Hunting Seasons Drawing to a Close

A photo from the archives; the late Flicka retrieving a handsome drake mallard.

The Christmas tree is part of a tall, tangled stack of drying Christmas trees, waiting to be shredded to mulch and, eventually, become rich compost, ready to enrich someone’s lawn or garden. The cycle of life is always in motion.

And, as we said farewell to 2017, we said hello to 2018, and wondered what this new year will bring.

New Year’s Day meant more than bowl games and excesses of junk food. It also marked the end of the upland bird season. Those pheasants, grouse, partridge, and other upland birds can now go about the business of winter survival without having to be alert for people and bird dogs upsetting their routine. The end of the hunting season doesn’t mean they’re safe, of course. For foxes, coyotes, raptors and other predators, there are no closed seasons.

Winter is the season that’s like the narrow part of an hourglass, with wildlife having to squeeze through like grains of sand. It’s the unrelenting fact of life that winter determines how much wildlife will be around in the spring to bear young, lay clutches of eggs, and start the new generation.

Winter is the season that is the true test of wildlife habitat; whether there is enough food, water and shelter in the local environment to enable wildlife to survive.

Some wildlife survives winter by migrating to warmer climes, though we’ll note that even in cold, northern states, there will be migrants from Canada and the arctic thinking that it’s nice and warm here.

As we experience a warming climate, even if we don’t think a sub –zero wintry day is particularly warm, some birds, especially waterfowl, find western Montana, with rivers that don’t always freeze, along with warm water springs and creeks, to be just fine for winter. Ducks and geese can survive a lot of cold, as long as they can find food and have open water for drinking and swimming. In recent years, waterfowl biologists have noted that waterfowl are finding wintering spots much farther north than in the not too distant past.

While most hunting seasons are now closed, there are still opportunities for waterfowl hunting.

Here in the Pacific Flyway areas of Montana, basically west of a line from Livingston to Havre, the waterfowl seasons will close, temporarily, on Sunday, January 7, and then reopen on Saturday, January 13, and then finally close on Wednesday, January 17. In the Central Flyway parts of Montana, the dates are slightly different, so check the regulations if you’re planning a waterfowl trip to eastern Montana.

There are also deer hunts going on in the south-central area of Montana, to help determine the extent of chronic wasting disease in that area. Permits went on sale last week (and quickly sold out) for a similar hunt in north-central Montana. That season, referred to as Sage Creek on the FWP website, opens on January 6. Both those special study hunts run through February 15.

In addition, there are shoulder seasons running for antlerless elk on private land areas. Again, there are a lot of rules to check out.

Obviously, this being Montana, there are other things to do, such as ice fishing on area lakes. Some diehards continue to fly-fish anywhere they can find an unfrozen river. Personally, once I’ve made my last duck outing, I’ll look forward to going skiing, and tying flies.

This is also the season for giving feedback to Fish, Wildlife & Parks and this month FWP will be holding public meetings in Region 3 to give the public a chance to ask questions and make comments about hunting seasons and to make recommendations on what you’d like to see in upcoming hunting seasons.

There are a number of meeting dates and locations, but locally, meetings will be held in Butte on January 9 at the United Congregational Church, starting at 6 p.m. In Dillon, the meeting will be on January 11, at the Search and Rescue Building, also starting at 6 p.m.

This is your chance to participate in the process.

 

A Visit with Father Time – 2017 Edition

It’s late at night, and the fire in the fireplace has burned down to a bed of coals. My wife and dog have gone to bed, but I’m in the middle of Ken Follet’s most recent novel, A Column of Fire, and can’t put it down.

At first I don’t hear the knock on the door, but I finally realize someone is out there. It’s a cold, winter night, and I wonder who it might be.

It’s an old man, with long hair and an unkempt beard. I hesitate, but invite him in to come in and get warm. I throw a couple fresh chunks of wood on the fire and ask “Would you like a Tom & Jerry?”

“Make it a double, with bourbon,” he said, with a sigh of relief. “I’m glad you were up. I was hoping to have a chance to chat a bit before I finish my final rotation on Sunday night.”

“Oh, you’re Father Time, the 2017 version,” I commented. “I was wondering if you might be stopping by. I haven’t had one of these visits for several years. So,” I ask, “after some 360 rotations around the world, what do you think?”

“I think you’d better hurry up with that drink, while I take a moment to gather my thoughts.” He stared into the fire a few moments and then took a few sips of the hot drink I’d fixed, and said, “This, my friend, is one mixed up world. When I came on the job back last January, my predecessor warned me this wasn’t going to be easy.

“I tour the world every day, so I see a lot of stuff, but this country of yours is one messed up place.”

I tell him I kind of agree with him but I’d like to hear just what he means.

“Every day I see what’s happening to this great planet. It’s an oasis of life in the solar system, the only place that supports plant and animal life and you’re destroying this paradise.” He paused a moment, “Well, maybe not you, personally, though if you’re living in the U.S., chances are you’re part of the problem.

“Every day I see the world’s last glaciers melting a little bit more. Country-sized slabs of polar ice break off from Antarctica and go floating off into the oceans, and ocean levels creep up a bit.

“You and I both know that your addiction to fossil fuels is a major reason your climate is warming, and you don’t do anything about it.”

I start to say, “It’s complicated…”

“Like heck it is!” he interrupts. “Your scientists, for over a century, have been warning about changes that were going to happen and then started happening, and your politicians are like ostriches with their heads in the sand, who then give more sweetheart deals to companies that burn carbon and pollute the air. That idiot of a president you have goes out to promote coal. ‘Beautiful clean coal,’ he says. Bah, humbug! There is no such thing as clean coal. Geez, don’t get me started.”

“I think you’ve already gotten a pretty good start,” I interject. “But where do we go from here? Everything is so political these days.”

He took another long sip of his drink and studied the flames in the fireplace, while he pondered his reply. Finally, with a degree of hesitation, he said, “My job is to keep track of the passage of time and at the end of the year hand the job over to the next guy. By the way, we’re really not babies when we start. But, we’re not supposed to get involved with politics.

“I will say this, though. You and your fellow citizens need to stay involved and informed of what’s going on. Yes, things are politicized, but as some say, all politics is local. Stay involved and vote.”

With that, he stood up, buttoned his coat and headed for the door. But, before leaving, he added, “Be good to my replacement next week. It’s an election year and it’s going to be tough.”

 

 

Hidden Hazards and Bird Dogs

Kiri is wearing a T-shirt to keep her from licking her wound. Looks silly, but it works.

Like the old song where a kid lisps out, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,” my black Lab, Kiri, might sing, “All I want for Christmas is to have my stitches out.”

Appropriately, a Sioux Falls SD veterinarian is featured in a Purina ProPlan Outdoor Wire, writing about potential hazards that threaten hunting dogs.

Hidden obstacles are at the top of the list. Traumatic and puncture wounds are among the most common sporting dog injuries and are caused by running into obstacles such as tree branches, barbed wire, fence posts, traps, or briars that a dog can’t see because of tall grass, heavy cover, or other reasons.

Last Friday, Kiri and I had a hunting outing on an area ranch in search of pheasants. From the standpoint of seeing game, we had a good day. We put up quite a few pheasants as the day progressed. On the other hand, late season pheasants tend to not wait around while hunters and their dogs box them into a corner. I had shots at birds, but not good shots, and we came home empty-handed.

On Saturday morning I was relaxing with the morning paper, with Kiri on her dog bed next to my easy chair. She was busy licking something, and I didn’t think much of it. She’s easily the lickingest dog we’ve ever had. That little tongue of hers goes everywhere.

She seemed to be working really hard licking her chest. I took a closer look and saw that she had about a one-inch wide cut on her chest, most likely due to going through a barbed wire fence. I groaned and went to the phone to schedule a visit with her veterinarian.

I might be something of an expert on this. Kiri is our fifth Labrador retriever and all five of them have had run-ins with barbed wire.

I used to hunt a farm in eastern Montana that had a fenceline going through a marsh. The fence was likely built during a drought period, but it became all but invisible, as the top wire was covered with dead grass and cattails. My old chocolate Lab, Alix, had a couple encounters with that fence and had to be stitched up at least once.

Candy, two dogs back, had a real talent for barbed wire, it seemed. On an outing around 15 years ago we flushed a covey of Hungarian partridge and I managed to drop one of the birds. Candy went through an exceptionally tight barbed wire fence on her retrieve and got a nasty three-corner tear along her back. Nothing was going to slow her down when it came to birds. To her credit, it did seem she learned, toward the end of her career, to stop and let me spread barbed wire strands before going through.

Back around 1980, when we were living in eastern North Dakota, our first Lab, Sam, and I went out on a late season hunt for ruffed grouse. We were having a fun outing until I noticed blood on the snow. I checked Sam and sure enough she had a nasty skin tear on her chest.

We headed back to where I’d parked my International Scout, loaded her up and headed home, making a late afternoon stop at the veterinarian’s office in Park River ND. The vet was primarily a horse and cow doctor and small animals were a sideline. I was lucky he hadn’t closed up shop for the day.

He checked Sam’s cut and said, “Well, it’s not too bad but maybe we’ll put in a stitch or two.” He put in a couple stitches and said, “Maybe a couple more.”

A little later, Sam had five stitches on her chest, and the doctor scratched his head a bit and said, “Ten bucks, I guess,” and I cheerfully paid his fee.

So, a word to the wise: Be careful on your outings and after the hunt check your dog for cuts or bleeding. Also, don’t be surprised; the price for repairs has gone up.

National Monuments at Risk

Grand Staircse-Escalante, one of two Utah Monuments slated for downsizing. Photo courtesy Charlie O’Leary

Donald Trump had quite a week.

Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, in a plea deal that likely will send more than a few more heads rolling before the dust settles.

He got the only legislative victory of his tenure, a big tax bill that promises to raise taxes on the middle class but gives big ( “beautiful”) cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and adds a trillion bucks to the national debt over the next ten years.

He endorsed, and got the Republican National Committee to spend campaign money on, the former Alabama Supreme Court judge who twice was thrown out of office for illegally defying Federal court orders, now renowned for hitting on teenage girls back when he was a 30-something deputy district attorney.

Then, in an action that surprised nobody, Trump announced that he was taking action to vastly reduce the size of the Bears Ear and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah.

The reductions in these monuments will eliminate about 1.1 million acres from Bears Ear and 800,000 acres from Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Trump told a Salt Lake City audience that the actions would “reverse federal overreach,” and send a message to people who think, “that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by very distant bureaucrats located in Washington.”

In addition, the Washington Post reports that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will make further recommendations to reduce other monuments in Oregon and Nevada.

While Utah politicians cheered, not everybody is happy. A coalition of Native American tribes, including Ute, Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblo of Zuni, announced they will file suit in U.S District Court in Washington D.C. to challenge Trump’s action on Bears Ear. Another coalition of environmental groups has filed suit challenging reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Ironically, Bruce Adams, chairman of the San Juan County Commission, and an opponent of Bears Ear National Monument, said he hoped the boost in tourism his county has had in the last year would continue.

Amy Roberts, president of the Outdoor Industry Association, noted that business has thrived in the 20 years since the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante and “there’s a risk now that those people’s livelihoods will be threatened as people hear that the monument’s been cut in half and wonder whether it’s worth visiting.”

Greg McReynolds, one of several contributors to an upland hunting blog, Mouth Full of Feathers, notes that the heart of Trump’s proclamation is that lands “you could hunt and fish and explore when they were part of Bears Ear and Grand Staircase-Escalante” that were protected by national monument status “will be eligible for sale, strip mining and oil and gas development.”

A myriad of organizations, such as the Sierra Club, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Montana Wildlife Federation, and including outdoor gear retailer Patagonia, have registered protests against the downsizing of the national monuments. Patagonia’s website proclaims, “The president stole your lands.”

Closer to home, Charlie O’Leary, chairman of the Butte-Silverbow Urban Forest Board and a longtime public land advocate, posted a protest on his Facebook page, telling of many visits to “Red Rock Country to explore slot canyons, scamper around on the Navajo sandstone, and peer over vertical cliffs of purple, red and orange…I feel a great deal of disappointment and anger with Trump and Zinke as they attempt their public land grab to benefit their friends in the oil and coal industry.”

Spectacular desert scenery in endangered National Monuments. Photo courtesy Charlie O’Leary.

A minority voice in the outdoors community is Safari Club International, which issued a statement supporting the action, “We at Safari Club International applaud the decision…to protect access to millions of acres of public land in Utah…the Administration is affirming the benefit of traditional land uses…”

It is clear that the battle over National Monuments is just beginning, and the courts will decide whether a president can reverse the actions of previous presidents in creating national monuments.

What is also clear is that Donald Trump doesn’t understand that a president’s legacy is based on achievement. There won’t be any monuments erected to honor a president whose main accomplishments were to destroy the legacies of his predecessors.

Late Season Upland Birds

My Lab, Kiri, sniffing the brush for grouse scent.

The aspens are quiet now, and it was a rare early winter treat to be able to take a walk through the aspens, last week, in search of ruffed grouse.

I hadn’t been in the thickets since the last day of October, after we got slammed with heavy snow in the first days of November. Over the years I’ve done lots of grouse hunting in the snow but I’ve made a concession to age, and now I stay out of the woods when they’re covered with snow. A blanket of snow hides all sorts of traps and pitfalls and I’d just as soon avoid a nasty fall.

For better or worse, the mild weather of late November melted most of the snow in the lower elevation aspens, and a walk in the grouse woods on a cold, sunny afternoon was a welcome diversion from sitting in front of a computer.

When the elk and deer seasons ended on November 26, some people sighed with relief or disappointment and put their guns away for another year.  There are others, like me, who grab shotguns and head for the hills, also feeling a bit of relief because we can hunt grouse without worrying about some over-anxious fool taking a shot at us or our bird dog.

For the most part, I rarely see other hunters in the aspen thickets where I search for grouse. The big game season is an exception, because it puts a lot of people in the hills. A rare exception was some years ago when I’d just finished a walk for grouse and another guy with a bird dog was just getting ready to walk in. The deer and elk season was on and, incredibly, he was wearing a brown vest and no hunter orange. I assume he survived his walk, because I didn’t hear any reports of a grouse hunter or his dog getting shot.

As I went in the forest, there were footprints in the remaining snow patches, indicating that even if people hadn’t been grouse hunting, there had been lots of hunters out. Curiously, in spots the footprints were ice prints. Snow that had been compressed by a hunter walking across a meadow had turned to ice, while the snow around it had melted.

Unfortunately, on this walk my black Lab, Kiri, didn’t find any grouse scent in the brushy thickets and we finished our circle through the trees and brush without flushing any grouse.

The afternoon wasn’t a total loss. There is a sparkling spring on the mountainside that nourishes a bountiful crop of watercress in all seasons. I’d brought a plastic bag along just for the walk. Grouse are always an iffy proposition, but a watercress salad with dinner was a sure thing.

A secluded mountainside spring and the makings of a watercress salad.

Montana’s upland bird season runs through New Year’s Day, so there is still time to get out with a shotgun and go for a walk in search of game. The waterfowl season goes well into January, though it’s always a good idea to read the regulations because there are different closing dates, depending on whether you’re hunting ducks or geese, and what part of the state you’re in.

There is always the intriguing possibility of flushing pheasants while hunting ducks, so stay alert for surprises.

I got this pheasant last week while hunting ducks. The ducks outsmarted me, though.

Sometimes, the surprise is that we go for a walk in the woods and not find any birds. That’s when we get philosophical and repeat the old gag, “That’s why we call it hunting and not shooting.” Still, whether we finish the walk with or without a heavy vest, we will have had a healthy walk in Montana’s great outdoors, and that’s never bad, and a bird dog that’s had a few hours of exercise is a happy and peaceful dog.

Montana’s upland bird season is a long one, going from the first day of September through New Year’s Day, and from the heat of late summer to the bitter cold of winter.

To truly appreciate those glorious days of October, we need to sweat in September and shiver in December.

Best Day or Just Luck – a Deer Hunt

The culmination of a successful deer hunt.

“According to Field & Stream magazine, this is the best day of the season to be deer hunting,” I said to my friend, John Jacobson, as I stashed lunch, rifle, binoculars, and such in his truck.

The day was November 10, and, indeed, the annual deer hunting issue with tips on the best days to be hunting deer listed November 10 as the best day to be out. The blurb said, ”We’re teetering close to peak breeding season across much of the nation, and buck activity will be stellar today…today is the day.”

I often chuckle when the magazine proclaims which are the best days for hunting—nationwide. It always strikes me that there are too many variables to make predictions, formulated in advance to meet press deadlines long before the magazine actually shows up in mailboxes or newsstands.

There are lots of theories about when are the best times for outdoor ventures, including the famous Solunar tables, first devised by John Alden Knight, using time of day, and phases of the moon and tides. Knight published his first Solunar table in 1936, and, for years, Field & Stream regularly published the Solunar tables and Ed Zern, the magazine’s longtime humor writer, often poked fun at the Solunar tables in his columns.

In practicality, most of us don’t plan our outings based on magazine predictions or Solunar tables. We go when we can get away, or when we get invited to go out, or when the weather is tolerable, or when our spouses tell us, “For Pete’s sakes, go hunting or something—just get out of my hair for a day.”

In any event, this year, for probably the first time ever, I was going to be looking for a deer on what Field & Stream said was THE day to be out there.

Indeed, as we got to the southwest Montana ranch we were hunting, we could see deer running across the valley. They were perfectly safe, as I wasn’t ready for doing any shooting in the pre-dawn dim light.

As it got brighter, and we moved around the ranch a bit, we started seeing deer moving, and looking through binoculars we could spot antlers on some of them. Antlers aren’t a big deal as far as I’m concerned. When I hunt deer I’m looking for venison in the freezer. Still, things being what they are, it’s hard to not look at antlers.

So, we were spotting deer, but nothing in range. We looked at a nice buck standing and looking at us from around 450 yards—out of my shooting range. I spotted a small buck moving through a line of brush, but it disappeared while I had to answer a call of nature.

Every once in a while, John would laugh and ask, “Was that December 10?”

I responded, “No, November 10—but maybe it was Central Time.”

In early afternoon we were driving up a hillside where deer often hide out during the day. I saw something in the bottom of a draw. “Stop the car,” I said, putting up my binoculars to confirm that the something was a deer with antlers. I stepped out of the truck, found a rest and made a hurried shot, and the hunt was over. The work was just beginning.

A moment of solemn celebration – before we start the heavy work – and it was heavy!

The deer had a perfect spot, in warm sunshine, out of the wind. Why it hadn’t bolted for safety when we came along is a good question. There’s a Native American belief that the animal we’re supposed to harvest will offer him or herself to you, and looking back over many years of hunting, this has been a common thread, in fact probably the only rational reason, for many successful big game hunts.

This year’s Montana general big game season ended at sundown on Sunday, November 26. My season ended on November 10 at 1:30 in the afternoon. Whether we credit Solunar tables or magazine predictions, we again have prime venison in the freezer, for which we give thanks.

Thanksgiving Thoughts and Views

We don’t call Thanksgiving Turkey Day for nothing!

Tomorrow we again celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has a long history on this continent. Many of our traditions and folklore of the holiday go back to 1621 and the Plymouth Colony and the Puritan immigrants joining with the Native Americans who helped enable their survival to celebrate a harvest festival.

On the other hand, there are competing claims that the first thanksgiving celebration happened in 1565 in St. Augustine, Florida, or El Paso, Texas in 1598, or another observance in 1619 in the Virginia Colony.

In recent years, groups of Native Americans have held protests at Plymouth Rock, proclaiming Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning. Others observe Native American Heritage Day on this holiday. Indeed, illustrations of happy and cheerful Native Americans and Pilgrims sharing an outdoor banquet on that first Plymouth Colony Thanksgiving Day hide the grim reality that their tribes soon became all but extinct because of diseases spread from Europeans, and warfare, once the Pilgrims became established. It’s not a happy history.

The first President of the United States, George Washington, issued a presidential proclamation designating November 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty god.”

Thanksgiving was widely observed in many states, but often on different days, so in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday of November. Southern states engaged in the Civil War didn’t acknowledge Lincoln’s proclamation, so it wasn’t until 1870 that there was a true national observance of the day.

On December 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Joint Resolution of Congress fixing the date of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November, something FDR previously did by presidential proclamation two years earlier to give the country the economic boost of another week of Christmas shopping.

While there are many Thanksgiving traditions, most families eventually create their own. My earliest Thanksgiving memories are of family dinners and “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmothers house we go.” My grandmother was, in most years, the host of extended family gatherings. It would have been debatable whether conversations among these farmers about fall harvests and cattle prices were more in English or Norwegian, but the turkey dinner was totally traditional.

In recent years my wife and I have been on the road for Thanksgiving, making the long trip to the California Bay Area to celebrate the day with our daughter, Erin, and celebrating the day after Thanksgiving by going wine tasting in places such as Napa and Sonoma.

My wife, Kay, and i enjoying a day in the vineyards a few Thanksgivings ago.

Those long road trips always carried risks of early winter snowstorms in the high Sierras, or anywhere else on the thousand miles between western Montana and northern California. We’ve never been snowbound, but we came close on some trips.

This year will be different. This year Erin told her corporate employer to “take this job and shove it,” and then schemed a plan to move back to Montana. I use the word “back” advisedly, in that she hadn’t actually lived in Montana since finishing 2nd grade in 1973, but she always claims Montana as her home state, so her move brings her home.

So, we’re thankful for many things this Thanksgiving. We’re thankful for good health and being able to have an active and busy lifestyle.

I’m thankful for another year in the great outdoors, especially here in Montana, and being able to have opportunities to spend time on trout streams, prairies, and mountains.

I’m thankful for Nature’s bounty, and that now in early winter, we have grouse, pheasants, ducks and venison in the freezer. I won’t claim that we live on wild game but it’s a privilege, in many countries reserved for the wealthy, to be able to enjoy occasional meals from the wild side.

I’m thankful for family and the blessings of growing older and being able to have seen our grandchildren grow up.

And, this year, I guess I’m also thankful for not having to worry about getting snowbound in Elko.

Ruffed Grouse Habitat in Change

This is what September snow does to the aspens.

 

It’s now mid November and that means several things.

First, next week is Thanksgiving, the day we set aside for being thankful for abundance. That also means that Montana’s long general elk and deer season is more than half gone. In fact, it’s just a week and a half away from the close of the season at sunset on November 26. That’s also a stern reminder to me, as well as anybody else reading this.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been out hunting.

My last hunt (as of a week ago) was on the last day of October. Besides being Halloween it also turned out to be the last day of autumn.

My ruffed grouse season has been kind of topsy-turvy this fall. First, we had almost unbearably hot and dry weather the first couple weeks of September that kept me out of the aspen thickets, and we went right from that to an early taste of winter that dumped a foot or more of wet heavy snow in the mountains.

I think of the aspen and brushy habitat where ruffed grouse live as a work in progress. It’s a dynamic environment that’s in constant change. Change can be good or bad, and sometimes it’s just plain frustrating.

For example, there’s a hillside aspen thicket I’ve hunted for almost 30 years. I’ve had fun days and difficult days in this grouse covert, but the last time I went there I couldn’t find it. It might seem hard to believe, but bear with me.

When I started hunting that spot in the fall of 1988, I’d park on the edge of the road that goes through the area and walk across grassland, interspersed with small pine trees. Over the years those small pines have grown up into a forest so thick and tall it totally obscures that aspen-covered hillside where I’d hunted so many times, and the last time I wandered through the pines I got turned around and found myself a mile from where I wanted to be. As they say, I wasn’t lost, but I was certainly momentarily confused.

An aspen forest is usually a young forest. As aspen trees mature, they provide shade to emerging conifers and at some point the conifers start taking over. In a couple of my hunting spots I started thinking that we needed a controlled burn or logging operation to get rid of the pine trees that were taking over my ruffed grouse habitat. As it happened, the mountain pine beetle outbreak that devastated our pine forests in the last decade did close to a clean sweep of the lodgepole pine stands that threatened the aspen thickets.

Now, several years after pine beetles killed the pine trees, the trees are falling, as their roots decay. It’s a healthy progression, as the fallen trees open up the forest canopy to generate new growth. In some places, however, there are so many down trees in the forest that it’s about impossible to walk through.

On this Halloween day hunt, I was trying to walk through grouse habitat that was all but impassable from fallen pine trees, with the additional complication of aspen trees that had been bent or broken by that mid-September snowstorm. It was almost impossible, when it came to picking my way through.

It doesn’t bother the grouse. In fact, a grouse flushed within seconds of when Kiri, our Labrador retriever, and I walked into the trees. I had just a momentary glimpse of the bird as it flew to safety. For her part, Kiri didn’t have any particular difficulty, as she scampered in and through the brush and downed and broken trees.

Kiri is enjoying her outing in the aspens

I won’t complain, however. Those downed trees will eventually decay, or burn up in some future fire, wild or controlled, and make way for a regenerated patch of wildlife habitat.

In the meantime, I’ll grumble as I stumble, though it’ll probably be next September. With the abrupt change to winter and heavy snow, I’ll most likely let the ruffed grouse go about their business of winter survival.

Lefty Kreh Retires – at Age 92

Lefty Kreh (on the left, of course) with TV newsman Tom Brokaw. From Lefty’s twitter page.

For several years we took in the Federation of Fly-Fishers annual convention and trade show when it was held in Livingston, Montana.

You never knew what you might see, such as the petite lady of fly-fishing, Joan Wulff, demonstrating casting, making a quick and casual-looking cast with a fly-rod, sending the line out twice as far as I’ve ever done.

Another memorable sight was Lefty Kreh, one of the most revered people in fly-fishing, walking across the trade show floor with about a dozen rods in his arms, getting ready to do a fly-casting class.

Lefty (his given name is Bernard Victor Kreh) was born in Maryland and grew up fishing, hunting and trapping to help support his family. He got his nickname because he was ambidextrous and used both hands equally when playing basketball.

After finishing high school he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Europe in the last year of WWII, seeing action at the Battle of the Bulge, and had five battle stars by the end of the war.

In 1947, Lefty was guiding bass fishermen on the upper Potomac River and one day guided fly-fishing’s biggest celebrity of the time, Joe Brooks. Using fly equipment, Brooks out-fished Lefty, who was still using plug-casting gear. Lefty got hooked on fly-fishing and became one of the masters of the sport, especially at the techniques of casting.

Over the years, he’s done about everything to do with fishing, even participating in a fishing tournament in Cuba, spending a day fishing with Ernest Hemingway and then Fidel Castro (before the U.S. government cut ties with Cuba).

He’s been a prolific writer for newspapers and magazines and wrote over 30 books. He’s won just about every honor possible from various organizations such as Trout Unlimited, Federation of Fly Fishers, and International Game Fish Association.

In spite of reaching his 90s, Lefty has maintained an exhausting schedule of fishing, teaching, writing, and creating film and videos. He’s truly been the “Energizer Bunny” of fly-fishing.

Unfortunately, even those fabled batteries will eventually lose their energy, and so is Lefty Kreh.

Lefty sent a message to the Gulf Coast Council of Fly Fishers International, with a request they share it through the fly-fishing community. He writes, “I was 92 in January and had a carotid artery operation. During testing the hospital determined my heart was only pumping 35% and must limit my physical activities. The industry was extremely helpful and last season was able to attend the shows, clinics, etc.

“Several weeks ago I realized I was developing another problem, which is normal for someone nearly 93. It turns out I have congested [congestive] heart failure…In summary I have to give up travel and presentations as in the past.”

Lefty writes about his struggle with congestive heart failure, with weight gain, fluid retention and adjusting medications. He continues, “This means the schedule I lived for decades is no longer valid and will spend most of my time at home. As we get older we learn to adjust to what we can and cannot do. I have a number of interesting computer home projects on the computer and busier than a Syrian bricklayer. I’m not frustrated and I’m content. My problem is I don’t have a lot of stamina and have to work around that. If Mark’s (Dr. Mark Lamos) medical system works I should be busy and around for a year or two.

Lefty explains he wants others to spread the word about his health, explaining he doesn’t have energy to answer emails or talk on the phone. “This is not meant to be unfriendly is learning to adjuster my situation.” (sic)

He concludes, “In summary I’m busy and content but I want you to know I am so appreciative you’ve shared your lives with me.”

Lefty Kreh, a true representative of that “Greatest Generation,” has had an amazing career and is facing the inevitable with grace and humility.

I hope he’s able to find the energy to occasionally go fishing.

Paul Vang’s book, “Sweeter than Candy, A Hunter’s Journal” is available at Books & Books, Cavanaugh’s County Celtic, The Bookstore in Dillon, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

 

Getting things done

Catch & Release, or Catch & Cook, I’ve logged my catches in Montana’s Fishing Log Program, now on hold.

“Git ‘er done.”

That’s the catch phrase of “blue collar” comedian, Larry the Cable Guy, and getting things done was the theme of last week’s brief return to Indian Summer weather.

This was an opportunity to pick up leaves and clean up the lawn before winter comes. Of course, that’s a project that’s never completely done, as my lilac bushes and apple tree hang on to their leaves long after other trees have dropped their leaves. Even after those leaves get picked up, leaves get blown in from around the neighborhood.

All those leaves, sooner or later, end up in a compost pile, to which I’ll be adding throughout the coming year with scraps of greens, peelings and other kitchen waste, along with some dirt to add compost-digesting microbes to the mixture. I turn things over periodically and by next October that big pile of leaves will be a small pile of rich compost that I’ll spread over my garden. I also planted next year’s garlic crop, covering the bulbs with a thick layer of compost and mulch.

Compost has been a wonderful addition to our local decomposed granite that masquerades as soil. My garden now is a black, fertile growing medium ready for the challenge of producing vegetables in our short high elevation growing season.

Our annual pheasant trip to the Rocky Mountain Front was also the end of our camping season, and yesterday’s job was to winterize the trailer’s plumbing system so it’ll be ready for springtime outings.

In fact, much of the work of late fall is geared to spring, even if we think of it as getting ready for winter, just as much of what’s happening in nature at this time of year is in preparation for spring.

One end of season task that I won’t be doing this fall is sending in my fishing log to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. For a number of years I’ve been participating in FWP’s Fishing Log Program. The Program started in 1951, and is funded through the Dingell-Johnson Act that provides funding for sport fish restoration. Dingell-Johnson funding has declined so FWP is unable to finance the program at this time.

I chatted with Beth Giddings of the Fisheries Division, who has been running the program in recent years to get some insights and background.

Some 1,050 people are technically classed as active participants, though she cautions that just 747 people were asked to return their log booklet at the end of last year.

Over the years, 5,742 people have participated. The majority of participants live in western Montana, though they’re not just trout anglers. “Lots of them are warm water anglers, who specialize in walleyes and other warm water species.” The longest-participating angler on that active list has been submitting his log since 1958.

Going through all the log books at the end of the year has been quite a labor-intensive part of the program, and it’s often a challenge to decipher handwriting, as well as identify the various waters described. “We try to use data entry persons who are familiar with Montana waterways, though we sometimes have to talk to our people in the Regions for clarification.”

I certainly have sympathy for those poor people who have struggled to decipher my handwriting these past years. I often can’t read my own notes, so I feel for those who pick up my booklet and try to make sense of it.

The program has provided a lot of valuable information over the years. It was fishing log data that provided early clues to the impact of whirling disease on the Madison River, as well as some little-known waters.

Giddings says the Department is looking at options for devising an online reporting system. “Today’s anglers are a lot more technically savvy about these things, so hopefully the suspension of the program will be temporary until we develop a reporting program that will be within our budget.”

Now that I’m caught up in fall chores, I’ll get back to chasing pheasants and grouse.

Pheasant – More Shoe Leather than Shooting

Kiri with the first pheasants of 2017.

It might be a blast of lead pellets from a shotgun that supplies the coup de gras, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned in over 60 years of pheasant hunting is that we kill pheasants with shoe leather.

We just returned from our annual last campout of the season trip to the Rocky Mountain Front, where I hunted pheasants for three days, and the importance of keeping on your feet and trudging to yet another patch of cover was reinforced yet again.

A corollary to that principle, of course, is having access to those patches of pheasant habitat. I’m fortunate in that I have access to some farms and ranches with good pheasant habitat. My landowner friends tell me that the list of people they let hunt on their property is quite short, but that I’m on it. I’m grateful, and make sure that they know I’m grateful.

Blustery weather on the northern plains of Montana.

One farm that I hunted on our trip isn’t a big farm, but there are patches of pheasant cover scattered around the barley fields, and a day of hunting means trudging across the prairie checking things out, even if I walked that same cover several hours earlier.

On my first walk on the farm, I had my first shot at a pheasant rooster just minutes after my Lab, Kiri, and I started walking through tall grass on the edge of an irrigation ditch. The pheasant took off from the grass, right where other pheasants have made similar attempts at escape. Some succeed, but many others ended up, like this one, with a one-way trip to Butte, Montana.

A long walk around the perimeter of the farm and along an irrigation canal bisecting the farm followed that first successful shot. That stroll also included several unsuccessful shots. I should have finished the morning with a limit of three pheasants in my vest but, on the bright side, one pheasant is easier to carry.

After a lunch break and a chance to rest, Kiri and I went for another walk, this time to work some cover we hadn’t touched in the morning walk. In a strip of tall grass at the edge of the barley stubble a pheasant flushed from just in front of us and with a blast from my shotgun, the bird fell without a wiggle. We now had just one bird to go for a limit.

Our walk took us to a corner of the farm that has almost always given me lots of thrills over the years, along with a lot of groans of frustration. This corner centers on a cattail slough, with cottonwood trees and willows marking a border from the open fields.

I sent Kiri into a willow thicket, fully knowing what would happen next. All hell broke loose! First, there was a flurry of hen pheasants erupting from the willows. Then a rooster shot out. I missed a shot at the rooster. Then, while my over and under shotgun was open for reloading, half a dozen more roosters flew out, cackling their scorn.

From another brush patch several pheasants flushed, but in the shade I couldn’t pick out their colors that marked them as roosters until they were out of range. Kiri flushed a pair of pheasants from the edge of the brushy area and I missed the easy shot.

As we neared a return back to the farmstead I felt discouraged. I’d had lots of shooting, but a handful of empty shells rattling around in the back of my vest doesn’t represent food in the freezer. My legs were getting tired and I was beginning to reconcile myself to the possibility of not getting a third pheasant.

But, there was one more weed patch to go before I got back to the truck. It was thick cover and difficult to walk through, but a rooster pheasant flushed and this time I didn’t miss, and Kiri and I had our day’s limit of three cock pheasants.

Pheasant season runs through New Year’s Day. I’m looking forward to more walks across the prairie.

A ray of early morning sunshine lights up the prairie at Freezeout Lake.

Montana’s Biggest Festival – Hunting Season Begins Saturday

The photo is from a late November hunt a few years back. It was 20 below that morning, but a successful hunt for whitetail deer.

The wait is almost over.

Yes, for people who live for the annual celebration of carrying a rifle and walking across Montana’s mountains and prairies in search of deer and elk, it’s time to celebrate.

On Saturday the statewide festival we call huntin’ season begins at dawn, and for the next five weeks, until sunset on November 26, people across Montana will be setting alarm clocks for what would be considered alarming times most of the year. It’s a time for big breakfasts, then hitting the road in hopes of opportunities to bag a deer or elk and fill freezers with locally sourced, organically grown wild food.

The season opens on Saturday, though the next two days, October 19 and 20, legally licensed hunters, age 10 through 15, and accompanied by an adult, may hunt deer wherever they are licensed to hunt.

It’s a hectic time in the backcountry. Right now, there are all sorts of hunters already in the mountains, or hauling camping trailers, horse trailers, and other gear and paraphernalia that become part of hunting camps.

If the deer and elk seem alert and skittish on Saturday, it might be because of so much activity these last few days before the season begins.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but this might be a better than average year for many hunters. We’ve been getting mountain snow off and on for the last month and forcing elk and mule deer to go to lower elevations for food. I hesitate to make predictions, of course, because that might bump us back into Indian summer weather. Weather is always uncertain, though it’s almost certain that we’ll be making the transition from autumn to early winter during these coming weeks and that means don’t be surprised at anything that happens.

As we begin another huntin’ season, here are a few reminders.

Montana law requires all hunters, or anyone accompanying a hunter as an outfitter or guide, to wear a minimum of 400 square inches of hunter orange above the waist. During the general season that includes archery hunters, as well. For your own safety, don’t ignore this rule. Wearing orange can save your life. If you watch hunting programs on TV you probably see hunters wearing camouflage. There are some states that don’t require hunter orange. Montana isn’t one of them. Personally, I advocate that anybody that’s in the outdoors this time of year, such as farmers, ranchers, upland bird hunters, and hikers, should wear orange.

Montana law requires hunters to have permission to hunt private land. This applies to upland bird hunters and big game hunters alike. It doesn’t make any difference whether a landowner has or has not posted their land, or painted fence posts orange. You have to have permission from a landowner, lessee or agent.

If hunting on private land you can’t drive off established roads or trails without landowner permission. Off-road travel on public lands is prohibited unless roads or trails are designated as open to motorized travel. There are no exceptions for game retrieval.

If you have a successful hunt, you must validate your tag by cutting out the notches for the date, and attach the tag to the carcass before removing it from the kill site.

Many cooperating landowners provide hunting access to millions of acres of land in Montana through the Block Management Program. FWP offices can provide directories to those lands. There are some hoops to jump through, such as getting a signed permission slip from the landowner or signing in at a designated sign-in box.

Finally, it is possible to donate a hunting license to a disabled military service member or veteran. Under this program, the disabled person must be a Purple Heart recipient, with a 70 percent disability rating.

This is a special time of year. It’s a celebration of the outdoors and an opportunity for recreation and filling freezers. For a lucky few, it might even mean a chance at the trophy of a lifetime.

Enjoy, but stay safe and legal.

Las Vegas Massacre Beyond Mere Satire

Entertainer and satirist, Tom Lehrer, from CD cover of Lehrer’s collected songs.

I miss Tom Lehrer.

Okay, Tom Lehrer is still alive and well. He’s nearing age 90, enjoying good health and retirement in Santa Cruz, California.

For those too young to have known and loved Tom Lehrer, Lehrer was the Harvard mathematics lecturer who had a brief, blazing career as a writer of satirical songs, such as “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” the “Vatican Rag,” “The Elements,” and “So Long (I’m off to drop the bomb).”

Lehrer quit show business at the peak of his career. An apocryphal story, which Lehrer later denied, was that when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, Lehrer was purported to have commented, “Political satire is now obsolete.” I would guess that we Lehrer fans would say, “If he didn’t say it, he should have.”

If Lehrer were to return to the satirical song racket he’d have an abundance of things to sing about. We might say that it’s a “target-rich environment.”

Alas, last week that target-rich environment began with another target-rich environment, an audience of 22,000 people attending a big outdoor country music show in Las Vegas. A lone gunman, Stephen Paddock, with no known reason for doing so, managed to take some 24 firearms into his Las Vegas hotel room and when country music star Jason Aldean, started his act, Paddock broke his hotel windows and started spraying bullets on the crowd.

Paddock committed suicide before law enforcement officers were able to arrest him. Among the firearms found in his room were many semiautomatic rifles that had been converted to fully-automatic.

The purchase of fully automatic firearms is tightly regulated, however it is relatively easy—and legal—to go on the internet and purchase devices that convert semiautomatic AR rifles to virtual machine guns.

Two days after the event, the death toll was up to 59, though additional deaths were expected, and over 400 people were hospitalized. It’s rated as the worst mass-shooting ever.

And what would a modern version of Tom Lehrer sing about?

We might start with televangelist Pat Robertson, who regularly comes up with statements ripe for satirical comment, who blamed the mass shooting on disrespect for authority, “There is profound disrespect of our president…All the way up and down the line: disrespect.”

Senator John Thune (R-SD) said victims should have been more careful. “As someone said—get small.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the press that it wasn’t appropriate to talk about policy so soon after the tragedy. “There will certainly be a time for that policy discussion to take place, but that’s not the place we’re in at this moment.”

Even President Trump’s statement regarding the tragedy was a target of criticism. David Frum, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said Trump’s comments were “steeped in hypocrisy.” He added, “He is the least outwardly religious president of modern times, the president least steeped in scripture. For him to offer the consolations of God and of faith after mass bloodletting is to invite derision.”

For days after the shooting, the National Rifle Association maintained a code of silence, with no public statements or tweets, and even delaying, for one week, a series of political ads for Virginia’s gubernatorial election. Observers, however, were expecting that the NRA would likely come out with statements similar to what they said after the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives did, however, elect to delay action on a bill that would loosen restrictions on purchasing gun silencers. Aside from that, individual members primarily offered “thoughts and prayers.”

ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel commented on politicians offering thoughts and prayers, “They should be praying. They should be praying for God to forgive them for letting the gun lobby run this country, because it’s so crazy.”

Maybe, on second thought, it’s just as well that Tom Lehrer isn’t writing new satirical songs about these events. A government that simply lets one tragedy after another happen with total inaction is too far-gone for mere satire.

It’s time for We the People to send a message.

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.