Thanksgiving Thoughts and Views

We don’t call Thanksgiving Turkey Day for nothing!

Tomorrow we again celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruffed Grouse Habitat in Change

This is what September snow does to the aspens.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiri is enjoying her outing in the aspens

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

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

Lefty Kreh Retires – at Age 92

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Getting things done

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

“Git ‘er done.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pheasant – More Shoe Leather than Shooting

Kiri with the first pheasants of 2017.

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

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

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

Blustery weather on the northern plains of Montana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montana’s Biggest Festival – Hunting Season Begins Saturday

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

The wait is almost over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy, but stay safe and legal.

Las Vegas Massacre Beyond Mere Satire

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

I miss Tom Lehrer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to the Grouse Woods

Bent-over trees in the grouse woods.

It took longer than expected, but the plan worked!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just three days later the aspens had turned to gold.

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

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

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

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

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

Patchy September snow in the aspens.

Zinke’s Report on Monument Based on Lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandhill Cranes and the Magic of Early Morning

Sunrise over the Beaverhead River valley.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Jacobson trudging down the hillside after a leisurely hunt.

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

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

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

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

 

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

A parched mountain ridge on September 1

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiri peeking through the thick brush of the aspens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hurricanes, Wildfires…Scientists Predicted It

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spectacular! The Great Eclipse of 2017

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

The fourth time is a charm!

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

I’ve had several near misses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highway rest stop at Dubois ID, aka Eclipse City.

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

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

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

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

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

Late Summer Flyfishing – Tricos and Solitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timing is everything, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Summer in Sight

A small eggplant I harvested from my garden.

There is a feeling of fall in the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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