A Life’s Journey

Over the past two years, I have taken up the hobby of writing about my hunting and fishing adventures.  Becoming a member of the Missouri Outdoor Communicators in 2013 helped me develop my skills and opened doors I never thought possible.  I have been humbled to spend time with and learn from some of the greatest outdoor authors and photographers the industry has seen.  I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for their guidance and mentorship.

Before I joined, my writing was simply an outlet to entertain and tell others about “me” and my experiences.  However, I’ve realized now there is an opportunity to turn my passion into something more meaningful.

Some who know me and have read my work might think writing and expressing myself comes easily.  I can assure you that is not the case.  To illustrate my point, it isn’t uncommon for me to spend hours refining one or two paragraphs in a story because it didn’t convey exactly how I felt.  But that is a necessary evil if I am to show others how the great outdoors, in all of its wildness and simplicity, can be so meaningful and important to all of us no matter the degree of our involvement in it.

When facing a pivotal choice to start something new, it is natural for us to weigh the pros and cons, to consult others, and to constantly second guess ourselves.  What will be the consequences of the decision?  What will others think if things go wrong?  What will they think if I fail?  Those are all questions we ponder.  And honestly, going through that process is a lot like writing a story.  There will always be a million reasons why you shouldn’t do it, but all that is necessary is one good reason to outweigh the others.

Every day, I think of new ideas for stories to share.  I contemplate what message it will send.  I think about whether my thoughts are even worth sharing.  What’s the point? Should I just give up writing?  Or, should I give up my job and write full-time to spread my thoughts and ideas to the masses?  So many questions sparked out of one simple idea for a story.  Every time these questions arise, I find one thing to be universally true.  The hardest part of any decision is also the simplest one: ignoring the reasons to say no and just doing it.

On a freezing, December day in 2013, I sat at my bedroom desk, casually scrolling through Facebook, not unlike other procrastinating college students.  Finals were upon me, but my focus was drawn to more pressing matters, like the photos on my Facebook home page from the past weekend’s “extracurricular” activities.  And I’ll admit, with only one semester remaining to graduate with my Accounting/Finance degree, I was showing symptoms of the well-documented “senior slide”.

After completing several internships and holding some notable positions within campus organizations, it seemed I had everything figured out for my future options after graduation.  But that was not the case.  Nothing I did up to that point revealed a direction I wanted to go in life.

I felt lost.  But a feeling of guilt grew even more.  I hated not having an answer for my friends and family about my next steps.  I can only assume those around me expected me to take the usual route of a college graduate by entering corporate America.  I despised that notion, not because of any bad experiences, but because I felt different.  A feeling that I was meant for something else had been building inside me.

Yet here I was, given so much support, still feeling I had nothing to show in return.  I had years to figure out my calling and now only a few short months remained.  Even with many opportunities and amazing contacts, I felt stuck at ground zero.

Dread and uncertainty overwhelmed me.

Suddenly, an email alert appeared in the corner of my screen.  The message was from the Executive Director of the Missouri Outdoor Communicators, Larry Whiteley.  Larry had been the voice of Bass Pro radio for many years.  He informed me the inaugural Missouri Outdoor Communicator Cast and Blast was taking place that coming April, and I was invited.

The event was going to be spectacular.  I would get to enjoy several days of hunting and fishing in Eminence, MO with outdoor industry rock stars like Ray Eye, Alex Rutledge, Brent Frazee, Brandon Butler and many more.  Sponsors like Mossy Oak and Remington would also be there.  Best of all, the lodging and meals were completely covered.  It was a no brainer.  I had to do this!

But the reasons to say no began popping into my head.  The event would take place April 29-May 1, which meant I would miss several classes right around the finals period.  My fraternity had events during that time I didn’t think I should miss.  Ryan Miloshewski, who joined the organization with me, would not be able to attend either.  My inclination was to respectfully decline the offer.

I replied and informed Larry of my concerns.  Within minutes, I had another message.

“Call in sick if you have fraternity events buddy,” Larry said.  “You will be the last one.  I really feel it could be very important for you and what you are doing but I need to know as quickly as possible.”

His response surprised me.  All my life, I was told by everyone my full priority should be school and building my résumé through its organizations.  Find an internship and land a secure, salaried job they said.  Well I did all of that, and it left me feeling empty and unfulfilled.  Larry seemed to recognize this about me.  And now his words pushed me in a new direction, ultimately shaping my outlook from that point forward.  I could not, and should not, suppress an opportunity to pursue what I was truly passionate about.  Within moments of his reply, I realized this pivotal time of my life didn’t have room for saying no.

It was time to just do it.

Four Months Later, MOC Cast & Blast, Eminence, MO –

Standing in the valley along the Current River, I reminded myself to breathe as I stood in the suffocating darkness. It was pitch black. Had I moved a knife through the air around me, it is quite possible I would have parted the night in two. Billy Smith, a Shannon County native, stood beside me. He would be my turkey hunting partner and guide this day. We waited patiently for the sunrise to embark along the river on our Ozark Mountain turkey hunting expedition.

Suddenly, all was quiet. Wind ceased.  Yet, a cold chill descended upon us. It penetrated to my bones and ran up my spine. Hundreds of thoughts and questions ran through my mind about the day in store, but I remained mostly silent. When I spoke, I felt I was disrupting something sacred. The only appropriate thing for the situation was simply to listen and revere what I was taking in.

I closed my eyes. My other senses heightened.

“I’m finally here,” I thought.  How could I have ever chosen to stay in Kansas City for class over this?  This is what I was meant for.  This is where I was meant to be.  A voice cut through the darkness and broke my trance.

“You ready, Tyler?”

I’ve been ready for this moment my entire life…

“Hell yes,” I replied.

Billy expertly backed the boat into the water and we were soon on our way, the trolling motor guiding us as we floated downriver. As we drifted, small pockets of fog floated along the top of the water like gliding spirits. The brisk breeze over the water stung my cheeks.

Even in the dim light of the early morning, the gray, brown, and green colors of the rocks and foliage below the water’s surface were clearly visible.  Birds awakened, their songs carrying through the river valley.  A whippoorwill called high on the mountain above us.

There was not another soul on the river besides us.  The hum of the trolling motor was the only unnatural sound for miles.  The water collided and bounced off the side of the boat, creating the feeling we were journeying into an unexplored land for the very first time.  A sensation of nervous excitement crept over me.

Click photos to enlarge

Guide Billy Smith looks on as we navigate along the river during our Eminence, MO turkey hunting trip.

Click photos to enlarge.

Then, a thunderous echo cascaded through the valley from the mountain above.  The chase for an Ozark mountain gobbler was on.

We parked the boat and wasted no time scrambling up the steep mountainside to get in position.  It was only the night before I learned Billy had a prosthetic leg just below one of his knees, something he’d lived with for most of his life.  I didn’t know what to expect from him before heading out that morning, but quickly realized saying he “lived with” such a condition would be an injustice to him; an unfair classification.  He climbed the mountain with me every step of the way.  His desire for the chase was as pure as mine.

My guide Billy Smith climbed up the mountain so well you’d have never known a prosthetic was hidden in his boot. His positive attitude about life was infectious. What a truly inspirational person to meet and accompany on a turkey hunt.

At last, we made it to the top of a nearly 300 foot ascent.  Having gone virtually straight up the entire way, I was exhausted, struggling to catch my breath.  My legs singed with pain.  Billy moved on up the ridge behind me, hoping to draw the gobbler directly past me by imitating a hen playing hard to get.  I looked around the surrounding forest.  It was thick with massive, ancient oaks presenting ample ambush opportunities. I spied the perfect spot and hunkered in close to one of the giant oaks.  A rocky outcropping protruded from the ground in front of me.  Minutes passed and a light rain broke through the thick canopy above.  The mountain gobbler sounded off again and his echo had disappeared.  He was close.

Suddenly, amongst the vibrant greens of the forest, a brilliant red head appeared from behind the rocks. The dark, black body of a mature tom came into view at 60 yards. He stopped and scanned the woods. I purred with my mouth call, followed by a string of quiet yelps.  He approached a few more steps.  My safety clicked off and he approached further.

Then, his head raised and cocked in the opposite direction.  I focused my sight and hearing, hoping to determine what could possibly be distracting him; my worst nightmare, it turns out.  Faint yelps descended from farther up the ridge.  I called louder, hoping to draw his attention back towards me, but it was futile.  He decided he had higher standards, and moved on to more promising prospects.

It was the first of many close encounters I would have with the elusive Ozark gobblers over the next two days, but could never connect. By the end, I saw why Ray Eye developed the moniker “mountain ghosts” for these incredible birds.

Fellow turkey hunting partner and journalist for the Rural Missouri Magazine, Jason Jenkins, captured a photo of me trying to strike up a gobbler with my Primos crystal slate call.

While the turkeys had me emotionally drained and at wit’s end, it was the best turkey hunting experience of my life. More importantly, attending the trip was perhaps the best decision I have ever made.

For two days, I hunted turkeys and explored the waters of the Current and Jacks Fork River with veteran outdoorsmen like Billy Smith and Ron Kruger. Below the water’s surface, an exhilarating surprise lurked behind every boulder with smallmouth bass and chain pickerel, otherwise known as “grass pike”, ready to strike.  At one point, I was dangling my lure next to the boat as we neared shore when a pickerel launched itself from the grass and struck.  I was so startled that I yanked the rod tip up out of sheer reaction.  It turns out my action was so quick the hook never set in the mouth of the fish.  But because his bite was so strong, I pulled him out of the water and he flew into the air about 5 feet above me.  You can only imagine how much more startled Billy was when the fish landed in his lap!  What a spectacle to behold.

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One of the many “grass pike” I caught during our trip on the river. Photo by Ron Kruger.
My guide Billy Smith admiring one of the smallmouth bass we caught on our tube jigs.

But the excitement didn’t end there. I also witnessed the birthplace of the Missouri Elk Restoration Project at the legendary Peck Ranch and met outdoor professionals like Brent Frazee and Alex Rutledge, who I grew up reading and watching. I also spent time with local leaders like Eminence Mayor Jim Anderson, shared stories and laughs with good friends like Larry Whiteley and Brandon Butler, and many more.

We made a quick detour to view the Blue Spring a quarter mile off the river. It was a deep, chalky blue that was clear the first several feet, but quickly became thick in color to see through.
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One of the better smallmouth I caught on the trip. We hauled in several 2-3 pounders. Photo by Ron Kruger

I feel like too many people use the word “surreal” when describing how they feel about certain situations they find themselves in. But that is truly how I felt, and how it still feels a year later. What I experienced seemed unreal and impossible at my young age.  Never did I imagine what listening to my heart and just doing it, rather than listening to my brain, would do for me and allow me to experience.

Before I left, the only thing Billy Smith, who guided me the whole trip, asked of me was this: “Make sure others know about this place and come experience it.  Encourage them to come live it and touch it as we did.  Most of all, make sure they take care of it so it can be preserved for all the generations after us.”

I obviously hope this story has sparked enough excitement for each of its readers to seriously consider visiting the area in the future. But Billy’s words were profound to me for another reason as well.  They conveyed an undying passion and dedication for his roots and showed the influence a place can have on someone’s life.

The thought of my struggle to identify my life’s calling entered my thoughts. But suddenly, it all seemed so clear. Capturing that moment of emotion, the adventure, and the intrigue a place like Eminence and many others can provide is what I want and feel compelled to do.  I have to do it. In so doing, maybe I can keep the experiences, legends, and most importantly, the passion for the outdoors, alive in people I know and others I may never meet.

I began my drive home from Eminence with no turkey to show for my efforts. But that didn’t matter.  This wasn’t just an end to another hunting trip. It was the beginning of a life’s journey.


For more information about making your own trip to the Eminence area, check out the following links:


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