Against the Odds

The best thing about coaching college baseball is getting to watch guys have success that deserve it. It doesn’t always happen, life isn’t always fair. But when it does, it’s truly a special thing to witness. Last year, after what I consider a lengthy drought (10 years), we got to watch our guys hoist the conference championship trophy for the first time since joining our current conference, the SSAC. We’d been close before (in 2011) but hadn’t knocked the door down yet. Even the 2017 team that finished third in the country came up short in our conference.

Winning a conference championship is always a goal at the beginning of the year. Of course, the ultimate goal is a national championship, but holding the conference logo at the end of the regular season comes first. After you win the league, staying on top is tough. The next year, everyone is gunning for you. You get everyone’s best effort. I’ve got a lot of respect for teams that win conference championships year after year because I know just how hard that is to do.

We entered this season with a target on our backs and missing a few of our top players from last season’s championship team. As a coach, you always have that thought of which guys are going to step up and fill the shoes of the guys that carried you before. Sometimes it happens right out of the gate. Sometimes it takes some time for you to find those guys, or for them to find themselves. Either way, if you are going to repeat a championship, someone has to step up and be the guy.

February went by so fast. We played at home nearly the entire month and pretty much cruised through the schedule relatively untested. We played well at times, and we played poorly at times, but kept finding ways to win. Then, March arrived and the schedule flipped to life on the road. Life on the road gets tough. Calls don’t go your way. The field plays different. All the while, everyone is still hungry to beat the defending champs. We limped through much of the month playing .500 baseball.

April is where you make your money. This is the time of the year that you want your team to get hot. We lost four of our first seven games of the month. We’d blown an 8-1 lead and a 5-0 lead late in our last two games. Then, down 4-0 in the 6th inning of a Friday night conference game, everything changed. After scoring on a sacrifice fly to cut the deficit to three, we got the hit we’d been waiting for. A pinch-hit three run homer ignited the team and revived a season that was on the brink of dying. We ended up sweeping the series to begin our late April run.

We were 23-15 overall and fourth in our conference standings when that home run was hit. Arriving at the park the next morning felt different. There was a different energy. There was a different identity. Baseball is largely a game of confidence, and all of a sudden, you could feel this team find it. The 2021 team was very streaky. 2022 had been anything but that. But when you get on a roll, you feel like you’re going to win every time you come to the park, no matter who you’re playing. The team won the next 10 games to finish off the regular season heading back to the conference tournament, where we’d defend our title.

The first game of the tournament may have been one of the strangest games I’ve ever been involved with. By the fourth inning, we were down 12-1. I’ve had my fair share of butt whippings delivered to me over the years, but for some reason, this didn’t feel like that. That confidence still oozed from our dugout and we began to chip away at the lead. By the time the seventh inning was finished, we were up 14-12. We ended up winning the game by a score of 16-14 in the largest comeback that I ever remember in my career as a player, or a coach.

After winning the next two games, we were back in the championship. Same two teams as a year ago. Once again, we got hits when we needed them, and got one of our best performances on the mound all season. The 9th inning went without drama and for the second time in as many years I watched our guys celebrate a conference championship after a 7-0 win.

I watched the guys smile and hug their teammates. I watched our skipper shake hands with dozens of people (he’s won about 20 of these). Messages and phone calls of congratulations poured in from family, friends, and former players. While watching the celebration, I thought about all of the people that it takes to make this possible. None of it happens without the support of former players. It doesn’t happen without the support of the administration. Without fans, it doesn’t matter. I don’t like to compare teams, but this one will always be special to me. Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, these guys deserve to be mentioned with some of the best teams we’ve had. Winning a championship is tough, defending one is tougher…and these guys answered the bell.

Noodling: The Act of Catching Catfish with One’s Bare Hands

The month of May just couldn’t get here soon enough. I’ve grown tired of watching all of my friends kill turkeys. Just downright jealous. As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure we can be friends anymore. I said this year was going to be the year. I was going to end the turkey drought. How foolish of me. Time is never on my side during the spring, and this year we decided to sell our house, adding an even greater obstacle to turkey season. Needless to say, the drought continues.

I spent exactly TWO mornings in the woods listening for birds. That doesn’t exactly provide much of an opportunity for a novice hunter, like myself, to kill a wily ol’ Tom. On one of my two trips, I at least got to hear a few birds gobbling. Of course, there was never a shot opportunity, and I thought there’d be other chances. Then life took over and turkey season ended before it ever started. As Cubs fans have grown accustomed to saying, “Just wait until next year!”

On the bright side, we are now entering one of my favorite times of the year. These next couple of months is where I get to separate myself from all of you other “outdoorsmen.” May 1st marked the beginning of the Mississippi handgrabbing, or noodling, season. I’ve got a bunch of friends that can go out and bag a turkey, but there aren’t too many knocking down the door to go stick their hands in an underwater hole in the river. This is my time, dadgumit.

I’ve been handgrabbing catfish for over 25 years. From the first time that I went with my uncle when I was a kid, I’ve been hooked (no pun intended). There’s a certain adrenaline rush that is hard to recreate when you shove your hand in a hollow log, or hole in the bank, on the river. Most of the time you’ve got a decent idea of whether, or not, there’s a fish in the hole. However, you never know just when they are going to bite your hand, so there’s the rush. You also can’t be 100% sure that there’s a catfish in the hole. I’ve never encountered any other living creatures in the holes I fish, but I’ve heard rumors of guys losing fingers to turtles.

People will sometimes ask, “Does it hurt?” The answer to that question is, it depends. While catfish aren’t exactly barracudas, they do have a tooth pad that is like coarse sandpaper, and a powerful bite. When you grab the fish, you’ll want to run your arm through his mouth, and out of his gills. This usually results in losing your top layer of skin on your forearm. Think of it as a really bad rug-burn on your arm. Due to the adrenaline rush, you don’t really feel it until afterward, though. In the end, it’s all worth it…for the rush and the fine eating that comes afterward.

Over the years, we have caught some really nice fish with many exceeding the forty pound range. When you start talking about catfish that are that big, most people throw their noses up at them thinking that they do not taste good. I’m telling you now, you will not eat catfish at any restaurant in Mississippi that will taste better than these fish. A 30-40 pound flathead catfish is some of the best eating on the planet. The key is to bleed them out (hang them up and cut the tail off), then cut out any red meat. Batter them, fry them, and you’ll never want to go back to Jerry’s again.

If you want to get into handgrabbing, you’ll need to remember there are some rules in place. You cannot use hooks of any type. You can use a rope to secure your fish before bringing it out of the water, but the rope cannot have an attachment. You can build wooden boxes for fish to house in, but you cannot use any type of plastic or metal. Your box has to be built with natural materials. If you decide to build boxes, you cannot raise them out of the water to capture a fish. You’ve got to grab them! As for where you can put your boxes, it’s best to contact your local authorities beforehand. Most public waters in the state are open to grabbing, but some are not.

Finally, before you embark on your first grabbing trip, convince a friend to go with you. There’s a lot of things that could potentially go wrong when you mix people in the water trying to grab a fish. Your best bet is to go with someone that’s done it before and learn the ropes. Once you figure it out, you’ll not only have great fish to eat, but you’ll have great stories to tell!

A Shoebox Worth Keeping

Whew! The last week has been a whirlwind. Never did I imagine that a little old article about travel baseball would incite so much discussion. For those of you that sent me a supportive email, or a message, thank you. For those of you that disagreed, or sent me hate mail, thank you as well. Sometimes I need a good laugh and you provided that.

I know this is supposed to mostly be an outdoor column, but lately almost every chance that I’ve had to get in the woods, or on the water, we’ve been dodging tornadoes. I did make one turkey hunt recently, but didn’t hear a bird, or see a bird, until I was driving down the road headed back home. Talk about adding insult to injury. To top things off, nearly every waking moment of not playing baseball has been devoted to packing up our house (we are moving soon). Given my recent circumstances, and the fantastic response to last week’s article, I’ve decided to somewhat stick to that theme this week.

If you’ve ever changed residences, at some point you’ve likely thrown your hands up and wondered where all of this crap came from. The amount of accumulated “junk” is perplexing. Some of it I haven’t seen in years, and some of it I legitimately have no idea how it got here, or what it even is. I don’t consider myself of having too many things of real value, and the things that I call valuable aren’t worth any money, just more sentimental value. Outside of a few weapons, and a ridiculous amount of skulls from various critters, there’s not much in this house that I couldn’t do without. However, in my constant state of digging and boxing, I stumbled onto an old shoe box that brought some smiles, and tears, to my face.

I don’t consider myself to be a hoarder. I’m more of the type of person that if I haven’t used it in the last year or two I’ll throw it away. My grandfather probably just turned over in his grave when I typed that. The man found a use for everything that he ever owned, even long after a normal person would have discarded it. This old shoe box, though, stopped me from continuing my task of boxing up my closet and held my attention for the remainder of the evening. As I perused through its contents, I experienced a flurry of emotions.

The box contained a large, manila envelope that was marked “graduation”. I opened it up and it was full of cards that were sent to me upon my high school graduation from various friends of our family. I probably should have tossed it aside and continued my work, but I couldn’t help but go through them. Many of the people that sent these cards have passed on. I was actually amazed at how many are no longer with us. It wasn’t THAT long ago, right? So many of these people had high expectations for my future. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as humbled as I was the other night reading those cards. And it got me to thinking, “Have I lived a life that would make these people proud?”

With that thought in mind, parents…this next part is for you. In just a few short weeks, another senior class will be graduating high school and college. Last week I wrote about the harms of travel baseball, or so some of you thought. If you’re one of the ones that thought that article was about travel ball alone, let me clear something up for you. It wasn’t as much about travel baseball as it was, wait for it…you. Parents, we are the problem. Yes, we. I have three daughters that I am failing on a daily basis. We are failing to spend quality time with them. We are failing to teach them the things that really matter, and we are letting them worry about the things that don’t. We are failing to prepare them for the harsh realities that this world is going to throw at them very soon. We spend too much of our time trying to fix things for them.

I think that perhaps the best advice that I may have gotten regarding parenting has been, “Let them fail.” That sounds so harsh, even more so when I type it. I don’t know about you, but my biggest lessons in life have come through my own failure, rather than someone fixing it for me. One of the best things that ever happened to me, athletically, was not making the junior high baseball team when I was in the 7th grade. Guess what? It made me work harder, and I was the MVP of the team in 8th grade. Let them fail. It took flunking a class in college one time before I realized that actually going to class mattered. Let them fail.

Letting your kids fail is hard. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love them. Of course you love them, that’s why you’re letting this happen. You’re preparing them for far worse problems in the future. I’m grateful that my folks let me fail from time to time. I’m not sure it was by design or not, but I’m glad they did. My hope is that one day my kids can look back on the things they failed at, but learned a lesson on how to deal with it. If that happens, then I’ve done my job as a parent.

One more thing, when people send your graduate cards and notes it’s highly likely that they will skim over them, pull the cash out, and toss the card aside. Do yourself, and them, a favor. Pick them up, put them in an envelope, and stash them in an old shoebox. I’m sure glad that my Mom did.

What’s Happening to Baseball?

The other day, the question was posed to me, “Why don’t you write more about baseball?” At the moment of questioning, I didn’t really have an answer. I thought to myself, “Who would want to hear me talk about baseball?” Then again, who really wants to hear me talk about hunting and fishing? After some thought over the course of a few days, I came up with some reasons as to why I so seldom write about my “real job”.

Before I begin, let me make it clear that I love what I get to do. If there’s a better job than getting to be on a baseball field each day I’d like to hear about it. That’s not saying that there aren’t bad days, they happen. On the other hand, even though I’m around college baseball every day, there are times when I do not recognize the game. Players are different, coaches are different, and parents are especially different. We live in an entirely different world than we did just a few years ago, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Since I mentioned players first, let’s start there. Folks, I’m seeing things happen on the diamond now that would have gotten someone killed 20 years ago. The constant disrespect of one’s opponents is mind boggling to me. The bat flips, the stare downs, the all bark but no bite yapping. It blows my mind. When and where did all of this start? All of the aforementioned scream, “Look at me!” Many, not all, players today are more concerned with their batting averages, or their ERA’s, than they are the team’s success. We’ve had guys that could go 4-4, lose the game, and be satisfied. It’s the world of “it’s someone else’s fault.”

There will be those that argue that the players should be able to express themselves. Since when did throwing your bat 15 feet in the air after hitting a ball become an acceptable form of expression? When did staring down, or making motions, at a hitter you just struck out become an acceptable form of expression? People dismiss the “act like you’ve been there before” mantra, but the game was better when players actually acted like they had been there before. I blame two things for this selfish behavior: Major League Baseball and travel ball. The difference in the two is (1) players are getting paid a ridiculous amount of money to play, and (2) parents are paying a ridiculous amount of money to play.

Before I attack parents, let’s get to coaches. I think it’s some sort of pre-requisite to have an active Twitter account before you can be a coach now. I, myself, have an account, but I’m not sure I’d call it very active, and I’m dang sure not giving out unsolicited advice on there. Thank goodness I have an account though, or I’d never know how to coach baseball. The social media gurus sure have come in handy when I need to know how to fix a swing, or need to know what flavor powerade is best for throwing 90mph. I’m hoping one of them posts a tutorial on how to paint a straight foul line. That could be beneficial to the longevity of my career.

Parents, ah parents. Let me ask you a question, what are you doing? When we were growing up it cost $20 to play baseball for the summer. That even included the uniform. Now you’re spending $20 on parking for each weekend tournament. Toss in the money you’re spending on that expensive travel ball team, uniforms, equipment, private lessons, gas, hotels, and food and you could send your kid to Harvard. I’d be willing to bet if you added up all of the money you’ve spent on travel baseball through the years that it would cost more than any education at Mississippi’s public colleges, and probably more than the private ones, as well. So what’s your end game here? Is travel baseball some sort of new status symbol? And let’s not even talk about the fact that when today’s players get to college they know less about the game than the players of old that played good ol’ rec ball.

Since I mentioned travel ball and weekend tournaments, let’s talk about that for a second. Is it really necessary to play 5-6 games in two days? Is it really necessary for these games to begin at 9:00 on Sunday morning? I heard a travel ball coach tell me they do a devotional on Sunday morning for their players. Um, how about you tell them to go to Church, instead? Maybe that’s why humility and respect for one’s opponent has fallen by the wayside. Fear not, though, this can be fixed. I’ve heard far too many parents gripe about the Sunday morning games, but they give in and go because they don’t want their kid to miss out. Believe me, I understand. But what if parents started to refuse to play on Sunday morning? I bet that these money hungry tournament organizers (that really don’t care about your kid) would figure out a new way to make it work.

Folks, now is the time to stop trying to create a five tool ballplayer, and it’s time to start trying to create a five tool human being. Teach your kids humility, work ethic, kindness, selflessness, and most of all, priorities. Look around you, baseball isn’t the only thing suffering a lack of core values. Wanna know why I don’t write much about baseball? Because baseball, like so many things in this fallen world, is changing for the worst, and it breaks my heart to think about, much less write about it. Let’s do our part to fix it before it’s too late.

It’s Time to Stop the Hop

Each week on our podcast we have a special segment dedicated entirely to those that deserve to take a lap. Dubbed the “Idiot of the Week”, these folks have won the dubious award for doing something incredibly dumb, and sometimes dangerous, in the outdoors. It can range from unknowingly shooting another hunter, sinking a boat, or getting caught breaking wild game and fish laws. Unfortunately, there’s never a shortage when it comes time to pick a new winner.

I can’t sit here and say that I’ve never broken a law when it comes to the outdoors. I have. Like many, in my more youthful days I’d bend a law or two without hesitation. Like most people, I fortunately grew out of that and have a greater appreciation for the laws that are in place to protect our wildlife. However, there are far too many that just do not care and continuously break the law. I can understand a sixteen year old kid being dumb enough to test the reach of the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks…but a grown man?

Most weeks we try to pick our award winner from another state. I’m particularly fond of throwing shade on folks from Louisiana. One, they make it fairly easy. Two, they are our next door neighbor, so it’s always fun to prod them a little bit. We’ve also mentioned quite a few from New York and one former mayor of a town in Ohio that wanted to ban ice shanties over fears of a prostitution ring. However, it brings me pain that this week we had to crown some Mississippians as the new winners. As much as I wanted to avoid blasting fellow folks from the ‘Sip, these acts were the most egregious of all.

Recently, game wardens in Mississippi uncovered the largest turkey poaching operation in United States history. There were 286 state charges brought against the accused, and another 12 federal charges. Fifteen different people were charged with illegally killing birds in three different states, Mississippi included. I normally don’t like to mention names, but the ringleader of the group, Kenneth Britt, received over $37,000 worth of fines and a 5 year hunting ban. All in all, over $100,000 worth of fines have been handed out.

To most, that would seem like a lot. I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum. I don’t think that it’s nearly enough. Do you honestly think that people that have spent the last few years hopping fences and shooting birds are going to abide by a ban? And if we are going to issue a ban, let’s make it a lifetime ban. Not only did these folks have a blatant disregard for our wildlife laws that protect our way of life, they also took it upon themselves to go on other hardworking people’s land and steal from them. Theft, that’s exactly what it is. These selfish son of a guns stole opportunities for others. They took away chances for a youngin’ to kill their first bird. They took away chances for a veteran. They took away chances for that senior citizen that wants to kill one last bird before they take up the rocking chair. These people are no better than a thief that breaks into your home and steals money out of your sock drawer. They deserve to be treated as such.

That brings me to my next rant, social media. There’s a particular turkey hunting page in Mississippi where quite a few members joke about “can’t stop the hop.” That phrase is mentioned for hopping fences to go and shoot birds. While most are probably joking about it, how in the heck anyone sees this as okay is beyond me. I’m not sure if it’s satire or if they are actually being serious, but there are more than a few that openly brag about shooting birds off of land that they don’t have permission to hunt. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t like it if someone came and took my patio furniture off of my back porch. How is it any different with someone coming onto my land and shooting a turkey?

There’s only one way to stop this madness of trespassing to pursue wildlife. You’ve got to hit them where it hurts the most, their wallet. One of the accused quipped that it was cheaper to pay the measly $500 fine rather than join a hunting camp. You know what, he’s right. That’s a pathetic way to justify trespassing and stealing, but it’s not an inaccurate statement. Hunting clubs are expensive. In order to deter this type of behavior, we need to make the fine for such actions so high that it’s not worth it to poach. I’d say, at minimum, the fine for trespassing and harvesting a turkey should be upwards of $10,000 and the possibility of jail time. Pretty harsh, right? It should be.

Photo by Edward Wall

Our Veterans Deserve a Thank You: Fishing with Legends Help Provide That

Life has plenty of ups and downs. Last week, we experienced one of the strangest weeks of baseball that I’ve ever been a part of. On Wednesday, we took a beating in what is probably the most lopsided loss of my career as a player, or coach. On Saturday, we returned the favor in one of the most lopsided victories that I can remember. That’s how life, and baseball, goes sometimes. I’m proud of our guys with the way they bounced back for the weekend series. To me, that’s the mark of good character.

Since I mentioned good character, I’d like to introduce you to some guys that are doing something tremendous in our neck of the woods. I had the great pleasure to sit down with Adam Brewer, of Ellisville, for a podcast on Sunday. Adam is the founder of the organization, Fishing with Legends. If you haven’t heard of them, what they are doing is pretty darn special. Adam, along with a group of volunteers, take American Veterans on bass fishing trips around the state of Mississippi. If that doesn’t get you fired up there’s no need to check your pulse, you haven’t got one.

Adam founded the organization in 2017 and it has been growing ever since. I first heard of the group through my neighbor, Master Sergeant Dave Brooks, who went on a trip with them a while back. I was blown away when he returned and told me about the organization. What better way to serve our local community, which is chock full of veterans, than to take them outdoors. During the podcast, Adam spoke at length about the organization and creating relationships. These guys aren’t just loading up the boat and going fishing, they are intentional about forging a relationship with each veteran they take out. Isn’t that what being in the outdoors is all about? Mix in some combat veterans, and you’ve possibly created the best fishing experience out there.

Whether you believe it, or not, PTSD in our veterans is very real. It’s widely advertised that 22 veterans per day are committing suicide in 2022. That’s what makes what Adam, and the guys at Fishing with Legends are doing that much more special. They are pouring into our veterans, and I have no doubt that they are making a difference. Often, I have made mention of how being on the water, or in the woods, is like hitting a reset button in life. For me, there’s nothing that puts me more at ease than being in the outdoors. It’s good medicine. The guys at Fishing with Legends are giving out that medicine to those that need it most.

Listening to Adam talk, and seeing him light up when he talked about the work that they are doing, let me know real quick just how passionate he is about helping people. He talked about the hours spent on the boat just conversing with his guests. Folks, it takes some special people to spend a bunch of time on a boat with strangers. You can’t just walk away and go do something else when you’re in a boat. We talked about different groups that take vets hunting, an obvious good thing, but when you’re really wanting to connect, fishing made more sense. You don’t have to be as quiet, and you can really get to know the other person in the boat.

Not only does the organization take veterans fishing, they provide them with the gear necessary to keep fishing, thanks to some very generous sponsors. I feel the need to mention a couple of the larger companies in case you’d like to know who places a high value on our veterans. Fishing with Legends is sponsored by Huk Fishing, Lew’s, and Strike King. Those are the larger companies, but there are also plenty of local ones that are listed on their website (fishingwithlegends.org). It’s nice to see some larger companies supporting them, but it’s the smaller, local ones that really make you tingle inside. Adam and I both agreed that Mississippians certainly love two things: the Lord and our veterans. Those local sponsors prove that theory correct.

They’ve also got a big tournament coming up for anyone that is interested. On April 23rd, the 3rd Annual Battle on Barnett will take place, launching from Tommy’s Trade Post. According to Adam, this is their largest fundraiser each year and goes a long way toward allowing them to continue to help our veterans.  If I remember correctly, there will be a $2,500 prize for the winning boat, and a lunker prize, as well. For more information, or to sign up, visit their website, or email Adam directly at fishingwithlegends@gmail.com. While you’re at it, check them out on Facebook and Instagram, then go listen to our conversation with Adam on the Pinstripes to Camo Podcast, which is available on Apple or Spotify.

Is Turkey Hunting in Mississippi on the Decline?

Pollen covers virtually everything you can see, and a large portion of the state is gearing up for potential tornadoes. I think we can finally say that spring has arrived in Mississippi. By now, I’m hoping that most of you have bagged your first bird of the season. Judging by what I’m seeing on social media, it seems like a good start to the year. I’ve also seen plenty of big bass being caught, lately. With cold weather hopefully behind us, this is truly a special time of the year for outdoorsmen.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had more than a few different conversations surrounding turkey hunting in our state. Obviously, I’m no expert on the matter so I’ve spent more time listening to those that are, rather than talking. Almost each conversation has included some kind of concern on the population of turkeys in Mississippi. I’ve mentioned before of ways that we could make our state a better destination state for deer hunting. With turkeys, it kind of already is…or has been. Folks come from all over to hunt turkeys in Mississippi, which is a good thing. But, how do we keep Mississippi a turkey hunting destination?

First things first, we have to do a better job of collecting data. We need to know how many turkey hunters we have, as well as how many birds are killed. For now, hunters are supposed to report any harvested bird through the MDWFP app, or by paper copy of the harvest record. Those harvest reports must be filled out by 10:00 pm on the day that the harvest occurs. Tip: check in your bird before posting a picture of it on social media to avoid a ticket, as well as avoid being the next “Idiot of the Week” on the Pinstripes to Camo Podcast.

As for knowing the number of actual turkey hunters that we have in the woods, as of now we do not have a system. A Mississippi Sportsman’s License covers a wide variety of hunting opportunities, thus not giving us a true number of how many folks are in the woods during the spring season. A recent suggestion from Preston Pittman was to have a “turkey stamp”. Similar to federal duck stamps, the turkey stamp would give us a good idea of just how many turkey hunters we have in Mississippi.

If you’re like me, the first thing you just thought of was “Oh, great! Another way to milk money from hunters.” Let’s put those thoughts aside for a moment. Just spit balling here, but maybe we could reduce the overall cost of a Sportsman’s License by adding the turkey stamps. Not that the government has ever reduced the cost of much of anything once they figured out we’d pay for it, but this could potentially be a way to do that, and get a number of turkey hunters at the same time. The more likely scenario is that turkey stamps would cost you a few extra bucks added to your Sportsman’s License. In the end, the data provided is probably worth a couple of extra dollars.

Another idea that was brought up to me was reducing the number of birds you can harvest from three to two. This is another idea that will probably make you boil over. It’s not one that I’m fond of, either. As a rebuttal to this idea, it was brought up that how many people actually kill three gobblers in a season. I’m not nearly into the turkey community as much as I am the deer hunting community, but I can count on one hand of how many people I know that kill their allotment of turkeys each year. Again, knowing how many turkey hunters we have in the woods would provide a better argument either for, or against, reducing the number of birds we can harvest.

One more thing we’ve talked about is the season itself. Does our season start and finish too early? Are we a little late? Or, are we right on time? Personally, I don’t think you can judge this one based off of one or two years of data. This is a question that would have to be studied over a longer length of time. I’ve heard of gobbling birds as early as Valentine’s Day, and I’ve heard of birds gobbling toward the end of May. To me, it’s almost like judging the rut during deer season. Sometimes it’s a week or two early and sometimes the season is darn near over before you see a buck chasing. For now, until there is more data (which the NWTF and Turkeys for Tomorrow are constantly working on) there is no need to change the dates of the season.

Speaking of deer hunting, it’s been brought to my attention the possibility of an early archery season in Mississippi. From what I’ve read, archery hunters in Mississippi could potentially get a three day season in September to hunt whitetail deer. My initial thought of this was it’s hot enough in October to cook eggs on the sidewalk, so I can’t imagine how miserable it would be in late September. But then I thought of having the opportunity to stick a buck in full velvet, something I’ve never been able to do. That being said, it seems like a pretty cool idea to me…even if you risk getting West Nile doing it.

One More Cast in My Pond

For most people, moving to a new house is an adventure. There is an excitement about making changes to a new house to make it your own home. Different bedroom views, a different house plan, landscaping, and meeting new neighbors are all part of the adventure. For me, most of the moves that I’ve made have brought that same excitement. We are currently in the process of selling our house and buying a new one, but excitement and adventure are not the words I’d choose to describe the process. It’s not that I’m not excited about moving, the timing has just been tough. For me, this is the busiest time of the year, and that has made this move a little more stressful than the previous ones.

We’ve made this house our home. We brought two of our three children from the hospital to this house, and made some fantastic lifelong friends with our neighbors. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that felt a little melancholy about it. In all of the moves that I’ve made in my life, and there have been plenty, there is only one other time that I remember feeling this way about the prospect of leaving.

As most of you know, I was born in Laurel, MS. Until I was about three years old, we lived in a house in town. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember when we moved. We moved outside of town to a little three bedroom house in the Myrick community. The house was situated on a little less than five acres, if memory serves me correctly. It had a shop across the driveway from the house where my dad kept his mower and tools. It had a wood burning fireplace that was very cozy to lay next to during the winter months. There was plenty of yard for a young boy to play with his dog in, as well as a pasture next door. However, for an only child (my sister was born years later), the best feature of the property was the pond in the backyard.

The pond wasn’t very large, and technically we only owned half of it. There was a barb-wired fence that ran through the middle of the pond separating us from our neighbors’ cows. To me, at the time, that pond was plenty big. I credit this residence for sparking my early interest in the outdoors. We’d see the occasional deer, or turkeys, in the backyard every once in a while, but that pond is what molded me. I can remember standing in the driveway with a Zebco 33 Classic learning how to cast with a practice plug. When Dad thought I’d gotten the hang of it, he turned me loose to the pond. I also remember trying to learn how to cast my dad’s Abu Garcia Ambassador baitcast reel. That one took a little more time to figure out, and it’s likely the cause of Dad having high blood pressure due to untangling all of the bird nests that I created.

I spent nearly every waking moment during the warmer months fishing in that pond. I never want to say that I taught myself how to fish because that wouldn’t exactly be true. However, I figured a lot of things out through trial and error at our pond. I learned how to present my lure based on the weather and temperature. I learned what baits worked best for certain times of the year. I also learned that we have leeches in Mississippi after riding my Labrador into the pond one time. To this day, I think that’s the maddest that I’ve ever seen my mother. At night, there were times that I’d sleepwalk as a child. My parents had to deadbolt the backdoor after they caught me heading out fishing in my sleep one night.

My favorite memory of the pond came when I was four years old. I’d recently gotten my cast off after suffering a broken leg when a mirror fell on me in JC Penney. To this day, I still don’t know why we don’t own that store. When the cast was off, it was time to fish. Not that a broken leg stopped me from fishing, it didn’t. I just had to sit down on the pier, which was far too tame for me. With my cast off, I was free to roam the banks. My dad was at work and my mom was cutting grass so I grabbed my rod and went down to the pond. Using a purple Culprit worm, I made a cast toward the dam. As soon as the bait hit the water, the bass sucked it down. I was in the fight of my life, and thankfully my mom was watching. She hopped off the mower and helped me land the fish, which weighed 5.5 pounds.

After calling my dad at work, she snapped some pictures, and we took my catch to a local taxidermist not too far from our house. She sent the picture in to the local newspaper, the Laurel Leader-Call, and they published it not too long afterward. Little did my folks know, this was the start of an outdoor obsession.

We lived in that house until I was eight years old before moving to Jacksonville, Florida. I’ll never forget pulling out of the driveway for the last time. Even with the excitement of moving to a new place, my heart was broken having to leave my pond. Sometimes when I’m visiting Jones County I’ll slip out to that area and ride by our old house. From the street, the land doesn’t look so big anymore. The pine trees that I helped my dad plant are all grown, and the driveway where I used to ride my bike seems so short. As I pull away, all of the memories flood my mind and bring tears to my eyes. I’m not sure who owns the house now, but I’d pay more money than I’m willing to admit for one more cast in my pond.

Circa 1989

Hang On, We’ll Get You There

In my line of work I get the pleasure of meeting all kinds of people. Between baseball and outdoor adventures, there aren’t too many types of people that I haven’t been around. The really cool thing is when you meet folks that can relate to both. I’ve known plenty of coaches that enjoy hunting and fishing when they aren’t in their particular seasons. But possibly my favorite people, out of everyone that we encounter, are our bus drivers. Jackson Browne once wrote a song titled “The Load Out” as a tribute to his roadies…here’s mine.

When you spend as much time on a bus as we do, you tend to get to know your drivers pretty well. There’s nothing worse than being on a road trip with a driver that you can’t hold a conversation with, or one you don’t completely trust. Fortunately, over the years, that hasn’t been a problem for us. Not only have our drivers been fantastic, they have also been pretty darn good people. Since being a bus driver is an often underappreciated job, I’d like to take the week to give thanks to a few of the one’s that we’ve had over the last 20 years.

I couldn’t do this list without beginning with Grover Cruise. Mr. Cruise drove for our team for well over 10 years. I’m not entirely sure about all of the jobs he’s had throughout the years, but I know he used to be our mailman when I was growing up in Laurel. I always enjoyed his gentle temperament when he drove for us. On late night trips he’d often hum while driving, and for whatever reason, it always felt comforting. We’d share stories of fishing, and he loved to talk about trips with his son to Bluegrass concerts around the Southeast. Mr. Cruise was the first driver that I ever felt like I had a friendship with. To this day, he and another of our former drivers, Ray Nelson, still come to home games at William Carey.

Speaking of Ray Nelson, he took over most of our driving after Mr. Cruise retired. Ray is also a Jones County native so I felt an immediate connection to him. One of my fondest memories of Mr. Ray is of him trotting through a line of players high fiving all of them after dinner one night in Georgia. It’s an easy one to remember because it was also on my birthday and we’d picked up a big win earlier in the day, followed by topping it off with a great catfish dinner! As a driver, you know you’re doing something right when the entire team loves you. Unfortunately, Mr. Ray was forced to stop driving shortly after this due to a bad back, if I remember correctly. It always brings a smile to my face to look up into the stadium at Milton Wheeler Field and see Mr. Ray and Mr. Cruise there together watching us play.

Next on my list is Foxworth native, Bobby Nichols. Mr. Bobby and I hit it off immediately, mostly due to our mutual love of fishing. On a recent trip to Alexandria, Louisiana it became evident pretty quick that Mr. Bobby has fished in dang near every hole of water between Hattiesburg and Alexandria. Story after story of catching bass in this lake, bream in that lake, and crappie in that river. It was truly almost unbelievable! Sitting directly behind him and listening, I wouldn’t have been more impressed if Bill Dance would have been driving the bus! He’d point to an area while going down the road and say, “Behind that levee over there, there’s a pretty good pond to fish in.” I’d look at the map on my phone and sure enough, there’d be a small lake right where he said it was. None of this was visible from the road. You know how some people give off that “know it all” vibe and you just roll your eyes and go along? That’s not Mr. Bobby…he actually does know it all!

We talked about fishing different areas, then he began asking all about our alligator hunting. We were so immersed in outdoor conversation that we missed our exit on the way home! Once he realized it, he laughed it off saying, “We were having too much fun catching fish and killing gators!” These types of conversations are what make being on the road for all of those hours bearable. And I’m sure it makes driving that much easier being able to connect with your passengers, as well. Mr. Bobby has driven less for us than the aforementioned, but I enjoy his company, and most certainly his stories of fishing all over South Mississippi and Louisiana.

Finally, Johnny Graham. Johnny might as well be family by now. His fun-loving disposition and wittiness is appreciated, and loved, by our entire team. Johnny does most of our driving these days, and I’ve got to say, our record is pretty dang good when he’s behind the wheel! He’s also not afraid to poke fun at Coach Halford, which makes it that much better! If you don’t know Johnny, you’re missing out. He should probably stop driving and run for Mayor of Magee. I don’t think I’ve met a single person from Simpson County that doesn’t know him, and think highly of him. Johnny is another driver that’s spent his fair share of time in the outdoors over the years, though not as much lately. The difference in Johnny and Bobby is that instead of telling the stories, he wants to hear your stories. He is a “put others first” kind of person, and I’m delighted each time I see him pull up in our parking lot to pick us up.

I know my column is usually more to do with the outdoors than anything else. However, without people like the men that I’ve mentioned, I’d never be able to do the things that I get to do. With the world getting crazier each day, now is a good time to reflect on the people that have made a difference in our lives. Each trip that we’ve gone on in the last almost 20 years, we’ve put our lives in these men’s hands…and we are better for it.

Talkin’ Turkeys with Preston

It’s no secret that the turkey has become my greatest nemesis (aside from myself) in the outdoors. Although, I’ve only had a few opportunities to harvest a bird, I’ve come up empty on each trip that I’ve made. I consider myself a novice when it comes to deer hunting, which means I have no idea what I’m doing when I’m hunting turkeys. What do you do when you don’t know what you’re doing? You call an expert.

One of the cool things about hosting a podcast is the people you get to talk to. So far, we’ve been fortunate to have some great guests that have a wealth of knowledge regarding the outdoors. Longtime friend, Tim Carley, did an episode with us regarding land management and being able to curb your expectations regarding hunting. Chad Lecompte was on the show a week before that and introduced us to Pine Belt Kayak Bass Fishing. More recently we hosted Brian Kittrell from Whitetails Unlimited and 2B Outdoors. Brian told us all about how to get linked up with hunts across America and even the globe. All were great guests with valuable information that any hunter or angler would appreciate. The episode that comes out this week, though, is something truly magical in the hunting community. We were able to talk about turkey hunting with the legendary Preston Pittman.

In case you’ve lived under a rock, Preston Pittman is THE turkey king. If you still don’t know who I’m talking about, he’s the guy that can call turkeys…with just the use of his mouth. He won his first turkey calling championship at age 16 and has held five different world titles. He’s been featured in tons of magazines and has been on several TV shows including: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, David Letterman, Mississippi Outdoors, and many others. His game calls are sold all over the country. Even with all of those accolades, perhaps the most incredible thing he’s accomplished, to me, is being the first person to ever complete the Double Grand Slam in one season. In the turkey world, this means he killed two of each of the four turkey species in America…IN ONE SEASON!

In all of the times that I’ve gotten to speak with Preston, the one thing that rings out loud and clear is his love for his home state of Mississippi. And why not? Mississippi has been one of the leading states in the country when it comes to producing quality outdoor content. Preston makes sure to plug the Mississippi Outdoors Hall of Fame, which is housed in Leland, right in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. He was one of six to be inducted in the initial class, along with another local outdoorsman, Paul Elias. Paul is the step-father to one of my old college roommates, so I feel incredibly fortunate to have been around some of the best outdoorsmen in the business. After showing Mississippi some love, we finally get down to business: turkeys.

Like I said, I don’t have a clue what to do to kill turkeys, and according to Preston, one phone conversation isn’t going to exactly change that. However, when I got off the phone with him, I felt like I’d learned more in 45 minutes than I’d learned in 35 years. We, along with Matt Langford, talked about calling turkeys. We talked about things that turkeys like to eat. We talked about travel routes. We talked about hunting in different weather. We talked about bag limits. Out of all of the things we talked about, the one thing that really hit home to me was painting a picture for the bird. I’d never really thought of it that way. Preston talked about how you want to paint a picture for what that bird wants to see. That goes from the sounds that you make to how you set up your decoy. It was almost like a light went off in my head. I’d never thought of making songbird sounds, or the sound of a squirrel barking. It all made too much sense. These are sounds you hear when animals are comfortable, and that’s what you want that turkey to be, comfortable.

Now it’s time for my usual disclaimer. As Preston said, I will also say, doing these things won’t guarantee that you kill a bird the first time out. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, that ol’ Tom will flip the script on you. That’s what makes turkey hunting so much fun. It’s hard to pattern an old thunderchicken the way you would a buck. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. Maybe the best bit of advice that he gave regarding calling was to practice all of the time. You can’t buy a call today and go out and expect to kill a bird tomorrow. This is where I’ve fallen miserably short over the years. My lack of confidence with calling has been born out of my lack of practice. His last bit of advice was to be incredibly safe (he’s been shot twice).

With all of my newfound knowledge, thanks to Preston, I can’t wait for the opportunity to put it to test. Be sure to check out the “Pinstripes to Camo Podcast” on Apple, or Spotify, to hear our show with Preston before turkey season begins. There are only a couple of weeks left before the best sound found in the woods will soon begin and you might benefit from a tip or two. I feel like a Chicago Cubs fan at the beginning of the season thinking that, “this year is my year.” Hopefully, by the end of the season, I’m not still quoting Cubs fans saying, “Just wait ‘til next year!”