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Grunt call tips from Grant Woods, Dr. Grant Woods, Oct 20

Memories of bowfin fishing, Dale Bowman, Oct 20

Q&A with DNR wildlife biologist,, Oct 19

Q&A with IDNR Director, Matt Schuckman, Oct 19

Memories of a first duck hunt, Dave Maas, Oct 19



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Recent entries


Through the Lens

Mushroom Jerky

Sat, October 15, 2016

For most in the Midwest, autumn means big bucks, the early days of deer season, and all things whitetail. Forest foragers know that late autumn also means the mushrooming season for the most part is coming to a close; however, there remains one last great treat for those perusing the autumn woods… One last great big, giant, treat because, those glorious autumn days are when you can find a fruiting of Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) as big as forty or fifty pounds.

Yes, I said forty or fifty pounds, in one mushroom. The largest I have harvested weighed 49.3 pounds. Yes, you read that correctly, a single mushroom weighing in at almost 50 pounds! Now that’s more enough mushroom for eating fresh and for putting up for the rest of the year.

Grifola frondosa can fruit anytime from mid September to late October and seems to be triggered by the first cold nights of the end of summer. As I am out scouting deer, acorn crops, waterfowl etc.  In late September you can also bet I’m checking those oaks for Hen of the Woods.  It is found mostly with dead or dying oak trees, though I have also found them under maples along creek and river banks.

While this year hasn’t been a banner year in my neighborhood, because it’s been so darn dry there have still been enough that I have coolers full on the porch, the dehydrator racks a full and running overtime, the fridge can’t hold even one more and we are eating them at every meal.

Hen of the Woods is my personal all-time favorite. It’s flavor is deep and earthy and holds up well to almost any cooking style or combination. Additionally, even one or two good sized ones can yield a whole lot of mushroom goodness both fresh and preserved for the coming year.

I am always on the lookout for new ways to prepare and preserve hen of the woods. Just last week a Facebook friend, Bill Kulschbach of Dunlap, posted that he had hen of the woods jerky in the dehydrator. Say what? Mushroom Jerky?

I went on an internet search and low and behold found several different recipes, and decided to give it a whirl.  Admittedly, all I used from the recipes was the basic process. I fiddled and finagled a marinade recipe of my own.

It was not without a little trepidation that I put a test batch on the dehydrator. I thought to myself, this is one of those things that will either be really good or so bad that even the coons won’t touch it.

Luckily, it turned out to be really good! So good in fact, I nearly had to wrestle the bag of samples away from several taste testers in the neighborhood, and the bulk of the test batch ended up in the field with my dearly beloved while he was combining and planting wheat.

Now that I’ve run a couple more batches, and actually formulated a recipe using measured ingredients instead of my usual slap, dash, and splash method of cooking, it’s time to share this treat with the Heartland community.

One of the great parts about this is that the giant “core” that most large hens have can also be used in the recipe so every part of mushroomy goodness is used with little to no waste.

Hen of the Woods Jerky –
One medium sized hen of the woods
2 cups apple cider
¼ cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon liquid smoke
1 tablespoon spicy brown mustard
2 tablespoons sweet Asian chili sauce
1 quarter cup maple syrup (I have been using an apple butter flavor infused maple syrup that is marvelous and available at Aldi’s, but regular works just fine)
3 Tablespoons McCormick Grill Mates Applewood Rub
3 Tablespoons McCormick Grill Mates Smokehouse Maple
Salt and Pepper to taste

Clean and prepare hen of the woods by removing the “petals” and cut into as much of a uniform size as possible. After removing the outer layers and petals, thinly slice the core, again trying to maintain uniformity for drying times. Save the smaller fronds/petals/trimmings to make Hen of the Woods Spread (recipe follows this one).

Place the mushroom pieces in boiling water for 10 minutes.

While mushrooms are boiling prepare marinade by mixing all other ingredients together. Whisk or blends marinade to fully incorporate all ingredients.

After mushrooms have boiled for ten minutes, drain and place hot mushrooms and marinade in a nonreactive container or plastic bag and let marinate for 8-12 hours.

After marinating for at least 8 hours, place mushroom pieces on a dehydrator and dry at 145 for 8-12 hours. (Drying times will vary based on thickness of mushrooms and personal preference for chewiness, crispiness etc.)  Store in an airtight jar or vacuum seal.  I honestly can’t tell you how long this can be stored. It doesn’t seem to last long enough around here for me to accurately gauge. I would think though, that you might want to use it up fairly soon, or place in the fridge or freezer.

Hen of the Woods Mushroom Spread

This is a takeoff of the black trumpet spread I shared earlier this year, and it’s even better! The full earthy, mushroomy flavor come through much better with Hen of the Woods.  A dab of this and slice of deer or goose sausage on cracker and you have a treat is so tasty! Heck you can even use a piece of the mushroom jerky for dipping a bit of spread for the full mushroom experience!

1 8oz package cream cheese cut in to roughly 12 squares
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup finely minced red onion
1 cup finely chopped hen of the woods mushroom
Chardonnay for deglazing.

Using a heavy skillet, (I prefer cast iron) melt butter and stir in onions first to sauté until clear and beginning to brown and crisp up a bit, add mushrooms and sauté until they have cooked through and sweated down. Add a splash of chardonnay to deglaze and get all the good little bits loosened. Cook off any remaining liquid.  Add in the cream cheese, stirring until all is melted, and all bits of onion and mushroom are fully incorporated. Transfer to a container (I use wide mouth half pint jars) and place in fridge. Remove from fridge a bit before serving so that it can soften for spreading.

For more about Hen of the woods and other recipes, please visit these previous posts!




The Safe Roads Amendment -

Fri, October 14, 2016

Let’s face it, on the surface this sounds like a great thing. “Locking up” Transportation funds so they can’t be swept into whatever the pet program of the day might be.

Sportsmen and women in Illinois are all too aware of what happens when funds aren’t locked up. We’ve watched dollar after dollar swept from our DNR, in some cases illegally so.  (Who can forget the sweep of Pittman -  Robertson money?) 

So this seems like virtually a no brainer right? Amend the constitution so those folks in Springfield cannot divert, sweep, reassign monies that should be being spent on maintaining the highways and byways of our state.

Well, like everything in Illinois politics these days, we have to look beyond the initial message and see what’s really happening.

There are two distinct reasons to consider voting no on this amendment.

The first troubling pieces of this is that it creates a constitutional amendment. Yes, an amendment to our state constitution. Are we so afraid of what our legislature will do that we have enact a constitutional amendment to keep them in line on fiduciary matters? Should we just do one giant constitutional amendment regarding finances rather than press them to develop and pass balanced budgets each year?

The Amendment is very clear about how monies can be spent - “no moneys ... derived from ... license taxes relating to registration, title, or operation or use of vehicles” can be expended other than for transportation.

Let that sink in a minute. 

Thousands of Illinoisans spend extra money each year for specialty license plates to help fund causes near and dear to their hearts. These range from collegiate plates to supporting sports teams, to more importantly to support charitable organizations like breast and ovarian cancer, waterfowl habitat, environmental concerns, parks, wildlife conservation, and drug prevention. There are dozens of these plates that have been created as method of fund raising. The surcharge, usually $40, goes to the cause. These causes are not even remotely related to transportation, so where exactly will that money go should this amendment pass?  Will that extra 40 dollars you spend annually for your sportsman plate ever see anything related to fish, deer, turkeys, or waterfowl should this amendment pass?

While legislators may say now that well, gee we will go ahead and let those go through…the letter of the law in the amendment says they can’t just work around the amendment. After all, this diversion of transportation funds, isn’t that the type of thing this amendment is supposed to stop?

Let’s look at how this could impact our DNR in a most negative way. 

$2 of each license plate fee and $3.25 of each vehicle title fee goes to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources — almost $30 million a year, according to IDNR estimates. Is every bit of these funds spent solely on transportation related costs? Well of course not.

Remember, the amendment expressly prohibits using those fees for anything other than transportation. Getting the measure to add those fees was a difficult and arduous process. Where will that 30 million that IDNR stands to lose come from if it is lost? It would likely have to come in the form of some type of similar tax or fee hikes. Or worse yet more staff, program, and general cuts to IDNR. Yet, the monies that voters once upon a time agreed to designate for DNR, remain locked up and spent only on transportation per the amendment.

IDNR staff say the department currently plans to evaluate the amendment’s potential repercussions for its budget should it be approved, after the election. Isn’t this a little like closing the barn door after the horses have fled?

Some within IDNR and IL Secretary State offices believe that,  well gee, it will all be okay because amendment sponsors said during floor debates that it really wasn’t their intention go after the DNR plate and title fees, nor the specialty plate fees.


There we go again with those pesky legal details. Let us not forget that the IL Supreme Court has history of reading amendment text quite literally.

Is this what we want in our constitution? An amendment that in theory should force our legislators to show fiscal restraint and good stewardship but will also prevent them from making any changes without another overhaul to the constitution?

Will this create even more creative fiscal fun as legislators try to find a way around this amendment?

I say this should not be a constitutional amendment. We should not constitutionally provide funding to one area while constitutionally robbing others. 

*Please note- Statements and opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and may or may not be the same as Heartland Outdoors or Lampe Publishing.


Releasing the Gar!

Fri, September 23, 2016

It was like watching kids turned loose on the last day of the school year. As soon as the juvenile alligator gar being released by Fisheries Biologist Randy Sauer hit the muddy backwaters of the lower Kaskaskia yesterday afternoon they were off like a shot. They popped and rolled in typical gar fashion, the little fish raced around darting in and out of the shadows of the buck brush and downed tree limbs and stumps, already displaying typical gar behavior.

It was a beautiful sight to see and I was filled with hope thinking that while maybe not in my lifetime, but certainly in that of our youngsters; full grown alligator gar might one day again be seen during spawn rolling through the shallows of the lower Kaskaskia sloughs and backwaters.

The juvenile alligator gar, still sporting their juvenile spots looked much like small spotted gar as they explored their new home. After having spent their entire life up to this point confined to fish hatchery rearing ponds and raceways it almost seemed the little fish were happy as they explored what once was home water and habitat for these ancient fishes.

IDNR Site Superintendent Mic Middleton and Fisheries Biologist Randy Sauer prepare the transport tank in the boat before adding the fish

The first step during the sticking process was to prepare the holding tank in the IDNR boat. THere wasn’t a lot of high tech science geek type stuff to this - a large rubber tank like those used for stock water tanks was filled with water from the river old fashion bucket brigade style. The water temperature was checked to prevent any temperature shock when transferring the fish from the large transport truck. A little salt was added to aid in osmosis, and oxygen from a large tank was provided via a length of plastic hose.

Sauer checks water temps in the holding tank

Transferring the fish one net full at a time from the transport vehicle to the boat tank

In they Go!

After all fish were transferred the boat, aerial maps of the area were reviewed and two potential stocking locations were determined. Sauer was looking for just the right areas to release his cargo. He explained that the type of habitat that would be best for the juveniles survival was shallow, somewhat brackish backwater and sloughs with lots of cover and anticipated accompanying populations of forage fish for the little alligator to feed on and seek cover in. While the alligator gar do indeed eat invasive carp - that’s not the primary reason for the stocking efforts.

We discussed river levels, silt conditions, and headed off to the first stocking site. Once we arrived at the slough determined to be a “good looking spot” for the youngsters, Sauer and Middleton worked as team - again one net at time. One net would be taken form the holding tank, and the fish were released by hand by Sauer as Middleton counted each fish.

Sauer and Middleton examine the first batch to be released

Removing the first few for release

Great care is taken during the process to not stress the fish in anyway. When handling the fish during the release, gloves are worn to prevent disturbance of the slime coat, and everyone moves quickly to limit the amount of handling and time out of the water. The fish had been tagged, weighed, measured, and had data collected prior to arrival.

The key to identifying an alligator gar - the second row of teeth in the upper jaw. Other IL gar species (long nose, short nose, and spotted do not have the second row of teeth)

After releasing 175 in the first spot we headed off to the second location to release the remaining fish. A total of 351 were released on the lower Kaskaskia. An additional approximately 350 were released earlier in the day at Horseshoe Lake in Madison County.

In 2010, the IDNR’s Division of Fisheries began an alligator gar reintroduction program. During that time, alligator gar were stocked in a few waterways, including the lower Kaskaskia River.

“We only stocked a few thousand in total at those sites and many of those were small, so survivability was questionable,” said Dan Stephenson, the IDNR’s Chief of Fisheries.

The program had a brief hiatus in 2014 – 2015, but times are changing, and this program is once again becoming active with more research backing up this stocking initiative to help ensure success of survivability.

Many Heartland readers will recall my initial encounter with a Kaskaskia River alligator gar from this post Alligator Gar in the Kaskaskia

Earlier this year a local boating group hosted a a public meeting with IDNR to address their concerns that reintroduction of the native fish could have a negative impact on recreational use of the lower Kaskaskia. IDNR officials and biologists quickly dispelled many rumors and myths that so often surround these toothy fish. There are no documented cases of an alligator gar ever attacking a swimmer, or a person period. People simply don’t look like a prey fish to an alligator gar. They are mostly secretive and docile fish who spend their days hiding in the brackish shallow backwaters.

Instead it is hoped that a breeding population will result from this reintroduction effort that will actually benefit local economies as anglers both pole and line and bowfishers visit the area specifically for an opportunity to harvest an alligator gar.

It’s important to understand that fish stocked were mostly in the 12-14 inch range and while they do grow somewhat quickly in the early years, it takes at least 11 years for a female to reach maturity and start reproducing. For the alligator gar to truly reach trophy fish size it’s long term process - there aren’t going to be trophy gator gar in the Kaskaskia for many years to come.

According Fisheries Chief Dan Stephenson, ” According to Stephenson:
“We now raise the fish to at least 12 inches before stocking so that their survival is vastly improved.” However, he cautions, more research still needs to be done to evaluate the survivability of this species and what needs to be done for successful reestablishment, which he predicts will be a challenge and take some time to net results. For instance, we know that female gar do not become sexually mature until the age of 11, and even then they may not necessarily spawn every year.

The reasons for reintroducing the alligator gar are twofold: Bringing back an extirpated species to Illinois waters is one of the goals. In addition, the alligator gar is becoming a popular trophy quarry for sportsmen in the southern part of their range, Louisiana and Texas. Bowfishing enthusiasts in particular enjoy pursuing the huge fish.

For those of you worried that alligator gar would be detrimental to popular sportfish species, biologists say the alligator gar is an opportunistic predator that mostly targets shad and rough fish, such as carp. However, IDNR biologists warn that controlling Asian carp is not the reason for this reintroduction. Though alligator gar are an apex predator that will take Asian carp, nothing can control the their population right now. In the long-term, creating commercial markets for Asian carp will be the best hope of reducing their numbers.

To answer another note of concern to some, there is no documented evidence suggesting that Alligator Gar will bite a swimmer. That has been a concern posed to the Department. Swimmers simply don’t look like a prey species to an Alligator Gar.”

Currently there are four types of Gar found in Illinois: Spotted, Shortnose, Longnose and now the alligator gar. Alligator gar were not traditionally found in large numbers in Illinois, and though they do grow quickly, it remains to be seen how successful the program will ultimately be as females mature and reproduce in 11+ years. IDNR in cooperaton with USFWS and INHS will monitor this program closely and will implement creel and size limits if necessary as this population becomes established.

Until then we can read old accounts of huge gator gar rolling through the flooded trees and fields near the confluence of the Kaskaskia and Mississippi, and hope that this program is successful and one day the giant toothy primitive fish will once roam the lower Kaskaskia.

To effectively manage these prehistoric fish, the IDNR is working closely with University of Illinois researchers to study how Alligator Gar, in addition to the three other Gar species, grow, mature, reproduce and migrate to make certain these species continue to troll Illinois’ waterways.




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