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Into the Woods: Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

During my first visit to Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, the attacks of 9/11 occurred, indelibly coloring my experiences in the region with sadness, confusion and outrage. I found it difficult to objectively assess Lake of the Ozarks’ attractions – of which there are many – with the tumult of emotions that the attacks generated swimming through my head. Then, on September 13, 2001, at an RV park outside of Kansas City, certain frightened, overzealous camp hosts accused me of being a terrorist (my California license plate somehow spooked them, as did my request for information about the park. Obviously, nerves were frazzled everywhere). So when the opportunity presented itself to visit Lake of the Ozarks once again during less-trying times, I jumped at the chance, even though the premise of the trip was turkey hunting. Since I’ve hunted geese once and ducks once, I do not consider myself a hunter, but as a would-be sportsman, I accepted the invitation, then hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself.

Basically located in the middle of Missouri, Lake of the Ozarks is a labyrinthine expanse of recreational opportunities that actually has more miles of coastline than the Pacific Coast of California. RVers can settle their rigs into numerous parks that line the various branches, arms and channels that make up the lake (Osage Beach RV Park and Riverview RV Park earn high praise), then set out to explore the many family attractions – arcades, go-cart tracks, mini-golf courses, water parks and fun-filled swimming holes. Or visitors can pursue catfish, largemouth bass or crappie, or simply take
a lake cruise. No matter which activities travelers partake of, however, they should indulge in certain must-taste culinary delights: The chicken wings at Wobbly Boots are the best I’ve ever eaten, and the Turtle – a chocolate-and-caramel-drenched confection at Randy’s Frozen Custard – may soon be illegal, since anything so delicious must ultimately be regulated.

As for turkey-hunting regulations, I experienced some confusion. The Missouri Department of Conservation’s Web site stated that wearing hunters’ orange blaze made sense, a colorful idea that I latched onto, since I was nervous about the dangers of guns and well-camouflaged hunters. Experienced turkey hunters who heard me voice this chromatic concern politely tried not to laugh in my face (well, some tried), stating that since turkeys, unlike deer, are not colorblind, and since blaze orange does not exist in nature, wearing the color would ensure that I would not fill my two-bird limit. Since I had been warned that turkey hunting can be incredibly difficult – when hours spent in the woods, technique demanded and the rate of success are factored in – I figured I better give myself every opportunity, so I jettisoned orange from my wardrobe.

Of course, I didn’t own camo or a shotgun, so local hunters generously outfitted me, and since it was a spring hunt in what I expected to be tolerable temperatures, I figured I was all set.

A 3:30 am alarm, however, does little to instill a sense of all-settness, at least not in me. I groggily slithered into my various layers of clothes, stuffed my camo gloves and facemask in my pockets, along with a snack and a beverage, then day-dreamed about caffeine infusions. The caravan of avid turkey hunters soon drove off into the night toward our hunting grounds. How avid were these fellow outdoor writers? Each of them owned at least one turkey-emblazoned shirt that he wore in social settings, and one guy’s license plate reads Gobbler. I was in over my head, so as I drove past the sign on the bank that stated that the temperature was 38? F (yikes!), I was not harboring any illusions that I would shoot a turkey.

I had read the turkey-hunting basics on the Department of Conservation’s Web site, and I believed that I would be able to distinguish a gobbler from a hen, hoped that I would be able to stay still long enough for my guide to call a gobbler within range and wondered whether I would be hooked by the sport – as my fellow hunters obviously were – if I had the chance to pull the trigger and drop a bird.

My guide, Wilbert Goldsberry, a nice guy who knows many kinds of hunting well, prepped me in the truck on what we were about to experience: “The main thing is to be set-up and ready, because if you’re not ready, it just blows the whole thing. If you’re working a bird for an hour, and it pops up, and you gotta move [to make the shot], then it just blows the whole thing.” I persuaded myself to be a statue, albeit one alert enough to aim and fire should a gobbler present itself.

The two of us wandered into the woods in near darkness, trudging up a hill, across fields and along the private ranch’s roads, aided only by moonlight. I understood the appeal of the activity immediately, the novelty alone being worth the effort. I soon settled my back against a tree, leveled my gun on my knee, then waited.

And waited, and waited. We heard gobbles coming from the nearby trees, but no birds were intrigued enough to investigate Wilbert’s calls. Different locations delivered the same result. The next morning, I added layers to ward off the 33° cold, and I was certain that my chance would present itself, but my more comfortable woods-sitting endeavor resulted in the same lack of birds. I had not so much as seen a turkey, let alone taken aim at one. Other hunters in the party, however, did manage to fill their tags, and RVers who would like a chance to do the same in the Lake of the Ozarks region can learn about public hunting lands by calling the Tri-County Lodging Association.

Wilbert determined that the cold weather had changed the birds’ habits, and that “you should have been here next week.” Or next year, I thought.

Tri-County Lodging
(573) 348-0111, www.tri-countylodging.com.

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