Dreary winter days may make it seem like outdoor activities are on hold until spring, but that’s not the case. Winter in Missouri brings a whole new perspective on our native wildlife as they eke out a living in the cold. Maple trees are ripe for tapping and trout fisheries are open and ready for anglers. No matter your level of ability, nature has a wonderland of activity available all winter long.
Winter Trout Fishing Program
Anglers who put their fishing gear away after the summer months are missing out, according to Fisheries Management Biologist Mike Reed, who said there are many enjoyable aspects to winter trout fishing.
Reed said winter trout provide anglers an opportunity to catch fish when they typically are not fishing and have little other outdoor opportunities available.
The Missouri Department of Conservation stocks 31 areas in cities across the state for winter trout fishing, beginning in early November. In addition to catch-and- release fishing through January 31, many of these areas allow anglers to harvest trout as soon as they are stocked. Others allow catch-and-keep fishing as early as February 1.
“Trout fight hard, often jumping clear out of the water, which is pretty cool,” he said. “Also, numerous fish can be caught on a good day and they give anglers the opportunity to take fish with a variety of lures and methods, from challenging to simple.”
“Flies, which imitate aquatic insects, are popular with fly fishers,” he said, “but spinners, small spoons, and various small lures are also effective.”
Some basic equipment for trout fishing includes a hand net, stringer, waders or waterproof boots, a fishing vest to carry essentials, polarized sunglasses to reduce glare on the water, and a rod and reel. Reed said light line and tackle will typically catch more fish than heavier tackle. Successful anglers use 2- to 6-pound test line when fishing with lures, and add little or no additional weight to the line. Set the drag light as trout often hit hard and make strong runs, which can break weak or frayed line.
The daily limit for catch-and-keep at these locations is four trout with no length limit. All Missouri residents over age 15 and under 65 must have a valid fishing permit, and all nonresidents over age 15 must have a fishing permit. To keep trout, anglers of all ages must have a Missouri trout permit.
To find trout areas near you, visit mdc.mo.gov/fishing
Winter Really is for the Birds
Winter birds are like spring flowers — they add color and activity at a time that can be otherwise dreary. From tornadoes of geese swirling in the Bootheel sky to cardinals and blue jays at backyard feeders, bird activities can keep a nature-lover busy.
In the most southeastern part of Missouri, thousands of snow geese can be seen in the winter, soaring above the wetlands and crop fields. A drive to southern conservation areas such as Ten Mile Pond, Otter Slough, and Duck Creek can result in better waterfowl identification.
“February is a great time to see northern pintails, gadwalls, and American green-winged teal in the fields and mallards in the timber,” said Keith Cordell, manager of Duck Creek Conservation Area. “Duck Creek is a place where you can drive along the borders of the timber and fields and really get a good look at these ducks.”
In the opposite point of the state, the northwest region offers opportunities to see lots of waterfowl species once the wetlands thaw, according to Craig Crisler, manager of Nodaway Valley Conservation Area.
“Usually the wetlands are covered in ice until late February,” Crisler said. “Then we’ll see snow geese, mallards, Canada geese, pintails, and bald eagles.”
If waterfowl areas are too far to travel, backyard birding can be just as exciting. Yards, patios, and windows can host bird feeders of all sizes. In fact, 1.5 million
Americans enjoy feeding birds because they are responsive and easy to attract.
Bird feeding stations can be as simple as placing seed on the ground or as complicated as species-specific feeders. Cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, purple finches, and American goldfinches are just a few native species that will show up at a backyard feeder. “When you put out a bird feeder, be sure to place it near shrubs or trees so the bird has cover,” advised Cordell. “Birds also need water, so replenishing a watering station throughout the winter will really help them.”
Cordell said backyard birding is an especially valuable experience for those who are less mobile, such as nursing home residents.
“For people who don’t have the luxury of getting out in the winter, a bird feeder in plain view outside of a window will make a huge positive difference in their quality of life,” Cordell said. “Put out a feeder, keep it filled, and even put a bird I.D. poster next to their window. It’ll give that person something beautiful to look at every day.”
To find out more about birds in Missouri, visit on.mo.gov/1Owdbim.
Nature Center Programs
Sometimes it’s difficult to decide what to do. That’s when the Missouri Department of Conservation’s interpretive centers come in handy. Twelve facilities across the state, including nature centers, fish hatcheries, and shooting ranges, provide scheduled programs for all levels of ability and skill.
“Our nature centers are purposed to help people discover nature, no matter the time of the year or the weather,” said Sara Turner, manager of the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center. “We teach many focused skills like building bird houses, tree identification, and how to tap a maple tree. But our facilities also provide trails and exhibits where visitors can come and go and get a general nature experience at their leisure.”
Joy Martin of Winona takes her four children, ages 1, 3, 6, and 8, to Twin Pines Conservation Education Center year-round, but especially in the winter months. Specifically, she appreciates the center’s story-time program for her littlest children and the Nature Nuts program for her older children, which are scheduled simultaneously. However, she said there are many things to do outside of the regularly scheduled programs.
“They have a really large area with several activities, from imagination games, learning activities about what animals are in our area, and their story times are very good,” Martin said. “They also really care about us and it doesn’t matter how many kids are there they always want to see us and help us with anything.”
Most recently, Martin said she and her children learned how to cook game meat around the campfire at Twin Pines. “Then they all got to eat what they cooked,” she said. “It was really fun for them.”
The Department’s nature centers are located in Blue Springs, Cape Girardeau, Jefferson City, Kansas City, Springfield, St. Louis, and Winona. Interpretive centers, fish hatcheries, and staffed gun ranges also provide nature programs for the public. Schedules for these no cost events at the Department’s nature and interpretive centers are located online at mdc.mo.gov/events.
With programs to develop nature art skills, bird watching, fishing, hiking, hunting, and even bow-making, there are activities to meet nearly everyone’s needs.
Take a Hike
If you hang up your hiking boots when temperatures plunge below freezing, you are missing many wonderful opportunities to see Missouri’s outdoor spaces at their most splendid.
While hiking is viewed as a respite from the stress of modern life, winter hiking especially is a way to experience real solitude. Not only are the trails less crowded,
Missouri’s conservation areas and state parks are exquisite when overlaid with silvery drifts of snow. Winter hiking also is a great way to get some exercise while avoiding annoying insects.
People who may feel more comfortable going with a group can contact a nearby
Missouri Department of Conservation Nature Center, since each one offers various opportunities to explore the outdoors.
Darlene Clark and Dennis Mobrice often join Runge Nature Center’s Hiking Club in Jefferson City. On one winter trek, Mobrice noticed an interesting phenomenon under an ice sheet overlaying Turkey Creek.
“You could see air bubbles going by. It was like a lava lamp,” he said.
Clark almost never misses a hike. “In winter you can see frozen waterfalls, and that’s awesome,” she said.
Both enjoy winter’s stark beauty. With the leaves off the trees, it’s easier to see the outline of the landscape.
“You can see the rock formations,” Clark said.
“And sometimes you can see your breath,” interjected Linda Tremain, a Department volunteer who frequently leads hiking groups.
“It’s a different kind of beauty,” Clark added.
“You just feel so energized,” Bruce Berger, another Runge Nature Center volunteer, added. “You leave filled with vitamin ‘N,’ the nature vitamin. Hiking imparts a general sense of wellbeing.”
Walking isn’t the only activity you can engage in on a winter hike. Many people find they enjoy geocaching and letterboxing. With geocaching, participants use a GPS receiver to hide waterproof containers, called “caches,” for seekers to find.
Letterboxing is a similar hobby that combines elements of orienteering, art, and puzzle solving. Clues are printed in catalogs, found on the web, or discovered by word-of-mouth.
A winter hike is also an excellent time to search for shed deer antlers, identify birds and mushrooms, and keep a keen eye out for frost flowers, which aren’t really flowers at all. Delicate ice crystal ribbons form on the lower stems of a few species of Missouri native plants to make frost flowers.
Here are a few tips to make a winter hike safe and comfortable:
- Dress like an onion — in layers. You may feel chilled at the trailhead, but after 15 minutes of brisk movement, you will be surprised at how warm you feel.
- Remember that cotton, once wet, will not keep you warm. Wool is a good alternative. It will keep you warm even when wet.
- Bring appropriate safety gear. It’s always a good idea to have a trail map, first aid kit, compass, multitool, hand-warming packets, and a headlamp.
- Pay attention to the weather, and be prepared to turn back if conditions aren’t favorable.
- Carry a water bottle and stay hydrated.
With a little bit of preparation, trail hiking is easily a four-season activity. Visit mdc.mo.gov/atlas to find a conservation area near you.
Let It Snow
The perfect time to be a nature detective is right after a hard rain or snow. Like us, wildlife must eat, drink, and have shelter of some kind. Knowing those necessities helps determine where to look for signs of wildlife.
Tracks are easy to spot in the snow, but they’re also easily seen in fresh mud. If you don’t see tracks, look for other animal signs like scat or rub marks on trees. Explore the edges of ponds and streams where you might see tracks of muskrats, raccoons, or even otters. Bring along an animal tracks guide book or take a photo of the tracks you see. When you head back inside, use the photos to figure out what left the tracks.
“This activity is especially good for children because it teaches critical thinking and attention to detail,” Sara Turner said. “It’s also a skill they’ll remember when they’re outdoors and use to show off their nature knowledge.” Once children know what they’re looking for, this is an activity they’ll be eager to repeat every winter.
Another fun activity is making snow ice cream. Place a mixing bowl outside on a patio table or bench and let it fill up with snow. This will ensure the snow is clean. When the bowl is full, bring it in and mix in some cream, sugar, and vanilla. Snow ice cream is a rare treat, which makes it a perfect winter family tradition.
Be Prepared and Have Fun
The most effective way to keep winter outings fun is to be prepared — dress appropriately and warm up sufficiently when you get back indoors. Bundle up in layers with gloves and water-resistant boots because cold feet and hands will send you back indoors prematurely. Put hand warmers in your pockets to help you last even longer in the cold. Once back indoors, warm up with something hot to drink.
Whether you take up winter trout fishing, explore nature center opportunities, or get a real-life education in waterfowl identification, winter in Missouri is too rich with activity to stay indoors. For more fun winter ideas, visit mdc.mo.gov.
Snow Ice Cream
Turn fresh-fallen snow into a delicious treat.
- 1 large bowl full of snow
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- ½ cup heavy cream
Place a bowl outside when it begins to snow and let it fill up. When the bowl is full, bring it in and quickly stir in sugar and vanilla. Then add cream slowly and stir until desired consistency. You may need more or less cream depending on amount of snow used. Serve and enjoy.