Missouri Public Land Sora Rail Hunt

I recently invited my fellow Mo BHA board member and good buddy Frank Petraglia to come up from the city and experience a unique public land hunt that most other Missourians overlook or flat out don’t know about... Public land Sora Rail hunt.

*Full disclosure though, this is a very physically challenging hunt and is virtually impossible without waders and a few good hunting dogs. The land sometimes is a stop for a few rare endangered birds, so be careful and study up on local regulations.*

6:00 am, the sun is coming up and the coffee is starting to brew. I look out the window of my house and notice the thick fog rolling off the Mississippi River is exceptionally robust this morning. Typically the view out my window overlooks the river bottoms, but the fog makes it feel like a suburban house with a 6 ft privacy fence! The area I look out on use to once be a lush marshland. But as the railroad come down from Clarksville in the late 1800’s, towns were founded every four miles and the marshy swampland where the town of Elsberry now sits was dried up and cultivated into the rich farmlands that now house cornfields, soy beans and duck clubs…lots of duck clubs!

Growing up in the small town of Elsberry (located about an hour north of St. Louis), I never really understood what those brown conservation area signs were all about. All I knew is maybe they were a place for folks to hike on? Or to hunt there you had to follow a bunch of strenuous rules? It was a mystery that didn’t warrant exploring because we always had private land to hunt on, so why bother right?

Well, fast-forward nearly 2 decades, 4 moves, 3 kids and life has brought me back to this small town. I am not only a little bit older now, but a little bit wiser and now understand what those brown signs are all about! I have hunted and hiked on public lands here in Missouri and out west a lot since leaving home at 18. I now fully understand what we have, what we have lost and what we have to lose. I am 100% in love with our public lands and will spend the rest of my days using them and fighting for them.

The coffee is done and I finish packing up the truck to go meet Frank and my brother in-law Andrew Howard at the trailhead, I take a quick glance at my Instagram feed which is full of folks posting about dove hunting and I almost feel sorry for them. Sure dove hunting is great, but it is like comparing whitetail tree stand hunting to spot and stalk elk hunting, both are great, but we can all agree some hunts have a little more adventure than others. That is what a public land Sora Rail hunt has over dove hunting, a little more action, no crowds, and a lot of sore muscles at the end of the day!

I am the first to arrive at the trailhead, the fog is still thick and my coffee is still hot, I open up the tailgate, sit, sip and take in this amazing chunk of land. It is September 2nd, day two of public lands month. I ponder why I don’t know much about this area, it is right in my backyard after all, but for most of my life I was oblivious to what it is was or how it got here. Who decided to set aside this chunk of land, and when?  It has probably been here for a 100 years right? What would it look like if it wasn’t a conservation area? Would this just be another swatch of beans in a sea of cornfields?

Well the answer is that the original tracts of this 4,300+ acre area were acquired in 1985using Design for Conservation Sales Tax revenue and a private land donation from a land owner in memory of her late father. Subsequently more acreage was added after flooding became more prevalent in the 90’s and another 2,900 acres added through a grant from the North American Wetland Conservation Act(NAWCA).

So no, it isn’t magic, it hasn’t been here forever, it apparently took a lot of folks(Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, American Land Conservancy, Mary E. Leach Trust, Waterfowl USA, Forrest Keeling Nursery, and MDC to name a few), a lot of work to make something like this happen. And we owe it to them to be good stewards of it. To use it, to protect and to advocate for it alongside all public lands so it will be here for future generations to stumble upon, ponder and enjoy.

The silence is broken by the sound of a few vehicles arriving, the guys are here, waders are on and the dogs are amped! Not far into our trek the dogs kicked up a Sora right across my path, unfortunately one of the dogs is in my line of fire so I don’t take the shot. But just a few minutes later, a few more jump up and we have our first birds in hand!

The Sora Rail frequent this spot on their fall migration and are pretty common in this area. Their long yellow legs and stubby yellow beaks are amazing to study once in hand. They live up to the rail name as they are pretty scrawny little birds. But, once you harvest enough of them, the meat stacks up into an amazing meal.

We trudge along for another hour or two, having success every couple hundred yards, the weight of the waders in conjunction with the high steps through tall vegetation and muddy bottom quickly wear me out and make me acutely aware of muscles I had not previously been aware of! We finish the hunt with a nice pile of birds, almost as tired as the dogs, we head into town for biscuits and gravy at the local diner.

Back home on the bluff, we breast out the birds, and then head out again to sneak in a little squirrel hunting.

A few nights later, I cooked up my Sora nuggets.  I like to marinate them in tequila, garlic, red pepper flakes. A light dusting of flour before a quick sauté in olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and they are good to go. One bite and that the sorry feeling I had for those dove hunters promptly returned! The meat has a rich unique flavor and the texture feels like perfectly aged tenderloin! The only problem is that they are tiny, but if you had a good day or 2 of hunting, that solves the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, I love dove hunting just as much as I love hunting whitetails, but every now and then I have to change it up and get out west to chase some elk, and every now and then it is blast to get out and chase some crazy little birds on public land with some good buds and some good dogs!

So now that public lands month is in the books, I encourage you to explore your public lands. You may have overlooked some really amazing places within driving distance or even in your backyard. Pick one. Go for a Hike. Research it’s history. Consider all of the possible hunts other than whitetails/turkeys it may offer. Make is yours, because, after all, it is yours!

These places need you to use them, and you need them, so get out there and enjoy your public lands!

Paul Keeven
Secretary MO BHA

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