Sunday, January 9, 2011

Deer Hunting in the Missouri Ozarks—A Slack Family Tradition

As far back as I can remember deer hunting has been a major part of the Slack family tradition in Southwest Missouri. The patriarch of the maternal side of my family, Ellsworth Woodrow Slack (b. 16 March 1914, d. 4 March 1996) shown above with a trophy buck taken in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, was the undisputed pack leader when it came to the annual hunt based out of his humble little cabin in Taney County, Missouri. While my grandfather is no longer with us, the changing of the leaves and the first crisp breeze of fall still reminds me of his favorite time of the year, and the many deer hunting stories he loved telling anyone who would listen. Ellsworth loved fishing, but he lived for deer hunting.

Little known outside the family is that Ellsworth was quite accomplished at his favorite sport. Back in November 1994 the Missouri Conservationist published an article by Joan McKee titled: “Open Season, Nov. 3&4, 1944”, on the history of deer hunting in Missouri. My grandfather was one of the contributors to that article and provided the following on his first deer hunt that fall:

I hunted the first deer season in Missouri and killed a nice eight-point buck.  I have bought tags and hunted every year since.  I also bow hunted some years.  Old age has caught up with me.  I am 80 years old.  I guess it is time to hang up my rifle and watch the deer run through the back yard.  Anyone who has not deer hunted does not know what they have missed.  I killed my first buck near Cedar Creek and the last one in my back yard.
As the Missouri Conservationist article went on to say, Ellsworth Slack was one of the successful hunters that first season in 1944. Only about 8 percent of those who purchased tags or 583 hunters out of 7,557 managed to take a deer that year.

Ellsworth was also quoted in an article by Brent Frazee published in the Kansas City Star, on November 13, 1994. The article, entitled, “Recalling deer hunts of 50 years” began with:

No one had to draw Ellsworth Slack a picture. He knew what a deer looked like. Or at least he thought he did.

Before he walked into the woods on that cold day in 1944, Slack had never even seen one. He just had a rough idea of what the creature looked like, through photos in magazines and books.

But in his eyes, that air of mystery only added to the excitement surrounding Missouri’s first deer season.

“You have to understand what it was like back in those days,” said Slack, 80 of Kissee Mills, Mo. “There weren’t deer everywhere like there are now. Deer were few and far between.

“It was a big deal if you just saw tracks back then. If you saw a deer, you were really something.

“To be able to go out and hunt them, that was a big deal for us. It was a season I’ll never forget.”

Other hunters share that felling of nostalgia. As Missouri celebrates its golden anniversary of deer hunting, only a few can say that they were there from the start.

Even fewer can claim the success that Slack did. As he sat in the ravine deep in the Ozarks that first season, he watched his dream materialize.

“There were a lot of hunters out, but no one knew what they were doing. Deer hunting was new to us,” he said. “Everybody was out in the woods tromping around, just hoping to kick one out. I decided to just stay put.”

“Pretty soon, a guy on the other side of the hill jumped one up and I looked up and saw it running straight toward me, really carrying the mail.

“I had to look real close to make sure it was a deer. I shot and had an eight-point buck in the first 30 minutes of the season.”

Slack has hunted every year since and has enjoyed many memorable days in the woods. He has watched Missouri’s deer herd grow to the point where he can literally hunt in his backyard in the Ozarks and stand a chance of shooting a big buck.

But no experience was more special for Slack than the first time out.

‘I’ve still got he horns from that first deer hanging on the wall,” Slack said. “I wanted something to remember that deer by.”
One of the more interesting things Ellsworth Slack didn’t mention in the Kansas City Star article was the sheer volume of gunfire in the woods during those first few deer seasons—especially automatic weapons fire! He wasn’t sure what a lot of the hunters were shooting at during those early seasons, but there was plenty of machine gun fire mixed in with regular rifle shots. My grandfather used to love to recall the unnerving sound of rapid-fire weapons that permeated the air back in those early days. No doubt the result of GI’s who spirited home souvenirs following World War II. Those first few deer seasons were a little scary for my grandfather, so he tried not to move around much for fear of being shot!

Another little known fact of my grandfather’s hunting prowess is that he held the record for the largest buck taken in Taney County up to 1950. The article below, from the Springfield Leader and Press, November 29, 1950 chronicles that achievement:

One of my proudest possessions is the set of horns from that 1950 deer hunt (photo below). My grandfather mounted the horns on a board and positioned it above the fireplace at his cabin where it remained for many years. Invariably, every deer season, he would recount the story of bagging that buck near the Pilot Mountains in Taney County. With most of my Grandfather’s stories that one got more colorful each time it was told, but it’s one of the things that made it so special.

In those early years when deer were scarce, Ellsworth talked about the creatures as if they were ghosts. I came to understand what he meant, because in the 1960’s and early 1970’s when I was a boy, deer were still a challenge to find. Whenever we did see one it became the topic of conversation for many days. With that, strategy and a healthy dose of patience was a must in hunting deer, and Ellsworth passionately preached both.

My grandfather taught me how to track deer and what to expect when hunting them. He was, as the Kansas City Star article implied, a classic “ambush” hunter in every sense of the word. The only way to hunt deer, in his opinion, was to study when and where they traveled, and find the best location to sit and wait. As far as he was concerned, let the other hunters in the woods stomp around and scare up the deer. Sit tight and a deer is bound to happen by sooner or later. It was a great strategy, and the way we always hunted, but sitting patiently in freezing weather waiting for deer that may not come along takes some serious motivation!

I also believe Ellsworth had a more practical reason for sitting and waiting for the dear to amble by—it was safer, especially when it came to teaching his grandchildren how to hunt. The magic age to deer hunt with my grandfather was 11. I have no idea why he picked that age, but he was adamant about it.

As a youngster, the first few years of deer hunting with my grandfather were quite an education. He would start off his pupil with a .20 gauge single-shot shotgun and lot’s of instruction. The budding hunter had to prove that the weapon could be safely handled (he was rightly big on safety) and accurately fired. I personally believe that it was around age 11 that my cousins and I stopped fearing the roar and kick of that shotgun, at least enough to actually hit what we were aiming at!

Most of my experience hunting with my grandfather actually happened during my college years. I usually took the 4-day SMSU break in October to go bow hunting with him. Ellsworth loved to bow hunt during that time of the year, because the weather was usually more agreeable. Together, we had a lot of fun, even though we weren’t very productive hunters. Neither one of us was particularly good with a bow.

The average hunting day with my grandfather generally started around 4:00 a.m. with a cup of coffee and a hearty breakfast. After bundling up for a day of shivering (sometimes it seemed that way), we would grope around in the dark on our way to our appointed deer stand. That was one of the advantages to hunting in what was essentially my grandfather’s back yard. He had hundreds of acres of forested land—some private, some public surrounding his little cabin. I grew up familiarizing myself with the trails that snaked through the “hills and hollers” around his cabin, at least enough to find my way around in the dark.

Incidentally, Ellsworth didn’t care to hunt out of a tree or elevated stand, so he would individually place each person in the hunting party on their appointed stand, usually up against a tree and next to a trail. He felt that hunting from an elevated stand was not sporting, and far too easy. He liked to get up close to the deer and rarely hunted in or around an open field.

Ellsworth loved to track and analyze how deer moved around the woods. I fondly recall countless hours of tactical hunting conversation and instructional walks in the woods prior to the opening days of a number of deer seasons. He would frequently emphasize how acute their senses are and how difficult the challenge is in getting close to them. He also showed me how to read their tracks as well.

Interestingly, my grandfather didn’t care for using a rifle with a telescopic sight on it. He couldn’t see the advantage of using one other than hunting in an open area. As far as he was concerned, unless the hunter was a great shot, then the chances were high that the deer could be wounded and die hidden in the brush. Ellsworth felt strongly that losing a wounded deer was tantamount to a sin, and he would tell that, in his normal animated fashion, to anyone who cared to listen.

During any given hunting day, we would typically sit on “our stand” until lunchtime unless we got off a shot. My grandfather believed that once a shot rang out or an arrow let loose, it was time to relocate, because the deer would be scared away for many hours. There was no doubt some truth to that, but nevertheless it was the way we hunted.

Around noon, my grandfather would quietly reappear out of the brush, and we would sit down to wonderful homemade sandwiches and other goodies lovingly packed by my grandmother. Oddly enough, even though we made a lot of noise eating, we would usually whisper or talk in very low tones. No telling what might walk by! Ellsworth had his rules, and we followed them. If we were close to the cabin, then we would walk back to a wonderful lunch courtesy of my grandmother Louise Slack. However, after one of her wonderful meals, it was tough to get off the couch and wonder back into the woods!

Hunting with my grandfather was another occasion to combine our other mutual hobby—radio. Ellsworth was a passionate amateur and citizens band radio enthusiast, and he passed the hobby on to me! Back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s we would enter the woods armed with, among other things—citizen’s band radios! We each carried a bulky hand-held, battery-operated walkie-talkie with a small earplug jammed in our ears. Like clockwork, every thirty minutes throughout the hunting day, I would briefly turn on my radio and give my grandfather a short, whispered situation report. He would do likewise along with a few quiet words of encouragement—he was always optimistic that the next trophy was heading our way. Additionally, since he was usually nearby, reception was generally not a problem. We may not have enhanced our chances of seeing a deer while chatting on the radio, but we both came to enjoy that part of the hunt as much as the hunt itself.

With age, as Ellsworth Slack mentioned in the Missouri Conservationist article, he slowly converted from hunting deer to mostly observing them from his front window and back porch. He became a passionate advocate for conversation practices (at least within his family) and was a staunch supporter of hunter education and safety. I learned a lot from my grandfather through our deer hunting expeditions and attribute a great deal of my love for nature and the outdoors to him.

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