Return to the Grouse Woods

Bent-over trees in the grouse woods.

It took longer than expected, but the plan worked!

Back on the first day of September I took a walk in grouse country and decided I wouldn’t go back until we got precipitation and cooler weather.

Seasons can change with a vengeance, going from hot, dry weather and forest fires burning over much of Montana, to heavy snow and cold weather, and, like shampooing, with “lather, rinse and repeat,” a second helping of heavy snow.

The weather and other commitments kept me out of the grouse woods longer than expected but I finally cleared a day for a trek in the aspens after we’d had time for the snow to melt, though at that I passed on an area I planned to hunt, because of heavy snow that would have made hunting a heavy slog.

A thousand feet lower the snow was mostly gone, though it had made its impact. Willows along a creek were bent down from the snow, and in the aspens many trees were bent over and some larger trees had broken branches and broken trunks. There were still patches of slushy snow in places but no problem for walking.

The biggest question, as we started our hike up the mountainside, was would we find grouse? Mountains are big places and grouse are relatively small birds with lots of places to hide.

That question was answered when Kiri, my black Labrador retriever, started acting as if she had found fascinating scent. Seconds later a grouse flushed. I managed to get a couple shots off as it disappeared into the aspens but missed.

We continued our walk, as a light rain started to fall. We followed a long, forested draw down the mountain and a grouse flushed ahead of us, far out of range. A few minutes later, another grouse flushed, also out of range. We followed the direction of the flushes, hoping we’d get another chance at them, though we never did catch up with them.

At the edge of an opening in the trees, Kiri put up another grouse that made the mistake of flying across open space instead of into the trees. On my second shot I dropped the bird, a handsome, mature ruffed grouse, and my first game bird of the season.

A treasured bonus to an outing in the aspens: a beautiful ruffed grouse.

Near the end of our walk Kiri put up another grouse, which disappeared off into the aspens.

I’ve had a long fascination and love for hunting ruffed grouse and, like many, pay homage to ruffs as the “King of upland birds.” One ruffed grouse won’t fill much space in my freezer, but a four-hour hunt that produces six flushes, plus shots at two grouse, and connecting with one is a banner day.

I enjoy these hikes through the aspens. As of the last week of September, the fall colors that make the aspen thickets a blaze of gold in the autumn sunshine really hadn’t happened yet, which means that this first week of October should be the time to take a drive in the mountains to enjoy the colors.

Just three days later the aspens had turned to gold.

Now that it’s October, Montana hunting opportunities begin to diversify, though we’ll note that the sage grouse season closed last Saturday.

The waterfowl season for ducks and geese opened last Friday, and in some areas will continue into mid-January.

This Saturday, October 7, hunting seasons for pheasants and firearms hunting for pronghorn antelope will begin, a day that brings serious numbers of hunters into Montana’s prairie country.

Just around the corner, on Saturday, October 21, the general seasons for deer and elk will open, the day that many Montanans regard as the real opening of hunting season, even if upland bird hunters and archery hunters have already been at it for some seven weeks.

What with a drought and a million acres having burned up this fire season we might have to make some adjustments in hunting destinations and expectations. But, this is still Montana, and we have some of the longest hunting seasons of any state. It’s a great time to be alive and living in Montana.

Patchy September snow in the aspens.

Zinke’s Report on Monument Based on Lies

In August I wrote about our former congressman and now Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke. At the time he was positioning himself for the Interior job he promoted himself as modern day Teddy Roosevelt and a protector of our public lands.

It was a dubious claim, and after six months on the job those claims are proving to be what many us feared: a pile of lies.

Recently, the Washington Post obtained a copy of Zinke’s secret recommendations to the President on the status of national monuments created in the last 20 years. This is not a document that gives us reason to regard Zinke as a Teddy Roosevelt wannabe.

Zinke’s recommendations call for huge reductions in the Bear’s Ear National Monument, an area in southeastern Utah that’s rich in Native American cultural artifacts. The report recommends reducing the 1.35 million acre monument to just 120,000 acres.

Zinke also recommends reductions in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine, Cascade Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte National Monuments in New Mexico, Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, and monument areas in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

According to many analysts, Zinke’s report is full of lies and misrepresentations. Outside magazine starts off with a quote from the report stating, “There is no doubt that President Trump has the authority to review and consider recommendations to modify or add a monument.”

Outside responds, “There is actually a ton of doubt. It’s widely accepted that the Antiquities Act grants a President the authority to create monuments but the law doesn’t actually contain language authorizing a president to modify an existing monument’s borders, let alone abolish it altogether.”

Zinke’s report suggests that monuments created since 1996 were “made without adequate public consultation.” Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told High Country News of more than 1,000 meetings with local people and interest groups over a four-year period before Bears Ear was created.

The report asserts that road closures in the Rio Grande del Norte Monument in New Mexico have caused ranchers to stop grazing there. New Mexico’s senator Martin Heinrich calls that a factual error. He also points out that the report claims that the Organ Mountains-Desert Peak Monument creates problems for Border Patrol enforcement, even though the monument area is five miles away from the Mexican border.

Field & Stream magazine’s website reports that both New Mexico’s senators, Heinrich and Tom Udall issued a joint statement accusing Zinke of ignoring overwhelming support of New Mexico citizens for the monuments in their state, adding that Zinke declined to attend a town meeting in support of Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks and has never set foot in Rio Grande del Norte.

In a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Heinrich questioned John Ruhs, Acting Deputy Director of Operations at the Bureau of Land Management, about false claims about road closures, ranching difficulties, border operations, and protection of hunting and fishing rights.

Ruhs confirmed that BLM staff members were not asked to fact-check Zinke’s report. He confirmed that BLM staff did provide data and answered questions but did not participate in drafting the report.

One of the most vocal critics of the monument review process is Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. In Field & Stream’s report, Tawney says, “If these recommendations reflect the Interior Department’s suggested course of action for Congress and President Trump, our public lands, wildlife and outdoor traditions could be at risk. Referring to Zinke’s claim to be in the mold of Roosevelt, Tawney asks, ”What would Theodore Roosevelt do?”

I give due credit that Zinke’s report does recommend National Monument status for the Badger-Two Medicine area, an area tucked in next to Glacier National Park, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

In any event, it’s pretty clear that if the President attempts to drastically reduce National Monuments as recommended there will be a long series of court fights that would likely determine the final outcome.

Sandhill Cranes and the Magic of Early Morning

Sunrise over the Beaverhead River valley.


There is magic in basking in the first rays of sunshine on an early fall morning.

A couple weeks ago, my friend and frequent hunting buddy, John Jacobson, said he’d drawn a sandhill crane permit, and wondered if I’d like to go along on his opening day hunt.

I thought that sounded like a fun trip, even if it entailed being on the road at 5:30 in the morning, in order to be at the ranch he’d lined up before dawn. Being there before daylight was necessary, as sandhill cranes leave their river bottom meadows at first light to fly out to nearby grain fields.

We got to the ranch a bit after 6:30 and we climbed up to the top of a bluff, the edge of a bench overlooking the broad, flat valley of the Beaverhead River. Several cranes had already flown up and over the hillside, so we had an idea of where the cranes were flying.

We found places to sit in the sagebrush and settled down to wait for whatever might come our way.

What we found was pure magic, as the sun rose over distant mountains and the valley came to life.

There was constant chatter from waterfowl, such as mallards and Canada geese, as they made feeding flights to nearby fields. There were occasional squawks of pheasants, as well. Another constant was the haunting sound of sandhill cranes, as they called to each other across the meadows.

As the valley slowly became bathed in the early morning sunshine, I occasionally spotted white-tailed deer feeding, More often than not, when I studied through binoculars for a better look, if I saw one deer I was likely to see groups of deer, as many as eight in a group, as they went about their morning routines, presumably unaware that there were distant spies eavesdropping on them. Even at a long distance, through binoculars I could tell that at least a couple deer had grown good sets of antlers.

We weren’t the only predators on that hillside. A small raptor, a northern harrier, was busy flying along the hillside below us, probably in search of rodents of one kind or another.

It was while the harrier was cruising along the hillside that I looked over and saw three sandhill cranes flying right over John. “There’s three cranes right overhead!” I yelled, but it was too late for him to turn and fire his shotgun.

By then, it was getting to be about 9 a.m. and we were feeling the warmth of morning sunshine. After sitting on the ground for a couple hours we both felt the need to get up and move around a bit.

John sheepishly explained why he hadn’t gotten any shots off at the sandhill cranes. “I was watching that harrier working the hillside and never noticed the cranes coming my way. I thought they would make some sounds, but they were silent.”

John Jacobson trudging down the hillside after a leisurely hunt.

And so ended the morning hunt. We could hear cranes talking while feeding in that distant grain field, but the flights seem to end for the morning. The sandhill crane season runs through October 8, though it’s hard telling whether we’ll have another chance to get out again.

We’ll probably survive without a dinner of sandhill crane, though I had checked the internet for cooking suggestions. “Ribeye in the sky,” was one description of the meat, suggesting cubing the breast meat and wrapping the chunks in bacon and grilling them. On the other hand, one person commented, “If you get a bird that’s been eating fish you might as well feed it to the dog right away.”

That brought back a memory of a funny story in Gun Dog magazine, some years back, telling of dogs not wanting to retrieve these strange, long-necked birds. One hunter, however, ordered his Labrador retriever to retrieve his crane, and didn’t want any argument. The Lab dutifully retrieved the bird, but then raised his leg and peed on it.

He did his duty but he still had the last word.


First Hunt of 2017 – A Walk in the Smoke and Heat

A parched mountain ridge on September 1


It was the first day of September, but with summer heat and smoke from wildfires, it didn’t seem much like hunting season.

Still, it had been a long time since January when my black Labrador retriever, Kiri, and I had taken our last walk across a frozen field in search of ducks, and it was time to pack a lunch and head to the hills in search of grouse.

While there was a forecast for high temperatures of around 90º in the afternoon, the morning was still cool when we took our first walk across a mountain hillside in search of blue grouse, or dusky grouse if we want to be scientifically correct.

Walking around on the hillside didn’t feel right this time. In fact, walking around through the dry, crispy grass and low brush made me feel kind of nervous. While we’ve been mostly spared from wildfires in and around Butte, it seemed obvious that it wouldn’t take much of a spark to start a fire. In fact, a rock rolling downhill and hitting another rock might be enough to cause a spark that would start that conflagration.

In any event, after an hour’s walk we circled back to our starting place at the top of the hill where we had driven up a rutted two-track trail. Another vehicle had pulled into the turn-around and I had a chat with two other grouse hunters, commiserating about the hot weather and drought.

As for blue grouse, one of the guys pointed to a much higher ridgeline above us and said, “There should be some blues up there.”

“Yes, could be,” I responded, “but you’ve got to walk up there.” He agreed, “Yeah, there is that.”

After a cordial chat we agreed on walking routes where we could hike without getting into each other’s way, and Kiri and I took off, this time down a long aspen draw.

Kiri peeking through the thick brush of the aspens.

Happily, things aren’t quite as dry in the aspens as they are on the mountain ridges. On the other hand, at the beginning of September all the trees and shrubberies still have their leaves and visibility in the quakies is quite limited. As it worked, however, Kiri didn’t pick up any bird scent and I wasn’t frustrated by the sound of a grouse flushing out of sight. Trust me, I know all too well what that sounds like.

The highlight, or perhaps the lowlight of this walk, was finding a seemingly open spot to cross the bottom of the draw to walk back up the hill on the other side.

I found myself in a boggy spot where fallen trees boxed me in and I couldn’t get over the trees. I finally found a spot where I could crawl under a tree and emerged on the other side covered with mud.

Of course, by the time we walked out of the trees into midday heat, I was mostly dried off.

And that, sorry to report, was the opening of the 2017 hunting season for Kiri and me. We didn’t see anything, scent anything, and I never fired a shot. On the bright side, however, is the knowledge that things should get better in future hunts.

That mindset of optimism is, of course, what keeps us going back to the mountains and aspen thickets.

The memories of past hunts when things click and we get shots at grouse and sometimes connect and come home with the makings of a gourmet dinner is what keeps upland hunters going through those long months of the off season. It keeps the wheels of commerce grinding as we submit to the lust for fancy shotguns, buy and feed bird dogs, put gas into gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs, and all the other expenses that we try not to think about.

On the other hand, I have decided that until we get some rain and cooler weather, I’m going to go fishing. Standing in the middle of a trout stream, even if the water level is low, I won’t have to worry about accidentally sparking a wildfire.

Hurricanes, Wildfires…Scientists Predicted It

The East Ridge, marking the Continental Divide east of Butte, in the hazy distance last week – before it got a whole lot worse.


“Odd. No one is in denial of America’s Aug 21 total solar eclipse. Like Climate Change, methods & tools of science predict it.” Twitter feed from renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

On the day, last week, when I started writing this week’s column, our air here in Butte was officially rated as “unhealthy.” We didn’t need an official rating from scientists, however. You could see it, taste it, smell, it and make the same conclusion. The smoke is from fires that have been ravaging Montana since early July, with new ones popping up almost daily.

At the same time, Hurricane Harvey was drenching the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana with feet of rain.

While these events seem diametrically opposite, it’s pretty certain the events have a lot in common.

Of course, forest fires are not new, as are hurricanes and floods. But, as Christopher Joyce, National Public Radio’s science correspondent noted on a segment of All Things Considered last week, regarding Harvey, there have always been big storms. He went on to note that a new factor is warmer oceans, and those warmer oceans provide more energy for storms to feed off of, and the oceans, on average, are a full degree warmer than a century ago.

The Gulf of Mexico, he explained, is a full four degrees warmer than usual, and that has been causing ocean water to evaporate and rise up, and a four-degree rise produces a lot of water vapor. A somewhat unusual aspect of Harvey was that parts of the storm system stayed over the Gulf providing a pipeline to the main storm hanging over the mainland of the Gulf Coast.

As for the future, Joyce said, “If the oceans get hotter…a really big storm that might happen once every hundred years now may be happening every 50 or every 20. And that may actually be happening already, but you can’t tell where or when.”

Meanwhile, in Missoula, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior, Sonny Perdue and Ryan Zinke, along with Senator Daines and Rep. Gianforte, held a press event after getting a nickel tour of the Lolo Peak fire, proclaiming that “radical environmentalists” were to blame, presumably because of hold-ups in logging, even though the Forest Service acknowledges that logging goals have mostly been met.

No, I would submit that the real problem has been that not enough people have been paying enough attention to radical environmentalists who have been forecasting for over a century that our addiction to fossil fuels and greenhouse gases would cause climate warning and consequent climate instability.

Just as the oceans are getting warmer, so are the forests of western Montana. We had a good snow cover this past winter, and our spring and early summer precipitation was at or above average. Forecasters were predicting an average or below average fire season. Then, at the beginning of July, temperatures soared into the nineties and we were suddenly in fire season. Eastern Montana, which was already in drought mode, had the state’s biggest fire, with over 270,000 acres of rangelands reduced to ashes.

Alas, the fact of climate change and the underlying science has been politicized, with the president of the United States being the denier-in-chief, who proclaimed on the campaign trail last year that climate change was a big hoax perpetuated by China.

The president appointed to run the EPA a former Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, who recently said, “Science is not something that should be thrown about to try and dictate policy in Washington, D.C.”

A high profile vacancy in the Department of Agriculture is the head of the Office of the Chief Scientist, with the mission to insure that scientific advice provided to the Department is “held to the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity.” The president has nominated Sam Clovis, a former college economics professor and conservative talk show host who has stated, regarding climate change, “a lot of the science is junk science.”

I’m not a scientist, but I respect science and scientists. Denying science can be hazardous to your health, home, and livelihood.

Spectacular! The Great Eclipse of 2017

Midday darkness during totality – with a lit-up horizon all around us.

The fourth time is a charm!

With thousands of others, my wife and I went to Idaho to watch the eclipse. We figured, realistically, that this would probably be our last chance to see this phenomenon.

I’ve had several near misses.

The first time I saw a solar eclipse was June 30, 1954, when the path of the eclipse went right through Minneapolis, Minnesota.

It was a near miss. Our family farm was about 60 miles south of Minneapolis so it was a given that we’d miss the totality. I doubt that taking a drive an hour to the north would have occurred to my parents. Still, I remember getting up early that morning and all of us piling into the car to go out to one of our fields where we’d get an un-obscured look at the celestial event taking place right after sunrise. Frankly, after all these years I don’t remember how much of the actual eclipse we saw, or if we had some sort of eclipse glasses. We probably used photo negatives.

The next eclipse was July 20, 1963. Incidentally, I didn’t have those dates burned into my memory, but that trivia is easily retrieved with an internet search. In Fargo, North Dakota, where we were living, the eclipse wasn’t that close, but I remember being outside with our son, Kevin, then a nine-month old toddler, and seeing images of the eclipse in the multiple pin-hole camera effect from the leaves of a tree in our backyard.

On February 26, 1979, we had another close, but no cigar moment. We were living in Grafton, in northeast North Dakota and the eclipse was just to the north, in Canada. Kevin, then a junior in high school, went with a science class to Winnipeg, Manitoba, at the center of the path of the eclipse. Obviously, this was a simpler time, when going to Canada, and then returning to the U.S., didn’t involve much more than the teacher vouching for the citizenship of his students.

At that time I did a weekly 5-minute live public service program about Social Security on a local radio station, and after I was done I hung on to chat on-air about eclipses with one of the station personalities.

So, with those three near misses, it seemed appropriate to hit the road for Idaho on August 21 to finally see a total eclipse, so I’ll share some of my observations.

First, we knew a lot of people were making an eclipse trip, but the volume of traffic on I-15 at sunrise surprised us, considering it wasn’t even elk season.

We planned to head for the highway rest stop at Dubois, Idaho, figuring other people would be there as well. We weren’t figuring that the rest stop, built large to accommodate lots of big trucks if Monida Pass was blocked by snowstorms, would be Eclipse City. The facility was jammed with motor homes, tents, RVs, cars, trucks and people. We found a parking spot next to a travel trailer from Kalispell. The owners had camped there the previous two nights to make sure they’d have a ringside seat to the eclipse.

Highway rest stop at Dubois ID, aka Eclipse City.

If we thought the rest area was jammed, it was nothing compared to the crush in the rest stop building, where long lines of people waited in line to use the facilities.

As the actual eclipse began and progressed, people settled down to watch, as the moon slowly crossed in front of the sun. As we approached totality we could see the sunlight dimming, and could feel the air temperature dropping. It grew darker and darker, and as the last sliver of sun disappeared behind the moon, people began cheering.

Like many, I was totally blown away by the spectacular sight of the corona around the moon and then the so-called diamond ring effect just at the end of totality. Stunning and spectacular don’t begin to describe it.

Some people say that experiencing a total eclipse is the thrill of a lifetime. I agree and now I regret those near misses.

P.S., I also regret not getting a great photo of the sun in total eclipse, but you’ve probably already seen many of them already.

Late Summer Flyfishing – Tricos and Solitude

A Big Hole River brown trout, caught in the trico hatch.

Remember the month of June? Back when you took a drive along the Big Hole River and you’d see parking lots at Fishing Access Sites full to overflowing? When you could sit on the bank of the river and watch drift boats and rubber rafts floating down the river in an endless parade of anglers, guides, and recreational floaters?

That seems like ancient history right now. The river is mostly deserted, except for the occasional boat floating down river. The crowds are gone.

The crowds may be gone, but the fish are still there and they’re hungry.

Back in June, during high water, floating might be the best way to catch trout on a river. It certainly makes a river a lot more accessible, when wading is all but impossible except along the fringes of the shoreline.

Right now, wading anglers have the advantage, and I count myself as primarily a wade angler, even if I have a small pontoon boat for floating the river.

When wading, we may not be able to work miles of river, but we can work our way up a hundred yards of riffle and cast our flies to actively feeding trout and probably have more action than we’d have in a ten-mile float.

Timing is everything, though.

The major insect hatch right now is tricos, the tiny mayfly that daily emerges by the millions and comes back to the river in clouds of bugs as it completes its life cycle in that final phase of mating and reproduction. It usually happens sometime around 10 a.m. to noon.

On my most recent outing I approached a run on the lower Big Hole River and fish were rising all along the water’s surface. I first thought that it might be mostly whitefish that were causing all the commotion, but on my first cast I hooked a nice brown trout. For the next hour I had continuous action, catching and releasing a dozen fish, about half of which were browns and the rest were whitefish.

Then, after taking a short break to tie a new tippet on my leader, I waded back into the river, but the excitement was over. There were still a few risers but the feeding frenzy was over.

Another great time to be fly-fishing right now is the evening, especially the last hour before sunset.

My favorite fly for evening fly-fishing is the soft-hackle wet fly, an old-fashioned fly brought back to modern favor by an old friend, Sylvester Nemes, the late author of several books on fly-fishing, mostly about soft-hackle flies.

It’s the ultimate in easy fishing. You cast the fly across the current of the river and let it drift downstream, swinging across the current. Strikes can happen at any moment in the drift, including when the fly is straight downstream. The fly is mostly in the surface film of the water and if you’re watching the chances are you’ll see the rise. But, you’ll do just as well looking around and daydreaming; when the trout take the fly they’ll let you know. They hit hard and often go on long runs across the river.

I often recall a riverside conversation I had with a couple that had been fishing in early evening and were quitting because the trout weren’t coming up to their dry flies. I suggested to them that they should try a soft-hackle wet fly, as the action was just about to get hot. They declined the suggestion. “We’re dry-fly purists; we like to see the fish rise.”

I do, as well, though I’ve learned over the years that we have a lot more angling action if we’re open to more options.

The fish are also open to those different options. One of the fish I caught last weekend during the trico hatch had two flies in its jaw. One, the dry fly I had cast to it, and the other a soft-hackled wet fly that I’d lost the night before when it broke off when I was trying to release it.

End of Summer in Sight

A small eggplant I harvested from my garden.

There is a feeling of fall in the air.

We had a blistering hot July in western Montana, and as a result, and depending on where the wind is coming from, we have various degrees of hazy skies and eye-burning smoke from many Montana wildfires

Still, the last week or so, early mornings have a crisp feel that warn us that the sands in the hourglass of summer will soon be running out.

Our chokecherries are ripe, but there’s not much of a crop and the robins are harvesting what’s there.

Our high country garden looks promising. The tomato plants are full of fruit, and my chile peppers suggest there might be a good bite to the autumn salsa. The green beans finally have pods big enough to pick. Somewhere, below the ground’s surface, root vegetables are gaining bulk, as well.

Still, it’s a race for time, and here in the mountains the starting blocks of a cold spring always put us at a disadvantage. In my home state of Minnesota, people are picking tomatoes and corn. My Hoosier buddy, Charley, lives in Evansville, Indiana, just across the river from Kentucky, and his gardening standard is ripe tomatoes on the Fourth of July.

There are just over two weeks left in the month of August and from then on gardens in Butte are on life support.

We normally go camping over the Labor Day weekend. Fishing is good and the upland bird season opens on the first day of September. It’s a great way to celebrate the end of summer.

On the other hand, I don’t know how many times we’ve come back from the long holiday weekend to find the garden suffering from frostbite. In fact there was one year in the early 1990s when temps on Labor Day morning dropped into the teens and the garden was just plain frozen to death.

The countryside, and yes, that means all of Montana and beyond, is in desperate need of rain and, hopefully some fall rains are on Mother Nature’s agenda, but that also likely translates to high elevation snow. Living at over a mile-high here in Butte, Montana, that means snow right in our backyards.

But, bring it on. We’ll take that late summer rainfall any way we can get it. In the big fire season of 1988 it was a snowstorm, the weekend after Labor Day, that ended the fire season.

We’re now just a couple weeks ago from the opening of the fall hunting seasons. Upland bird seasons open the first day of September. Archery seasons for deer and elk open the first Saturday in September, and that means that archery season opens the day after upland bird season. It’s too early to tell what to expect in early September, though unless we get some meaningful rainfall, the mountains and prairies will be crispy dry when we start taking those walks across the landscape in search of birds or critters.

I have talked to a couple mountain grouse fans that have been doing some scouting and they report that they’re not seeing many birds. That’s not exactly a scientific assessment, but it might be a good indication of what’s happening out there.

But, it’s still summer and that means fishing, and with permission I’m sharing this remarkable story from Mark Daily, a businessman and fly-fishing guide based in Cascade, Montana.

“Today on the Missouri River, my client was landing a good sized brown. I was standing up with the net in hand ready to land the beauty, when out of the corner of my eye, I see an adult eagle with talons exposed coming right at my client. It was that close. It swooped down and took the brown trout right in front of us. My client had the trout and eagle on his fly line in the air, as the big bald eagle started his ascent; the line broke and left the two of us in complete amazement.”

I’m betting he wishes he had someone running a video camera when this happened.

Zinke Gets Failing Grade as SecInt

Many in the so-called conservation community were willing to give Ryan Zinke, our former representative in Congress, some cautious approval when the president nominated him to be Secretary of Interior.

Some were dismayed because Zinke is a hunter, for Pete’s sake. That gave others reason to be encouraged that being a hunter, and from Montana, no less, that at least he might not be totally clueless when it comes to public land and environmental issues.

At the time of his confirmation hearings, Zinke declared himself as a Teddy Roosevelt-type Republican and a protector of public lands, pointing out that he passed on being a delegate to the Republican national convention because the party platform called for transfer of public lands to the states.

Since his appointment, and riding to work on a horse his first day on the job at Interior, Zinke has demonstrated that he may be The Donald’s errand boy, but he’s no friend of the environment or our public lands.

During Zinke’s short tenure as Montana’s lone congressman, he took, according to Ted Williams, writing in Hatch, the online fly-fishing magazine, $300,000 in donations from the oil and gas industry and earned an environmental voting record, as compiled by the League of Conservation voters, of 4 percent. Now, as reported by the Denver Post, he’s trying to turn the Interior’s lands into “profit centers” for the government by accelerating oil and coal development.

As for being a T.R. Republican, we might look at Zinke’s actions regarding national monuments. Following the president’s directive to review the status of national monuments created in the last 20 years, Zinke did announce that he’d recommend that the Missouri Breaks National Monument remain unchanged.

On the other hand, Zinke made a tour of the Bears Ear National Monument in Utah and spent a full day listening to local opponents of the monument, while giving a scant hour of time to the Native American tribes that had been working many years for monument status because of the many antiquities in the area, as well as the unique landscape.

More recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a visit to Glacier National Park to tour the melting ice fields. Before the visit took place, Interior and National Park Service officials sent a directive that the Park’s top research ecologist and the Park superintendent would not participate in Zuckerberg’s tour.

In the last few weeks, some Interior climate scientists have been reassigned to relatively meaningless assignments. An example is Joel Clement, Interior’s top climate policy official, who was reassigned to an Interior agency that tracks royalty payments.

On July 20, Zinke was a speaker at a closed-door meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an industry organization backed by the Koch Industries and ExxonMobil that advocates for conservative causes. Speeches by some other attendees, such as Newt Gingrich and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos were recorded, Zinke’s speech was, according to High Country News, not recorded, nor were any transcripts released.

Zinke’s eagerness to run errands for his boss blew up in his face a couple weeks ago when he called Alaska’s Republican senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to threaten retribution if they didn’t toe the line on the administration’s healthcare bill, including, according to the Washington Post, blocking energy exploration and plans to allow the construction of new roads. Or, as one observer noted, he threatened to, of all things, protect the environment.

Sen. Murkowski, as we know, still voted against the “skinny repeal” bill, not worried about Zinke’s threats.

In the Post’s daily news summary, The Daily 202, the Post commented, “This demonstrated the degree to which Zinke’s ham-handed phone call was political malpractice…Only an amateur would threaten the person who has oversight over his agency! If she wants, Murkowski can make Zinke’s life so unbelievably miserable. He has no idea.”

Note: last week, Zinke told the Associated Press that the idea that he threatened Murkowski is “laughable.”

Zinke might be from Montana, but he’s no Teddy Roosevelt. As head of Interior, his first priority should be to keep public lands intact, healthy, and not a profit center.

Spruce Moths & Tricos – Late summer flyfishing bounty

Paul Vang’s Spruce Moth

We spent the last couple weekends of July camping on the Big Hole River, and while walking around the campground I saw little, white moths fluttering around the shrubbery.

Then it hit me. Spruce moths!

As we go through the fishing season we mark the passage of time by insect hatches, tracking time by skwalas, blue wing olives, salmonflies, golden stones, pale morning duns, and now in August we’ll note the new page on the calendar with spruce moths and tricos.

Up until now, most of the fly-fishing action has centered on imitating aquatic insects, such as the various mayflies and stoneflies. With the spruce moth, we have the first major invasion of terrestrial insects on our trout waters, and the fish will be paying attention.

I remember an outing last year when I spent the morning fly-fishing with tiny trico imitations, catching mostly whitefish. Around noon, the trico action petered out, but after a sandwich break I went a short distance upstream and noticed fish rising along a current seam. That caught my attention and I checked it out and trout were rising to the all-you-can-eat buffet of spruce moths drifting helplessly along the water’s surface.

For the next couple hours I had continuous action as I worked that current seam up the river, catching and releasing a number of trout that fell for my fake moth.

The spruce moth is the adult form of the western spruce budworm, an insect that feeds on Douglas firs, spruce and also lodgepole pine. A Forest Service bulletin describes the spruce budworm as a “defoliator,” as the mature budworm larvae feeds on needles or needle buds. Trees that have been damaged by spruce budworms may be more susceptible to other parasites, such as bark beetles.

It’s the adult form of the budworm that gets the attention of trout and trout anglers. The adult moths emerge in late July and August. The moths lay eggs on the underside of conifer needles. The eggs hatch in about ten days, and the young larvae spend the winter in a silken casing called a hibernaculum. They do most of their feeding on host trees in May and June, before morphing into the adult form and repeating the process.

While I started seeing spruce moths in mid-July, I wasn’t seeing them on the water. It seems to take a little while for the explosion of adult moths to reach a critical mass when the moths seemingly start to migrate to water and, inevitably, become fish food.

Bob Jacklin’s Spruce Moth

There are many fly patterns designed to imitate the spruce moth, starting with a basic Elk Hair Caddis. I just tied up several, though with some variation. The spruce moth floating down the river is splayed out, flat on the water’s surface. I tied the fly with the palmered hackle clipped flat on both top and bottom of the hook, and the elk hair wing flattened out. I also tied them on a #14 dry fly hook. Some recipes call for them to be tied on a #12 or even #10 hook and that seems way too big as an imitation. Of course, the ultimate judge is the trout, not the angler.

Now, a note on tricos. Trico is short for Tricorythodes, a tiny mayfly that emerges into adult form starting about now, and going well into September. The bug is small, but they emerge in incredible numbers and return to make egg-laying flights over the water in clouds of bugs. Considering the millions of mayflies in one of those clouds, and the numbers of those trico clouds over the miles of river, the numbers of insects is mind-boggling.

Trico hatch on the Big Hole River.

And, again, the fish take notice. There’s not much protein in the individual bug, but it adds up, and the fish get busy.

Keep in mind; fishing the trico hatch is a morning game during these hot, summer days. The action runs from mid-morning to around noon and then it’s done for another day.

But, you might still get spruce moth action. It’s all good.

Lost & Found!

Wade Fellin retrieving Ron’s bamboo rod.

“Boy, do I have a story for you! It’s a lost and found story, and Wade Fellin is my hero—and if you don’t write the story I’ll find someone who will!

This was from our friend, Ron Hays, while getting out of the car when he and his wife, Nina Norum, came to have dinner with us at our campsite on the upper Big Hole River.

We met Ron and Nina something like 15 years ago at a Trout Unlimited dinner in Butte. Ron was, at one time, a Dean of engineering at Montana Tech, here in Butte. Nina is a R.N., and we made an instant connection when we learned that Nina, like my wife and I, is a graduate of St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

Their home is in Minneapolis, but for years they have maintained an apartment in Butte as a base for fishing the Big Hole River and other trout streams. This past year they moved their Montana base to Missoula to be closer to grandchildren, but we still try to get together when they return to Montana.

They’d timed this trip to be able to go to the Big Hole River Day, the annual fundraising event of the Big Hole River Foundation. They’ve been supporting the Foundation and in appreciation were invited on a float trip with a Foundation board member as their guide, and this year their guide was Wade Fellin, the co-manager of the Big Hole Lodge at Wise River.

They were floating the Maiden Rock Canyon below Divide when Ron and Nina’s flies got tangled. Wade anchored the rubber raft while assisting them in getting untangled. As Ron related, “I handed my rod, or at least thought I did, to Wade. We got untangled, then I asked, ‘Wade, do you have my pole?’”

It turned out he didn’t. In one of those awkward moments, the handoff didn’t connect and Ron’s rod was in the river.

The rod wasn’t just any fly rod. It was a bamboo rod made by Glenn Brackett’s Sweetgrass Rod Company, and a gift from Ron’s family in honor of his 80th birthday.

Here’s where’s Wade Fellin’s story starts. “If you’re going to drop a fly rod in the river, it was a bad place because it was in a really deep stretch—around six feet deep, and there’s just enough silt on the bottom to make it impossible to see anything once it gets stirred up. I tried to figure out where it went but it seemed hopeless.”

The rest of the float to their takeout at Maidenrock Bridge was a sad trip. Ron relates, “I called Glenn Brackett to order a replacement, but he said it would be at least a year before he’d be able to fill the order.”

After finishing the float, Wade called his fellow guides from Big Hole Lodge to come and help find the rod. He then stopped at a Melrose fly shop where the owners annually go snorkeling in the Bahamas in the winter and borrowed some snorkeling gear.

With the help of the guide crew Wade returned to the river and the stretch where the rod went overboard, trying to figure out how far the rod might have drifted with the current. “Mark Thompson called over, ‘I think you’re too far to the left!’ I thought, ‘How would you know. You weren’t there.’ Still, I moved over to the right side of the channel, and darned if I didn’t spot it. The reel had wedged in between rocks, about 200 yards from where it fell in, with the rod pointing downstream.”

There was a happy reunion of rod and Ron at an afternoon social event of donors and Foundation board members, and Ron and Nina were still almost giddy at the rod’s recovery that evening.

As for any heroics in the recovery, Wade shrugs it off, “We give the float trip to our supporters to thank them for their contributions to the Foundation, but we don’t

Rattlesnake Training for Bird Dogs

Kiri, from one of last season’s hunts. Don’t let a rattlesnake spoil one of this year’s hunts.

We’re now past the middle of July. Our days now have 30 minutes less daylight than we had at the Summer Solstice.

Towards the end of June we passed the peak of the spring runoff period and, surprise, surprise, the Big Hole River and other streams dropped like someone pulled the plug in the bathtub. With the hot weather of July, don’t be surprised if we will likely go to “hoot owl” restrictions on local fishing, in spite of the big and prolonged spring runoff period.

On a day trip to eastern Montana, just a week and a half ago, wheat fields were ripening and, in fact, combines were already harvesting the first of the winter wheat crop.

In short, summer, that most fleeting of Montana seasons, is now more than half over—even if it didn’t really start until the end of June, or so it seemed. For better or worse, autumn is now just around the corner.

That means, of course, that the hunting seasons, the best part of the year, are just six or so weeks away. For some people in a couple Facebook groups dedicated to upland bird hunting, the wait between seasons is all but intolerable, even when fly-fishing really isn’t a bad way to kill time.

I got a bit of a head start on the hunting season a few weeks ago when I did a little trap shooting at our Outdoor Writers conference, taking turns at clay pigeons, and exchanging some good-natured razzing and trash talk with Mark Herwig, editor of the Pheasants Forever magazine.

I took another step toward hunting season when I took our two-year-old Labrador retriever, Kiri, to a rattlesnake avoidance training session.

While the training session opportunity was advertised in the local daily, I’ll not mention where it was held or who sponsored it. At the class I asked if I could take some photos, and was told, “Absolutely not. Inevitably, some photos would get on the Internet and PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) would try to shut us down.”

In case you were wondering, what happens in rattlesnake avoidance training is that trainers lead a dog close to a de-fanged rattlesnake, letting it get a good dose of rattler scent, plus a simulation of the snake trying attack the dog, at the same time that the trainer is giving the dog a strong shock on an electronic training collar.

I was allowed to watch at a distance and it seemed clear that Kiri was unhappy about the experience, as she yelped with pain and/or fright.

After it was all over, the trainer said, “Now take her home and keep her quiet for the rest of the day. Give your dog time to digest what happened and to think about it.”

Indeed, Kiri was pretty subdued most of the day, seemingly reflecting on the morning’s trauma and trying to make sense of it.

The goal of the session is that if she picks up the scent of rattlesnake while out on an early autumn hunt, she would quickly back away from a nasty and possibly fatal encounter. I’m also hopeful that she might also alert me to the presence of rattlesnake when we’re walking along a river in late summer.

I recall a fishing outing on the lower Big Hole River with a previous Lab, Candy, who ran ahead of me through the willows and cottonwoods. She ran right by a rattlesnake, arousing the snake that then looked at me with annoyance, rattling its displeasure at being disturbed during its morning hunt for mice or voles.

My general attitude toward rattlesnakes is, “Live and let live.” They are valuable predators on small rodents and if not provoked will live out a peaceful life without nasty encounters with dogs and their people.

The basics of rattlesnake avoidance training have been around many years and it works, and I’m glad Kiri went through it. Still, I’ll be happy if she never has an encounter to demonstrate her new skill.

Macquarrie and Leopold

A Sand County Almanac and Stories of the Old Duck Hunters – a Wisconsin double-header.

“I must be cautious, but it is hard to even think about it without accompanying rhapsody. But maybe it’s not a bad thing to fall in love with a river.”

I’d like to take credit for this quote. I could say it describes how I feel about the Big Hole River, though many could cheerfully say it about many favorite rivers in many places. In this case, however, the author was Gordon Macquarrie, writing about the Brule River of northern Wisconsin.

Gordon Macquarrie was the main feature of a workshop on Learning from the Masters, and famous outdoor writers from the past, at the recent annual conference, in Duluth MN, of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

Unfortunately, Gordon Macquarrie is a name that’s relatively unknown among today’s readers, but, according to Keith Crowley, a Wisconsin writer and photographer, and a biographer of Macquarrie in his book, Gordon Macquarrie: The Story of an Old Duck Hunter, he was one of the most popular and well-read outdoor writers of his time.

Macquarrie, for his entire working life, was a newspaper reporter and editor. In 1936 he was hired to be the outdoor writer and editor for the Milwaukee Journal, and from there, besides his fulltime job at the newspaper, he wrote for all the big name outdoor magazines. Crowley said, “He was right up there with Havilah Babcock and Nash Buckingham, and others, the great writers of what is sometimes called, ‘The Golden Age of Outdoor Writing.’”

Today, he is usually remembered for collections of his stories about the Old Duck Hunters Association, Inc. (for incorrigible), though that barely touches the surface of his work.

Within just a couple weeks of taking over the Journal’s outdoor desk, Macquarrie took a drive to Madison, Wisconsin to interview Aldo Leopold, a naturalist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, the person often credited for developing the science of wildlife management.

Many Wisconsin hunters and anglers considered Leopold’s thoughts on wildlife management revolutionary. Nevertheless, Macquarrie consistently promoted Leopold’s philosophy of scientific wildlife management, come what may, occasionally ranting against the “ignorami” who opposed Leopold’s ideas. Macquarrie was downright angry at times, literally pounding his typewriter as he wrote his columns, sending a lot of business to the Journal’s typewriter repairman.

Macquarrie received an advance copy of Aldo Leopold’s landmark book, A Sand County Almanac, about a year before it was published after Leopold’s death in 1948. Keith Crowley had an opportunity to talk to Macquarrie’s widow and asked if she still had that book. No, she said, in 1954 their daughter gave him a new copy as the original was literally falling apart from being studied so much, and it went in the trash.

Gordon Macquarrie died in 1956, at age 56, but leaving a huge legacy of written work and his philosophy of the outdoors, and is also forever linked to Aldo Leopold, the founder of scientific wildlife management.

Fast forwarding to the present, after the conference we visited with our long-time friends, Keith and Josie. Keith is a retired wildlife biologist who keeps a close eye on Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, and he’s saddened by what’s happened to his old agency since Governor Scott Walker took office.

It’s a microcosm of what’s happening at the EPA in many respects, as Walker’s appointees are seemingly methodically eliminating science and environmental education from agency missions, and gagging DNR employees from talking to the public, especially concerning issues such as climate change, pollution, or large capacity wells near vulnerable streams. The department has even made drastic cuts to DNR activities at the state fair, ending a traditional outreach effort that usually reached thousands of citizens in a few days.

Keith’s concerns are documented in stories from the Wisconsin State Journal of Madison, reporting that Walker and the Legislature cut $34 million and 93 positions, because the department was doing “unneeded work on climate change, mine pollution and wildlife management.”

Aldo Leopold and Gordon Macquarrie must be rolling over in their graves.

Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame – Hayward, Wisconsin

World’s largest muskie, centerpiece of Hall of Fame.

Back in 1963 I bought a used Johnson 5 ½ horse outboard motor. We were living in Fargo, North Dakota and in the general area of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, just 40 miles to the east, were lots of lakes and most lakes, it seemed, had a resort of some kind where, for a few dollars, you could rent a boat for the day.

That outboard motor was our summer workhorse for a number of years, reliably taking us around many lakes in search of fish. When we moved to Butte in 1988 we gave it to our son in Minot, North Dakota, figuring he’d have more use for it. Unfortunately, it hasn’t run for a long time as it needs a simple part that hasn’t been available for years.

Memories of that old Johnson Sea Horse motor came flooding back as I poked through rooms full of outboard motors at the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame museum in Hayward, Wisconsin last week.

We took a detour to Hayward after spending a long weekend in Duluth, Minnesota for the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, held June 23 through 26.

Our good friends, Keith and Josie, who were college classmates years ago, live in Rhinelander, Wisconsin and they suggested an outing to Hayward for a fun day before we headed back west.

The Fresh Water Hall of Fame is a major attraction in the tourist-oriented town of Hayward. The grounds of the museum boast the world’s largest muskie, a huge representation of the trophy fish, often called “the fish of a thousand casts.” There are some somewhat smaller reproductions of other fish, such as walleye, salmon, perch, and sunfish.

The heart of the museum is the Hall of Fame, where famous anglers, guides and even outdoor writers are honored with Hall of Fame membership. Honorees include author Ernest Hemingway, baseball player Ted Williams, champion flycaster Joan Wulff, and hundreds of others.

Some of the many fish mounts, this just from the trout/salmon room

The museum maintains records of freshwater fish, and there are mounted fish all over the place, though the muskellunge remains the star attraction. The facility includes examples of thousands of lures, flies, rods, reels and memorabilia. It’s truly America’s, particularly the Midwest’s, fishing attic.

But, it was the two rooms full of outboard engines that really caught my attention. Going back to Ole Evinrude’s first outboard motor that he made in 1909, there are hundreds of various outboard motors demonstrating the development of power boats. Some of them jogged memories, and others needed memories that go back much farther than mine.

That green Johnson outboard is the same as my old motor. It’s circa 1954. Signs refer to the little motors below the Johnson.

There were Johnson, Evinrude, and Mercury, as we might expect. But there were countless brands that exist mainly in long memories, such as Firestone and Goodyear, Scott-Atwater, Scott-McCulloch, Montgomery Ward Sea King, Sears, and Sears Ted Williams, Eska, Hiawatha (sold at Gambles stores), McCulloch, and Clinton. Probably a number of those motors were built by the big name companies, and then sold under private labels at those tire and hardware stores. There was even a Spiegel motor, presumably sold by the old catalog company. There might be a few of those old kickers still in use in some backcountry lakes, but most of them are long-forgotten.

There were battery-powered electric trolling motors going back to the 1930s. Before inventors came up with the battery-powered motor, other people came up with crank or foot pedal-powered trolling devices. In a small shed apart from the main museum was a boat from the early 1900s, with a 1904 inboard gasoline engine.

The Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame was the brainchild of local community leaders back in the early 1960s, and has long gotten financial support of whiskey company, Jim Beam.

The Hall of Fame and museum is open April through October and is a great way to spend a couple hours browsing through the history of American fishing. For more information, check their website at

Of course, we might mention that Hayward is well known as a fishing destination, especially for that iconic fish of a thousand casts, the muskie.

A Farewell to Tom Morgan and to FlyRod & Reel Magazine

The last issues of FlyRod &n Reel magazine.

We’re finally approaching the end of the spring runoff season, marked with torrential rains and flood conditions on the Big Hole River, just when I hoped to get in on the salmonfly hatch. I don’t know how the hatch was. I just knew I didn’t want to be floating or wading the river in those conditions.

With runoff tapering off, I’m looking forward to what I usually consider the best fly-fishing of the year, when insect hatches, which unfortunately includes mosquitoes, will be at their peak and rivers are more peaceful than in June.

As we get into the heart of good fly-fishing, we’ll note a couple sad absences from this summer’s fly-fishing scene.

As has been widely reported, Tom Morgan, one of the masters of fly rod design, died on June 12, after a long illness. He was age 75.

Tom Morgan had a long career in fly-fishing, starting as a teen-aged guide in Ennis. He later became an owner of the R. L. Winston rod company, and with his business partner, Glenn Brackett, moved the business from San Francisco to Twin Bridges, Montana in the 1970s.

Morgan and Brackett sold the business in 1991. In spite of becoming crippled from multiple sclerosis, in 1996 he launched a new rod-building business, Tom Morgan Rodsmiths.

While he could no longer fish or even hold a rod, with the help of his wife, Gerri Carlson, and other craftsmen, he continued to design and supervise the building of what many consider to be the world’s finest fly rods, including bamboo rods that sold for almost $4,000. Though he had recently sold the business, he continued to study the art and science of rod design to the end.

Personally, I never met Tom Morgan and I doubt that I could ever justify a four grand bamboo rod. But, I do have a Sweetgrass bamboo rod from Glen Brackett’s shop, and built by a craftsman who had spent part of his apprenticeship under Tom Morgan. I also have a Winston rod, which, even 30 years after Morgan left Winston, has a distinctive, softer action, a characteristic of Morgan’s philosophy of rod design.

Tom Morgan leaves a strong legacy of intelligent design and perfection of craftsmanship to all of us who string up a rod and go fly-fishing.

I also note the demise of FlyRod & Reel magazine, a long-time mainstay of my magazine rack. I started reading the magazine back in the 1980s, when it was still Rod & Reel magazine, and featured a more generalized coverage of fishing.

I looked forward to getting the magazine because of the quality of writing in the magazine. John Gierach, the modern philosopher of fishing, had the back of book column, with his musings on life and fishing, a basis of his many books. Ted Leeson set the standard for equipment reviews. Ted Williams, possibly one of our best living investigative reporters, covered environmental issues. Seth Norman, with whom I spent a week in Alaska a few years back, wrote intelligent and thoughtful book reviews. The most recent editor was Greg Thomas, an outdoor writer based in Missoula.

Some distinguishing features, aside from expected articles about fishing techniques and places to go, were the annual Fly Angler of the Year awards, the annual Robert Traver Writing contest awards, along with, of course, the Gierach stories and Williams’ exposés of abuses to the environment.

One of the first reports of the magazine’s demise that I saw was a Facebook post by Ted Williams, reporting he’d just been notified that his services were no longer needed. Editor Greg Thomas posted an article in late March on Angler’s Tonic, a fishing website, reporting the decision of the publisher, Down East Publications, to discontinue the magazine.

For most subscribers, the first news, aside from not getting a summer issue in the mail, was getting a Shooting Sportsman magazine, with an editor’s note that their FlyRod & Reel subscription was now a Shooting Sportsman subscription.

Nothing lasts forever, I guess, but I’ll miss FlyRod & Reel.