A look back at the top outdoors stories of 2014

Chris Kappler was one of the Missouri deer hunters who will have fond memories of 2014. He shot this buck on opening day of the firearms season.
Chris Kappler was one of the Missouri deer hunters who will have fond memories of 2014. He shot this buck on opening day of the firearms season. The Kansas City Star

As we get ready to ring in the new year, it’s time to take one last look at the year that was.

So, how will 2014 be remembered by hunters, fishermen and other outdoors enthusiasts? It was a year of squabbles about the management of everything from Missouri deer to Kansas lesser prairie chickens, political turmoil, improved hunting and state-record fish.

Here’s a look at some of the high and low lights.

Missouri deer hunting turmoil

Before the 2013-2014 Missouri deer season even ended, the rumble of complaints carried across the state.

Deer populations were down. And for some, the hunting was the worst they could remember.

Experts blamed a severe outbreak of hemorrhagic disease that caused large losses of deer and the cumulative effect of several years of liberal hunting regulations, in which firearms hunter had no limit on the number of antlerless deer they could take in some parts of the state.

Hunters wanted change. And they got it. In the spring, the Missouri Department of Conservation announced big changes, reducing the the number of antlerless deer that hunters could take from unlimited to one in most counties.

The reason? To let more does survive and breed, hopefully fueling a comeback.

“We received a lot of feedback after the deer season that something had to be done,” said Jason Sumners, a deer biologist for the Department of Conservation. “But that feedback wasn’t the only reason we made changes. From a biological standpoint, we feel the regulation changes will hep rebuild our deer herd.”

Captive-deer controversy

An ugly fight over deer management also erupted in the Missouri General Assembly.

After the Missouri Department of Conservation proposed stringent regulations on the operators of captive-deer farms — moves it hoped would reduce the risk of spreading Chronic Wasting Disease from captive to wild deer — the farmers claimed the state was trying to put them out of business.

They brought the fight to the General Assembly, and lobbied hard to get management of deer changed from the Department of Conservation to the Department of Agriculture, which they hoped would be more sympathetic to their interests.

Measures calling for that change were passed by both the House and the Senate, but the final bill was vetoed in July by Gov. Jay Nixon. A later attempt to overturn the veto barely failed.

The fight isn’t over, though. A group of deer farmers who are members of the Missouri Deer Association in early December filed a lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Conservation and individual conservation commissioners to keep new rules and regulations from going into effect in January.

A chicken fight

Conservation interests also battled in Kansas when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March designated the lesser prairie chicken as a federally threatened species.

The prairie bird had long been in decline, but many blamed a prolonged drought that had devastated the species’ habitat, particularly in western Kansas. Kansas was part of a multistate effort working to improve the lesser prairie chickens’ habitat problems, and it forecast the birds’ comeback once the drought lifted.

But the federal government made the designation anyway, citing the bird’s declining numbers.

The announcement brought anxiety to many, including Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who feared moves to protect the lesser prairie chicken could have a major impact on western Kansas’ lifeblood, the agricultural and energy industries.

No record deer season, but it was still better than last year’s

Finally, some good news for Missouri deer hunters.

The weather turned cold and snowy just in time for the firearms deer opener Nov. 15. And that had the deer on the move.

The result? Hunters shot 167,020 deer during the 11-day gun season, almost 10,000 more than were taken in 2013.

That total was far short of a record, but it showed that Missouri still can produce good hunting, even when the deer population is down.

Bottoms are up

When Cheyenne Bottoms isn’t fighting drought, which occurs often, it is a sight to behold.

This was one of those years. The huge wetlands complex managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism in central Kansas, was teeming with water and flooded vegetation, a dream for ducks and hunters alike.

Large numbers of ducks, primarily blue-winged teal, flocked to the area in early fall and the hunting was outstanding. An early freeze brought a pause, but now that the marshes have open water again, waterfowl numbers are again climbing.

The latest waterfowl count at Cheyenne Bottoms indicated that there are 35,000 to 70,000 ducks and 50,000 to 100,000 geese using the marshes.

Missouri attracted the ducks, but the hunting was still tough

Missouri had no trouble attracting ducks this year.

With a near-record number of waterfowl heading south this fall and good habitat here to attract them, the Show-Me State has stopped impressive numbers of ducks.

But strangely, hunters haven’t prospered the way they should have. Consider recent harvest data throughout Missouri.

At Grand Pass, duck numbers were near 150,000 in the closing days of the season, yet hunter success was only fair at best. The same was true at Four Rivers and Schell-Osage, where duck numbers have been about 90,000, but hunting has been mediocre.

Officials blame “stale” birds — ducks that have been around for a while and have learned the ropes.

Kansas pheasant and quail hunting improves

Kansas pheasant and quail hunters hope they hit rock bottom last year.

After they took record low numbers of birds in the 2013-2014 season, they have fared better this year. Though the season will continue through Jan. 31 and no harvest figures are in, wildlife biologists say it’s obvious that there are more birds out there. As Wildlife, Parks and Tourism predicted after summer population surveys, the best pheasant hunting has come in the Smoky Hills. The Flint Hills region has produced the best quail hunting.

Kansas state-record trout

Josh McCullough of Spring Hill started off the fishing season in style in February when he caught a huge rainbow trout that had been stocked at Kill Creek Lake in Johnson County.

The rainbow, which weighed 15.72 pound, was later declared a Kansas state record. He caught the monster on Berkley Gulp Eggs shortly after the ice had gone off the lake.

“There were rumors gong around that they had stocked a few fish up to 12 pounds this year,” he said. “But I didn’t expect anything like this.”

A promising Missouri turkey season

Missouri turkey hunters will have fond memories of 2014.

They shot 43,273 birds in the three-week firearms season that ended May 11. Add the 4,332 turkeys shot during the youth season and Missouri had a spring harvest of 47,605.

This was the third consecutive year the harvest has climbed in Missouri.

The loss of a legend

The fishing world lost one of its greats in January when J.D. Fletcher, a longtime guide and resort owner in the Ozarks, passed away at age 83.

Fletcher guided from 1958 to 2009, taking customers for float fishing trips on the Kings River and white- and largemouth-bass trips on Table Rock Lake. He also operated Devil’s Dive Resort near Eagle Rock, Mo.

To reach outdoors editor Brent Frazee, call 816-234-4319 or send email to bfrazee@kcstar.com.