across any of those. I’m hoping I just wasn’t in the right place at the right time, because what I did encounter sure didn’t help my unsettled feelings about what deer hunting and use of the outdoors has become. If anything, I am probably even more crabby, and more disillusioned at this point.

Mostly I encountered a whole lot of complaining, and dare I even say it – whining.

Here’s what I’ve learned the last couple of days:

It is now all virtual. The hunt’s success is not based on harvest, enjoyment of the outdoors, the experience of sitting in the woods waiting on first light. Success is measured by the amount of video footage gained, the number of selfies taken (in full on winter weight camo when it’s 70 degrees, face paint, add manicured nails and full make up for the women), the number of likes, followers, and atta boys/girls one receives on social media.

It’s vital to hashtag all that video and all those selfies you share via social media with 87 hashtags in hopes that one of those companies you hash tagged will suddenly realize that you are a superstar hunter and immediately add you to their staff, reshare your photo, and make you famous! Not to mention the ad nauseum posts thanking anyone and everyone for the best, greatest, most innovative product going.  How did we ever bag a deer before those inventions?

One must have a target buck, have the buck named, consult 6 months of trail cam images (and share them as well!) refuse to even consider any other deer that crosses your path, scoff loudly and soundly at anyone and everyone who is clearly not as dedicated as you and happily goes afield with stick and string to grab a doe for the freezer.  One simply must sneer and snipe about “meat hunters”. Only trophy hunters are worthy. Meat hunters just don’t spend enough time, money and effort to get that special buck. How dare they be content with a nice fat doe?

Additionally, one cannot even dream of taking up space in a parking area with anything less than the newest, fanciest, truck or SUV. It must sport not only expensive camo trim, it must be completely covered in 900 product stickers.  Because anyone who shows up in a raggedy, dented, mud and dust covered 1985 beater simply cannot be serious about deer hunting. I mean really – the only sticker on it is a faded NRA sticker and worn out frayed Fred’s Dance Barn bumper sticker. Clearly a poser who doesn’t deserve to be called a deer hunter. (Lordy – he didn’t even spray down with any scent blocker and gasp! his camo is left over from his Army days!)
I learned we have become a society who cannot use a compass, a map, and remember how to get back to the truck. Yards upon yards of red, orange, lime green, tape festoon the trees throughout the hunting areas.  Like tinsel on Christmas tree, trail marker ribbons, and guides abound across the fields and forests.

Then I was educated about those damn devil farmers. How dare they not have that corn cut yet. How dare they run the combine and grain dryers on opening day? What on earth is wrong with those farmers? I am so sorry they just didn’t realize that they needed to adjust their farming schedule to accommodate the deer hunting public.  Heck, as fast as prices are dropping this year…they might as well take off a few days and make sure nothing disturbs any deer hunters in the neighborhood. It’s not like anyone’s going to make a bundle with the corn and beans this year.  How thoughtless of them not to take someone’s deer hunting into consideration as part of the overall plan.

Oh, it’s not just those darn farmers either – good grief – do you know how many hunts were ruined because a car drove by? God forbid, some of those reckless folks even stopped to show the children in their car the deer standing in the field or to take a photo. How dare they! In a state park, no less!  Do they not know that will just ruin a hunt? Simply destroy it.  Probably should just close the park to everyone but deer hunters.
Yep close it to everyone but the deer hunters, because well no one should be out squirrel hunting, hiking a trail, speeding up river in a boat, training a dog on designated fields.  It’s deer season for heaven’s sake…. that’s all that counts!

I listened to how ridiculously expensive our non-resident tags have become, and how awful it is that one can’t go buy an OTC buck tag after getting a doe… (I’m thinking more like after getting a buck, but not my story to tell.) I failed to realize that the simple act of plunking down the dollars for those non-resident tags instantly gives them the right to well – pretty much everything.  I do have to say, I really couldn’t disagree with a few of the complaints leveled about the state of things in IL in general – things really are pretty much of train wreck, we do have ridiculously high sales taxes, and our DNR has been hamstrung in many ways by the whole never ending fiscal crisis.

All in all, it simply reinforced my feeling that it’s gotten madly out of hand, it’s all about the dollars, the fame, the recognition.  So, if you went out, had a good morning or evening sit, cussed the coons, squirrels and possums, or made a kid smile – please, please, share your story in the comments. I need to hear there are still folks out there who hunt just for the love of the sport, for the filling of the freezer, and for the opportunity to sit quiet and watch the natural around us.  Heck, I will go so far as to hazard a guess that good many of us old-timers need that reassurance that all is not lost to commercialization, celebrity seeking, and social media.

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