By Bill Cooper
Hunting has been an important part of my life since early childhood. I grew up on a small family farm in southeast Missouri. We were poor, like most farm families raising cotton, corn, and soybeans. Dad kept a milk cow, chickens and pigs for fresh dairy, eggs, and a meat supply.
However, the local woods and waters were also a steady source for fish and wild game for our dinner table. The time we spent together hunting and fishing as a family served as an important source of recreation for us. I cherish the memories we made together.
I’m now in a new stage of outdoor adventures. My 10-year-old grandson, Ronnie Cooper Austin, and I spend as much time outdoors together as possible. He and his mother, Rose, lived with Dian and me for several years. That time gave Ronnie and me ample time to form a strong bond. We played outside incessantly, sometimes at the chagrins of mom and grandma. As a duo, Ronnie and I could track in an astounding amounts of mud, dirt, and leaves. They did shower us down with the water hose a few times, however, before we were allowed to enter the back garage. There they often left us a change of clothes hanging on the wall.
Ronnie soon developed into a fine fishermen, capable of handling a spinning rod far better than youngsters much older than him. He cut his fishing teeth on giant bluegill and hard fighting largemouth bass. We did most of our fishing at farm ponds and small lakes, where the fish were plentiful and the action remained fast. His love of fishing grew quickly and his skills improved steadily.
I love to smallmouth fish on our Ozark streams and have long kept a jet boat in the garage for the river fishing adventures.
Ronnie and his mother eventually moved to St. Charles, two hours from St. James. Ronnie and I both were heart broken, but knew it was a necessary move. We vowed to spend our summers together.
Rose laid down the rules about what Ronnie and I could do for summer adventures, well knowing that we loved to stretch the bar just a bit. Understanding that she wasn’t covered by the error of omissions, Ronnie and I kept a sharp eye out for any possible adventure, which suited our fancy.
We had been warned about taking the boat out on big waters. The ocean was certainly too far away, and we reckoned that the Missouri and Mississippi were off limits. Lake of the Ozarks, Truman, Stockton and all the big lakes fell in the no-can-do category as well.
As luck would have it, the second summer Ronnie came to spend with me happened to be particularly dry. We swam in the Meramec about every other day. We watched as the summer waters grew skinnier and skinnier. We reasoned, with our combined brain power, that we should search for new waters.
Without referencing mom, we decided to go check out the Gasconade. The only way we could properly scout the river was via jet boat. And no one in their right mind would take a jet boat to the Gasconade without fishing rods in tow. Away we went, complete with lunch and watermelon.
We put in at Belle Chute near Vienna, the sight of many bass fishing tournaments. I had filmed numerous Cowtown USA tournaments there and knew the river fairly well.
The Gasconade is fairly wide at Belle Chute and Ronnie showed his awe at the size of the water. “This is a big river,” Ronnie had said.
“Not that big,” I had said in self-defense.
We fished for the first 30 minutes in the long hole at the Belle Chute Access. Ronnie caught the first smallmouth, which he let me know about. Fishing did prove slow, so I told him to tighten his life jacket. I brought the boat up on plane and we headed upriver. Ronnie smiled from ear to ear as we sped upstream. Mom would have cringed, had she known what we were doing.
We saw eagles, deer, otters, and other river critters as we enjoyed our jet boat ride. Only once did we scrape the gravel bottom, even though the water proved very skinny in several places.
Seven miles upriver we began floating back. Ronnie soon nailed an 18-inch smallmouth, a true trophy in anyone’s book. We stopped several times to swim, have lunch and eat our watermelon. We were in paradise and spent the entire day there.
On the way home, Ronnie asked if he had bragging rights for the day. “Sure,” I said. “But, along with bragging rights, you get to tell your mom what we did today when you show her the picture of that big fish!” Bigger eyes I’ve never seen.
Fast forward a few years. Ronnie never showed much interest in hunting until this youth deer season. He asked to hunt. I was thrilled at the chance to take him. I keep good quality food plots that attract good numbers of deer.
He came on Friday with intentions of staying until Monday. However, his plans got cut short. We did a quick hunt Saturday morning with no success. Then mom called and said she would pick him up at three. Then pick up time fell back to 5 p.m.
We hustled out to the ground blind and arrived at 4 p.m. At 4:10 p.m. two young does popped into the food plot. I urged Ronnie to wait on a big doe, but his excitement got the best of him. He fixed his sights on the biggest of the two does and fired.
“You got it,” I yelled. I’ll never forget the look on his face. And I thought hunting when I was a kid was fun. Nothing like watching my grandson take his very first deer.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award winning outdoor writer and inductee of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Outdoor Communicator. He is the host of the Living the Dream Outdoors Podcast, which can be found on most social media platforms. He lives in rural St. James and can be followed at www.facebook.com/ outsidealways.