As I was sitting on the front porch of the deer lodge, a plastic to-go cup of Kentucky’s finest rust remover clenched in my cold hand, a bald eagle flew over the icy mountain stream that hemmed in the bottom of the ridge. It was that moment when I had to ask myself, “Why haven’t you visited here sooner?!?”
In the past half-century, I’ve managed to visit almost every major “outdoor” destination in the continental United States aside from “Lob-sta” country in Maine. I don’t mean I’ve been to every single resort, hunting lodge and fishing hotspot but if you name a well-known outdoor locale, chances are I’ve spent at least a few days there.
That is, except for the Ozarks.
For some reason, this vast playground located squarely in the middle of the U.S. has avoided my attentions and during my recent trip there, I learned that I’m not the only one. In a sense, as an outdoor playground, the Ozarks are the Rodney Dangerfield of tourist destinations: they just don’t get any respect. That’s too bad, or good, depending on your perspective.
Our latest adventure took place at our friend Brandon Butler’s new deer camp located in the Missouri Ozark region near the Ozark National Scenic Riverways and the town of Eminence, population 600. Brandon, a native Hoosier and currently the executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, is building his dream lodge on 40 acres of a mountainside hard against approximately one-gazillion acres of public land.
Even though located the “boring ‘ol Midwest,” when was the last time you had to travel several miles to your deer stand on a mountaintop trail through wilderness populated with deer, bear and mountain lion? It was exhilarating.
The first few times I went to my stand in the dark at 4:30 a.m., I kept reminding myself not to get lost or hurt because it was the kind of place where help is a long way off if it ever arrives. Considering the nearest cellular phone signal was 20 miles away, even the possibility seemed remote.
That raises the primary point of today’s sermon: there are plenty of places to play in Missouri’s Ozarks. Shannon County, home to Brandon’s property, is the largest county in Missouri at over 1000 square miles and the majority of it is owned by either private organizations or local, state and federal government entities, which makes nearly all of it available for all types of outdoor recreation.
Aside from the huge swaths of public lands there are more campgrounds than you could visit in one season. Throw in a couple of lodges, including the brand new lodge and cabins at Echo Bluff State Park that are reminiscent of an elegant Montana resort, and you have nearly endless possibilities for lodging that will meet any taste.
With all these wide open spaces to explore, there is plenty of action. Deer hunting is a major tradition and activity in Missouri and everywhere you go people are clad in camouflage and hunter orange. The only downside is that trespassing and road hunting are fairly common if you’re near roads and even when headed to my stand, I passed two other hunter who likewise thought the backcountry was the best option for trophy deer.
In warmer weather, fishing is king. The crystal-clear streams are almost totally spring-fed and, as Brandon noted, the trout fishing is world-class but yet one seems to know it outside of the state. One afternoon we fished the headwaters of the Current River in two locations and I saw more big trout during those hours than during any of my trips to the Smokies or the Rocky Mountains.
In more temperate waters on the lower reaches of area streams, the smallmouth bass is king and a float-trip for smallies is considered a classic Ozark experience.
Without sounding like an over-caffeinated tourist brochure, the list of other outdoor recreation possibilities is nearly endless. There are streams to float, horse trail-riding that is considered some of the best in the U.S., caves to explore, elk to watch along with endless miles of trails. There are even scenic herds of wild horses that have roamed the area for generations.
Not too shabby for a region that gets virtually no mention in the national media.
All in all, I didn’t kill a deer or catch any monster trout. However, both Brandon and his nearly seven-foot-tall buddy Shags did bag 10-pointers. The fishing wasn’t hot but considering it was mid-November, understandable. We ate well, drank a wee dram or two, told approximately 10,000 lies per hour and otherwise lived like feral men.
It was all good and fine and honorable and I plan on going back often and soon.
If you promise you won’t tell the national media, I’ll let you visit there too.
GALLERY (click for larger images):