Hunting is a woven tradition. People seek food, adventure, and freedom in nature’s wild places. Along the way, they gather cherished memories shared with family and friends. Sunrises and sunsets blend with clouds, rains, and blue skies remembered along with good shots and misses.
The people who go afield in the harvest season to hunt are varied, as is the wild game they pursue.
Bryan and Beth Lukehart are building memories with their two young sons while deer hunting in northwest Missouri. In November, a wood-heated, one-room homemade cabin becomes the center of their family life. They spend mornings watching fields for white tailed deer. Midday may find them scouting for tracks and signs in the woods and field edges. Venison graces their dinner table in the months that follow.
Frank Loncarich is teaching his son about bobwhite quail hunting, in company with the father who taught him. They hunt the prairies and weedy crop field borders of southwest Missouri. The safety and sportsmanship lessons are matched with learning wing shooting skills and a naturalist’s eye for good habitat for grassland birds, such as quail.
Neely “Butch” Mitchell Jr. of Hayti is a self-taught duck and goose hunter on the Mississippi River backwaters and the flooded rice fields of southeast Missouri. He passed what he learned in his youth along to his children, and now he’s helping his son and daughter give his grandchildren a hunting tradition.
They all share a passion for an immersion in nature that hunters feel amid forests, meadows, and marshes. Game is killed on some hunts, while on others, none may be seen or shot. Always though, the surroundings and companions are remembered. Butch Mitchell sharpened his duck calling skills by visiting marshes in spring, when hunting season is closed, and listening to waterfowl on a stopover while migrating to northern nesting grounds.
“Sometimes I would just roll over on my back and listen to them, hear the tempo and the sounds,” he said. “That taught me.”
A Family Deer Camp
Before sunrise, the Lukehart family stirs in the cabin Bryan Lukehart built on his family’s farm northwest of Jamesport. November chill during the regular firearms deer season often puts white frost on crop fields and wooded draws surrounding the cabin. They ready four rifles, don warm clothes and blaze orange.
“We’re up early getting the kids out of bed and going,” Beth Lukehart said. “We decide which hunting stands we’ll be at. We usually hunt with one kid per parent.”
Tucker, 7, shot his first deer during the 2018 youth season. Austin, 12, has killed a half-dozen deer in his young career. The land and the family’s hunting tradition are intertwined.
“My grandpa took me deer hunting when I was Austin’s age,” Bryan said. “He took me and my brother, and my hunting just kind of went on from there.”
Bryan and Beth met and married in Kearney, but they now live near St. Joseph. He is a welder; she is a dental hygienist. Hunting was a shared interest when they met in high school. Later, amid an icy wind, he proposed marriage as they sat together deer hunting from an archery tree stand. She said yes.
“It’s worked out, here we are,” Beth said, as the family watched for deer in fields last autumn from an elevated wood hunting blind Bryan built. “My grandpa took us to get our hunter education certification when we all turned 11,” she said. “I grew up hunting, too.”
The family celebrates when a hunter among them kills a deer. But they also enjoy time together watching nature from the hunting blinds or exploring. Sometimes they just watch deer pass by.
“I just like being out in nature,” Bryan said. “I love being out here and feeling like you’re in your own world.”
The Lukehart family harvests several deer annually to put meat in the freezer and stretch the family’s food budget.
“We don’t buy much red meat,” Beth said. “We try to fill up our freezer with venison, and that’s what we eat on all year.”
Hunting also provides life lessons for their sons.
“The boys know where their food comes from,” she said. “I think it’s nice that they have this legacy that can be passed down and they have this contact with conservation.”
A Bobwhite Legacy
Stella and Ace, English setter bird dogs, ran last autumn among golden grasses at MDC’s Providence Prairie Conservation Area (CA), west of Springfield. Three generations of quail hunters followed. Quail hunting is an athletic endeavor. Bird dogs run back and forth amid the grasses and wildflowers made dormant by frost. Hunters walk behind, grasses and briers swishing against their legs. They walk and then walk some more, noting summer’s leftover seeds and flower stalks, or the tangled blackberry and sumac patches that need to be kicked to make sure they do not hide a covey of quail the dogs have not scented.
“Dad, she’s birdy over here,” said Frank Loncarich. His dog, Stella, was moving slowly among grasses on the other side of a cattle fence, her nose close to the ground. “That’s where I got a covey up last time. If birds flush wild, we won’t shoot.”
The hunters paused, but no quail flushed. Both bird dogs trotted back to the prairie and headed west with the hunters trailing.
Frank Loncarich grew up quail hunting, which led to his career as a MDC wildlife management biologist. His father, James Loncarich, was raised in a quail hunting family, too. Ace is his newest bird dog. Together they are passing the bobwhite tradition along to Frank’s son, Caleb Loncarich, 14. They live in Goodman.
“I grew up in McDonald County, and we had bird dogs ever since I was a child,” James said. “If there was any light left after school, I’d unchain the pointer, and we’d go hunting. I’ve been around bird dogs all my life.”
The hunters turned north, following a shallow swale with cover thick enough to hide quail from predators but with running room at ground level. Prairies, particularly grazed prairies, have a grass and forb mix that give quail and other grassland birds good habitat for nesting, feeding, and roosting.
Autumn frosts drop leaves and thin grasses, revealing things hidden in summer, like an intricately woven bird nest on sumac limbs. “I like to be outside,” said Caleb, in his first year of hunting. “That bird nest, I wasn’t expecting to see things like that.”
His father reinforced safe gun handling skills before the hunting season began, things young hunters also learn in MDC’s hunter education program. They practiced wing shooting with clay pigeons.
On this day, they walked some yards apart, carrying shotguns and wearing blaze orange caps and hunting gear. The dogs ran ahead, into the breeze, better for them to smell quail and freeze on point to alert hunters. If quail are shot and downed, a good bird dog helps find and retrieve them. Hunters hold a reverence for nature’s life and death cycles, and their brief role in that cycle. They respect the soil, water, and ancient natural processes that produce the quail and all life. They enjoy the interactions.
“I like to watch the dogs work, mainly,” James said. “I like it when they hit scent. You can see them tense up. They get down low. Their eyes are trained on the source. If quail flush when you step in, it’s a pretty wild event.”
No burst of fluttering, whirring wings from quail taking flight were heard on this hunt, despite good habitat. Sometimes quail are in other fields, or they move quickly upon hearing hunters entering a field.
“I just enjoy getting out and watching the dogs,” James said. “It wouldn’t be as much fun without the dogs. But quail are pretty good table fare, too.”
Passing Along Waterfowl Lore
Some hunters start traditions. A flash of nature’s beauty makes them want to understand the wild things, and that becomes the challenge. Neely “Butch” Mitchell’s duck and goose hunting career began that way in the Mississippi River lowlands. A retired high school English, speech, and drama teacher, he’s also passing hunting skills to new generations.
Butch’s father hunted rabbits that were chased by baying beagles. He remembers when as a little boy he first got to walk behind his father in a field on a hunt. Cotton stalks whacked him in the face. His father shot a rabbit, and his mom took a photograph of a beaming father and son with the rabbit outside their house.
But waterfowl hunting became Butch’s passion. As a youth, he and his father were rabbit hunting in an area of what is now MDC’s Black Island CA in Missouri’s Bootheel.
“There was a slough holding water, a place adjacent to Robinson Lake that was heavily timbered,” Butch said. “We were approaching to get closer to the lake when mallards flushed. It was a brilliant sunny morning. I can still see those iridescent green heads as they lifted, and hear the hens quacking. That was just the most remarkable experience. I marveled at how beautiful they were.”
As a teen, he would stand amid willows on Mississippi River sandbars at sunrise, hoping to get a shot at ducks. He progressed to using decoys and store-bought duck calls.
“From then on, duck hunting became my main objective,” Butch said. “One individual took an interest in me. He was a well-known duck caller. He’d blow his call and I’d replicate. I was pretty much self-taught by trial and error. But regarding when to call and when not to call, the ducks taught me that.”
When his son, Neely Mitchell III, got old enough to hunt, Butch built two pit blinds near the Mississippi, “one for him and one for me. We were sort of a team. He became a good goose hunter. Sometimes I’d just sit in the tree line and watch him and his friends hunt, that was enough for me.”
Over the decades, Butch began crafting high-quality duck calls of his own designs. He and his son hunted ducks, deer, geese, and turkeys together. Now, he’s helping to teach his grandkids the art of duck calling and skills, such as proper decoy placement.
“My grandson is blowing on a little duck call I made for him,” Butch said. “And my daughter, Tonya Boyd, her daughter has hunted with us as well.”
Waterfowl hunting has changed over time in the Bootheel. Duck blinds for hunters now line flooded rice fields that replaced soybean fields as farming adapted to markets. But when the water levels are right, Butch prefers the old ways of hunting in flooded backwaters along the Mississippi River.
“The ducks are still beautiful,” he said. “We keep calling them and working them. I like the anticipation and the camaraderie, especially with my family members. You’re sharing a love that means a great deal to everyone involved. Many times, we don’t even fire a shot. But we’re always grateful for being together, and we know the time will come when the ducks will show up, the dogs will work well, and things are as they should be.”