Winter – Time for Hunting Ducks!

Flicka retrieving a duck from a warm water spring on a sub-zero morning.

Last weekend marked more than over-consumption of turkey and football, with spending sprees on Black Friday. Sundown on Sunday also marked the end of Montana’s 2012 general big game hunting season.

For some lucky hunters, the season has been over a long time because they got lucky and filled the freezer early in the season. For others, Sunday marked the end of five weeks of frustration, when we start explaining that actual hunting is just a small part of the experience. The camaraderie and fresh air is what it’s all about.

With the exception of some late seasons or damage control hunts, however, big game hunting is done for another year, though that doesn’t mean hunting is over. For some, hunting season is just getting interesting.

We’ve now had some winter storms and that means ducks and geese, which had been enjoying autumn fattening up on grainfields on the northern prairies of Montana and Canada, are heading farther south in search of food and open water.

When we lived in eastern North Dakota, duck hunting was mostly an October sport, as more often than not, by November there would be a blast of arctic weather that would freeze most of the wetlands, pushing the ducks south.

Here in southwest Montana we have rivers and creeks that seldom freeze, including warm water spring creeks that never freeze, and these waters attract ducks in numbers that often seem incredible.

I often recall a day some years ago, two Labs ago as I recall, when my dog and I made a sneak on a bend on the Beaverhead River. As we got within shooting range of the river a few mallards flushed. I picked out a drake and shot, dropping the duck. There was a moment of expectant silence and then the air exploded with the sight and sound of a thousand mallards taking to the air all at once. I stood there, my jaw and gun open, stunned by the sight of a solid wall of ducks in front of me, with iridescent blues and greens from the ducks’ wings and heads sparkling in the pale sun of early winter.

Then the ducks were gone, while I stood there wishing I’d been carrying a camera with the presence of mind to try to catch the ducks on film (this was before digital cameras, of course). Alix, my old chocolate Lab on one of the last hunts of her career, waded out into the river shallows to retrieve the duck while I did my best to process, in my mind, the sight of all the ducks I’d seen.

My preference for late season ducks is jump shooting, meaning my dog and I try to sneak up on these secluded creeks and ponds, hoping to get some shooting when the ducks flush.

It’s a fun way to hunt, and in some respects it’s like hunting pheasants, with lots of walking and then shooting at flushing birds. It’s also a guessing game, trying to guess where the ducks might be. Sometimes, I can get a look at look through binoculars at distant parts of a creek, but usually it’s a matter of walking quietly to spots where I’ve learned ducks hang out on cold nights.

Lots of things can go wrong. Sometimes I guess wrong and we’ll come in on a creek and the ducks will flush out of range, or I’ll lose control over my dog and she’ll run and ahead and flush the ducks prematurely. Even when things come together and we put up the ducks in good range, it can be difficult to pick out individual drake mallards and concentrate on one duck instead of the flock of ducks. Also, I use a double-barrel shotgun, meaning that after I’ve shot twice, the ducks are gone, and all too often I’ve totally missed.

Still, things occasionally work right and we come home with a few ducks often enough to keep me going back out on wintry mornings. The ultimate reward, taking a plump, juicy roast mallard out of the oven, makes it all worthwhile.

Late Season Waterfowling in Montana

It’s a mild day for December, with temperatures in the mid-20s, though brisk north winds made it seem colder, with snow flurries stinging my cheeks as Flicka and I approached the creek.

Flicka, my Labrador retriever and enthusiastic hunting partner, and I had approached another section of the creek and didn’t flush any ducks there, but it looked like there might be some in a sheltered corner about 100 yards downstream. Actually, I wasn’t sure, as I didn’t have my binoculars with me, but it looked like I could see some duck-like forms along the edge of the water.

Flicka and I backed away from the creek bank and walked across the frozen field to make another approach. Just as we were beginning our approach the ducks sensed danger and took to the air, just out of shooting range.

“Busted,” I told Flicka, as we walked back to the truck. I’m not sure if she understands the concept, though she’s certainly familiar with mallards disappearing in the distance.

With other hunting seasons either over or winding down, many hunters have put their guns away and started to think about ice fishing or skiing. They’re missing great opportunities for late season waterfowling.

Most area ponds and marshes are frozen and rivers are running with ice floes on cold days. That might seem a signal for ducks to continue migrations to warmer winter climates. Indeed, a lot of ducks are gone, but many ducks, especially those big mallards in prime early winter condition, are perfectly happy in southwest Montana. There are many little spring creeks, some of which are fed from warm water springs that stay open in the coldest winter weather. Ducks can hunker down on cold nights, basking in the warm moist air around them while they digest grain they gleaned from area grain fields.

Jump shooting for ducks is fun but there are certainly no guarantees, as if there are ever guarantees with hunting. There are many predators looking for a good duck dinner, with hunters carrying shotguns just a small part of the picture. In December, ducks are survivors. They’ve made it through a couple months of the hunting season, plus they’ve escaped foxes, hawks, owls and other predators. If they hear something crunching through crusted snow, it might be just a cow, but when in doubt it’s best to take to the air and find another creek.

Still, persistence pays off. On this particular morning, Flicka and I had put up around three bunches of mallards previously and I had bagged two mallards. That’s not necessarily good shooting. I missed a couple shots, so the birds I brought down were the second shot on a rise. Still, I’m perfectly happy to go home with a couple prime mallards. I figure that before the duck season ends on January 13 I’ll have as many duck dinners in the freezer as I’ll want.

As far as a hunter’s needs for late season jump shooting, it’s pretty simple. You need warm clothing on days when temperatures hang in the plus or minus single digits. I consider camouflage clothing as an option but not really needed.

I use a 12-gauge shotgun for ducks, though I’ve also done just fine with a 20 gauge. The ammunition manufacturers would like you to buy heavy 3 ½ inch magnum loads putting out an ounce and a half of super premium shot, though I’ve been perfectly happy with 2 ¾ inch steel shot loads of #3 shot. Most jump shooting is within 30 yards of the ducks and if you do your job the shotshell will do its job.

Binoculars are handy to tell you if those distant spots on a creek are ducks or just rocks.

Of course, I think having a good retriever to find and bring back downed ducks is essential. If you don’t have one you’d better wear waders to get those ducks that go down in water or on the other side of a creek or pond.

Happily, Flicka thinks that’s the fun part of the job.

A good retriever earning her keep, though she'd happily do it for free.

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Havilah Babcock was a prominent outdoor writer a couple generations back. He was born in 1898 and after stints teaching English and journalism at several universities, he settled in as a professor of English at the University of South Carolina, where he worked until his retirement a few months before his death in December 1964.

In addition to teaching, he was a prolific writer and his work appeared in many newspapers and magazines, plus he wrote a number of books, including Quails ‘N Such, I Don’t Want to Shoot an Elephant, and My Health is Better in November.

The last title comes from an essay in which he complained about all his aches and pains he associated with growing old. Until, that is, November, when the South Carolina quail season started. Then he’d make a miraculous recovery; the aches and pains disappeared, and walking across the quail fields of the Low Country, he’d feel like a young man again.

When quail season started, academic duties often took a back seat to birds, and once his department secretary posted a sign on his office door, “Dr. Babcock will be sick all of this week,” recognizing that her boss had higher priorities in November.

I notice aches and pains as well, though I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. There are more important things to think about, such as fishing, tennis, and, of course, hunting.

We spent the Veterans Day weekend in Minot, North Dakota with our son, Kevin and his family, and the annual opportunity for Kevin and me to go pheasant hunting together.

On our last day of hunting, Kevin’s wife, Jen, smiled and said sweetly, as we walked out the door, “Don’t kill anything.”

We laughed, but by the end of the day we learned, to our dismay, that when she puts the hex on a hunt we’re in trouble.

It was one of those days when there were fierce winds on the leading edge of a storm system. We found pheasants, but when birds took to the air all they had to do was catch the wind and they were gone, as if rocket-propelled.

It wasn’t like the previous day when it was calm and relatively warm for mid-November. We didn’t put up a lot of rooster pheasants, but when we did we were dropping the birds, almost as if we knew what we were doing. By the time we finished our walk before lunch we’d taken four pheasants. Our afternoon walk wasn’t as productive, as the only pheasants we flushed were hens.

Nearing the end of our walk, Flicka, my Labrador retriever, took matters in her own hands, so to speak. She went on a solid point at a clump of grass. When she couldn’t stand it any longer, she lunged in and came out with a live pheasant of her own. We added the bird to our bag. A post mortem examination indicated the pheasant had been previously injured, possibly by a predator such as a hawk or owl, and thus couldn’t fly.

On this windy day, however, we actually put up more pheasants than the day before, though neither of us could hit the broad side of a barn. When we finished our last walk we emptied our vests and dumped out a total of 21 empty shotshell hulls.

While it was a frustrating day, as I trudged across a hillside behind Flicka I paused to take in the countryside around me, with grassy hills and brush patches, with a stiff west wind blowing off Lake Sakakawea, and I had this overwhelming sense of well being.

Those years keep trying to catch up with me, but on this mid-November day Kevin and I were together, again celebrating an autumn tradition going back to when he was just a first grader, tagging along with me on treks across Iowa cornfields.

When we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow I’ll have many things for which I’m thankful, but for now I’ll settle for November afternoons when nothing can get in the way of feeling grateful for just being out there.

(Here’s a photo of Kevin with a nice pheasant that didn’t escape.)

Kevin Vang with a North Dakota pheasant.

Pheasants on the Montana prairies

Flicka and I celebrating a successful pheasant hunt.

A rooster pheasant flew across the road leading to the Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area’s campground as if to greet or, more likely, to tease us. Was this a good omen for the week’s hunting?

As we set up camp after getting our trailer parked my wife asked if I wanted to take a break to find that pheasant. “He’ll wait,” I replied. “Besides, it’d be almost dark by the time I got my hunting stuff together and walked down to where we saw it land.”

As it turned out I never did go after that particular pheasant, as on following days I hunted on farms where I had permission to hunt and that was more than sufficient.

Pheasant hunting in that area, at least, was surprisingly good, especially considering that prior to the trip I had no positive expectations. As we all know, the winter of 2010-2011 was tough, and there was a cold, rainy spring: a combination that’s not conducive to good reproduction among upland birds.

The first farm I hunted was new to me, but the landowner said there were a lot of pheasants out there. On the opening day a party of hunters got their limit of pheasants in just two hours. It took me more than two hours to get three pheasants, though it wasn’t for lack of seeing birds. The pheasants that survived opening weekend some five days earlier acquired an education in a hurry, as they always do. Most of the birds I saw were getting up around 50 to 100 yards out, especially if they were in light cover, such as the barley stubble I walked across in our first walk.

The farm has a marshy draw going up a hillside, where springs create patches of cattails and tall cover. Flicka, my Labrador retriever, went on point at the edge of some tall grass. When the bird couldn’t stand it any longer it took to the air, giving me a quick chance to swing my shotgun on it and pull the trigger. The bird folded and Flicka quickly retrieved her first pheasant of the year.

The next rooster pheasant came just a couple minutes later, though it took several more hours before we got our third pheasant of the day, along with a bonus Hungarian partridge. Flicka and I did a lot of walking, but that was to be expected.  Pheasant hunting has always been synonymous with long walks across the prairie. Expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised by the day’s hunt.

Rick Northrup, the Game Bird Coordinator for Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks said, in a phone interview, there have been some surprisingly good early reports from Montana’s pheasant hunters, with some caveats. “This is one of those years that where birds had good cover, they did okay.” On the other hand, he said, “There are some marginal or poor areas that sometimes do okay when they have mild winters and optimal spring conditions that were pretty disappointing this year.”

There were some factors that, in Northrup’s opinion, mitigated the harsh winter. “Some ranches, where they were feeding cattle, had enough traffic to beat down the snow so pheasants were able to move around and find food, even if there was a hundred inches of snow.” Still, he conceded, “There were vast areas that weren’t too great.”

As so many Montana hunters have turned their attention to big game hunting, pheasant hunting will continue to provide a lot of opportunities. With most hunters concentrating on deer and elk, there’s a lot less pressure on upland birds as well as fewer hunters competing to get permission to hunt pheasants on private land.

There is a newer challenge in some areas, however. People hunting in some parts of eastern Montana might find good hunting, but in many oil patch communities, motel rooms are booked up indefinitely, so if you think you want to hunt there, you’d better bring your own accommodations.

This just underscores that whether you’re a pheasant or a pheasant hunter, it’s all about habitat and finding a place to get shelter.

Deer and Elk Seasons Begin in Montana

The wait is almost over for people who pay no attention to the early upland game, antelope and archery seasons. Yes, if hunting season means chasing deer and elk with a rifle, the hunting season begins this Saturday at dawn.

The Montana deer and elk firearms season opens Saturday, October 22 and runs through November 27. It’s the time of hunting camps, lost sleep, and shivering on frozen mountainsides before dawn in hopes of an elk coming your way to help fill the freezer.

New for 2011 is a youth deer hunt on October 20 and 21, an important prelude to the general season.  The regulations for the youth hunt are simple. Participants must be legally licensed hunters age 11 through 15. During these two days, youth hunters with a general or deer B license may take those deer species and sex otherwise available on the general or deer B license the first day of the general firearm season in the specific hunting district the youth is hunting. A non-hunting adult at least age 18 or older must accompany the youth hunter in the field. Shooting hours and all other usual regulations apply during this two-day deer season.

One of the usual regulations that some people, unfortunately, prefer to ignore is the requirement that big game hunters must wear a minimum of 400 square inches of hunter orange above the waist. Hunter orange requirements across the nation have done a lot to minimize tragic shooting accidents. I personally get irritated when I see so many magazines and TV hunting shows depicting hunters not wearing orange. Wearing an orange vest and cap may save your life, as well as help some other hunter avoid making a tragic mistake that could ruin their life as well.

On the blaze orange requirement, let’s note that archery hunters hunting during the general season must also observe the blaze orange rules. Personally, I think anyone who is out in the field during the firearms season is taking foolish chances if they’re not wearing orange, even if they’re not hunting.

The general firearms season also means that the firearms season for wolves will also be on. Wolf hunting may be controversial in some quarters, though I think many would agree that there are a lot of good reasons to have the season.

Certainly there’s no getting around the fact that wolves cause problems when they get around livestock. An Angus cow is certainly an easier animal for a pack of wolves to bring down than deer or elk.  The number of times we’ve read of government trappers eradicating problem wolves is a sure indicator. Wolves are smart animals and it seems to me that when they learn that they are being hunted, they’ll also figure out that staying away from people gives them a better chance to survive.

My daughter, Erin, lives in California and relayed that a friend of hers was aghast that Montana and Idaho are having wolf seasons again. She had the impression that wolves were going to be hunted right in Yellowstone National Park, which certainly isn’t the case.

As of a week ago, a total of 18 wolves, out of a quota of 220, had been killed during the early seasons, including 4 in hunting district 313/316, an area of high mountain country directly north of Yellowstone National Park. That completed the harvest quota for that hunting district. If you’re hoping to fill that wolf tag, it would be a good idea to regularly check the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website (fwp.mt.gov) to make sure the harvest quota for a specific hunting district hasn’t been completed.

Another reminder is to be careful about property boundaries. If you’re hunting private land in Montana you are required to have permission to be hunting there. That also applies to crossing private land to access public land.

Above all, enjoy the season. People across the country envy the hunting opportunities we have in Montana. For many, their concept of the hunt of a lifetime is something we take for granted.

Norwegians check out Montana

“Do you need a license to buy ammunition?”

“No,” I replied. “All you need is money.”

That exchange was while I was showing a houseguest my gun cabinet. Our guests were relatives from Norway, Inger Lise and Robert Bjoerk. Inger Lise is the granddaughter of my father’s oldest sister, which makes her a cousin of sorts, a first cousin once removed, if I understand those technicalities.

They lived many years in the city of Trondheim but after retiring from jobs as an elementary teacher and manager for ISS Norway, part of a worldwide company that provides a variety of business management services, they bought a home on the Atlantic Coast.

Robert enjoys the outdoors, especially fishing, and has a boat docked just a four-minute drive from his house. He also enjoys hunting, though doesn’t often have the opportunity to do much hunting.

He owns a couple long guns, a double-barreled shotgun and a rifle, and mentioned that Norwegian law requires people to store firearms in a gun safe.

According to Wikipedia, hunting is popular in Norway, and civilians can freely own shotguns and semi-automatic and bolt action rifles. There is a total ban on automatic action firearms. There are some caliber restrictions on handguns, but as long as handguns are used for sports shooting, a recreational shooter can own up to four handguns.

To own firearms, Norwegians must obtain an ownership license and show a legitimate use for the firearm. Hunting and sport shooting are considered legitimate uses. Prospective owners get their license through the local police department, and must show they are “sober and responsible,” as well as not have a police record.

Incidentally, to get a hunting license, a person must successfully attend a 30-hour, 9-session class in firearm theory, firearm training, wildlife theory, and environmental protection. There is a good population of big game, including roe deer, red deer (similar to our elk), reindeer, and moose (which are called elk in Scandinavia). In addition there are grouse and ptarmigan for upland bird hunters, as well as waterfowl.

Norway has an enviable record for an almost non-existent rate of firearms homicides, especially compared to the United States, though the tragedy of this year’s mass homicide demonstrates the fact that no set of controls is foolproof.

On their visit, Robert and I took advantage of good weather for a day’s outing, first stopping at a shooting range. We were mainly plinking at tin cans, and Robert, who had mandatory military training in younger years, was a crack shot.

The next stop was on a Big Hole tributary creek where we caught some brook trout, destined to be appetizers for that evening’s dinner.

A lunch break on the Big Hole River was the next stop, where we enjoyed fall sunshine that made the day’s chilly breezes seem quite tolerable. We agreed that a ham sandwich on the banks of a trout stream is first class fare.

The Big Hole’s fish were not so cooperative, however. We fished a couple spots on our area’s premier river without either of us having a nibble on our flies. As we put fishing gear away for the trip home I asked Robert, “In Norway, do they ever say, ‘You should have been here last week’?”

Without missing a beat, he said, “Yes, fishing was much better last week. In fact, the fish were jumping out of the water. You didn’t even have to fish for them.”

While Robert and I enjoyed a day of shooting and fishing, our wives were busy on sewing and knitting projects and they fantasized about some of the fancy sewing machines now on the market.

At this point it became apparent there was a culture gap regarding one aspect of American fishing we’d chatted about a few days earlier: catch and release.

The women had been shopping for sewing and other craft items and Inger Lise said we shouldn’t worry about the expense. “It’s no different than all the money you spend on fishing,” adding with ridicule, “and then you just throw the fish back in the river.”

October is a great time to be in Montana’s outdoors!

Flicka with a pheasant from 2010

And now it’s October, and in my opinion, any outdoors-loving person who isn’t happy about that should probably have their Montana residency permit revoked.

What a wonderful time of year! In early October we have those wonderful fall colors that are worth a trip into the nearby mountains just to see the aspens and other trees at this fleeting moment of glory. It doesn’t last long, so don’t miss it.

Of course, leaf peeping is just a sample of what October has to offer.

We’ve already had a month of upland bird hunting and archery hunting though the reality is that it’s just starting to get good. For most of September it was really too warm for serious hunting. For those lucky archery hunters who managed to down an elk or deer, it would have been a race to get their animal taken care of in time. That situation will only improve.

Of course, this is the month when everything happens. The waterfowl season opened last Saturday and will run into January. Personally, I don’t worry too much about the ducks until the weather starts getting seriously cold, but ducks are on the move, with early migrating ducks already looking towards heading for wintering grounds.

That’s just a start. This coming Saturday, October 8, is the next major date for hunters, whether their preference is shotgun or rifle. The pheasant season and pronghorn antelope seasons both open on Saturday. Unfortunately, all indications are that pronghorn and pheasant populations are down across much of Montana because of a severe winter and cold, wet spring. Still, for those lucky hunters who drew a pronghorn tag and anyone who lives for the sight of a scolding rooster pheasant clawing for flight, it’s better to be out in the field at this time of year than to be anywhere else.

Of course, many people don’t recognize any hunting seasons other than the general deer and elk rifle seasons, and that opening day is Saturday, October 22, just over two weeks from now. It’s time to hurry up and check to see if your rifle is still sighted in. If you’re thinking of getting a new pair of boots for the big game season, the time to do it is now, so you can at least get a start on breaking those boots in before the fun begins. It’s not fun to be walking around with blisters. It’s even less fun to have to quit hunting because your feet hurt too much.

For anglers, many consider October as the best month for catching big trout. The catch is that you have to take time that you might rather use for chasing pheasants on the prairie or sneaking across a prickly pear cactus patch to get into a good shooting position for a buck pronghorn. Decisions, decisions.

If I seem to get carried away with the glories of October, I come by it naturally, in that I was born in October. It has always seemed right to celebrate the month, though the perspective is changing. I used to look forward to October because it meant I’d gained some new privilege, such as a driver’s license. Now I celebrate October because it means I survived another year and am still having fun

October is also the month when I first sampled the fun and challenges of hunting pheasants, which was my entry into that great big world of hunting. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to broaden my experiences over the years, though the sight and sounds of a flushing pheasant, preferably sniffed out of its hiding place by a good dog, still defines to me almost everything there is to the thrill and adventure of hunting.

Of course, it there’s a down side to October it’s the certain knowledge that winter is breathing down our necks. October, in our imagination, is all about clear, blue skies and brilliant fall colors. But, October can also mean early winter storms and sub-zero temperatures.

And, if it doesn’t happen in October it will in November.

On getting outwitted by ruffed grouse.

  I wish I had a dollar, no let’s make that five dollars to allow for inflation, for every magazine or calendar illustration I’ve seen showing a ruffed grouse sailing over a clearing in the forest with a hunter, with gun raised, and a dog at his side.

Flicka and the day’s bag of grouse.

Over some 30 or more years of chasing after ruffed grouse I guess I have actually seen a few grouse take those flights across clearings, but they’re few and far between. Ruffed grouse survive by breaking rules, not imitating art.

Those cold rains in mid-September ushered in autumn. By the calendar it was still summer, but when it cleared there was a chill in the air along with clear blue skies after the rains washed out the smoke haze of recent weeks; in other words, the perfect time to check one of my ruffed grouse coverts.

This ruffed grouse walk took me over familiar terrain, a mountain hillside with patches of aspens interspersed with pine stands. I’ve been visiting this hillside every year for over 20 seasons. Sometimes I find grouse and sometimes I don’t. I even remember one year when there were a lot of grouse, but that was an exception.

Flicka, my Labrador retriever and hunting partner, was acting ‘birdy’ as she sniffed out bird scent along the ground in a clump of pines at the edge of the aspens. My shotgun was ready, but I wasn’t quick enough when a grouse flushed—not from the clump of pines Flicka was sniffing, but from another one 10 feet away. I caught just a glimpse of the bird before it disappeared into the trees.

From the sound of wings as the bird flew off, I didn’t think the bird went far. The trick was to find out just where the bird went.

We tramped through the aspens, Flicka occasionally finding tantalizing whiffs of scent, though nothing that resulted in a flushing grouse. After a couple wide circles, however, a grouse flushed from the top of a knoll, flying downhill through the trees. I got off a couple shots at the disappearing bird, but they weren’t good shots.

We walked down the hillside, again hoping to flush the grouse, optimistically thinking that the third time would be a charm.

We did find that bird a third time. This time it was up in the twisted branches of a pine tree that recently perished to a pine beetle attack. The bird flushed from high up the tree and disappeared without giving me a glimpse. We tried to get yet another flush but this time the grouse gave us the slip. We searched the area hoping to see it one more time, but this bird didn’t hang around any longer. Chalk up another score for ruffed grouse.

Some of my favorite places in southwest Montana are ruffed grouse coverts. Ruffed grouse and aspens go together like a horse and carriage. Aspen thickets are islands of color, sunshine and moisture in autumn, as aspens and underbrush turn from green, as they were in mid-September, to shades of yellow and orange, as they will be these next couple weeks. A month from now, after the leaves drop, the aspen thickets will be austere shades of brown and gray.

Ruffed grouse habitat is dynamic and always changing. In recent years it seemed like pines were taking over many of my grouse coverts. Then pine beetles came along and now new aspens are popping up.

Whatever the season, ruffed grouse depend on aspens for shelter and livelihood, and that means I keep coming back, and sometimes things work.

On that outing, after Flicka and I circled back to the truck and had a lunch break, we tried another spot. We hadn’t gotten far when I realized that Flicka had gone on point. I prepared for a flushing grouse and was ready when it took off. Another pine tree bravely sacrificed a branch, but enough #8 shot slipped through to drop the bird.

There are never guarantees but sometimes those meanders end with the makings of a gourmet dinner.

Fishing, not catching, is sometimes what it’s all about.

That’s what’s left of a pontoon boat on that rock. The Yellowstone can be unforgiving.

“Watch where the guides are going,” I thought, as I drove along on Interstate 90.

I was on my way to Red Lodge where I was going to help cover the annual convention of the Montana Tavern Association for their house organ, “Montana Tavern Times.” It’s a fun convention to cover and I’ve gotten to know a lot of neat people. Still, I was already looking forward to taking a couple hours on the return trip to stop and do some fishing, because I knew ahead of time that my batteries would need re-charging, and a couple hours of flyfishing would be the perfect way to do it.

So, when a couple SUVs towing drift boats passed me east of Livingston, I couldn’t help be curious about where they might be exiting off the freeway. As it turned out, they took the exit I had already been kind of planning to take. I figured that was a confirmation of my hunch.

The Yellowstone River in mid-September is a different river than it was for most of the summer of 2011. The big river was a muddy, roaring torrent most of the summer before the spring runoff period finally exhausted itself. Even in mid-August, when I made a trip to the upper Yellowstone to report on the Reel Recovery program (See August 24 edition), the river was still relatively high and just beginning to clear.

Now, the river is finally running clear and in the autumn sunshine it sparkles with blues and greens when you get distant glimpses of the water from the highway.

It’s a clear, sunny midday when I drive into the fishing access site I planned on earlier in the week. It’s still cool after a chilly night, but it’s warming quickly as I put on my waders and string up my flyrod.

As I walk downstream with the plan to work my way back up a series of riffles, multitudes of grasshoppers are buzzing around the shoreline willows and grasses, confirming my thought that I should try a hopper pattern. I’d even tied up some lavender hoppers, based on what I’d learned on the last trip.

I hoped to be on the river at the right place, the right time, and with the right fly this time. Tell that to the fish, however.

As I worked up the riffles, I cast my fake grasshopper toward the shallow edges and to the deeper water farther out. I caught a glimpse of one fish following the hopper’s drift down the current, but it decided that it wasn’t edible after all and disappeared.

After that refusal, I considered options. There were a few tricos in the air, though there didn’t seem to be enough to bring fish to the surface. There was an occasional mayfly or caddis, but again nothing that seemed to be attracting attention.

I tried another hopper pattern, one that had more hopper-like colors than lavender. I tried other dry flies. When those didn’t work I tried some nymphs.

As is often the case when fish aren’t cooperating, my mind wandered. I thought of my last evening of fishing over the Labor Day weekend when my last fish of the evening was a beautiful westslope cutthroat trout, a fish I figured made the weekend’s fishing a success. On this water I’d enjoy catching a Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

A rock in the middle of the river had an unusual decoration: the green cover of what had been a pontoon from a pontoon boat. It’s a vivid reminder that the Yellowstone River may look relatively placid in September, but we can’t forget that it can be an unforgiving foe at times, and I’m curious about the story of survival from the person who got shipwrecked.

 Finally, under what is now a hot, blazing sun, I realize it’s time to quit fishing and get back on the road.

I felt disappointed the fish weren’t biting, but then I realized I had accomplished exactly what I’d set out to do. I’d spent a couple hours flyfishing and felt refreshed.

Blue Grouse Training Camp

Flicka and the first grouse of 2011

It’s been a tough fall training camp, up on that western Montana mountain.

Trudging up and down those mountainsides, I couldn’t help thinking back to those long ago twice a day football practices back in my high school days. Those sweaty sessions under a steamy August sun were a long time ago, to be sure. In fact, I have to concede that the last time I put on cleats and pads, President Dwight Eisenhower was running for reelection, if that’s any indication.

Still, the goal of those practices: to get in good physical condition so that playing football games would seem easy in comparison, seemed altogether too much like the opening of the upland bird season over Labor Day weekend.

In recent years we’ve spent Labor Day weekends camping at a Forest Service campground convenient to both flyfishing and grouse hunting. There’s a Forest Service road that loops its way to near the top of a mountain and over the years I’ve established about five different areas that have blue grouse habitat. There are other areas on the mountain that look pretty much the same to me, but I never found grouse there. I guess you’d have to ask the grouse why they never go to these other spots. If you can find them, that is.

On opening day we drove up that mountain road before dawn and halfway up the mountain I spotted a covey of grouse on the road. The birds nervously moved off the road when Flicka, my Labrador retriever hunting partner, and I made our approach, but we managed to get shots at the flushing birds and dropped one of them. With one bird in hand we pounded the bush but the birds had scattered and didn’t want to be found.

At the top of the mountain we ran into another covey of grouse. I missed a shot at one bird, but another bird flew directly at me, about 15 feet off the ground. It’s an easy shot to miss, but I got this one. The bird folded, though its momentum carried it so that it actually crashed into and bounced off my leg. Flicka was at my side and caught it in midair on the bounce—an easy retrieve.

On another sagebrush ridge we put up just a couple birds that flushed at the edge of shooting range. I got off a couple shots but nothing dropped. We had friends coming to our camp for lunch that day so that ended that first day of hunting. I felt pretty good about getting a couple of those big, chunky birds.

In succeeding mornings, however, those grouse outfoxed Flicka and me at every turn. They’d flush when we were still 50 or so yards away. If we followed them into the timber they’d flush from the tops of trees, and I learned long ago the hard way that that’s about as tough a shot as they come.

I called the birds blue grouse, though if you look in the upland hunting regulations you’ll see the birds referred to as “dusky” grouse. In 2006, the American Ornithological Union designated blue grouse into two different strains. The grouse of inland mountains are now officially dusky grouse and the grouse of Pacific coastal mountains are “sooty” grouse. In the current issue of Montana Outdoors, writer Dave Carty wrote about hunting mountain grouse and used “dusky” throughout the article. He explained the official name change, though he acknowledges that when he’s talking to his hunting buddies, he’ll still call them blue grouse.

Whatever you call those grouse, don’t call them fool hens. While blue grouse, or dusky grouse, if you want to be correct, often have a reputation for innocence, I can take you trekking across a mountain where I know grouse are to be found, but after they’ve flushed at long distance, or flushed where a big tree screens their escape flight, you may start calling those grouse some new names, but fool hen won’t be one of them.

There may be fools on the mountain, but it’s the hunters, not the grouse.

Looking Back at September 11, 2001 – An Outdoors Perspective

This coming weekend we will commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001.

It was one of those days that, like the day of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, are indelibly imprinted in our memories. It was one of those days we can remember where we were and what we were doing and with whom we were doing it. I can’t think of another day quite like it, when my wife and I both spent most of the day in front of a TV set, watching again and again, the sights of the airliner crashing into the second tower, and then the two World Trade Center towers collapsing.

After watching and listening to hours of endless coverage and interminable analysis, both my wife and I were totally numb by evening and we finally had to turn it all off and get some respite.

A couple days later, in an urgent search for less information, we hooked up the trailer and headed for the northern prairies and a couple days of sharp-tailed grouse hunting.

I had to go back and check my hunting journals as to what kind of hunting success I had that week. It was one of those trips when Candy, our Labrador retriever of those years, and I did a lot of walking across the grasslands but put up just a few grouse and I never pulled the trigger on my shotgun. From the success/failure aspects of the trip, the only productive part was, on the way home, an evening stop along the Missouri River south of Great Falls and catching some nice rainbow trout.

The most memorable part of the trip was what we didn’t see. We had beautiful weather that week, with lots of clear, blue skies and warm temperatures. What was missing in those clear skies was contrails.

Normally, those big prairie-country skies are always crisscrossed with contrails of various aircraft going over what many along both east and west coasts think of as ‘flyover country.’ That week, with all civilian aircraft grounded, there were no airplanes flying over flyover country.

I recently read a book of fishing stories, with one of the stories telling of the author taking a trip to a remote Canadian river, culminating with flying into an even more remote spike camp, with an appointment for the bush pilot to fly back and take him out on a specified date.

The appointed date came and went and nobody came. Finally, running out of supplies, the fisherman packed up what he could carry, and after a difficult trek through the mountains, made it back to base, where he belatedly learned about the events of September 11, 2001, and why the bush pilot wasn’t able to bring him out.

Many people had stories of epic cross-country trips to get home. Getting home, wherever that might have been, was the overwhelming goal for so many people that week.

A lot has happened these past ten years in the aftermath of that terrible day. We’ve gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and thousands of Americans and allied troops have made the supreme sacrifice. At last count, there were 4,792 military coalition deaths in Iraq and 2, 698 in Afghanistan (source: icasualties.org), plus the hundreds of thousands of other casualties. According to antiwar.com, the total American wounded are over 100,000, far more than the official figure of 33,125, and that doesn’t include a possible 300,000 or more Americans with undocumented brain injuries and concussions.

As of last week, the total cost of wars since 2001 is over $1.2 trillion, and that figure goes up about $10,000 every three seconds (costofwar.com).

Osama bin-Laden, the architect of 9-11, finally kept a belated appointment with destiny this spring, though the chain of mischief he set into motion keeps unfolding.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on national affairs and international relations. What I do know is that spending time on trout streams, mountains and prairies, carrying a flyrod or shotgun, is my sure grip on sanity in this insane world.

Did I mention that I love September?

Flicka in search of grouse last September

The days are shorter and the mornings are getting chilly, though chilly mornings are the norm rather than the exception here in the mountains of western Montana.

Is this the end of summer? I don’t think so, though while early September may not be the end of summer, it is the beginning of the end of summer.

To my mind, however, tomorrow is New Years Day. I know you won’t find many calendars marking tomorrow as a holiday but it is to me, because that first day of September is the first day of the 2011 Montana hunting season.

The upland bird season for grouse of various kinds, along with Hungarian partridge and wild turkeys opens tomorrow on the first day of September. On Saturday, September 3, big game archery seasons begin. Note, however, that the pheasant season doesn’t begin until October 8 and waterfowl seasons have not yet been set. The deer and elk rifle seasons will begin on October 22, but that’s a long time from now, so we won’t worry about that for now.

Still, I look ahead to chilly dawns on top of a western Montana mountain. There’s a haze in the air from a distant fire smoldering away, and as usual there are some questions in my mind. Every year, it seems that the mountains are higher and steeper, and I have to pause more frequently to catch my breath.

Those thoughts are a given. The major question running through my mind will be whether we’ll find birds somewhere on this walk through the mountaintop sagebrush meadows.

We had a late winter and a cold, rainy and snowy spring. Did those grouse chicks chip their way out of their eggshell, back in June, to find a sunny, early summer day, or was their first peek at the world a late spring storm? The answers to that question on thousands of mountains and millions of acres of prairie add up to what kind of days Montana hunters will experience when they take their first walks of the year in search of upland birds.

While the question of what Flicka, my black Labrador retriever and faithful hunting partner and I will find is still to be answered, rest assured we will be out there taking those morning hikes. It’s what we do, and, good lord willing, we’ll keep doing it as long as we’re able.

While I mentally begin to focus on shotgunning and upland birds in coming days and weeks, it’s a focus that often shifts to trout and flyfishing. For many anglers, the summer of 2011 has been a difficult and frustrating season with prolonged periods of spring runoff.

Now, at the end of summer, rivers are in prime shape for angling. The fish are feisty and robust after chowing down during all those weeks of high water. Fishing may not be easy right now, though it may be rewarding if you’re on the water at the right time.

Tricos, those diminutive mayflies of late summer, make their spinner flights to lay eggs on the water in mid to late mornings. When conditions are right, fish go nuts over the millions of bugs coming to the water. If you enjoy fishing light tackle and tiny flies, this can be some of the most exciting fishing of the year. Using #20 flies on a 6X leader isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it sure is fun when a good trout sips it in. Of course, for comic relief, this is also the season for hoppers. Take your choice.

In short, tomorrow is September and with early season hunting, late season flyfishing, ripening chokecherries and wild plums, there are more opportunities in the great outdoors than there is time in which to do it.

I kind of hate to see those sunsets getting earlier every evening and sunrises later every morning, but it’s the rhythm of the seasons and that rhythm beats with more urgency this time of year.

Did I mention that I love September?

Reel Recovery – Helping men fight cancer

Signing the vest and adding strength upon strength

“This is a sacred moment,” Stan Golub, the executive director of Reel Recovery, said, as a group of men wrote their name on a flyfishing vest before starting a day of flyfishing along the Yellowstone River north of Yellowstone National Park.

Reel Recovery was founded in 2003 by a group of avid fly anglers inspired by their fishing buddy’s ongoing battle with brain cancer. It’s a national non-profit organization that conducts free flyfishing retreats for men recovering from life-threatening cancer. Combining flyfishing instruction with directed “courageous conversations,” the organization offers the men a time to share stories, learn new skills, form friendships and gain renewed hope as they confront the challenges of recovery.

One of the organization’s traditions is that they wear vests previously worn and signed by previous participants. “This is our legacy here,” Golub, said, “think of this as a river of strength. And remember that someone, a few years from now, will be wearing this vest and sharing your strength.”

Golub, who lives in Needham, Massachusetts, was one of the founders of the organization and is the organization’s only employee. The core of the program is a network of volunteers who organize retreats, facilitate discussions, and, of course, take participants fishing. This past week at a retreat held at Dome Mountain Ranch, a number of area fishing guides, and this reporter, took days off from guiding to become “fishing buddies” for participants.

I was a buddy for Josh, a computer programmer from Missoula, who is recovering from throat cancer. Last year he went through surgery and radiation for his cancer, losing several months of work as he coped with his illness. Josh, as it turns out, is an experienced angler, so didn’t need any instruction and when we went to a private pond on the ranch, did well, latching onto seven nice trout.

That afternoon, I was a buddy for Jim, a retired rocket scientist (really) from Hamilton, as we floated with Randy Kittelson, a Presbyterian minister and flyfishing fanatic from Denver. Randy was at the retreat as a facilitator, with a unique perspective, in that he first came to the program as a volunteer, and then as a participant after he came down with prostate cancer—his second serious bout with cancer. Unfortunately, Jim, a beginning angler, didn’t catch any fish though we didn’t feel bad about it. It seems that if you didn’t have the right fly, the fish weren’t hitting. The hot fly, it turns out, was a lavender-bodied grasshopper imitation.

Why trout would prefer a lavender hopper makes no sense. Surely they’ve never seen a real bug like that, but sometimes that’s how it works.

Reel Recovery, which initially received some money from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, held its first retreat in June 2003 in Loveland, Colorado, and did their second retreat in October of that year.  In 2004, they held six retreats. In 2011, they’ll be holding 19 retreats in 14 states. Retreats are free for participants, and Reel Recovery gets funding from a number of foundations, corporations, Trout Unlimited chapters and fishing clubs, as well as local fundraisers.

Though participating in a Reel Recovery retreat is generally a one-time event, many past participants come back as volunteers, often acting as facilitators and starting retreats in states that previously hadn’t had retreats.

Of course, some people also get hooked on flyfishing and one facilitator remarked that he’d heard from the wife of a participant that her husband came home, went to a flyshop and bought one of everything. She was ecstatic. “He finally has a reason to get out of the house.”

“We encourage the men to stay in contact,” Golub said. “We hear that many of the guys get together regularly and they’ve become the best of friends.”

Participants go out, Golub concludes, “To have fun, get a break from their routine and to get a new perspective on dealing with cancer. Certainly, they get to know other people whom they can relate to in a special way.”

Finally, Reel Recovery’s motto: Be well; fish on.

For more information, they’re online at www.reelrecovery.org.

Evening flyfishing – a special time

Evening shadows lengthen and the river bottoms come to life at the end of the day. An owl flies into a cottonwood tree to get a good lock at the anglers walking into its domain. At the end of a warm and sunny day, it’s time to put on a good helping of bug spray and go out in search of some of those fish that ignore anglers during the day.

Now that it’s mid-August, tactics that worked a few weeks ago probably aren’t as effective anymore. Pale Morning Dun mayfly hatches aren’t as prolific as they were a month ago and trout aren’t looking up at the water’s surface for their next bit of food with any reliability.

That doesn’t mean fishing isn’t good. It’s just time to switch gears and go fishing when the fish are feeding, which is about the time that everybody else gets off the river.

Our son, Kevin, and his family, have been camping and fishing with us the last few weekends, so Kevin took a walk with me through the mosquito haven that is the lower Big Hole River in search of fishing action.

Unlike the daytime hours, when the river is filled with float anglers and recreational floaters, the evening more often is a time for the solitary angler willing to brave mosquitoes and falling temperatures in hopes of finding trout on the feed.

There are never guarantees, of course. Still, when Kevin and I walked through the tall grasses and brush, we were filled with anticipation. We were heading for a spot that has rewarded us many times in the past, a bend in the river where we can wade the shallows and cast toward deeper water along the opposite bank.

Aquatic entomologists sometimes talk about an ‘evening drift,’ a time when mayfly nymphs let go of their rocky shelters on the stream bottom and go for a little trip. Fish, of course, take advantage of this chance for an evening snack, though sometimes those bits of aquatic food have a little sting, often in the form of a soft-hackled wet fly, part of the legacy of Syl Nemes, whose death I noted a month ago.

This evening, the action is slow in starting. In fact, I begin to wonder whether there will be any action. It somehow seems that when I’ve had hot action it was when the water is lower than it is this season of high water flows. I finally have a strike from a fish that grabs the fly and goes for a short run before shaking the hook.

I walk a little farther downstream and change flies and this one; a soft-hackled pheasant tail nymph seems to have some magic to it. I catch an energetic brown trout that puts up a good fight before I’m able to bring it in for the release. Then I get a substantially bigger brown that goes on one long run after another before tiring. A third fish follows that one.

By then it’s almost dark. The air temperature has dropped and I’m feeling chilled from wet-wading in the cool water, so it’s actually a relief to walk back through the trees and warm up a bit while we slap mosquitoes. We’ve done better on other occasions but we had enough action to make us happy.

We weren’t the only anglers on the river that evening. Earlier we’d passed a bait fisherman excited about a three-pound brown trout he’d caught a little earlier. He was gone when we came back but we heard the next day he’d caught several more browns, including a deep-bellied, nine-pound brown trout that I suspect might stop at a taxidermy shop along its way to a trophy wall.

Late evening and night fishing isn’t for everyone, though on a visit to Michigan a couple years ago I learned that there it’s almost a religion during early summer brown drake and ‘Hex’ hatches. Here in Montana it’s almost a given that you’ll have the river to yourself.

Just don’t forget the bug dope.

A look at the fishing in Ireland

With An Rí Rá Montana Irish festival coming up this weekend I happened to think of a unique gift I received a couple years ago from Father Gregory Burns of Butte. Though I’m not a Catholic, Father Burns and I have had a cordial relationship going back a number of years. In fact, at the time I was retiring from my former career with the Social Security Administration, he suggested it was too bad that I wasn’t Catholic, as otherwise I’d be a good candidate for becoming a deacon in the Catholic Church.

A couple years ago, Father Burns gave me an Irish coin minted in 1963, which he’d acquired on one of his trips and thought that I should have it, because on one side of the coin it has the likeness of an Atlantic salmon. The other side has an Irish harp. As coin collectors know, the harp side is the obverse, or head side, and the salmon side is the reverse, or tail side. The coin is a “florin,” which was replaced in 1969 by the 10 pence coin.

The Atlantic salmon is depicted on the coin because the fishing industry, both sea fisheries and freshwater game fishing, is important to the Irish economy.

With Ireland’s cool, wet climate, there is a lot of water in Ireland and the various streams, rivers and lakes are the basis for a good fishery.

Many lakes have excellent pike fishing and every year anglers catch pike in the 20 to 30 pound range. These big pike, exactly the same as our American pike, are protected and it’s illegal to keep a pike of over 20 pounds if caught in a river or over 30 pounds if caught in a lake. The limit for pike is one per day. Unlike most angling in Ireland, anglers generally don’t need to pay for the privilege of pike fishing.

Brown trout are the native trout of Ireland and there are many miles of streams and rivers with a good trout fishery. In Ireland, most trout waters are privately owned or leased, so anglers have to pay for the privilege, though for a visitor, it may not be all that bad, as angling fees, according to the website, www.fishinginireland.com, run around €10 to €20 per day (that’s Euros, by the way). Some larger loughs (lakes) don’t require an access fee.

Ireland’s glamour fish are Atlantic salmon and sea trout and a large number of rivers and lakes are managed for salmon and sea trout. Sea trout are brown trout that have gone to sea, much like a steelhead, and return to fresh waters to spawn. Kirk Deeter, a field editor for Field & Stream magazine recently made a fishing trip to Ireland and wrote in the magazine’s blog site about fishing Lough Currane. Pointedly, he doesn’t tell of his personal angling success, though he does report on a ghillie (guide) who put a customer on an Irish record 13 pound, 5 ounce sea trout this past May.

Atlantic salmon have a couple peak periods of angling. In summer, grilse, or immature salmon, enter the rivers and offer excellent angling for three to six pound fish. Mature salmon return to Irish rivers beginning in autumn. A 57-pound salmon was caught in 1874 and it’s not likely that record will ever be broken. Only a few salmon of over 20 pounds are caught annually.

In addition to pike, trout and salmon there are also “coarse” fish in Ireland, with unfamiliar names to American anglers such as tench, roach, or rudd, plus the more familiar perch and carp. Though there are liberal bag limits for coarse fish, there are no closed seasons and most waters offer free fishing.

In addition to fresh water angling, there are abundant salt-water opportunities, whether it’s surfcasting along shorelines, or in small boats in sheltered bays and estuaries, or deep-sea fishing.

In short, there is a lot of good fishing to be had in Ireland, and for Irish visitors in Butte this weekend, I’d suggest they sample our fishing here in southwest Montana.