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

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.

Declaration of Independence – a Revolutionary Document for the 21st Century

When photographing fireworks, it’s a good idea to use a tripod. Nevertheless, i kind of like this one.

Tomorrow we celebrate the 243rd birthday of our nation. It’s a day that our nation’s second president, John Adams, and one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that, “ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion.”

Adams also said the day should be “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

The Declaration of Independence is (not just was) a revolutionary document that continues to ring the bell of liberty even after almost two and a half centuries.

Consider this statement of human rights. “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

To be sure, at the time that the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration, the Founding Fathers really hadn’t thought things through. By “all men” they meant only men, and white men at that; white men with property. Thomas Jefferson was among the many slaveholders in that august body. Jefferson wrote of slavery as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.” He often wrote eloquently, advocating an abolition of slavery, though at the time of his death, exactly years 50 later, he had liberated just five slaves, not including his long-time mistress and mother of their five children, Sally Hemings. I’ll note that a Washington Post article in 2017 asserts Sally wasn’t a mistress. She was Jefferson’s slave and thus Jefferson was a rapist.

While the study of history leads to contradictions and confusion, the assertion that people are created equal, with inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness still rings on this Independence Day.

In recent weeks I’ve been thinking of my dad. He was one of the younger children in a big family and the dream to migrate to America was too powerful to ignore. To stay in Norway meant a life of poverty and his dream of owning a farm seemed impossible.

On April 30, 1917, at age 17, he passed through Ellis Island and pursued, for the rest of his life, the American dream. He worked hard at anything that paid money. He accumulated a nest egg to pay down on a farm and lost it all when his bank failed in the Depression. Nevertheless, he kept working, became a tenant farmer and finally a farm owner.

I’m not telling of Dad to demonstrate what a great man he was. Rather, his story is the immigrant’s story, typical of Irish, Italian, Mexican, Jewish and other peoples who came to the United States in search of a better life.  It wasn’t just economic opportunity, either. He grew up in possibly the richest part of Norway for fishing, a destination for people of wealth and privilege to fish for Atlantic salmon. Yet, the fishing rights were owned by the wealthy, “The King of England,” he’d say. Migrating to the United States was not just a chance to improve his economic status, but also the right to go fishing on public waters.

I can’t think of my dad showing up at Ellis Island and being welcomed to this nation without thinking of the mess we are having along our southern borders, where immigrants are coming to our borders in search of a better life. Instead of being welcomed, they are being thrown into detention centers, with children being separated from parents and warehoused in depravity, with government lawyers arguing that sleep, soap and diapers are not any kind of human right, not to mention a chance to go fishing.

This Independence Day, we the people should demand the rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence be accorded to all the people.

As we approach another election year, consider Jefferson again. “Leave no authority existing not responsible to the people.”

I also refer to Jefferson’s thoughts on another freedom. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Cows and Salmonflies

Hazards of the Road – Montana style.

When traveling country roads in Montana, we need to be aware that we who drive motor vehicles do not always have the right of way. We should also keep in mind that in mid to late June, ranchers are moving livestock to summer pasture in the mountains.

Those two facts of life under the Big Sky coincided last week when I turned off the interstate to drive up the canyon in my search for salmonflies and the trout that eat them.

I wasn’t surprised. I could tell from a mile away that ranchers were moving cattle and that they had already gone through beautiful downtown Divide. I was hoping that the bovines would already be off the road and on their way to mountain meadows, but that wasn’t the case.

The cattle were halfway between Divide and the Divide bridge, moving at their own speed, or as much speed and direction that cowboys and cow dogs chaperoning the trip could get out of them.

I’m telling the story not because I’m upset about ranchers moving cattle on the highway. Over the years I’ve often been stuck behind similar herds of cattle making seasonal migrations, as well as noting when it has already happened. When you find yourself behind a bunch of cows on the highway you go slowly and patiently. Generally, you’ll be able to work your way through the critters and continue the trip at a more normal speed. Somehow, the old Roger Miller song about “You can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd” comes to mind.

While I was creeping along behind the cows, the lead in a long parade of cars, a guy on a motorcycle drove up and in front of me and came to a stop with a loud “Vroom, vroom,” of the cycle engine.

The biker suddenly found himself face-to-face, so to speak, with a mounted cowboy in a confrontation, with the cowboy effectively demonstrating assertive communication skills, explaining that scaring his cows was not a good idea and that doing it again would have consequences, probably involving a lasso.

The confrontation concluded peacefully, and the subdued biker and cars eventually found a path through the herd without further incident.

That bit of business concluded, I got to the river for the real purpose of the trip.

I’d made a similar trip a few days earlier, only to find the hatch hadn’t started that far up the river yet. This time I got it about right, as many shoreline willows had nymph shucks clinging to the branches, indicating where a salmonfly emerged from its exoskeleton to become a winged insect, along with the occasional salmonfly flying over the river.

I’d like to tell how the big trout had lost all sense of caution because of the giant stonefly migration, but that wasn’t the case. They’d been watching a continual parade of drift boats and rubber rafts floating overhead and seeing probably thousands of stonefly imitations on the water.

It can get frustrating, seeing fish come up and take a look at the fly and then turn it down. But that’s how it works. In my morning session, I did have a hookup, but the fish managed to slip the hook.

No guarantees when fishing the salmonfly hatch, but there are occasional rewards.

In mid-afternoon, just after a thunderstorm had rolled through, a rainbow trout took my fly and immediately started showing off its acrobatic ability and speed. I eventually landed the fish, took its picture and sent it back to grow some more.

By the time you read this, the hatch is likely about over, but that’s okay. While salmonflies were the main attraction, there was a profusion of bugs along the water, with several kinds of mayflies, along with caddisflies and smaller types of stoneflies.

Salmonflies bring the crowds, but I think the summer’s best fishing is after the salmonfly hatch, when the crowds have thinned, and with spring runoff about done, trout will be looking up at the all-you-can-eat buffet floating by.

Just remember, if ranchers are still moving livestock, you might want to wash your car when you get home.

Winter Camping in June

Our friend, Wayne, flogging the river in strong winds.

“Sounds like typical Vang camping weather.”

That was a neighbor’s comment many years ago when we came home after a short camping vacation that mainly featured gloomy days inside our tent trailer of those years, looking out at thunderstorms rolling through.

It took a while, but we finally had our first camping outing of the season, and we had typical camping weather.

In good years, we get out for our first outings in April, sometimes timed so that we’re camping on the banks of the lower Madison River when the early Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch happens.

This year that early caddis hatch was the late and abbreviated hatch and I totally missed it. We had some nice days in April but I don’t think we ever had two days in a row when it would have been worth the bother to hitch up the trailer. May wasn’t much better, along with other obligations that we couldn’t duck that ruined a couple other weekends.

But, we finally got our opening on the calendar. The trailer was stocked with food and clothing and we headed for the upper Big Hole.

We were meeting Wayne, a friend of our daughter’s, who lives in California but was coming through Montana on his way to his home state of Minnesota for a canoe outing on the Boundary Waters. He had taken up fly-fishing a few years ago and was hoping to do some fly-fishing in Montana.

It was hot and sunny in mid-afternoon, when we arrived at the fishing access site where we planned to camp. It was also windy—as in gale-force winds roaring down the river corridor that made flycasting a challenge, if not a total joke.

Wayne and I flogged the water for about an hour, not having any action at all and we agreed we weren’t going to take any more of that abuse and we retreated to the trailer for food and refreshment.

Around 7 p.m., about an hour after Wayne hit the road, it struck me that the wind had died down, so I hurriedly put my waders back on and went back to the river. There was still a breeze though nothing like the afternoon tempest. Some caddis bugs were hatching and I got a few rises from trout, though no hook-ups. Then the breeze totally changed directions and a few raindrops were in the air.

I quit fishing in time to get my waders off and gear stowed when the sky opened up and wind-driven rain lashed our trailer. Temperatures dropped and wind and rainsqualls rocked the trailer for the rest of the night.

That was followed by a cold and windy day. I was able to fish, though not surprisingly, the fish weren’t biting. The old saying that fish don’t bite when a cold front is coming through still holds true.

June snow on the Big Hole River – “typical Vang camping weather.”

The next day dawned cold and frosty, though we were warm and cozy in the trailer. About 9 a.m., while we were eating breakfast the first of the guide traffic rolled in to start float trips down the river just as snow started to fall. It was hard to not be amused at the sight of anglers walking around, wearing shorts, as snow swirled around them.

We decided to call it a weekend and we packed up the trailer and fishing gear and hitched up the trailer while another squall pelted us with graupel pellets.

We drove through more snow squalls on the way home. Later that afternoon I drove up to the Butte Public Library to get more books. Stormy weekends may not be great for fishing but we get a lot of reading done. I remarked to my friend at the checkout desk about driving through graupel along I-15 south of Butte, and she said, “And tents were blowing away at the Farmers Market.”

Things seem to work out the way they should. As it happened, we weren’t able to go camping in April, when the weather can be fickle. Thanks to typical Vang camping weather, we enjoyed an April weekend in June.

Salmonflies on the Big Hole!

A Pteronarcys stonefly checking out my humble imitation.

Pteronarcys californica.

Even the name is impressive. It makes a person think of something from the age of dinosaurs. In fact, stoneflies have been around for quite a while. One genus of stoneflies, Mesoluectra, was around during the Jurassic period, back when dinosaurs reigned supreme in the great steamy marshlands of Montana.

Stoneflies are a member of the insect class of arthropods, and there are some 3,500 known species worldwide, and they’re found in every continent except Antarctica.

According to a Montana State University website, there are nine families of stoneflies present in Montana and 113 species, ranking us 6th among the states and provinces.

Trout, being opportunistic, as well as always on the lookout for their next meal, make stoneflies an important part of their diet. From the skwala, that shows up in springtime, to golden stones, yellow sallies and others, stoneflies in one stage of life or another become fish food. Chances are that a stonefly imitation will catch fish much of the time.

While stoneflies feed trout year around, it’s the Pteronarcys bugs, probably better known as the salmonfly, that grab our attention. They’re big, up to around two inches long, and colorful, with their orange abdomen. They’re widespread, inhabiting rivers of the west from British Columbia to California and on both sides of the Continental Divide. The Big Hole River of southwest Montana is known for its salmonfly hatch and, while the dates aren’t set in stone, this coming week is likely when the hatch will be on.

Stoneflies spend most of their life along the river bottoms. While some stoneflies are carnivorous, Pteronarcys stoneflies are vegetarian, living by chewing up small woody debris. After several years of submarine existence, the insects reach their final phase of life, as they move towards the shoreline of rivers, crawl out onto rocks and onto vegetation, such as grasses or willows. They then emerge from their exoskeleton and become a full-fledged winged insect.

After emerging, they take some time to let their wings dry and then they search out a mate. Nature takes its course and females return to the water where they flutter along the water’s surface, dipping the tip of their abdomen in the water and releasing eggs.

It is during this final part of life that the interests of trout and anglers intersect. When things work right, that fluttering salmonfly attracts fish in search of a big bite of protein. Some of the time, the trout finds itself with a hook in its jaw, having been tricked by a clump of feathers and hair tied onto a fishhook to resemble a stonefly.

Fly-fishing during the salmonfly hatch can be exciting, when a good-sized trout smashes into a dry fly, even when the trout ends up not taking it, or a sizzling run when it does get hooked. When it happens it creates instant memories that keep us warm during the winter.

While the salmonfly hatch can be exciting, it’s not necessarily the best fly-fishing time of the year, especially for the DIY angler. It usually happens when waterflows are high with spring runoff and the wade angler has to exercise a lot of caution when stepping into the water. A misstep can quickly become a misadventure.

If you like solitude on the water, the salmonfly hatch may not be for you. Looking upstream along the river you’re likely to see a long line of drift boats and rubber rafts working the shoreline. Some are guides and clients, and some are local anglers. It’s also the peak period for recreational floaters taking advantage of warm, sunny days to float the river. You can usually spot the recreational floaters. They’re the rubber rafts with 4-8 passengers with perhaps one person actually casting a spinning rod.

While the salmonfly hatch can sometimes be kind of a zoo, just remember that going to the zoo on a warm day in June can be a lot of fun. Actually, it’s one of those don’t miss events. So, go fish, remember the sunscreen and rain jacket, and create some memories.

Freaky Weather? Blame it on Climate Change

Storm clouds over the Big Hole River valley.

We had bright sunshine for a few moments, at least last week when I was trying to put together a column. I went to a window to get a closer look at the strange brightness. Raindrops falling in puddles at the edge of our street reassured me that our cool, wet spring was still in progress.

Here in Butte, Montana, we’re used to a lot of sunshine and you can almost feel the pent-up frustration by local residents when we look out and see that it’s raining, or even snowing at the end of May, the beginning of our short and fleeting season, summer.

We remind ourselves that May and June are usually among the wettest months of the year. Over the years, people have made money betting that it would rain on at least 25 days during the month of June.

If the last few weeks have seemed unusually cold and wet, we should keep in mind that in eastern states people have been sweltering through triple-digit heat waves. A Facebook acquaintance in eastern Pennsylvania posted a photo of cauliflower heads he’d harvested from his garden around the middle of May, the earliest he’d ever harvested cauliflower.

Also, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in northwest Russia, temperatures in Arkhangelsk soared to 84 degrees Fahrenheit on May 11.  The next day, temps hit 87º in an area east of Arkhangelsk. During March, many locations in northern Alaska had record-breaking high temperatures.

Eastern Oklahoma is having severe flooding. So is the Rocky Mountain Front area of northern Montana. Large areas of Nebraska and Iowa are still recovering from massive flooding back in March. Also, in the last two weeks of May there were some 500 reported tornadoes, nationwide, even in New Jersey, with parts of the Midwest having tornado warnings every day for 13 consecutive days.

It is in the nature of weather to be unusual. That’s why we track record-breaking temperatures, both hot and cold, and rainfall or lack of rainfall. Still, more and more people are aware that weather patterns are getting more and more bizarre.

Last month, The Guardian reported on effects of climate change, including destruction of coral reefs, loss of rainforest, and a million species of plants and animals at risk of extinction. The United Nations issued a report based on over 15,000 studies warning of the consequences of climate change.

While scientists around the world report findings about our changing climate, here in the United States, where we might hope that an educated citizenry might take notice of scientific alarm bells, it boils down to politics.

By and large, people of conservative political leanings have been skeptical of climate change and the Trump Administration has been systematically silencing climate scientists. The Administration also withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords. Jennifer Rubin, a Washington Post columnist writes that the Administration’s efforts to stymie science “requires, as so much of the Trump agenda does, a war on reality, science and common sense.”

On the other hand, other politicians and groups are paying attention to climate change and proposing radical changes in environmental policies. Some are affiliating with a concept or group of concepts loosely defined as a Green New Deal, to make dramatic changes over the next two decades to address global warming.

So, as we approach another election year we choose sides and if we drink the Kool-Aid they sell us, we’ll either accept the warnings of scientists and start working to turn back from the brink, or we’ll ignore scientific findings, even deny the validity of scientific research and go blithely on our way, whistling in the dark, as our weather becomes more and more erratic.

I’m a church-going person and take in stride that some things we have to take on faith. Climate change, however, with turbulent weather, smoky summer skies, drought, floods, tornadoes; the whole schmear, is well-documented. It isn’t something that’s being imagined by wild-eyed dreamers.

Perhaps some politicians can skate along, pretending that science doesn’t exist, but that is not a viable long-term policy.

Fishing through the Elements

A nice North Dakota pike on the fly.

An icy east wind stirred up the lake with whitecaps as the surf rolled into the boat launch area. Kevin and I agreed that we didn’t want to put the boat in the water. We recalled a day last year when we launched the boat on a similar day and, while the fish were biting, getting back to the launching area turned out to be more adventure than we wanted.

We went to Minot, North Dakota a couple weeks ago to visit our son, Kevin and his family. As always, these trips involve some outdoors activities, depending on the season. In the fall it’s pheasants but in May it’s fishing.

Weather is one of those factors that decides whether outings will be successful, or even possible. The weather in central North Dakota was pretty much the same as home in western Montana: chilly, windy and wet.

On a first outing, our plan was to go to a lake known for smallmouth bass. We both recalled a day a few years back when we each caught around ten smallies, catching them with flyrods.

We drove through rain on our way to the lake, though the rain had stopped by the time we got there. The wind was blowing and the lake was more than a little choppy. We elected to go to a different part of the lake that was protected from the wind, though there wasn’t a handy boat launching area. We spent the morning wading the shallow shoreline, whipping flyrods, throwing out streamers, all to no avail.

Battling the wind with the help of our Labs.

Kevin recalled sitting in on a seminar on fly-fishing for smallmouth bass, with the expert saying that smallies bite best when water temperatures are warm, or warming. “If the water temps are dropping, you might as well stay home.” A couple days earlier highs were in the 80s. This day, with rain, wind and temperatures in the low 40s, that water was definitely cooling off, and as far as catching fish was concerned, we could have stayed home.

On that next outing, after passing up the windswept lake we moved to another lake where the public access was on a sheltered shoreline so that boating wouldn’t be an adventure.

We mainly cruised along shorelines, with Kevin trolling a lure. I was using a flyrod, casting streamers towards shoreline cover, such as weedbeds, fallen logs or rocks.

I had the first action when a nice northern pike hit my streamer. In the icy water it was a bit sluggish, but it still put up a good fight before we netted it.

Before leaving town, my wife said, “If you catch any pike, bring it home for dinner.” So, the fish went in the boat’s live well.

Kevin’s pike that didn’t get away.

A little while later, in almost the same place, Kevin hooked a pike that looked like a twin brother of the one I caught. This one managed to break off when we tried netting it.

Before we called it a day, Kevin caught another pike we deemed large enough for the frying pan.

Some people look down at pike for dining, thinking that walleyes are the only freshwater fish worth eating. Not us. We think pike are great eating. Pike do have a series of “Y” bones that are a nuisance, but they’re totally predictable and avoidable. A few years ago I watched a fishing guide fillet pike, getting rid of the Y-bones. When I cleaned my fish I tried to copy his technique. I don’t know, yet, whether I was successful or not. I’ll find out when we take a fillet out of the freezer.

Back home, I’m looking forward to getting back on the trout streams, especially when runoff has settled down and things warm up enough for some insect hatches.

In spite of the weather, we had fun fishing North Dakota lakes. As we approach Father’s Day, I reflect back on our many years of shared fishing experiences and I’ll share this bit of advice. Take your kids fishing. If things work out right, maybe they’ll take you fishing when you get old.

TU Chapter Proposes Madison Plan

A rare sight on the Madison River – No boats in sight!

The 50-Mile riffle.

That’s the upper Madison River, a rich part of Montana’s fly-fishing heritage. When people come from around the world to go fishing in Montana, chances are good that the Madison River will be part of the trip.

Taking it a step further, chances are that many of those visitors will be taking a guided float-fishing trip on the river. Guided fishing on the upper Madison River is a rapidly growing part of river use. The numbers of guided trips on the river doubled from 2010 (5,338 outfitted trips) to 2017 (11,224 outfitted trips).

Interestingly, the numbers of outfitted anglers is relatively small, accounting for just 9.5 percent of anglers on the river in 2017. The total numbers of anglers on the Madison in 2017 was about 207,000.

I’ll concede that wrapping our head around all these statistics is a challenge, but surveys indicate that there is a lot of dissatisfaction among both resident and non-resident anglers with the volume of float fishing on the Madison. We occasionally camp and fish on the upper Madison and you can rarely look across the river during daytime hours without seeing drift boats going by.

Studies show that the majority (about 62 percent) of floating traffic on the Madison is by outfitters and guides. The numbers of boats causes congestion on the river, plus congestion and waiting lines at launch sites. Wade anglers don’t seem to be a factor in crowding issues.

People who regularly recreate on the upper Madison are well aware of congestion problems and how guided float fishing seems to be taking over the river.

In the last few years, various study groups have been formulated to study the problems on the river and to come up with a recreation plan, possibly something similar to what we’ve had on the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers for the last 20 years. In 2004 I served on a committee to review and recommend changes to the first plan. By and large we left it alone. After some 20 years, most big Hole and Beaverhead anglers, outfitters and guides are, by and large, used to the plan and satisfied with the modest restrictions it places on commercialized recreation.

On the Madison, however, groups have met and thrown up their hands in frustration and given up, most recently a few weeks ago.

At the May 8 membership meeting of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, president Mark Thompson announced that the TU Chapter submitted a proposal for a Madison River recreation plan to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. While a committee of TU leaders drafted most of the plan, leaders of the Skyline Sportsmen Association of Butte, Anaconda Sportsmen’s Association of Anaconda, and Public Lands/Waters Access Association also signed on to the plan.

In introducing the proposal, Thompson said the TU board agreed to develop a plan as the outfitters groups resisted any plan to limit their growth, and people in Ennis also opposed limits, and in general, don’t admit there’s a problem.

Essentially, the proposal would cap outfitted use at 2018 levels. Second, they recommend establishing six reaches on the river, from Quake Lake to Ennis Lake. Outfitters could use the entire river on Sundays and Mondays, but on Tuesdays through Saturdays, one of five stretches would be closed to commercial use, giving non-commercial users a day of respite on each stretch.

The proposal does not affect the lower Madison, downstream from Ennis Lake, as there doesn’t seem to be the pressure that the upper river gets though the proposal doesn’t object to a lower river plan.

The recommendation notes that while there is a lot of angling pressure, the river is still a healthy fishery. The quality of the experience, relaxation and absence of crowding, however, are factors that are less than satisfactory.

The proposal has been sent to Martha Williams, director of MTFWP and to each of the Fish & Wildlife Commissioners.

It remains to be seen what will happen to this proposal, but I think the leaders of the George Grant Chapter deserve a shout-out for a proactive approach to the problem.

Sentimental Journey for Flicka

Flicka in her prime, doing what she loved and excelled at: finding, pointing and retrieving pheasants (when I did my job).

We’ve been in our house enough years that we decided it was time to update the kitchen. After clearing accumulated stuff off a counter top, she pointed at this maroon drawstring bag inconspicuously tucked behind other stuff and asked, “What is that?”

I replied, “That’s Flicka.” When we got her cremated remains it came in a canister inside a bag with an embroidered saying about meeting again on the Rainbow Bridge.

To tell the truth, at the time we said goodbye to our beloved Labrador retriever, Flicka, four years and a month ago, my intention had always been to scatter her ashes. I just didn’t have the heart to do it. It was hard enough to say goodbye to her, and I wasn’t ready to dispose of her ashes.

A couple weeks ago, the day came.

Our Lab of the last four years, Kiri, and I loaded up, along with Flicka’s canister, and went towards Anaconda and then turned up the Mill Creek highway, the short cut to the Big Hole from Anaconda.

About three-quarters of the way up the mountain road I stopped at a pullout. There’s a little creek at the edge of the road and many times over the years I’ve stopped there with several different Labs to cross the creek and walk up the valley in search of ruffed grouse. It’s a special spot. On a hillside knoll a big spring puts out a constant flow of water, with abundant watercress growing in the shallow water. On an unseasonably mild Sunday in early December 2014, Flicka and I went on a grouse hunt up the valley. At the end of our 4-hour walk I managed to hit a grouse that Flicka put up and quickly retrieved. That turned out to be Flicka’s last grouse hunt.

The beginning of Flicka’s journey to the Pacific Ocean.

I opened the canister and found Flicka’s ashes. I put about a third of the contents in the stream. I’ll confess I also peed into the stream, so our combined essence could comingle on the trip downstream where the little creek would merge with Mill Creek on its way to its confluence with the Clark Fork River, on to the Columbia and the Pacific Ocean. Around 100 miles downstream, Flicka’s essence will join Rock Creek, where we had many outings in search of trout and grouse.

The next stop was on the other side of the Divide at a little creek, a tributary to the Big Hole River. It’s downstream from a secluded spot that was sluice-mined over a century ago, and as nature started healing the mining scars, it created grouse habitat. It’s another grouse covert at which four Labs have accompanied me in search of grouse.

Our final stop was the Big Hole River where Flicka was at my side hundreds of times during many fishing seasons. Flicka’s remaining ashes went in the river, on its way to the Missouri, Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico. Along the way a few of her molecules might go by some prairie hills in North Dakota where we had many fun pheasant hunts, including the first time I got a limit of three pheasants with just three shots fired.

The beginning of Flicka’s journey to the Missouri, Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico.

Kiri, of course, was running around, splashing in the river and having fun, pretty much oblivious to this final outing for Flicka. I could have told her about Flicka and the outings we had. Kiri wouldn’t much care. She has a secure place in our lives and that’s sufficient for her.

Back home, I found a little dust left, so I scattered it on the lawn, completing our bittersweet journey.

I don’t know that Christian theology says anything about reuniting with pets on some “Rainbow Bridge,” though many people are adamant that if we don’t, they aren’t going. If there is a Rainbow Bridge, there are now four Labrador retrievers waiting. It remains to be seen whether Kiri will join them or if I will be there to welcome her.

Our daughter suggests that in the Jewish tradition, we live on in the memories of those we leave behind. In that sense, our pets might have a better chance for an afterlife than we do.