Successful Deer Season

A beautiful, big-bodied whitetail deer. The hunt is over and the work is just beginning.

Something not included in last week’s thoughts for Thanksgiving was gratitude for a successful conclusion to this year’s deer season. 

I’m usually not in any hurry to get out for big game hunting. As regular readers have probably observed, to my point of view, hunting outings that don’t involve carrying a shotgun and following a bird dog seem kind of pointless. Still, I like having venison in the freezer and on the dining room table, so most years a day or two of carrying a rifle is part of the season.

That day came a couple weeks ago, when my good friend, retired physician John Jacobson, and I took a drive to a southwestern Montana ranch for a hunting outing, getting there before sunrise.

It didn’t take long to see deer, as we watched some young, antlerless deer scamper about. My deer hunts are more about venison than antlers, so I have no qualms about taking an antlerless whitetail. But, if a deer looks small, it most likely is small and that doesn’t put much meat in the freezer.

We saw more deer as the morning progressed. I had hopes that a couple small bucks might offer me a shot, but they spooked off, probably because I did something that alerted them.

Most of the ranch is in a river bottom, with brush patches, cattail sloughs and tall grass, but there are rugged hills where we often see deer hiding away in secluded spots. The hills are barren, with not much growing there but scrubby grass and prickly pear cactus, not exactly classic whitetail deer country.

We stopped on top of a high hill to glass the countryside while we had some lunch. Lunch was forgotten when I put my binoculars on a suspicious-looking spot in a distant fence corner. “What’s in that fence corner?” I asked John. “Is it a llama?” That seemed ridiculous. The next thought was, “Is that a cow elk?” “No,” John concluded, “I think that’s a whitetail deer.”

We drove to the next hilltop, relieved to see that the deer was still there. While it was still out of shooting range, this time we could also determine there were antlers. I got out of the truck and started hoofing it in the direction of the deer, trying to stay out of view from that corner. I finally got to a little ridge on the hillside where I could get into a prone position; ignoring the prickly pear cactus I was laying on. To my surprise, two deer jumped up, a buck and a doe. I put the crosshairs on the buck and pulled the trigger. The deer went about 15 feet and collapsed. 

“Wow!” That was my main thought as I approached the deer. It might not rate in any kind of record book, but it had a good set of antlers, five on each side. Taking a closer look, a lot of the antler points were broken off, indicating the deer had a busy autumn defending his ranking in the local pecking order. Judging from the size of the deer’s body, I’d bet that he didn’t lose many fights.

After the shot, of course, is when the real work begins. I may not be a speed demon when it comes to field dressing a deer, but it still took two and a half hours from the time I shot to when we had the deer dressed out, dragged to the truck and loaded up. By that time I had worked up a pretty good appetite for that long-delayed sandwich.

Our daughter, Erin, came down from Helena the next day to help with the next phase of work, reducing a big deer carcass to packages ready for the freezer. The Thanksgiving turkey made an early exit from the freezer to make way for prime venison.

On Thanksgiving Day I gave thanks for the deer and meat in the freezer, though I fear that it’ll be Christmas before the last of the cactus spines work their way out of my legs.

An Outdoors Thanksgiving

Distant mountain peaks, seen from a ruffed grouse covert.

Tomorrow, our nation will again observe Thanksgiving Day; a holiday with roots going back to the 1600s, though not without some second thoughts about those fabled first Thanksgiving events that depict Pilgrims sitting down at the table with their Native American neighbors. 

The other side of the coin is that many thousands of Native Americans died from diseases brought by early European visitors, and in later years, as colonists increased in number, they made war on Native people, stole their lands and did all they could to wipe out Native people and culture.  In fact, descendants of Native American survivors, the United American Indians of New England, have, for many years, pushed for designation of Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning among Native Americans.

So, while the holiday is not necessarily festive for all Americans, for many, friends and families will be gathering tomorrow for a day of feasting, most likely on turkey, along with an array of traditional side dishes, such as sweet potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie, with occasional breaks for football, board games, or groaning from overeating.

While we might go overboard on consumption, at some point in many households, someone might suggest that everybody gathered around the festive table briefly say what they’re thankful for, generally causing an awkward pause as people search their minds for something to share, perhaps sending telepathic messages of annoyance at the instigator.

I’ve given the topic some advance thought, and am sharing some ideas that readers may feel free to adopt as their own, if necessary.

 First, I’m thankful for another year in the great outdoors. From January treks across frozen fields in search of ducks, to mountain ski slopes, fly-fishing on Montana trout streams, and autumn hikes across mountains and prairies. I’ll confess that not all of those outings were particularly successful as far as catching fish or harvesting game. Still, each day in the outdoors was memorable and worthwhile.

I’m thankful for the wild turkey I got in the spring of 2018 and which subsequently graced last year’s Thanksgiving table. I say this in apology to guests who might be looking for more of the same. I’ll confess that I was so happy to finally check that bird off my bucket list that I never really thought about looking for another one in 2019.

I’m thankful for the gift of aging. Both my wife and I hit significant birthdays this year and we are thankful for good health that enables us to continue living fully. I am acutely aware that this is not something to take for granted. 

While many people in Christian churches observe All Saints Day for this reason, I’ll still express thanks this week for friends and loved ones who left us this past year. While their absence may cause sadness or heartbreak in many homes tomorrow, we can be grateful for happy memories that will continue to comfort us in coming years.

A Big Hole River arctic grayling – a precious jewel of a fish.

I’m thankful for the wonders of Nature. There are too many to list here, but I’ll suggest, for starters, a rainbow after a rainstorm, or a spectacular sunset. The delicate shades of green on an early summer prairie, or the gold and orange foliage of a grove of aspens and the delicate colors and sparkles of a Big Hole River arctic grayling. Whether we’re looking at the grandeur of a snowcapped mountain, or the delicacy of a honeybee gathering nectar from an apple blossom, there is beauty and mystery everywhere.

A honeybee enjoying our apple blossoms.
A rather ill-tempered rattlesnake telling me, “It’s MY path! Go somewhere else!”

I’m even thankful for the rattlesnake that barred my path, one summer day, on a Big Hole riverbank. It’s good to be reminded that Nature isn’t always rainbows and apple blossoms. Much of the natural world comes with claws, fangs and thorns. The Revolutionary War flag that proclaimed, “Don’t Tread on Me,” still has meaning.

Finally, I’m thankful for the gathering of family and friends at tomorrow’s Thanksgiving feast, while we also keep in mind that festive holidays such as Thanksgiving are a day of hurt and loneliness for some. May they find comfort and conciliation.

Russell Chatham – An Original

San Francisco Chronicle photo.

Where has the time gone?

It seems like it was just last weekend when Montana’s general season for deer and elk started, the beginning of the five-week season.

Don’t look now but time is running out. Next week we’ll observe the Thanksgiving holiday and at the end of the holiday weekend, at sundown on Sunday, December 1, the season will be over.

If you’re serious about having venison in the freezer, here’s a reminder that you’ve got just a week and a half to go.

Changing topics, I’ll note the death of Russell Chatham, one of those larger than life people who, much his friend, author Jim Harrison, went roaring through life, taking it all in like a grizzly bear before hibernation.

Russell Chatham had many facets. He was a renowned artist, acclaimed writer, skilled fly-fisher, restaurateur, publisher, and gourmand. That’s just for starters. In a foreword to Chatham’s book, Dark Waters, Nick Lyons described Chatham as “a voluptuous pilgrim, reveling in his senses.”

Chatham, age 80, died on November 10 in California in a memory care facility where he had, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, been dealing with dementia and other age-related illnesses. 

Chatham was the grandson of an artist, Gottardo Piazzoni, and grew up in Marin County, California. He was a skilled fly-fisherman and an expert on fly-fishing for salmon and steelhead in the rivers of northern California, while also building a career as an artist. In the 1970s, he moved to Livingston, Montana, and that’s where he hit his stride as a landscape artist, with his large, often huge, paintings that expressed moods as much as scenery. 

He also became part of what the Chronicle called “the Hollywood glamour of Bozeman and Livingston.” His circle of friends and patrons would include people such as Robert Redford, Tom McGuane, Ted Turner, Margot Kidder, and Jim Harrison. 

Chatham was a businessman, with an art gallery, Clark City Press, a small publishing business, and took over a defunct restaurant, the Livingston Bar and Grille. While he was an entrepreneur, he wasn’t a good money manager. Writer Rick Bass commented in a profile of Chatham, “No one I know is more of a financial wreck than Russell Chatham.”  In the 2008 recession he went broke, deep in tax debt, and in 2011 moved back to Marin, with, according to the Chronicle, “10 old T-shirts and a pair of overalls to paint in, and he was at peace.”

When I’ve brought home a duck or two from a hunt, and contemplate a duck dinner, I think of Chatham and a story he wrote about duck dinners, which he included in Dark Waters

Dark Waters, demonstrating both Chatham’s art and his writing.

Chatham liked to eat wild duck and he had strong opinions on how duck should be cooked. Duck should be roasted in a hot (500 degree) oven for no more than 20 minutes, then carved and served with a sauce made from duck stock, herbs and spices, and currants. He opens wine bottles, toasts French bread and rubs it with garlic cloves and butters it. “We are ready to eat. Before long, rice and sauce cover the table. French bread is torn loose. Each bite of rare, juicy meat is a new thrill…”

Dinner complete, he assesses the damage.

“Our wine glasses become increasingly grease-smeared as we pick up each carcass and suck it down to bare bone and gristle. We carelessly gulp the fancy vintages. Our shirt fronts are ruined. Juice and blood run from elbows onto knees and the floor. The room is blurred. We belch, fart, laugh and groan.” 

He muses on a date he missed because of the duck dinner. “As the carnage winds down I think about my date and wonder if it’s too late, but the face of the clock refuses to come into focus. I find a mirror and what I see reflected there can only be described as soiled.”

A memorable dinner, memorably described, along with some salacious thoughts about the woman he stood up (not included here). 

Russell Chatham, artist on canvas and the written word. Rest in peace.

Struggling Against the Hex!

A public land limit of rooster pheasants.

Beware the hex!

A week ago my wife and I were in Minot, North Dakota for a long weekend with our son, Kevin, and his family. Pheasant hunting was on the agenda, of course.

I knew the hex was coming, but I was a bit slow. As Kevin and I were ready to hit the road for a pheasant hunt, his wife, Jen, smiled sweetly and said, “Have fun. Don’t kill anything.”

I knew the curse was coming and as soon as I heard the words coming out of her mouth I raised my hands and made the sign of the cross with my index fingers and held it up to ward off the curse, the same as if Dracula was giving me the eye.

Nevertheless we hit the road for a wildlife management area on the shores of Lake Sakakawea, the big impoundment on the Missouri River. Much of the lake’s shoreline is managed by North Dakota Game & Fish as wildlife management areas. I’ve been hunting on that area for around 40 years, going back to when we lived in North Dakota.

It was a relatively mild and sunny day, perfect for a walk through pheasant cover. The only thing missing were pheasants. We’d made a long walk in one direction and now we were circling back for a lunch break.

Our son, Kevin, on the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea.

Finally, one of Kevin’s dogs flushed a rooster pheasant. Kevin swung on the bird, shot and missed. He kept swinging on the bird but I didn’t hear a second shot. A couple minutes later he showed me a shotgun shell. The primer had a dimple on it, but it didn’t fire. The firing pin made a soft hit on the primer, but didn’t hit it hard enough to fire the shell. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen often enough that it’s not rare.

We resumed our walk and my Lab, Kiri, put up a pheasant from a clump of trees and brush. I raised my gun and started swinging on the bird’s flight path. Then a tree branch caught my cap and the bill was suddenly in my eyes as the pheasant made a successful escape flight. 

I might have thought a nasty thought or two, but I couldn’t help but hoot with laughter. I’ve often missed shots at pheasants but this was the first time I couldn’t shoot because of sudden blindness.

We ended the hunt a little later when a pheasant flushed, just out of range, about 20 feet from where we’d started our walk a few hours earlier.

Kiri and I had hunted the same area a couple days earlier while Kevin was at work. On that day we ended the day with a limit of three nice rooster pheasants. The next day I got just one bird, in brutally cold and windy conditions. It was the only bird we put up on that walk and I felt lucky to have gotten that one.

Kevin and I went out again the next day, driving through rain and snow to get to the hunting area. In a three-hour walk we saw just one bird that flew away while still out of shooting range.

Back at the truck, we had a sandwich and discussed whether we were up to more walking. We finally decided, with soaking wet, cold feet, that we’d just as soon hit the road and go home and watch football.

We listened to the Minnesota Vikings/Kansas City Chiefs game on the radio on the way back, and we got into the house just in time to see the Chiefs score a last second field goal to defeat the Vikes. 

The hex had its last victim.

Pheasants and teasing aside, snow geese were the big show. The sky was frequently filled with waves of geese, or wheat fields turned white with thousands of geese feeding on spilled grain. The huge numbers of geese are an environmental problem in the Hudson’s Bay region in Canada, but it’s hard to watch those geese without a feeling of awe. 

Letters from Doughboys

Part of a treasure trove of letters home from American Doughboys.

“I think it looks terrible to see the guns and bayonets and to think that we are going to use them on other people but I hope we won’t get that far.” Alfred, August 11, 1918.

Sometime last year, Diane, my niece in Minnesota, sent me a box of stuff that somehow ended up with her. She and her husband were downsizing so she asked if she could send it to me. That box sat unopened for several months, waiting for a quiet winter afternoon.

Inside was a cornucopia of old family photos, yellowing newspapers, and other miscellany. Then there was a little packet of letters, and I was stunned at what I held in my hands. These were letters from George and Alfred Froyum, great-uncles I’d never known, brothers of my maternal grandmother. When the United States entered World War One, or the Great War, as it was called, they answered the call to service, and these were letters sent to my grandmother. To someone who majored in history, this was pure gold.

 The Great War started in 1914, though the U.S. didn’t enter the war until April 6, 1917. It takes a long time, however, to build an army. The Selective Service Act was passed and 2.8 million men were drafted and by the summer of 1918, we were sending 10,000 men to France daily.

Most of the letters were sent from training camps in the U.S., including the letter cited above. Here are some more quotes from the family Doughboys. I’ve tried to avoid editing of spelling and punctuation.

“As far as I have gone yet I don’t complain on anything. I have never been so healthy as I am at present.” George, Camp Lewis, Washington, June 5, 1918.

“The worst thing here is clothes washing you have to change underwear 2 times a week. When you are exercising in the field you get to take the outer shirt of sometimes and you will get all covered with Dust.” George, Camp Kearny, California, July 1, 1918.

“We don’t know when we go yet but it may not be so very long either…I s’pose it isn’t much worse to go across [on troop ship] than to stay any other place. And God is on the ocean just the same as on the land and if it’s his will that we should get through it all it’s nothing that will hurt us so I’m going to try and remember him at all times so that if I shouldn’t come back I pray that he will take me to him and hope to meet you all there.” Alfred, Camp Stuart, Virginia, August 21, 1918.

“There are a few cases of Spanish flu in Zumbrota…but not any around here…” Letter from my grandmother to George, October 27, 1918. The so-called Spanish flu was a world-wide pandemic that killed an estimated 40 to 50 million people. The close quarters and international travel of soldiers was considered a major factor in the spread of influenza.

“Well it is Sunday again today…so I will write a few lines to you. I just finished a letter to George too. I hear from him quite often now and hear he likes it good and is feeling well all the time.” Alfred, “Somewhere in France,” November 10, 1918. 54th Pioneer Infantry.

The 54th Infantry saw service in the Meuse-Argonne and Alsace campaigns in 1918.  Alfred’s letter was written the day before an Armistice went into effect, ending hostilities.

“Here are big steamers going up and down the river all day long so it’s fun to look at them. We always get good buildings to sleep in wherever we come, and at the present I’m in a school house…” Alfred, Koblenz Germany, December 30, 1918. Koblenz is a city on the Rhine River, where the 54th Infantry had occupation duty. Another letter was sent from Dormitz, Germany on March 19th, which, surprisingly, he wrote in Norwegian.

The letters don’t describe any combat, and both George and Alfred returned home in 1919, evidently without a scratch. In the 1920s, both men married and started families. In Alfred’s case, he married a 30-something widow, Ragnhild, my father ‘s sister. Their three children were what I’ve always thought of as my “double cousins.”

Both brothers, in family tradition, became farmers, and members of the American Legion post in Wanamingo, Minnesota. Tragically, according to brittle, yellowed newspaper obituaries, both brothers died relatively young. In 1937, George, age 42, suffered a fatal skull fracture in a fall. Alfred, age 51, died in 1941 from a cerebral hemorrhage. American Legion Posts provided military honors at their funerals.

Next Monday we observe Veterans Day, the 101st anniversary of that Armistice on November 11, 1918. Some people consider history a dry subject, but holding and reading these century-old letters brings an unexpectedly personal connection to that long-ago war.

Pheasants and Habitat

The Rocky Mountain Front from a Montana pheasant field.

“Kiri! Get back in the truck!”

My Lab, Kiri, and I had just gotten to a farm to chase pheasants. I was gearing up, putting on a windbreaker, vest, and getting my gun. I was watching this black cloud move across the river valley. Then the wind, already brisk, started roaring, blasting us with wind-driven rain and snow.

Within seconds of getting into the shelter of the truck the storm squall drenched the landscape with what the weather people call a wintry mix. It didn’t last long, however. Within 15 minutes the storm blew past, the sun came out, and Kiri and I got on with a pheasant walk.

If you’re visiting the Rocky Mountain Front you need to be prepared for a little wind—maybe a lot of wind, along with rapid changes in weather.

An October ritual is a trip to the Rocky Mountain Front to hunt pheasants, so we were well prepared for weather changes. I was also prepared to shoot at lots of pheasants, but sorry to say, that part of the trip didn’t work too well.

A lesson I’ve learned over the years is that cows and upland bird habitat just don’t mix well. Pheasants and other upland birds have pretty much the same basic needs as we do: food, water, and shelter. Take away any one of these elements and the chances are pheasants will go someplace else where their needs will be better met.

The first farm I hunted on our trip has been a long-time favorite. Over the years I’ve shot a lot of pheasants there. When I first drove in to my usual parking spot to start a pheasant walk, two long-tailed pheasant roosters trotted away from the grain bins, where they had been feeding. A hundred yards from the house they were pretty safe.

When I got out into the fields, I felt disappointment. The landowners don’t do the actual farming, but rent the fields to a neighboring farmer. The renter had harvested the barley crop and then turned some cattle out to graze on what was left after the crop had been harvested. By mid-October, the cows could put up their “Mission Accomplished” banner. The grassy and weedy edges at the ends of the fields were grazed down. Even worse, a corner of the farm that has a cattail slough and an adjacent area with tall grass and weeds, and patches of willows and other trees, was totally beaten down by the cattle. 

After a couple long walks through the few weed patches that could still shelter a pheasant we’d put up just one lone pheasant and that old rooster got up well out of shooting range. A third, and last, day was much like the first. Livestock had trampled the wildlife habitat and the pheasants were mostly gone. 

The prairie at sunset.

On the middle day I hunted a farm where the habitat was better, though that doesn’t guarantee anything. In our first walk, Kiri put up five pheasants, all in decent shooting range. Unfortunately, they were all protected hen pheasants. Hindsight being 20/20, however, that fifth bird might have been a rooster, I mused, as the bird flew out of sight. All I knew for sure is that I couldn’t pick out any colors when the bird flushed.

After a lunch break we tramped over another part of the farm, a hillside subdivided by a long coulee, with springs that create a marshy, brushy habitat. As we approached the first brush patch, Kiri caught a scent and went charging into the willows, and a couple seconds later half a dozen pheasants, both hens and roosters, burst out of the end of the patch, well out of shooting range, then flying over the fence line that marks the end of the property. Adding insult to injury, several more pheasants flushed from just over the fence and went over the hill. Later, I had shots at a couple roosters, but missed.

There are never guarantees, but if there is wildlife habitat on the land, there’s a good chance there will be wildife. 

Habitat is everything.

Montana’s Deer & Elk Seasons Begin – CWD is a threat.

A flashback to a successful deer hunt in 2017.

These next few days there will be an exodus from Montana’s cities and towns, as a variety of SUVs, pickup trucks, ATVs, camping trailers and utility trailers loaded with camping supplies head for the hills.

This Saturday is circled on thousands of calendars; the opening day of the Montana general deer and elk season. For many, it’s simply hunting season.

It’s a great time to be in Montana and an even better time to be living in Montana. With our five-week general season, not to mention other seasons that began in September and run into January, we’re fortunate to have over four months to wander around Montana in search of game to put in the freezer and on dining room tables for the coming months. There are, of course, the bonus seasons such as spring turkeys and black bears and the somewhat controversial shoulder seasons for elk.

Unfortunately, there’s a giant shadow that’s spreading across Montana’s hunting fields, the spreading threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD) among our deer, elk and moose.

A couple years ago, Montana’s hunting community was shaken by the discovery of CWD in areas of south central and north central Montana. Last year, we got another big shock at the discovery of CWD among whitetail deer in the area in and around Libby, in northwest Montana.

I’m not a scientist, but you don’t have to be one to be seriously concerned about the CWD outbreak in the Libby area. It’s that bad.

According to a recent (October 9) report posted on the Montana FWP website, samples were taken from 166 white-tailed deer, of which 18 tested positive for CWD. The deer came from a variety of sources, including sickly-looking deer that were removed and tested, road kill, game damage hunts, trapping of urban deer in Libby, hunter harvest, and other, including deer found dead or injured and then euthanized. Five mule deer, three elk and one moose were also sampled and found free of CWD.

Nevertheless, the study indicates that around 10 percent of the Libby area whitetail deer are infected with CWD. 

I occasionally compare notes on CWD with Keith McCaffery, an old friend and college classmate, and a retired Wisconsin deer biologist. While he’s retired, he tries to keep up with what’s happening with deer issues.

He comments that the initial finding of CWD “was a shock to the deer world. We’ve celebrated Montana because…they were one of a couple states to prohibit or greatly limit the captive cervid industry.” A hunter-supported initiative, I-143, overwhelmingly passed in 2000, put a big damper on the then growing elk farm business, by banning new elk farm enterprises as well as selling canned hunts.

He shared a U.S. map that Wisconsin DNR prepared that showed where licensed hunters were from who had harvested some 32,000 deer in four southwestern Wisconsin counties that have a high prevalence of CWD. Hunters from every state in the Union, except Delaware, had harvested a deer in that infection area and presumably brought deer tissue back home. 

Wisconsin regulations are basically the same as Montana’s regarding taking anything other than boned, cut and wrapped meat out of CWD areas. The big problem is that these rules rely on voluntary compliance. Enforcement is darned difficult and there are virtually no realistic limits on where or how far infected tissue could end up. 

As far as long-term management strategy in CWD areas, one goal is to reduce deer population numbers, by increasing deer harvest, especially mature bucks, which are the most susceptible to infection. That might be a hard sell. Telling the public to kill lots more deer to save the deer bears too strong a resemblance to “We had to destroy the village to save the village” from the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, the reality of CWD is that, once established, it’s almost impossible to eradicate, and it will spread to other areas of Montana.

 While CWD is a black cloud on our hunting horizon, let’s celebrate our hunting traditions and, if the hunt is successful, celebrate again every time you put venison on the table.

Summer’s Last Gasps!

A handsome ruffed grouse, first grouse of the season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early fall colors on the Big Hole River.

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

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

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

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

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

A Walk in the Aspens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storm clouds and a promise of stormy weather.

Pheasants & Pronghorn Around the Corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying Respects to a Forgotten Child

Final resting place of a forgotten child.

I paid my respects to Blondie last week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A concrete marker remembers the child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renewed Logging on Tongass Bad for Environment and Taxpayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shooting the Air – Grouse Season Begins

The endless view from the mountaintop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiri in search of scent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montana Archery Season Almost Here

Montana hunting country – a preview of fall colors.

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

Unfortunately, imagination often works better than reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunting Begins This Weekend!

My Lab, Kiri, in search of grouse scent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public lands are a sacred trust.