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Outdoor Nation Expo Founders Teach Others The Traditions

 

August 19, 2021

Countywide & Sun/Natasha Dunagan

Levi Baker hands a flathead catfish back to Dusty Nelms, of Tecumseh, after Nelms climbed out of the tank in which he was demonstrating noodling. Baker and Nelms were part of the Fetch-n-Fish High-Flying Dog Show at the Outdoor Nation Expo on Aug. 14. Nelms carried the fish down the ramp and let everyone pet it before replacing it in the tank.

Thousands filled the FireLake Arena on Friday and Saturday for the Outdoor Nation Expo, one of the largest free events in Oklahoma. It ran Aug. 13-14 in conjunction with the FireLake Fireflight Balloon Fest for the fourth year.

Primarily aimed at teaching children and interested adults the sports of fishing and hunting, the expo offered two new fishing attractions this year. The Navy Bass Anglers area included an above-ground swimming pool filled with catfish, where families could pay to fish, catch-and-release, for a certain amount of time. At another booth, children were taught how to cast for fish properly.

Returning this year was the Perch-Master Classic where children could fish at the FireLake geothermal pond using a cane pole and corn for bait. According to the Outdoor Nation Expo website, kids have caught "as many as 40 fish in 30 minutes." Located behind the balloon festival area, a tram shuttled young fishermen and women to the area and back until Saturday afternoon.

Those wishing to combine archery and fishing could learn the art of bowfishing from guides Jaci and Dustin Statton, of Meeker, or Todd Wells. Jaci Statton said she has been bowfishing for seven years, and they are involved in the Youth World Bowfishing Championship, which is held each year at Fort Gibson Lake.

Another way of fishing, noodling, was demonstrated by Dusty Nelms, of Tecumseh, during the Fetch-n-Fish High Flying Dog Show. Presented by Fetch-n-Fish Productions of Checotah, the dog show featured four well-trained adult dogs that were either taught to dock dive into a tank of flathead catfish or to hunt for shed antlers, depending on their feelings toward water. Jason Reynolds, with the help of Levi Baker, led the show with lots of audience participation. The children got a tank-side view and sometimes more than they bargained for in the form of splashes from the tank and shaking wet dogs. They gave two performances each day, and Katt Daddy, of Swamp People, was introduced to the audience on Saturday.

Other attractions included seminars by Jeff Danker of BuckVentures; the Army National Guard fun center with a rock-climbing wall, corn hole, and knocker ball; youth archery lanes; and BB-gun shooting.

Besides the catfish fishing, the only other attraction with a charge was the Extreme Animal Petting Zoo, which featured a kangaroo joey, monkey, lemur, boa constrictor, and other snakes, spiders, and bunnies. The charge was $5, and visitors could go through the petting zoo as many times as they liked.

Co-founder Rick Gage, who owns Tecumseh Oxygen and Medical Supply, said there were 65 vendors, and the arena was sold out of booth spaces.

Both nights concluded with concerts onstage behind the balloon festival. Friday night, Vince Van and the Outlaws performed, and Saturday night, country singer and hunter Craig Morgan took the stage.

Before it was the Outdoor Nation Expo (ONE), Gage, along with fellow founder Jerred Eversole, had the idea for a traditional hunting and fishing expo where they would charge admission. That was the UR Hunt Expo held in 2016. Gage said, following their first attempt, Linda Capps, Vice-Chairman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation (CPN), contacted him and asked if they would like to combine forces. Gage and Eversole changed the dates of their expo to coincide with the balloon festival and made the admission free.

Gage said they worked with CPN, which became their title sponsor, and they found 40-50 sponsors, as well, in order to fund the expo.

"The tribe stepped up," said Gage. "And they helped us with just so many different things to make it free to the public. And then, I can't even begin to tell you how much community support we get from the local businesses and just different organizations, (like) Visit Shawnee. Everybody has just jumped on board with it, especially over the last few years. I think it's just grown and grown and grown."

Gage and Eversole agreed that the expo would not be possible without the help of nearly 30 volunteers.

The co-founders have redirected their goal from making money to teaching hunting and fishing to those who are new to the sports.

"What we're trying to do is introduce as many people to all the different things in the outdoors as we can, all different ages, too," said Gage. "... There's something out there for everybody, and that's what we're trying to do."

Gage grew up in the country hunting squirrels with a .22, and learned from his father, Joe Gage, to eat whatever they brought home. So, he finds it "weird" that some children have never hunted or fished.

"I'm 50 years old, and my dad started taking me hunting and fishing whenever I was old enough to go, which was four or five years old," he said. "And so, I was fortunate enough that he kind of instilled it into me, and me and Jerred both, we feel like, you know, we need to pass that on, and ... we need to make sure that we promote to as many people as we can, give them the opportunity to experience that and get involved ... because ... if we don't, it'll die off."

Eversole, who owns Deep Fork Productions in Stroud, took his first deer at age 8 or 9 with his uncle - agreed and explained why they wanted to have a more "interactive" expo.

"I've been involved in a lot of other outdoor expos during my business that I do for marketing and video production," said Eversole. "I have seen the same old stuff every show, and basically, you can describe it as a mall. You came in, and you shopped, and you left. ... It really didn't change anybody, didn't introduce into archery or hunting or fishing or anything. We wanted a show that changed that."

"Our sport is declining. We don't see it because we're on the inside, but from the outside looking in, our sport is declining. If we don't recruit new hunters, then our sport that we enjoy dies," he added. "The reason we created the name ONE is we need to come together as one to promote our sport, to recruit new hunters and fishermen."

Gage said, by combining the outdoor expo and the balloon fest, they get visitors who are not necessarily familiar with outdoor sports, so it has worked out well. In 2019, it was estimated that the expo's attendance was between 37,000 and 38,000 people, according to Eversole. That was before they were forced to skip a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Also in 2019, Gage and Eversole partnered with CPN for a different venture: the ONE TV show on local channel 52 (KSBI). Every Sunday at 1 pm, they and their families demonstrate their skill and their love for hunting. Gage and his wife, Nicole, along with their children, Taylor, 17, Chloe, 16, Emily, 15, and Boston, 8, and Eversole, his wife, Kristen, and their son, Mason, 12, have demonstrated hunting whitetail deer and turkey, hunting techniques, and the safety measures involved, at their farms in Oklahoma and all over the state. The two families have also hunted elk in Montana; whitetail in Illinois, Kansas, and Alberta, Canada; and elk and mule deer in New Mexico. They invite other families with them, on occasion, to share the experience.

"The thing I like about this is our families are not about the husband running away and hunting by himself," said Eversole. "I would put my wife and my son, and, I think, his (Gage's) family, up against any other seasoned, veteran hunter. We travel as families, and taking somebody new hunting is kind of where, I think, both of us are at."

"We definitely go out for our thrill, but to see our kid and some other kid take their first animal and enjoy it and get hooked is getting more rewarding as I get older," he said.

Countywide & Sun/Natasha Dunagan

Children at the Outdoor Nation Expo laugh as Rio retrieves his deer antler, taken from him by speaker Jason Reynolds, during the Fetch-n-Fish High Flying Dog Show at FireLake Arena, in Shawnee, on Aug. 14.

Eversole's favorite hunt was his fifth elk hunt in Montana, with Rick and Joe Gage, when he finally shot an elk. He said he had not even seen an elk on some trips.

For Gage, his favorite hunts have involved his children taking big bucks. He has also enjoyed taking his wife elk hunting in Montana for four years, even though she hasn't found her monster elk yet.

"There's nothing like being in Montana, one of the prettiest places in the world to me, and hearing those elk bugle," he said. " ... I truly don't think there's anything prettier than seeing that, a big bull elk up close bugling like that. It's amazing."

"I've taken my wife for the last four years, and we did not take an elk. What I told her was, 'it's all about the experience. If you see the one that you want to shoot, then you shoot it.' She's passed on many bulls," he added. "I think we just enjoy being out there together. If one of those real big monsters came close enough, there's no doubt she would take it."

 

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