Summer’s Last Gasps!

A handsome ruffed grouse, first grouse of the season.

It just doesn’t seem fair. We were barely into the second week of October and we had our second major winter storm of the season. 

I won’t complain too much, however, as we haven’t gotten a four-foot snowfall, such as what slammed Browning in the September storm, though single digit low temps in early October does seem kind of unreasonable.

It’s not that snow in October is particularly unusual, or any other month, for that matter. In the 31 years we’ve lived in Butte, Montana, July is the only month in which we haven’t had a significant snowfall. It comes with the territory, when we consider that we live in a mountain valley, well above a mile above sea level.

Fortunately, we had lots of warnings from weather forecasters for both of those storms and we had time to prepare for dealing with the inconveniences of snow and cold.

At times, my wife and I both felt a bit like the 7th grader who suddenly realizes that school starts on Monday and there’s just one weekend left in the summer vacation. 

The first item on my agenda was to get in another hunt for ruffed grouse before the mountainsides got slammed with a foot or two of new snow.

It wasn’t one of those crisp, sunny days for my walk in the aspens. In fact, it was one of those chilly, gray days, with light snow falling. There were still patches of snow from the September storm, and the mountaintops were still white from that storm.

A highlight of the walk was spotting a couple moose ghosting through the trees along the top of a high ridge. 

A funny thing happened on our walk, however. This time I came home with a ruffed grouse, for a change. This was a handsome full-grown grouse with an intact set of tail feathers. Ruffed grouse are about the finest-eating upland birds on the planet, so we’re looking forward to a future dinner. This was the only grouse we put up on our walk, but it made the trip worthwhile.

The next few days were much nicer and I took advantage of them. I harvested the last of the garden, pulling carrots and potatoes. Then I dug up the garden, harvesting a bumper crop of aspen roots. I had already harvested tomatoes and chile peppers before the first snow event.

All that work meant I needed some rewards, so the next day started with a couple hours of tennis at the wonderful new tennis courts at Stodden Park. It was chilly when we started but by noon it was warm enough for most of us to shed a couple layers.

Early fall colors on the Big Hole River.

An hour later I was off to the Big Hole River for one last bit of fly-fishing. I’ll confess that I didn’t catch anything or even have any hint that any fish were there to disturb my enjoyment of the afternoon. My Lab, Kiri, enjoyed swimming in the icy water and then found a perch on a rock where she could watch the river flow by. 

The last “dog on a rock” photo for 2019.

We spent the next day getting ready for another snowstorm. With the prediction of seriously cold weather, my wife and I decided we needed to harvest our apple tree. Our apples really could have used some more warm weather to sweeten up some more, but the predicted cold would ruin the fruit. We had a bumper crop of apples this year and it was fun to harvest the bounty and be able to share some with neighbors.

Both of us recalled, with a smile, a former next-door neighbor who leaned against the fence ridiculing us, years ago, as we worked at planting our tree. “Haw, haw, haw,” he chortled, “I just love to see people move to Butte and then plant fruit trees.”

Maybe Butte, Montana isn’t the best place in the world to plant an orchard, but we still enjoyed apple pies and apple crisp as we watched Arctic winds whip up our October snow.

A Walk in the Aspens

A bull moose stopped here a winter or two ago to drop an antler.

September was Public Lands Month, so I finished the month of September with a walk for ruffed grouse on area public lands. Actually, of the four days I spent hunting in September, all of them were on public lands, both federal and state public land.

On my last outing of September I ducked out of a meeting because of predictions for a major winter storm and I wanted to get out before an early snowstorm would complicate walks through the aspens.

Skies were mostly overcast and winds were swirling around when Kiri, my Labrador retriever, and I started a walk into the aspens. In the forest, however, the wind is more heard than felt, as the wind blows around the treetops.

Fall colors were emerging on this outing, compared to the green landscape of a couple weeks before. The aspens were just beginning to change so most of the colors were in the understory.

One of the next things I noticed was a seeming bumper crop of Oregon grapes in the ground cover. Over the years I’ve picked Oregon grapes and brought them home for jelly-making. I’ve also learned to not bring any home unless my wife has said she’d like me to pick some for processing. I frequently stopped, however, to pick some fruit for snacking and to keep my mouth moist. 

I’ve been hunting this area for many years and I’ve been watching the aspens grow and spread across previously grassy and brushy hillsides. Much of this tract of public lands was downwind (at least some of the time) from the big smelter stack near Anaconda. The toxic emissions from the smelter kept the hillsides mostly bare. 

Now, approaching 40 years from when the smelter shut down, and roughly 30 years since I started tramping these hills, the changes are no less than amazing. Aspens are a fast-growing tree and aspen saplings of 20 years ago are now mature trees, spreading across the landscape through their amazing root systems.

I’ll note that I have some aspens in my yard at home and it’s a challenge to keep aspen shoots cut down so that my lawn doesn’t turn into a forest. I also harvest an impressive amount of aspen roots from my garden. It’s a never-ending battle.

I like the aspens on the hillsides better, as the thickets spread out, re-foresting the area. 

Kiri and I aren’t alone in the forest. A couple whitetail deer, tails raised, scampered out of the aspen thickets shortly after we started our walk. That’s another change. When I first walked these hills, mule deer were more common. Further on our walk I spotted an antler lying on the ground where a bull moose had shed it a winter or two earlier. I kind of wanted to bring it home, but we were still a long way from finishing our walk so that antler is still out there.

As it happened, after a three and a half hour walk through trees, bogs, creek bottoms and meadows, we finished our walk without putting up a single grouse. It always surprises me when we don’t put up grouse, because we’re walking through prime grouse habitat. On the other hand, mountains are big places and it’s impossible to cover all likely spots where grouse might be found.

Our grouse walks in the next few weeks should get a little easier as the aspens drop their leaves and visibility improves.

On that topic, I’ll mention that if you enjoy fall foliage, now is the time to get out and do some “leaf peeping,” before it’s too late. As a general rule, fall colors in southwest Montana peak in the first week of October. Right now, leaves are dropping, but it’s a gradual process. 

These hikes in the mountain foothills can be a workout and there are never guarantees of success, as far as finding grouse. It’s a good thing there are always things to see.

Storm clouds and a promise of stormy weather.

Pheasants & Pronghorn Around the Corner

My black Lab, Kiri, and I after one of last year’s pheasant outings.

Montana’s hunting seasons are getting into full swing now that we’re into October.

The 2019 waterfowl season opened on Saturday, September 28, and will run into January. If you’re planning a late, late season trip for waterfowl, be sure to check the regulations, as closing dates will vary depending on hunting zones.

The sage grouse season closed at sundown on September 30, so if you’re hiking the sagebrush in coming weeks, don’t shoot at sage hens. 

The next major season opener is just over a week away, when the firearms pronghorn antelope and pheasant seasons open on October 12. The standard opening day for pheasants and pronghorn is the Saturday before Columbus Day (or alternative, such as Indigenous People’s Day, or Thanksgiving Day in Canada). 

On a personal note, I haven’t hunted pronghorn in recent years because my wife doesn’t care to eat pronghorn venison and I’m not about to put meat in the freezer that won’t get eaten. On the same basis, I haven’t hunted sage grouse for many years. I made a deal with my wife. If I didn’t bring home any more sage hens, she wouldn’t throw any more out. 

The next openers will be the youth deer hunt season, which will be on October 17 and 18. Note: Those dates are on Thursday and Friday of that week, and coincide with the annual teacher’s convention break from school.

Of course, the big opener, what many people consider the real hunting season, the general deer and elk season, opens on Saturday, October 26, and that season runs through December 1.

I’ve been hunting grouse since the first day of September, but it’s the pheasant season that really gets my attention. 

I’ve been hunting pheasants since I was around 15 years old, and that adds up to a lot of seasons. I’ve been fortunate to live in, or relatively near to pheasant country my whole life, even when job transfers moved us around a bit. I’ve hunted pheasants in my home state of Minnesota, where my first hunts were on the family farm. Since then, I’ve found and hunted pheasants in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. 

The adaptability of pheasants enables these big, gaudy birds to live and thrive in varied habitat, whether Midwestern cornfields, prairie grain fields, grasslands, wetlands, river bottoms, and mountain foothills. 

Pheasant hunting has changed over the years, as rules change, land ownership changes, and rural culture changes. When I was a kid, living in southern Minnesota, it was unusual for a farmer to put a “no hunting “ sign on their gates. Similarly, years ago in both the Dakotas and Montana, if there wasn’t a “no trespassing” sign on the property, you could go hunting.

 I won’t call it progress, but the modern reality is that unless you are hunting on public land, you’re going to have to ask for permission to hunt pheasants. I consider myself fortunate in that I’ve been able to hunt on some farms and ranches for many years. Still, I generally call the landowners ahead of time to reserve dates, and after a hunt I make sure that they know how much I appreciate the opportunity to recreate on their lands. 

Other options include hunting on Block Management lands. Keep in mind that even then, you may have to call in advance, sometimes months in advance, to reserve dates.

Whatever hoops you have to jump through, when you do get the opportunity to hunt pheasants, it all becomes worthwhile when, hopefully with the help of a good bird dog, a pheasant flushes from a clump of brush, cackling and scolding as it claws for the sky. 

When I first started hunting, and really was quite clueless about it, I about jumped out of my boots the first time a rooster pheasant flushed at my feet. After many years, I’d like to think I take things a bit more in stride.

Still, when I don’t get a thrill when a pheasant flushes, I’ll know it’s time to quit hunting and give my guns away. 

Paying Respects to a Forgotten Child

Final resting place of a forgotten child.

I paid my respects to Blondie last week.

It was part of a trip into the mountains in search of ruffed grouse. A grouse covert I have gone to over the years bears the scars of mining operations from over a century ago. It’s a creek bottom that was mined with hydraulics, using high pressure hoses, similar to fire hoses, to break down the creek’s banks, sending dirt downstream, and hopefully exposing traces of gold in what was left.

In recent years there has been remediation work downstream to move some of the dirt that washed down and to restore the stream. In the area I hunt, Mother Nature has been working, this past century, to return the creek bottom to a more natural condition.

It’s a tough area to walk, as there are piles and rows of rocks left after the dirt washed downstream. Walking on those rocks demands care so as to not trip or fall. Still, trees and brush have grown up in that creek bottom. There are boggy spots, thick aspen and willows, and some fallen trees. It isn’t easy to get around in there, but it is ruffed grouse habitat.

I hadn’t hunted there in a few years. In fact, the last time I’d hunted it my old Lab, Flicka, was my hunting partner. She’s been gone for over four years now, and it was several years before that when we last hunted that boggy creek bottom.

In these intervening years, it seems like the brush has gotten thicker and the boggy spots boggier. The grouse are still there. In some of the thicker spots I heard a couple grouse flush and fly away. I never saw them but it’s always good to know the birds are there.

The last remains of a century-plus old mining camp.

There are a couple old log buildings on a hillside, slowly falling into the ground, that still mark the remains of an old mining camp.

As it had been a few years, I decided it was time to go up the mountainside to pay my respects.

Something like 30 years ago, on one of my first walks into the covert I came on the grave on a hillside overlooking the creek bottom and old mining camp. What caught my eye was a little picket fence outlining what appears, by its size, to be a child’s grave.

The picket fence had been painted, more than likely about 20 years earlier. Now, 30 years later, that paint job is at least 50 years old and it shows.

While paint peels and fades, the concrete cross at the head of the grave seems impervious to the elements. 

A concrete marker remembers the child.

On the horizontal cross member, an inscription reads, “BL. CARRON.” On the vertical, it reads, “Nov. 1908.” A medallion set into the concrete reads, “Our Darling,” an expression of love and grief from a heartbroken family.

I don’t know what BL stands for. It might be Blanche, or, in my mind, possibly, Blondina, and so I think of her as “Blondie.” I don’t know how old she might have been, or what might have been the cause of death. In those days before immunizations for many childhood diseases, childhood deaths were not uncommon. I know my mother grieved, much of her life, the loss of a little brother who died in childhood. 

A few years back, I searched, without result, through old newspapers at the Butte Archives to see if there was any information about Blondie’s life and death. 

I suspect that, aside from a few hunters, few people are aware of or have visited this forgotten place of rest on this wooded mountainside. With the passage of time, anybody who knew her or grieved for her has long since gone to their own eternal rest.

The mountain seems to be looking after her. A nearby large beetle-killed pine tree had fallen since my last visit, but it fell some ten or so feet away from the picket fence, not disturbing the grave. 

Rest in peace, little one. I hope to check up on you again in a few years.

Renewed Logging on Tongass Bad for Environment and Taxpayers

A Tongass National Forest Stream, and yes that’s a big black bear in the water.

It doesn’t seem that long ago, but 13 years ago this month I took my first and, so far, only trip to Alaska. I was on a press junket partially sponsored by Trout Unlimited, with the goal of getting more outdoor writers acquainted with the marvels of the Tongass National Forest.

We went to Prince of Wales Island, one of the nation’s largest islands, and an important part of the Tongass National Forest.

It’s a magical place in many ways, part of the world’s largest temperate rain forest, where it normally gets some 200 inches of precipitation every year. It’s home to large tracts of old-growth forests, with centuries-old cedars and other conifers that tower to the skies, where walking into the forest is like entering a cathedral.

Considering that Trout Unlimited sponsored the trip, it’s not surprising that fishing was involved. With all that precipitation, there are lakes, streams and rivers on the island, and in September we were hoping to get in on a big silver salmon run. As it happened, the silvers were just beginning to show up, and I didn’t catch any. The streams were full of pink salmon, however, and we quickly learned the characteristic smell of dead and rotting spawned out salmon, and how salmon are an integral part of that salmon ecosystem.

Spawning salmon return to their natal rivers and after fulfilling their final destiny, the fish die. The dead and dying fish feed other fish, sea gulls, eagles, bears and other critters. After eating, birds and animals spread the salmon nutrients throughout the forest, nourishing that amazing system.

That’s me with a Dolly Varden trout, a native Charr that’s part of that salmon ecosystem.

Logging has long been a part of the Tongass, though not without controversy. Big timber companies like to clear-cut big tracts of forest, not surprisingly. Clear cutting means big equipment crawling across hillsides, creating roads and devastation. That’s just a start.

In the rain forest, vegetation comes back in a hurry, but in the Tongass, it comes back in a tangle of brush and trees that’s dog hair thick. In fact, it’s impenetrable as far as wildlife is concerned. Eventually, like after a couple centuries, the new forest will again take on characteristics of an old growth forest, but in the meantime, as far as wildlife is concerned, it’s a desert.

A tangle of re-growth. It’s a desert for wildlife.

Trout Unlimited doesn’t totally oppose logging. In the Tongass, big trees occasionally blow down in the forest, opening an area to sunshine and re-growth. Small logging projects that TU endorses mimic nature, without the environmental damage that big clear-cutting projects create.

I’m re-visiting this 2006 trip to Alaska because on August 27, President Trump instructed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt the Tongass National Forest from logging restrictions that have been in effect for the last 20 years.

It would also undercut a Clinton administration “roadless rule,” which has survived almost 20 years—until now.

Returning to big clear-cut logging in the Tongass threatens southeast Alaska’s environment, meaning the salmon ecosystem. According to a Washington Post report, the salmon industry generates some $986 million annually. Returning salmon bring nutrients that nourish the forests, while intact forests keep streams cool and trap sediment.

Chris Wood, the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, worked on the roadless rules while working at the Forest Service in the ‘90s. He told the Post that “the golden goose is the salmon, not the trees,” adding, “They need to keep the trees standing in order to keep the fish in the creeks.

In past years, government expenditures, such as for road building and other infrastructure costs, far exceeded revenues from timber sales. Thus big logging projects end up as financial boondoggles and a loss to taxpayers.

Frankly, it’s hard to keep up with the Trump Administration’s parade of bad policy decisions, even just those affecting environment and the outdoors. Recent cases in point include Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ordering NOAA administrators to clamp down on weather scientists, or the president’s recent order to push back Bush Administration legislation and Obama directives that began a phase-out of obsolete incandescent light bulbs.

It’s a challenge but it’s worth the effort.

Shooting the Air – Grouse Season Begins

The endless view from the mountaintop.

When the opening of the upland bird season comes each September, I tend to have a bit of uneasiness about the coming of a new season.

I worry about what kind of spring hatch the grouse might have had in the mountains though there’s nothing I can do about that. The mountains are there and the only thing I can do is put on my boots and go see for myself if the birds are there.

Taking those walks across those mountainsides is what makes me uneasy. There’s no getting around that I’m a “senior” hunter. There are benefits to being a senior citizen. We get breaks on the cost of licenses. Better yet, we can usually get out during the middle of the week when most people are stuck in the workplace.

On the other hand, as we advance through geezerhood, we’re trying to beat the relentless forces of aging. As a friend recently commented, “When you hit 80, you hit a wall.” Another friend, who has had several health issues the last few years, commented that, “It’s one big game of whack-a-mole.”

After getting up before dawn on the first day of September, and driving up the Forest Service road to the top of a mountain, it was a good feeling to look across the landscape and see, once again, the panorama of mountains for as far as the eyes can see. An even better feeling was to drop a couple shells into my shotgun and start hiking up the mountainside in search of blue (dusky) grouse.

I’ve been hunting this mountain for the better part of the last 30 years and have had some great success in some years and, unfortunately, not much success in recent years. In that first walk of the season, I didn’t see any grouse. At one point, Kiri, my black Labrador retriever, got excited about a scent and started following the elusive trail of bird scent. The trail eventually faded to nothing, and our first walk ended back at the truck without seeing any grouse.

A couple walks later, on a sagebrush ridge, Kiri got excited about another scent and her body language said, “Hey, pard, this is a hot one.” She followed the scent through the sagebrush, faster than I could follow, and about 50 yards up the hillside a blue grouse took to the air with a thunder of wings. It was out of range but I took a shot anyway. The bird kept flying, of course.

Kiri in search of scent.

Kiri returned to me after this flurry of excitement and flopped down on her belly, her body language now saying, “I need a break.” Indeed, the day was heating up and it felt hot in the sunshine. Taking timeout for a few minutes in the shade was welcome for me, also.

We finished our walk and returned to camp for a late breakfast.

The next morning Kiri and I were again on the mountain hoping for better success. That was not to be the case. This morning we didn’t find any scent and didn’t flush any birds.

Still, when we got back to camp and sat down for breakfast, I told my wife that, in spite having nothing to show for our efforts, I felt good about it. My legs felt good. I felt good.

I give credit to a love for tennis. Since spring, and for many years, I’ve been playing tennis two to three times a week. We play a relaxed style of doubles tennis. We have no aspirations for going to the U.S. Open. Still, the game is a great way to maintain good legs and wind and most hunting is all about legs and wind.

So, the season started off with lack of success, but I’m looking forward to many more walks in the grouse woods in coming weeks. I figure that even if my grouse hunting doesn’t put much meat in the freezer, when I turn to hunting pheasants in October, those treks across the prairie will be a walk in the park.

Montana Archery Season Almost Here

Montana hunting country – a preview of fall colors.

I’d like to share some news from my first grouse hunts of the year, but deadlines mean that this week’s column has to be written and submitted well before I take my first walk across the mountainsides. So, I could suggest that you imagine my coming back to camp after a morning hunt with limits of dusky grouse.

Unfortunately, imagination often works better than reality.

In any case, I hope to have a story or two for next week’s column.

If you’re looking for hunting stories, or want to share stories, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has established a Facebook page for people who want to share stories, My Montana Hunt. It’s a place for people to share their experiences, photos and discuss any and all things related to hunting.

Actually, there are a number of hunting groups on Facebook. I’ve been following several the last few years, mostly to do with upland bird hunting, fly-fishing, and even one for fans of 28 gauge shotguns.

I figure that if enough of us fill Facebook with stories and photos about hunting and fishing, there won’t be enough space for Russian political propaganda.

The deer and elk archery seasons open this Saturday, September 7, across Montana. I won’t be part of it as my frame of mind is that any hunting that doesn’t involve carrying a shotgun and following a dog across the countryside is kind of pointless.

I have messed around a bit with archery over the years, including a long ago junior high shop project in which I built a longbow. I don’t recall what kind of wood I used but I had a long stave, and the technique was to use a drawknife and whittle away on the wood until it looked like a bow.

I’d work on it every day in shop class and take it to the teacher who’d suggest, “You’d better even it off some more on one end.” Then the next time, he’d say I had to whittle more off the other end. By the time it finally passed inspection, the bow didn’t have much power left.

Still, for four or five years, until it broke, I had a lot of fun with that bow. Even if it wasn’t a powerful bow, it sent arrows off with authority and pretty good accuracy. I don’t know, and never will know, whether it had enough power to send an arrow through a deer or elk, but I do recall skewering a blackbird or two.

For those people who will be pursuing deer and elk with archery equipment, be prepared to deal with success. That means dealing with a large animal in potentially hot weather.

The fact of death is that from the moment it happens, decomposition begins.

From the hunter’s standpoint, the challenge is to delay and maybe even stop the process, and that means cooling things off.

Two parts of anatomy are working against the lucky hunter: the hide and the skeleton. The hide, with a heavy coat of hair, insulates the meat from cooling. The bones hold heat, warming the surrounding flesh.

So, the well-prepared early season hunter should be prepared to skin the critter as soon as possible to let heat escape. Take a large ice chest along in your hunting vehicle filled with, what else, ice. Fill the body cavity with ice to get things cooling off as quickly as possible. If you don’t do your own processing, get the carcass to a wild game processor as quickly as possible, where it can hang in a walk-in cooler. If you do your own processing, you have extra challenges, assuming you don’t have your own walk-in cooler.

Best of luck to our archery hunting friends. Chasing big game with a bow and arrow is a big challenge, with low rates of success. Still, archery elk hunters often have the advantage being able to call in trophy-sized bull elk. Rifle hunters seldom have that experience, as the rut is over by late October.

Have fun and if you have success, take care of that animal.

Hunting Begins This Weekend!

My Lab, Kiri, in search of grouse scent.

It’s kind of a mental stretch, coming in the house all hot and sweaty after mowing the lawn, and then start thinking of going hunting. I’m not a huge fan of hot weather, though the tomatoes and chile peppers in my garden need the hot weather to start ripening before an early frost kills them off.

While we’re still over three weeks away from the Autumnal Equinox, summer is about done, even if it is hot (or was last week when I wrote this column). Our hours of daylight are two hours less than in mid-June, and it’s chilly in the mornings. Chokecherries are ripe and if we want to make something from the fruit we’d better hurry before the birds beat us to the harvest.

Of course, this coming weekend is the long Labor Day weekend and that means that at the crack of dawn on Sunday, the upland bird season begins, and weather permitting, I’m planning to be hiking across a mountainside in the early morn, following Kiri, my Labrador retriever, in search of grouse.

Last year was kind of a downer in my grouse season and I’m hoping for more success this year, though for some reason it seems the birds fly faster than they used to, and the mountainsides seem steeper, as well.

Still, it’s personally important, to my way of thinking, to be out there for a weekend of “cast and blast,” combining my love of fly-fishing and upland hunting in a beautiful corner of Montana. Montana might not be paradise, but it’s close enough.

This weekend starts the parade of season openers, with archery season for deer and elk opening on September 7, black bear, moose, mountain sheep and goats, on September 15, upland bird and waterfowl youth hunt on September 21 and 22, waterfowl on September 28, pronghorn antelope and pheasants on October 12, and the general deer and elk season, or what many people just call “hunting season,” on October 26.

Of course, some of those hunting seasons, such as for moose and wild sheep, for example, are just for the lucky people who won the lottery and drew one of those rare tags for what will likely be their once-in-a-lifetime chance to hunt these iconic animals.

Personally, I’ve never applied for a moose or sheep permit and doubt that I ever will. My hunting passions are mainly for birds and shotguns. If I take my rifle out of the case it’ll likely be for a fat young whitetail deer on some cold November day.

Still, it’s a privilege to live where it’s possible to hit that lottery jackpot and get that elusive tag and then plan and carry out a hunt that most people can only dream about.

A lot of people hunt in Montana, though perhaps not as many as we might think. According to Neil Whitney, a Licensing Business Analyst with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 175,671 Montana residents bought hunting licenses in 2017, about 17.5 percent of the population. In addition 48,577 non-residents bought licenses. So, roughly speaking, around 220,000 people hunt something in Montana. Some are primarily big game hunters. A growing number of non-residents are likely hunting upland game birds only.

Whether resident or non-resident, elk hunters or pheasant hunters, we can bet that a common thread for the majority of Montana’s hunters will be that they will be spending all or part of their outings on Federal or state public lands. I know that many of my outings will take place on Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and state Wildlife Management Area lands, plus an occasional walk on school trust lands.

Some of my hunts, especially for pheasants and waterfowl, will be on private lands, and I treasure the hospitality and friendship of the landowners who welcome me to their land.

Nevertheless, those Federal public lands, some 24 million acres, are our precious birthright, open to all. Use them, enjoy them, but don’t take it for granted.

Public lands are a sacred trust.

Montana’s Elk Shoulder Seasons Draw Controversy

Anaconda and Skyline Sportsmen clubs gather for a picnic and to talk about elk.

There’s been a feeling of autumn in the air this past week or so, with cool nights and chilly mornings. More than a few people are looking around the corner to September when hunting seasons begin. Of course, in Montana, hunting means elk for many, and in some areas of Montana, elk hunting started on August 15 when “shoulder” seasons began.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks established shoulder season elk hunting in 2015 in an effort to reduce elk populations in areas where there were excess numbers of elk on private lands. When those shoulder seasons began, the plan was to do a thorough review of the program after three years.

Last week, at a joint meeting of the Skyline Sportsmen and Anaconda Sportsmen clubs at Stodden Park in Butte, Nick Gevock, representing the Montana Wildlife Federation, presided over an extended discussion of the program. This was one of a number of such meetings with sportsmen’s clubs across Montana. Gevock said that he’d be presenting a summary of these meetings to the August 15 meeting of the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Gevock began the discussion with the Federation’s view of shoulder seasons, noting that some hunting districts now have elk populations below FWP objectives, yet FWP still plans to proceed with shoulder seasons. The Federation is also concerned with the ethics of such long hunting seasons targeting cow elk as early as mid-August, when cows are still raising calves, and in February, when pregnant cows are already stressed by winter.

Chris Marchion of Anaconda asserted that many Region 2 districts with shoulder seasons have populations below objectives and that calf populations are as low as 9 per 100 elk. He charged that, “The Department is making policy contary to biology.”

Julie Golia, a wildlife biologist stationed in Anaconda responded that elk move around a great deal and that winter aerial surveys don’t necessarily reflect where elk are during the normal hunting season. She added that many ranchers continue to have problems, with major losses of hay due to elk.

Key to elk problems is that elk sense where landowners don’t allow public hunting during the regular hunting season, and congregate there in large numbers. Some ranchers lease hunting rights to outfitters or allow fee hunting for trophy bull elk.

A new issue that complicates the problem of elk congregating on protected private lands is chronic wasting disease. We now know that CWD has been found in south central and north central areas, and most recently in the Libby area in the far western part of Montana. If CWD gets established that raises the threat of the disease spreading to domestic livestock. As one person commented, “We need buy-in from the ag community,” in solving the crowding issues.

A complicating factor is that the 2019 Legislature passed a resolution urging the Commission to continue shoulder seasons plus extend the seasons to public lands as well as private lands. While that was just a resolution, one person commented that it raises the possibility of a worst case scenario, of, after 2020, of a Republican governor as well as a Republican Legislature passing a new law mandating shoulder seasons, substantially taking FWP out of elk management.

Regarding the ethics of shoulder seasons, Wayne Hadley, a retired fisheries biologist, said the early and late seasons give ammunition to people, both in and out of Montana, who already disapprove of hunting. “We’re screwing with motherhood and the flag by shooting mothers with calves.”

Nick Gevock, Conservation Director, Montana Wildlife Federation.

In wrap-up remarks, Nick Gevock said that, after nearing completion of sportsmen club meetings around the state, it seems clear that the vast majority of attendees oppose shoulder seasons as a primary management tool. He also said that there is wide opposition to any plan to extend shoulder seasons to public land, adding, “That’s where we want the elk.”

The Fish & Wildlife Commission will be accepting comments until their next meeting on October 17.

Finally, I’ll just mention that something I’ve learned over the years is that if you want to get Montanans stirred up, just talk about elk management.

Bristol Bay in Danger!

Bristol Bay Region of Alaska (Map courtesy of prideofbristolbay.com.

In this somewhat odd occupation of writing columns about the outdoors I occasionally approach my weekly deadline in somewhat the same way Red Smith, a famous sportswriter of the 1940s, who wrote, “Writing a column is easy. You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear at your forehead. “ An earlier writer, Gene Fowler said it a bit differently, “Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at the blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Then there are times when I look at the calendar and look at the news and feel like I’m drinking water from a fire hydrant. There is just so much going on that it’s almost impossible to pick a topic.

We were off camping and fishing on the upper Big Hole River a week and a half ago, away from news, telephone and internet, and came home to be inundated with the most recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. The president addressed the nation, sticking to a script for a change, but blamed video games and mental health for the epidemic of mass shootings. This again ignores the thousand pound gorilla in the room: the fact that the country is awash with firearms. There are an estimated 393 million civilian-owned guns in the U.S. That’s 1.2 firearms for every man, woman, and child in America. As the Washington Post reports, the U.S., with around 4 percent of the world’s population, accounts for nearly half the civilian-owned guns in the world.

Then there are public land issues. A friend, a retired Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee, mentioned that he had seen, and this was confirmed in newspapers, new land use plans for Montana, in which virtually all BLM-managed lands, including sensitive areas of the Rocky Mountain Front and the Upper Missouri National Breaks National Monument were rated as open for oil and gas development, and virtually nothing would be protected from development.

Another ongoing news story is the National Rifle Association and how dissidents within the power structure are deserting what might be a sinking ship, citing how the organization has ignored extravagant spending by Wayne LaPierre and other financial mismanagement.

Then there is the news that the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew a 2014 Obama Administration ruling that had the effect of protecting the vast Bristol Bay region of Alaska. This is tantamount to giving a go-ahead to a consortium of foreign mining companies to begin development of the so-called Pebble Mine.

The Pebble Mine would be a massive project involving large open pit copper (plus gold and molybdenum) mines, slurry pipelines to a port on Cook Inlet, appropriation of some 35 billion gallons of water per year, building of roads and towns, and other infrastructure, in a relatively pristine wilderness. Scariest of all complications is the plan to build two artificial lakes to store acid mine waste behind 740-foot high dams, taller than the Washington Monument and St. Louis Arch—in a seismically active area.

What could go wrong?

The Bristol Bay region is home to the world’s largest salmon runs. All five of the eastern Pacific salmon species spawn in the bay’s freshwater tributaries. It’s a hugely important center for commercial salmon fishing, Native American subsistence fishing and hunting, and a thriving network of fishing lodges and outfitters that supports thousands of Alaskan jobs. As Chris Wood, CEO of Trout Unlimited puts it, “Alaska’s resource is outstanding and all we have to do to keep it intact is have the good sense to leave it alone.”

Nelli Williams, an Anchorage director for TU comments, “This foolish decision fails on all accounts. It neglects EPA’s responsibility to protect human health and clean water, it ignores science-based criticism of Pebble’s permit review by their own scientists…and is out of touch with the priorities of Alaskans and sportsmen and women.”

So, currently, I’m drinking from the fire hose, when what I’d prefer thinking about is late summer fly-fishing and the upland bird-hunting season, which is just around the corner.

BLM Lands at Risk!

Summer doesn’t last long, here along the Continental Divide. We didn’t really get any summer weather here in Butte until the middle of July. Now, on the 7th day of August, we look forward the three and a half weeks to when the upland bird season begins on September 1.

From past experience, we know that Labor Day weekend may still be in summer according to the calendar, but often as not, it’s autumn and don’t be surprised if it snows.

Still, once September begins, many Montana hunters and anglers will be on the road, looking for late summer fishing and early autumn bird hunting and archery hunting.

It’s a good chance that a lot of us will be recreating on Montana’s public lands, especially lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. When you’re walking across those federal public lands, keep in mind that those lands are at serious risk.

First of all, remember that David Bernhardt, a lawyer and lobbyist who represented oil and gas industry clients, including Halliburton and Independent Petroleum Association of America, heads the Department of Interior.  He was Deputy Secretary before his predecessor, Montana’s Ryan Zinke, left Interior because his stench of corruption was more than even Donald Trump could tolerate.

William Perry Lindley, Acting Director of BLM. Photo from Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

Next, the Administration is appointing William Perry Pendley to be acting (so won’t need Senate confirmation) director of the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley has a long history as an advocate for selling off federal public lands. He is a past president of Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), an organization largely funded by energy companies, which has frequently litigated in opposition to environmental laws.  As reported by the Flathead Beacon, MSLF has been representing a Louisiana energy company in a fight against canceling oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area on the Rocky Mountain Front, an area sacred to the Blackfeet Nation. Most public lands advocates regard Pendley’s appointment as putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

Finally, the Administration announced a decision to move the BLM headquarters from Washington D.C. to Grand Junction, Colorado. Cory Gardner, Colorado’s Republican senator, hailed the move as bringing the agency’s decision makers closer to the lands they manage. Others view the decision with alarm, fearing that many of the affected BLM headquarters employees would not make the move, with many of the agency’s top scientists among the losses.

Further, many regard the move as giving the oil, gas and coal companies a lot more power over the agency that manages so many of the west’s public lands.

So, as you plan your fall outings, whether for hunting or fishing (some of my favorite fishing sites on the Big Hole River and Madison River are managed by BLM), remember that the foxes in the Interior and BLM henhouses would prefer oil wells or coal mines on that land rather than sharp-tailed and sage grouse and pronghorn antelope. Better yet, sell it to some wealthy crony. The American public and the environment are just inconvenient nuisances.

While I’m on a rant, I take note of the president’s racist diatribes against the city of Baltimore, Maryland.

During my career with the Social Security Administration, I occasionally visited Baltimore, the Social Security Administration’s headquarters. While I wouldn’t choose to live there, or any other big city, I wouldn’t call it a rat hole, either.

After all, it’s a city with major league sports, prestigious universities, a major symphony orchestra (with financial problems, unfortunately), theaters, museums, churches, great architecture, and a spectacular harbor and waterfront, with some of the world’s best seafood, and where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner.

It’s at the head of Chesapeake Bay, with great fishing, sailing and boating.

Baltimore is a short distance from Washington D.C., and close to all the attractions of our nation’s capitol.

On the downside, it’s miserably hot and humid in the summertime, but so is Florida and people like to live there, too. Maybe it’s not “The Greatest City in America,” as a past mayor called it, but there’s a lot to like.

Rattlin’ the Big Hole River

Eric English enjoying some evening fishing.

To catch a grayling. That was the challenge.

We made a new friend this year, making connections through a Facebook fly-fishing group. Eric English is an emergency room physician from Richmond, Virginia and he has a serious fishing problem. He’s part of the so-called gig economy, doing stints at hospitals around the country, hopefully where he can catch fish, and between gigs, surprise, surprise, he goes fishing.

One of his regular gigs is the hospital in Sidney, Montana, and from that base he’s made trips to Spring Creek in Lewistown and the Madison River. I extended an invitation to come and fish with me on the Big Hole.

Things finally worked out and he scheduled a trip to Butte, then to Idaho to fish the Henry’s Fork and Silver Creek. One of his goals was to catch a grayling, a fish he’d never caught before.

I warned him that, while I can put him on water where I’m pretty sure grayling are present, catching a grayling is still a spin of the roulette wheel.

Eric made it to Butte and I took him to a stretch of water I’d fished on the 4th of July and had good luck, catching not only a grayling, but a Big Hole Grand Slam of sorts, landing rainbow, brook, and brown trout, plus a whitefish. I guess a true grand slam might include a westslope cutthroat trout, as well, but on the Big Hole, cutts are really too rare to have reasonable expectations of catching one.

Thunderstorms had rolled through during the night and a cold wind was blowing when we got to the river—not good for fishing but we started working our way up the river.

I caught the first fish, a whitefish, and from there Eric took over. In short order, he caught a whitefish and, happily, his first grayling, though just a little 6-incher. We worked our way to a pool I regard as magical, where a few years back I’d hit it when the fish had one of those feeding frenzies. During the course of that rainy afternoon, I’d caught well over 20 fish, including that Grand Slam. It was one of those insane days when I’d cast a fly and good-sized trout would fight over it.

A nice Big Hole arctic grayling. Mission accomplished!

It wasn’t that insane this time, but Eric did well, catching several brook trout and then a larger grayling, this one about 12 inches. I was standing next to him after taking some photos of the grayling. On his next cast, no sooner had his fly hit the water than a brown trout hit it, completing his Big Hole Grand Slam.

The next day we fished the lower Big Hole, downstream from Melrose. Sorry to say, the fish weren’t biting at all, though Eric did catch one respectable brown trout.

After a lunch break, we tried a different spot, near a bridge. We blanked on fish but on the walk out, Eric said, with a sense of urgency, “Snake!” I stopped and looked around, not seeing anything, and he grabbed my shoulder to keep me from moving and pointed to a spot just six feet in front of me. There was a 5-foot rattlesnake, cocked and loaded and with a chip on its shoulder. It had likely been resting under a slab of bark next to the path, and both of us, and my Lab, Kiri, had walked right by it earlier. It was thoroughly ticked off at us for upsetting his/her afternoon nap and wasn’t going to put up with any more of our nonsense.

An uninvited rattlesnake guarding its territory on the banks of the Big Hole River.

From a safe distance I took some photos and then we found a different way out, safely away from our venomous friend. For some odd reason, an air-conditioned bar with cold beer seemed the logical place to spend the rest of the afternoon.

We sent Eric on his way the next day to catch more fish in Idaho. He found success there, even on the fiendishly difficult Silver creek. But, he didn’t have the rattlin’ good time he had on the Big Hole.

Trout School – a book review

Trout School – a guide to flyfishing for trout on lakes.

My old hunting and fishing partner of 20 years ago, the late John Banovich, enjoyed fishing at Georgetown Lake with a couple of his old cronies. He would talk about catching big rainbow trout, theorizing that they were from a stocking of Kamloops rainbow trout, or “Kamaloops,” as he’d call them.

I don’t know if those rainbows he caught were actually from the Kamloops strain or not, and it’s a good question as to whether even a fisheries biologist could identify the strains of trout after the fish had been in a lake for a couple seasons.

In any event, Kamloops, British Columbia, is renowned for the large trout that live in some 100 lakes in that south central region of British Columbia.

Those large trout in the Kamloops area are also the topic of a new book, Trout School, Lessons from a Fly-Fishing Master, by Mark Hume, a Vancouver B.C. outdoor writer and journalist. It’s published in Canada by Greystone Books.

The book tells the story of Morris “Mo” Bradley, a now-elderly gentleman, who grew up in a coal mining region of central England, where, not too long ago, boys were expected to go to work in the coal mines as early as age 9 or 10. Mo went into the mines when he was 15 and worked underground for ten years. Through a lucky encounter, he got a job in a local auto body shop and quickly demonstrated a talent for the work.

Throughout his younger years, he learned to fish for the rough fish of England, and gained a reputation among fellow anglers for his angling skill. Still, trout were just a dream. “All the trout water was owned by his lordship,” he’d recall, though he also confesses that he was an accomplished poacher.

In 1965, when he was 28, he read a magazine article about the big trout in Kamloops B.C., and he went home and told his young wife, “We’re going to Canada,” and initiated the process to immigrate to Canada, where anybody could fish for big, beautiful trout, not just the wealthy.

In the mid 1960s, Kamloops was a cattle town with a population of around 10,000 people, though it has had dramatic growth since then, and is now a city of over 90,000. Mo quickly got hired at a local body shop and then got connected with the local fly-fishing community, and soon started studying the area lakes and their big trout. He started doing some guiding, sharing some of the techniques he developed from studying the aquatic insects in the lakes.

I have to confess that when I started reading the book, I was somewhat disappointed in that there wasn’t anything to learn about fishing trout streams and rivers, which is my main angling passion. Then it hit me; this book would have everything to do with fishing Georgetown Lake, or the Clark Canyon reservoir.

The book has a lot of information about fly-fishing for trout in lakes, with the aquatic insects that fish feed on, especially chironomids, along with lake-based mayflies, caddis and other insects. It includes illustrations of specialized flies that Mo Bradley uses or developed, and instructions for tying the flies.

The author, Mark Hume, along with his family, were good friends of Mo, and in a foreword, the author’s daughter, Claire Hume, recalled frequent phone calls with Mo booming out, “Get up here!” when a hatch was starting.

Mo is now in his 80s, and in recent years he has lost much of his eyesight, so his fishing is now quite limited. Still, he can still tie flies, and with the help of friends, he still is able to occasionally go fishing.

As for those Kamloops trout, there’s a sidebar in the book describing the Kamloops trout as “so distinct in its appearance and behavior, it was once considered a separate species,” though scientists later decided it was a local variant of the rainbow trout family.

This book tells you how to catch them. If you like fly-fishing for trout on lakes, this book is for you.

Late Summer Flyfishing Tips

The magic hour – evening flyfishing.

It’s mid-July and, for better or worse, spring runoff is over.

For those of us who like to wade rivers and streams in search of trout, this is the best part of the season. There are still good hatches of caddis and mayflies, along with golden stones, yellow sallies, and other aquatic insects. In the next week or so we’ll likely be seeing some spruce moths showing up along the streams. Also, in a couple weeks, we should be seeing some tricos, the smallest of our mayflies, showing up by the millions.

Of course, for the float angler, all those hatches are there for you, as well. Just keep in mind that, as water levels continue to drop, boating becomes more difficult, as we have to drag or push our boats through the shallow riffles.  I have a small pontoon boat, so I do both floating and wading, though I generally tend to think of my floating as transportation from one wading spot to another.

Over the years, I’ve caught more fish in late summer than any other time. For a number of years, I participated in Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ fishing log program, and looking back at a year or two of fishing logs, the numbers of fish I catch are the highest in August. That’s probably because the river levels are relatively low and fish are looking up for food, and during trico time, the food is abundant, but tiny. Fish have to feed actively to fill up.

While hot weather was mostly non-existent through May and June and into July, the warmest part of the summer is now and in coming weeks. We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed that flows don’t go so far down, coupled with hot weather, that there will be angling closures, as there have been in some years.

It usually seems to me that the best part of the day, during hot weather, is during mid to late morning, and as the day heats up, the insect hatches taper off and so does fish activity.

That’s not a hard and fast rule, of course. I recall one day, a few years ago, when I had a fun morning fishing a trico spinner fall. After taking a lunch break after the trico action, I went to another spot, just a few hundred yards upstream, and got into a spruce moth feeding frenzy. I don’t remember how many fish I actually caught, but I know I had almost continuous action just slowly working my way up just 50 yards, or so, of a long run, where feeding trout were lined up to pick off spruce moths.

I’ve also had many great evenings of fishing, casting soft-hackle wet flies across the current. As the sun goes down fish often start feeding. I recall a few years ago chatting with a couple that was giving it up for the day. They were dry fly purists, or so they said, and nothing was rising. I told them, “It’s just about to get good,” explaining that I’d be fishing with soft-hackle wet flies.

“We like to see them rise,” they said, and I said that with soft-hackle flies, you usually see the fish come up and take the fly.

I have long treasured those evenings. It’s a special time. Most other anglers have quit for the day, and I usually have the river to myself. As the sun goes down, there are often some hatches starting and fish begin to feed.

Of course, mosquitoes are often part of the adventure, as well. It’s pretty well accepted that DEET, the active component of many insect repellants, destroys vinyl. The coating of our fly lines is vinyl, so loading up with bug dope will shorten the life of a fly line. I guess that’s the price of maintaining sanity when mosquitoes are swarming.

We’re almost a month past the Summer Solstice, and our evenings are noticeably shorter. September is just a month and a half away. Take advantage of summer while it lasts.

R.I.P., Howard Lawson, Outdoorsman

Friend and neighbor, Howard Lawson. A few years after this photo, he traded in his cowboy hat for a ski helmet.

There’s an old saying about whoever dies with the most toys wins.

On that basis, our old neighbor, Howard Lawson, was a winner, even if the ravages of aging and Parkinson’s disease gradually stole his ability to use and enjoy those toys.

Last week, friends, family and neighbors gathered to say a final farewell to Howard, who died on May 20.

Howard lived a long life and was an educator, coach, referee and scout leader, as well as a faithful and active member of his church, but he was an enthusiastic outdoors person and he had the toys to prove it.

I never had the full inventory, but here’s a start at what he had. Fishing rods, of course, with fly rods, spinning rods, heavy-duty salmon and steelhead rods. Of course, he had the usual selection of guns, both shotguns and rifles.

But then, we get into the big stuff. He had a four-wheeler, and he loved tooling around on mountain roads on his ATV. In winter he’d put a snowplow on his ATV and clear snow, often with his yellow Lab, Mac, riding behind him.

Then he had boats. He had a big boat, small enough for area lakes, but still big enough to tow to Alaska for salmon fishing. Then he had a smaller powerboat, and two canoes and a kayak.

And then there were the trailers. For years his get-away home was his 5th-wheel trailer. He also had a pickup camper, and a smaller, old travel trailer that was his elk camp for years. In later years, he customized one of those big cargo haulers to haul to elk camp. With all that experience, he could jockey trailers into anything, no matter how small or crooked a path.

During our 30 years as neighbors I often had the chance to go with him on outings.

One year, with his son, Greg, we left Butte after Thanksgiving dinner to head for the Horse Prairie area where he liked to chase elk. It was something like thirty below that first night and I thought we’d freeze. We didn’t get any elk that weekend, but the season was extended that year because of the mild autumn, and he went back, alone, a few days later, confident that he knew where the elk were going to be and he was right. He came home with a nice cow elk.

Howard loved to ski and the year he hit age 65 we went to Discovery to celebrate his getting the senior rate. It was kind of a foggy morning and on his first run down the mountain, he ran into the fog, lost his sense of vertical, and took a fall. He broke a collarbone and that ended what was to be his year of cheap skiing as a senior citizen.

About 15 years ago, a friend in Helena drew a Smith River permit and invited me to join the party. I just needed to come up with a boat and a boat partner. I knew Howard had done the trip a year or so before so I invited him—along with that 19-foot Old Town canoe. On one stretch, we went through a “rock garden” that got a bit exciting, shooting between a couple big rocks and then taking a two-foot drop. After getting through that I commented about that drop. He just smiled, with that impish grin of his, and said, “I knew that was coming.”

Parkinson’s cheated Howard out of a lot of outings, but he still made it to elk camp until a few years ago. On one of the last times he was able to hunt he was on a ridge and a bunch of elk filed past him. He tried to jack a shell into the rifle’s chamber but it jammed. Later, he found a single pine needle as the culprit that cheated him out of one last elk.

He didn’t get an elk, but he had a good story.

Howard once shared another story of an elk hunt, years ago, with Max, his best friend and partner for many years on hunting and fishing outings.

He and Max were hunting elk in the mountains near Jackson, Montana. It was bitterly cold and they were camping in tents. At the end of a day’s hunt they realized they were just a few miles from Jackson and they decided to go in and have a drink at Jackson Hot Springs. They had a drink, maybe two. Then they went for a swim in the pool, and then decided to have dinner. After all that, they decided to stay for the night. When they got back to Butte they told Delmay and Barbara, Max’s wife, about the night in Jackson. Howard chuckled at the memory, “Delmay chewed us out for our night of luxury in Jackson while they were worried about us freezing in our tent camp.”

Farewell, neighbor. We’ll see you again in an elk camp somewhere.