Hands-on Conservation

By Brian Flowers | September 1, 2019
From Missouri Conservationist: September 2019

Whether you’re looking for that distinctive tug at the end of your fishing line, the exhilarating feeling of your kayak gliding over still water as the morning fog slowly burns off, or the rush of adrenaline you get as that old gobbler comes into view, there’s a unique group of MDC employees and programs ready to help you connect with nature and get the most from your next adventure.

In 1978, the Missouri Conservation Commission recognized the need to reach more citizens with an expanded education program of “hands-on” nature education. That year an education section combined outdoor skills and conservation education efforts, including hunting and fishing skills, archery, hiking, backpacking, camping, canoeing, and historic skills. These changes were part of a much larger nationwide effort to emphasize “lifetime-skills” education, especially in physical education curriculums. The new unit in Missouri held teacher workshops and worked with schools to incorporate in-school outdoor skills curriculums. New education modules were written to help teachers, scouts, and youth leaders facilitate these skills.

Today, MDC staff are assigned to every region of our state and continue to follow in their predecessor’s footsteps. By sharing a unique brand of outdoor knowledge through hundreds of organized educational programs, staff break new ground and reach thousands of Missourians each year.

Preserving a Rich Hunting Heritage

Organized firearms safety came to Missouri in 1957 when the first MDC employees were trained as instructors by the National Rifle Association. In the first 10 years of the program from 1958–1967, 300,000 students were trained. In the 1970s, additional hunting-specific information was added to the program, making it truly “hunter education.” In response to a growing number of hunting-related incidents in the 1980s, the Missouri Conservation Commission approved mandatory hunter education certification, beginning in 1988, for all persons born on or after Jan. 1, 1967. Since its inception, 1.3 million hunters total have passed the certification program.

“The Missouri Department of Conservation is dedicated to preserving Missouri’s rich hunting heritage,” said Justin McGuire, MDC hunter education and shooting range coordinator. “The hunter education program is a valuable tool through which new hunters are exposed to the concepts of safe, ethical hunting. These new hunters will carry the heritage into the future, and it is imperative that they do so with the fundamentals provided in the hunter education course.”

In 2018, instructors certified 24,407 new hunters in 649 classes. Today’s hunter education program consists of both a knowledge portion and a skills component. Participants have the option to complete the knowledge portion either online or with a take-home manual. Those age 11–15 must attend a skills session and show hands-on proficiency with demonstration firearms. For those age 16 and over, the entire program may be completed online.

The future of hunting is firmly rooted in passing on the skills, ethics, passion, and traditions of the hunt. For a new hunter, having plenty of opportunity for success is important, and few game species offer as much opportunity in Missouri as squirrels. With a long season and liberal bag limit, new hunters can find plenty of fun chasing Missouri bushy tails.

Jefferson City resident Kevin Smith attended a squirrel hunting event with his wife and son. “I really enjoyed the squirrel hunt,” Smith said. “I had never hunted for squirrels and really appreciated the experience and knowledge of our MDC mentor. The event was well organized, and my family and I plan to attend mentored hunts hosted by MDC in the future.”

These events teach hunting techniques, safety, regulations, and game preparation. MDC pairs participants with more advanced hunters for a mentored experience. These events are designed to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters.

An Intimate View of Nature

In recent years, kayaking has grown in popularity. A kayak allows the paddler a very intimate view of nature as you glide silently across the water to view wildlife or reach your next fishing hole. If you’re new to the sport, an MDC basic kayak program is the place to start. These classes range from basic paddling skills to full kayak fishing excursions, all geared toward the novice paddler. 

“Our basic programs teach participants safety and paddling techniques to help them comfortably and confidently enjoy Missouri’s ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers,” said Emily Porter, conservation educator and kayak instructor. “Kayaking is a fantastic way to go fishing, bird-watching, photograph wildlife, and relax from a different perspective.”

Imagine paddling silently down a remote stretch of river as you search for that next lunker smallmouth bass. You’re able to reach new fishing holes and explore Missouri’s waterways with ease from a kayak. Or, if wildlife watching is your next adventure, try it from inside a kayak and you won’t be disappointed.

Creating Confidence

MDC outdoor skills workshops offer outdoor novices basic skills in a fun and friendly, no-pressure environment. Led by professional instructors and trained volunteers from conservation partner organizations, these one- to two-day workshops cover a variety of outdoor skills, including camping, hiking, paddle sports, fishing, and shooting sports.

Outdoor Skills Specialist Rob Garver, who leads a popular Discover Nature — Women summer workshop at Mark Twain Lake, enjoys seeing participants find success in the outdoors for the first time.

“Catching that first fish or hitting a clay target is exciting for our participants,” Garver said. “It gives them the confidence that they can try these activities on their own.”

Workshops also give families the time to learn together in the outdoors. Most people learn about the outdoors from a parent or grandparent who wanted to pass along their love of nature and our wildlife. MDC workshops recognize the need for mentoring in passing on the skills and knowledge to engage the next generation in conservation recreation.

Fly-fishing, Snagging, and Gigging

Whether it’s basic bait fishing, fly-fishing, snagging, or gigging, MDC staff teach it. Fishing can be one of the best ways to get outdoors and spend quality time with friends and family. Missouri — with more than 200 species of fish, thousands of miles of streams and rivers, and some of the best fishing lakes in the nation — has plenty of opportunities. Annually 1.1 million anglers fish Missouri waters.

To get started, check out an MDC Discover Nature — Fishing (DNF) event near you. These programs are free to participants and offer hands-on instruction from basic equipment and regulations to fish habitat and biology. Each lesson is two hours long and there are four lessons in the DNF curriculum.

“Fishing is a sport that anyone of any age can do and enjoy,” said Terri Fike, MDC fisheries specialist. “The rush you get when you feel a nibble or see your bobber go under the water is so exciting you won’t want to put your fishing pole down. Whether you’re a kid catching your first fish or a parent mentoring a child, it doesn’t matter. You still get excited about fishing.”

Even those who are advanced beyond the basics can try new fishing methods that are challenging and fun. Warsaw area Outdoor Skills Specialist Mark Miller leads a very popular fishing workshop that teaches participants how to snag paddlefish. Paddlefish, or “spoonbill,” is an ancient species of fish that has more in common with sharks than other types of fish. Named for its paddle-shaped snout, the paddlefish in Missouri can grow to lengths of 7 feet and weigh as much as 160 pounds. The paddlefish feeds on tiny crustaceans and insects by swimming with its mouth open and collecting them on its closely set gill rakers. Because paddlefish don’t bite baited hooks, anglers use large weighted treble hooks to snag the fish.

“When snagging, I often question my own intelligence,” Miller said. “After a few hours of pulling the weighted hooks through the water, my muscles are aching, but then I hook up, I yell, ‘fish on,’ and we’re soon pulling a 60-pound fish into the boat. You can’t get much more exciting than that.”

If you like to stay busy in the off season, or when the weather keeps you indoors, you can learn about fly-tying and lure making at MDC classes. Fly-tying is the art of attaching natural and artificial materials to a hook to resemble an insect or other prey that fish may be feeding on. MDC education classes teach participants everything from selecting the proper hook size to choosing just the right materials to fool a fish on your next angling adventure. Sam Stewart, naturalist at Runge Conservation Nature Center, is an excellent fly-tier and offers education opportunities on how to “match the hatch” and make you a better angler.

“Tying flies in winter can be a great way to relax, learn new tricks, and stay focused on the important things, like fishing,” Stewart said. “When it gets cold outside, I often put down the fly rod and go to the vise to explore new ideas for flies, practice techniques, and fill my fly boxes while I dream about spring.

“When I tie flies, I feel connected to the rhythms of the natural world. Studying what fish eat, mimicking natural insects, designing the pattern, and finally fooling a wary fish. It’s the root of my life and my conservation ethic.”

MDC staff strive to share their passion for conservation with every participant, in every program. From the child catching her first fish, or the wing shooter trying to improve his technique, MDC outdoor skills programs open new opportunities in conservation recreation to all.

MoNASP: Keeping Students on Target

In 2007, MDC adopted the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP), which became known in Missouri as MoNASP. The program teaches target archery to youth in grades 4 through 12 and is designed to be taught as a part of the regular school curriculum. MoNASP focuses on the fundamentals of archery from stance to release. All students learn the “11 steps to archery success” developed by recognized national archery coaches. Eric Edwards, MoNASP state coordinator, firmly believes in the lessons taught in the program and has seen students succeed first-hand.

“MoNASP students take the skills from this program and carry those traits into the classroom and even into their adult life,” Edwards said.

The processes and analyzation it takes to be a successful archer are the same skills and abilities needed to succeed in the classroom and at life. This is an example of why NASP gets kids On Target for Life. For those communities wishing to start an archery program in their schools, MDC offers equipment grants to do just that.

Many schools form archery teams and go on to compete at the state and national level. In 2018, Blair Oaks High School sophomore archer Kamryn Twehus dominated the NASP World Tournament by taking first place in the High School Girls Division and being the Overall Individual Champion of the tournament. Twehus shot a score of 299 out of a possible 300.

“Missouri was once again well represented on the podium at the World NASP tournaments,” Edwards said. “MoNASP has been able to provide an opportunity for thousands of kids to participate in archery.”

Also In This Issue

Calling Ducks
How one family unplugs and reconnects through waterfowling.
Tulip Poplar Trees
MDC’s nursery customers have been purchasing seedlings for decades.

This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Larry Archer

Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler