HONOBIA — When it comes to hunting Bigfoot, Ron Morehead has some sage advice.

“I think we need to open our minds up,” said the self-described author, adventurer and researcher who is renowned for capturing the best Bigfoot/Sasquatch audio recordings, known as the Sierra Sounds. Morehead said the recordings of animal noises are evidence of Bigfoot’s existence.

These days, Morehead travels the world, looking into the unexplained.

Last weekend, he was in Oklahoma’s small community of Honobia, sharing his knowledge with Bigfoot enthusiasts of all ages and from all walks of life at the annual Honobia Bigfoot Conference and Festival.

For one weekend each fall, the festival draws 1,000 to 2,000 people to this remote corner of the state. Last year, organizers raised enough money to help fund three $500 college scholarships.

If there’s one unexplained mystery that captures the human imagination — other than maybe aliens — it’s Bigfoot.

Festival organizer Tom Hefner said television producers in Fort Smith, Ark., reported that they always see a spike in ratings when doing stories on Bigfoot.

It’s easy to understand how this community tucked away in the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma — locals pronounce its name “Ho-nub-ee” — could be an ideal habitat for the elusive ape-man. There are more trees than humans, and thick foliage obscure views along the two-lane road winding into town.

The town, itself, just a small dot on the map, straddles LeFlore County, which reportedly boasts the most Bigfoot sightings in Oklahoma.

Bigfoot is such an attraction this year that two different festivals had been planned just a few miles apart. The second was canceled at the last minute when an organizer suffered a severe medical problem.

Sure, there are plenty of Bigfoot skeptics, but something about this place changes their minds.

“I was kind of dubious when I went out,” Hefner said of his first Bigfoot hunt. “It seemed like we were hunting Santa Claus. But that’s not the case. I’m a lot more open-minded about it.”

(Even taking Morehead’s advice to keep an open mind, this reporter did not spot any Bigfoot last weekend other than a costumed monster, a metal Bigfoot sign, a purported Bigfoot skeleton, and a giant statute holding an American flag.)

Morehead said in his 40 years of interacting with the ape-man, he’s found Bigfoot to be “bigger, stronger, faster and stealthier” than people, which means it easily avoids humans.

“Why are they so elusive?” Morehead asks a captivated audience, as one woman eats a bag of popcorn. “Well, you could say they don’t want to have anything to do with our tax system or they don’t want to vote.”

His theories explaining Bigfoot’s elusiveness variously involve alien intervention and quantum physics, which he said might explain how the creature can vanish in a blink of an eye.

Just because people have never captured definite proof of Bigfoot’s existence, many swear on a stack of Bibles that they’ve encountered the ape-man.

Morehead hasn’t encountered a Bigfoot for more than a year, he said, but he claims there are ways to draw them out.

When in the mountains, go in groups of no more than four. Two is the most preferable.

“Be simple. Be predictable. Be cheerful. Be sober,” he said.

Jeff Meldrum, an anatomy and anthropology professor at Idaho State University who studies the evolution of human locomotion, said he’s fascinated by legends of Bigfoot, Yeti and the Russian Wildman.

And he’s convinced Bigfoot exists.

DNA testing of unexplained tissue, scat and hair is under way in an effort to pinpoint a new species, he said. While he’s never seen one of the creatures himself, he noted convincing evidence that a species exists. That includes more than 250 large, unexplained, five-toed footprints — most of which have been found in the western United States.

“These mystery primates are gaining more attention in mainstream science as the context for them takes shape,” he said.

Many of Meldrum’s colleagues aren’t as convinced, he said, though they’re always hopeful of discovering a new species.

The challenge, he said, is to convincingly argue Bigfoot’s existence. Meldrum admits that believing in Bigfoot can affect one’s credibility — particularly if one is an academic.

Morehead admits to the audience that he has little mainstream credibility — a fact that doesn’t seem to phase the Bigfoot enthusiasts in Honobia.

But the mystery of Bigfoot lingers across the nation. Meldrum’s next speaking engagement was in Yakima, Wash., as a speaker at the city’s natural history museum, which is featuring a nine-month exhibit on Sasquatch.

Janelle Stecklein is the Oklahoma state reporter for CNHI’s newspapers. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com or on Twitter at @ReporterJanelle.

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