What makes a conservation agent? What compels a person to sit quietly in a truck on a 20-degree night, waiting for a spotlight to shine a nearby field? What motivates someone to walk a mile in hip boots at 5 a.m., only to stand for several more hours watching a duck blind?
Although men and women become conservation agents for many reasons, those who stay and like the profession must have a deep respect for natural resources. This respect and admiration is what drives me to stand in 45-degree water in a trout stream, while ice forms on my mustache and snow swirls around me.
People often tell me they would like to become a conservation agent, but even if they are qualified, only a few can become agents. The Conservation Department hires about 10 to 15 new agents every other year to fill vacancies created by retirements, promotions or resignations. Applications for these few jobs number from 500 to 1,500. Many of the applicants have the ability and desire to do the job, but only a handful will be selected.
Of those who journey to Jefferson City to begin six months of training, few will become agents for life. Some will find greener pastures along the way. Others will not enjoy the job as they thought. Those who stay have a calling and roots in the outdoors.
My roots and calling go back to my family. Like my parents, I was born and raised in St. Louis. Yet I shared their love for the Missouri outdoors. I remember early trips to the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area with my mom, dad, three brothers and sister. I remember fishing contests with my brothers to see how many bluegill we could catch on one grasshopper.
I also recall my dad acquiring several bamboo fly rods from a friend, and my brothers learning to use them through books and trial-and-error. They helped teach me how to drop a popping bug over a bluegill spawning bed and wait for that furious explosion when fish meets lure. They sound so simple, yet those experiences became the foundation for my calling.
Our family of seven could not afford lavish vacations, but my parents managed to combine thriftiness with fun by vacationing in Missouri, introducing us to many of its rivers, lakes and state parks. Several of these trips took on added fun when my mom's sister brought along her four children, as well as her husband.
Fishing was the theme of these vacations, with my uncle and father helping with the hook baiting and later, the "fish-storying." Though mom and dad did not hunt, they encouraged their children to enjoy nature.
About the time I turned 11 or 12, my friend Bob and I spent a lot of time at a cabin on the Meramec River near Cuba, Mo. We've been friends since first grade and "best man" in each other's wedding.
"The river" was our term for a cabin owned at the time by Bob's uncle. Bob's father would take us to the cabin on the Meramec River on summer weekends, where we would fish, swim, hunt squirrels, explore by day and build campfires at night. Bob's dad would paddle a well-worn john boat, with two eager young boys in front, each trying not to hook each other as they cast artificial baits for elusive smallmouth bass. Sometimes he would patiently paddle to the bank to retrieve one of our errant casts, usually casting a large bass lure as he went. More often than not, he caught a nice-sized smallmouth bass, despite the fact that he cast once to our 10 casts.
At the end of the hole, he'd crank up an old outboard motor, and we'd slowly ride back upstream. Along the way, we might see a mink sneak along the bank or a red-tailed hawk soar overhead or see the splash of a trophy smallmouth bass.
The smell of bacon frying would quickly lead us back to the cabin. As Bob's uncle served his famous peach pancakes, we'd regale him with a fish tale or two, and then he would tell stories of his days on the river when he was our age.
His father's original cabin was a mile or so upstream from the one we were in, and they would travel by train and wagon to arrive. Then he might remind us of how he and Bob's dad and several others built the current cabin in 1948. Bob's uncle enjoyed wildlife and respected it. I remember him showing us a black snake and reminding us the snake was welcome in and around the cabin to control mice.
Many "firsts" in my outdoor life occurred at the river. I saw my first deer on a trip to the cabin. I heard my first turkey gobble from just outside the cabin on a crisp spring morning. Bob's uncle and father used to enjoy just sitting in chairs overlooking the rush of the Meramec, and since then I have come to understand why.
Both men have since passed away. In fact, they died within three months of each other, as if they needed to be together for another adventure. My memories of them will always be good and strong, like the roots of the sycamore and cottonwood trees that line the river bank.
And there are other memories of a small farm in Jefferson County owned by my relatives. One uncle could take five young boys fishing--at night--and still keep his sanity and catch fish at the same time. At this farm, I learned the fine art of catching catfish on chicken liver. I also tasted frog legs and pulled a seine through a creek, catching minnows and crawdads for bait.
On one of these seining trips, I saw my first copperhead as it just missed finding the underside of my foot.
Even now, my outdoor encounters away from my job continue, but at a slower pace. Though the Jefferson County farm has passed on to other owners, the cabin on the Meramec is now owned by my good friend. Once a year, we join several friends for a weekend of reminiscing.
We fish a little, but not much. Mostly we pitch horseshoes, play cards and eat well. And, oh yeah, we remember. We remember the year before, or maybe the year Bob and I walked across the beaver dam in a nearby creek.
We stay up late, sometimes hearing the great-horned owls talk to each other. Or maybe the coyotes will serenade us one more time. In the morning, we curse the beaver for stripping bark off some newly-planted cypress trees, but we respect his resourcefulness at the same time.
Do you see the theme in my stories? I spent some enjoyable time at many areas in Missouri. I learned to respect valuable natural resources while sharing them with family and friends.
The very first conservation agents I saw were floating the Meramec River, checking permits and creeled fish along the way. Though I was young, I remember thinking what many people have since told me--"what a great job that would be. A job where you could float a beautiful river and get paid for it."
I've since learned that while floating a river in May can be a tremendous job asset, floating in December or January may have its drawbacks. And like any job, there are pluses and minuses. I like to think the positive outweighs the negative, and I remind myself of this during bad times, like when I'm responding to a spotlighting call on a snowy night.
When I tell people what it takes to be a conservation agent, I stress that they have to possess an inner desire to protect natural resources. The roots of this desire must be deep in order to sometimes risk personal injury to enforce a law, because enforcing that law may someday allow a youngster to see an eagle along a stream, bag a ruffed grouse or catch catfish in an urban lake.
My parents instilled my sense of values at a young age. My love for the outdoors is rooted in the experiences I've related here, and in many more. I was also fortunate to have worked with an agent, Walter Klinkhardt, who had strong values and a solid love of the outdoors. He remained an agent for 33 years before retiring in 1982. He belongs to a special fraternity of natural resource protectors. I'm proud to say I do, too.
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