With less than a month to go before the first bear hunting season in Missouri, the excitement is building for the handful of hunters who were lucky enough to receive notification that they beat the odds in the lottery for permits.
The payoff will come in the third week of October for Richie Cook of Crystal City and his nephew Lucas Breeze of Festus. The anticipation began long before July 9 when they both received letters in the mail indicating that their applications had been selected, and it continues to grow.
“I couldn't believe it when I found out,” Lucas said. “I knew that (Richie) had been chosen, but it seemed like the chances for both of us to be drawn was a long shot.”
Only 400 hunters were selected to participate, and unlike managed-hunt opportunities, both local men had to apply individually rather than as a hunting party. There was little doubt that they would be going together if either one had been selected. Neither has ever hunted bear, but both said they are especially excited to be participating in the first-ever season in the state.
“This season is setting a precedent for years to come. Next year, five years, 10 or 20 years from now, we'll be able to say, ‘We were chosen for the first one,’” Lucas said.
Richie said he was working in a house in Ste. Genevieve when he saw newspaper articles posted by the homeowner about the first archery deer hunting season and the owner’s success as the first person to take a deer with a bow and arrow in the county.
“That stuck with me,” Richie said. “I'm planning on framing the letter I received from the state announcing that I was drawn for the inaugural season.”
The duo has gone fishing and hunting together for years, and Lucas is only 18. They enjoyed many family fishing trips to Missouri’s trout parks before their first hunting excursion together. Lucas was in the blind with his uncle when the mentor took a turkey during archery season.
“I was impressed,” Lucas said. “The next spring he asked me if I wanted to go turkey hunting. I’m not sure I requested it, but I agreed to go.”
The gobbler answered the calls from a ridge across from their blind. He was coming toward them but had to cross a creek before he would be in shotgun range. Richie set Lucas up, with his gun aimed and ready, and instructed him to wait until the turkey came out of the creek bed.
“I looked down for my phone because I wanted to get it on video, then boom, the gun went off. I thought nerves got him and the gun went off, but I looked up and the turkey was flopping on the ground,” Richie said.
Lucas has come a long way since that first shot. His trophy room includes a 15-point buck he killed in 2019. Even bigger bucks fill his hunting dreams, but for now the duo are focused on black bears. They recently scouted two different areas of Mark Twain National Forest and have their plans set for when the season starts.
That scouting expedition was only a small part of their homework in getting ready. They have downloaded GPS maps from the United States Forest Service and their fanny packs and backpacks are loaded with essentials and safety equipment like flashlights, lighters, whistles, and emergency blankets.
“I'm not going to get lost hunting in Ste. Genevieve County, but down there (in the Mark Twain National Forest), that's a different story,” Richie said.
The preparation also included an online education program by the state Department of Conservation and phone calls to the conservation agents and other department employees assigned to the area where they will be hunting.
“They have been so nice and eager to help,” Richie said. “They said, ‘What you see today is not what it will be in the end of October; follow the food sources. The bears in Missouri have no natural predators, and no one has ever hunted them before.’”
Both hunters have their permits, but they will be hunting as a team and Richie plans to let Lucas take the first shot.
“One bear is enough for both of us,” Richie said.
Field dressing, butchering and preparing the meat for the table also has been part of the planning.
“You can eat anything. You just have to find the right recipe,” Lucas said.
“Garlic and butter,” Richie added. “And there is always Oberle,” he said in reference to the Ste. Genevieve County meat processor.
Unregulated hunting in the state prior to 1900 almost wiped out the native black bear population. Migrants from a reintroduction program in Arkansas and natural reproduction in the thick forests in the southern part of the state has the growing bear count estimated at nearly 1,000.
The scheduled 10-day hunting season opens Oct. 18. A harvest quota of 40 bears statewide will determine if the season makes it to the last day, Oct. 27. Hunters must call in the night before hunting, and if the quota has been reached, the season will close early.
Even if they don’t fill their tags, Breeze and Cook are excited for this adventure and ready for their next.
John Winkelman is Marketing Director for Liguori Publications near Barnhart, Mo., and the Associate Editor for Outdoor Guide Magazine. If you have story ideas to share for the Leader outdoor news page, e-mail email@example.com, and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.